“It may look like I have it all–but I want more”: class and consumption

Bourdieu states in the introduction of Distinction, “cultural needs are the product of upbringing and education” (Bourdieu, 1). As a result of all the variances in needs (emphasis on the needs, not wants) a social hierarchy of consumers has been created. He claims consumption is actually not an act, but a form of communication in which only those who talk the talk can walk the walk; “A work of art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code, into which it is encoded” (Bourdieu, 2). So while anyone will agree the Elie Saab Spring Haute Couture collection is stunning, only those of a certain cultural background and education level can truly appreciate the hundreds of hours of hand sewing, beading, appliques and overall craftsmanship that goes into each garment. And they would also know that to be a couturier, which Elie Saab is, you must be an official member as sanctioned by the Paris Chamber of Commerce. This hierarchy of both people and objects is reciprocal; “taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier” (Bourdieu, 6). Your Elie Saab Haute Couture gown is in the upper echelon of the hierarchy of objects, signifying your high level of taste. But the gown itself also indicates that you are in the upper echelon of the hierarchy of people, signifying you as a product of a high level of culture and education.

“Signaling Status with Luxury Goods: The Role of Brand Prominence” went further into Bourdieu’s idea of the hierarchy of people and actually named the four classes of consumers: Patrician, Parvenu, Posseur and Proletarian. A Patrician is the elite of society, one who willingly “pays a premium for inconspicuously branded products that serve as a horizontal signal to other patricians” (Young, 17). The Parvenu is similar to the Patrician in that they have large sums of wealth, however they lack cultural capital and are therefore less refined than a Patrician. While a Parvenu, the Louis Vuitton dog carrier may be the epitome of wealth and high society; all the Patricians are carrying Hermes dog carriers. The third class of consumers is the Poseur. The Poseur wants to be in the higher-class levels, but lacks the financial means to get there. As a result many Poseurs will buy counterfeit luxury goods. So the Poseur can also have a Louis Vuitton dog carrier, but for a fraction of the price. The final class is the Proletarians, who are not interested in status or luxury goods. Instead, the Proletarians consume only out of necessity.

Marcela’s board did a really good job of visually representing the four classes of consumption and the taste level of the things they would consume, with the example of handbags. For the Patrician, she matched Victoria Beckham with an Hermes Birkin, the Parvenu with a Gucci logo bag, the Poseur with a fake Louis Vuitton Speedy and the Proletarian with a Target purse. Though Young explicitly states that the Poseur class is “likely to turn to counterfeit products,” I think today people tend to be smarter about fake goods because of the more recent labor (Young, 17). There are people who save several paychecks so that they can buy one high quality item, say an Hermes bracelet or a Louis Vuitton belt, which they can wear everyday and get the most visibility and well as cost per use. People who are “in the know” like Patricians and Parvenus are also more likely to have the ability to spot a fake, thus discrediting the Poseur. I also wonder where designer diffusion lines would fit in. There’s a clear difference between a $22,000 Marc Jacobs bag and the $70 Target x Neiman Marcus version, yet they both bear the Marc Jacobs logo. Though a Patrician would probably not buy the Target version of anything except maybe paper towels (and even then it would be the name brand paper towels, not the Target generic brand) there is a certain trendiness involved with any of the Target diffusions and they are also endorsed by editors and bloggers, our so called tastemakers. The Target x Neiman Marcus items were seen everywhere from the style section of your local newspaper to the gift guide section of Vogue. In the past few years the Target team has really increased their advertising, marketing and public relations efforts, resulting in collaborations selling out on the first day or crashing the Target website as we saw with Missoni in 2011. Are designer diffusions an instance where cultural value outweighs financial capital? Another example is Vera Wang, best known for her bridal designs, many of which she custom makes for celebrities on their big day. She also has a line at the mass-market chain store Kohl’s called Simply Vera Vera Wang. Both customers can say they are wearing Vera Wang designs, yet they still belong to different classes of consumers.

Many of the Patrician’s signals are subtle and only apparent to other Patricians. However, maybe their most visible form of consumption is the waste of luxury good, or what Veblen calls Conspicuous Waste. For Patrician’s this could be going to a restaurant and ordering 10 entrees that literally go to waste because a table of three can only eat so much or as Crystal’s pin shows, a shoe closet with hundreds of shoes. Not only is owning hundreds of pairs of shoes (or in this case, high heels) unnecessary for most, dedicating an entire closet for those shoes is what makes this consumption so obviously that of a Patrician. Another of Crystal’s pins visualizes Veblen’s theory of Conspicuous Consumption, or the idea that people who have money, have time to waste. She uses the example of learning manners and good breeding in “The Sound of Music.” A modern day example would be debutante balls or coming out balls for the modern day socialite.

PS: my title references the opening credits of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Any of the Real Houswives ladies are the epitome of the leisure class in its truest form and boy do they know it!

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