The Blurring of Class Lines: An Analysis of Marcel’s Pinterest Board Curation

This weeks readings focused on the consumption of luxury goods and the close relationship between taste in relation to social and economic wealth.  Each of the readings work to illustrate how through “conspicuous consumption”, coined by Thorstein Veblen as  “the vicarious consumption”(Veblen 43) of “valuable goods [as] a means of reputability to the gentleman of leisure”(Veblen 47), class differentiations can be identified. For Veblen, wealth and class should not be marked simply by how many possessions an individual might own, but by how impractical and meaningless those possessions may be.  He believes the “unproductive consumption of goods is honourable, primarily as a mark of prowess and a perquisite of human dignity, secondarily it becomes substantially honourable in itself, especially the consumption of the more desirable things”(Veblen 44). Thus those with more disposable goods or individuals who have the ability to conspicuously waste more, are seen in higher regard than those who consume conventionally, such as the industrious class whom “should consume only what may be necessary to their substance”(Veblen 44).  Through the varying degrees of conspicuous consumption a social and economic hierarchy is formed which Han, Nunes, and Drèze define and categorize in their research, “Signaling Status with Luxury Goods: The Role of Brand Prominence” and Marcel focuses on in her Pinterest Board Curation.

Marcel pinpoints and exemplifies “the four Ps of luxury” Han, Nunes, and Drèze categorize in their research. Through analyzing brand prominence, “a construct reflecting the conspicuousness of a brand’s mark or logo on a product”, the authors expand on Veblen’s notion of a two-class society, “those who have and those who have not”, to assign consumers to four class-based groups depending on their economic wealth and desire for social status.  They believe through examining consumers’ desire to buy conspicuously or inconspicuously branded goods, they can predict which of the four groups the consumer is vying to associate or dissociate with.  Utilizing real-world examples of the four classes, Marcel provides photographs to make the authors notion of “the four Ps of luxury: patricians, parvenus, poseurs, and proletarians” more relatable.

In her first post, Marcel exemplifies Victoria Beckham carrying a hot pink ostrich Hermes Birkin handbag as a patrician, a term coined “after the elites in ancient Roman time”(Han, Nunes, Drèze 17).  While Victoria and her husband, professional soccer player David Beckham, may be known as “England’s new Royal Family”, her choice to carry an Hermes Birkin is arguably not of a patrician’s nature.  The authors of “Signaling Status with Luxury Goods: The Role of Brand Prominence” define patricians as those who “possess significant wealth and pay a premium for inconspicuously branded products that serve as a horizontal signal to other patricians”(Han, Nunes, Drèze 17).  Patricians use “subtle signals” to “associate with other patricians rather than dissociate themselves from other classes or consumers”(Han, Nunes, Drèze 17).  That being said, the Hermes Birkin Bag, known as “a symbol of wealth and privilege” according to the Washington Post and “the ultimate status symbol” by Forbes, is not a subtle-signaling luxury good.  While the bag’s high price and prestige (there is a waiting list to purchase) may have once been “unrecognizable to the casual observer and identifiable only to those in the know” (Han, Nunes, Drèze 15), popular media platforms, such as the television show Sex and the City, have transcended “the Birkin and its lore into the consciousness of those outside its demographic”(Givhan).  Although the Hermes Birkin, ranging in price from $10,000 to $120,000, utilizes the “no logo” strategy addressed by Han, Nunes, and Drèze and mentioned by Marcel in another post, the bag’s identity “has become a cultural emblem of elitism, privilege and celebrity. It is the bag that money alone cannot buy. And it is a reminder to everyone else that those who are famous always seem to have the advantage”(Givhan).  The “no logo” strategy of the Bottega Veneta hobo bag however, exemplified by the authors and illustrated in Crystal’s Pinterest Board Curation, has been able to keep its inconspicuous connotation because it is not as extravagant and well-known to consumers in the public sphere.  Thus Victoria Beckham’s frequent choice to wear a Birkin handbag, arguably a “loud luxury good”, illustrates that she is a wealthy consumer high in need for status, or part of the “parvenus” class categorized by Han, Nunes, Drèze.

While the purpose of patrician’s consumption is solely to use quiet signals in hopes of associating with other patricians, the parvenus want to “associate with other ‘haves’ and want to dissociate themselves from ‘have-nots’”(Han, Nunes, Drèze 17) with the consumption of “loud signals”. Marcel displays how and why the parvenus utilize the distinct Louis Vuitton “LV” monogram, “synonymous with luxury because these markings make it transparent that the handbag is beyond the reach of those below them”(Han, Nunes, Drèze 17), in hersecond post.  The nature of the girls Marcel has chosen to depict however, questions their parvenus status.  Although “LV” monogrammed bags are displayed, the location where the picture was taken (a sports bar) and the hair, makeup, and clothing of the girls does not signal “significant wealth”.  Thus the authenticity of the Louis Vuitton bags pictured, which happens to be one of the most counterfeited designer handbags sold, is unknown.  If the bags were in fact counterfeit (it is hard to tell simply from the picture) the girls would be a great example of “poseurs”, or those who “do not possess the financial means to readily afford authentic luxury goods” and are “especially prone to buying counterfeit luxury goods”(Han, Nunes, Drèze 17),

Another highly counterfeited luxury good is the classic Burberry scarf, as depicted by Marcel in her third post.  Poseurs consume counterfeit goods because they “crave status” like the parvenus but do not have the financial means to purchase authentic loud-signaling goods.  From the picture provided, it is hard to tell if the scarf worn in Marcel’s third post is a counterfeit Burberry scarf or simply a generic plaid one. That being said, loud signaling goods such as Burberry scarves and Louis Vuitton handbags are frequently replicated, making the distinction between the parvenus and poseur classes hard to differentiate, as can be seen with the confusion of classes depicted in Marcel’s second and third posts.  Patricians, whose quiet signaling goods are rarely counterfeited, and “proletarians”, the fourth class of consumer who are “simply not driven to consume for the sake of status”(Han, Nunes, Drèze 17), are more easily distinguishable.  As Marcel displays in her fourth post, proletarians do not engage in signaling at all and are not interested in being associated or disassociated from any other consumer category. The picture she has chosen, three college-aged kids at a party, accurately depicts the “less status conscious” ways of the proletarian.

In conclusion, Marcel’s Pinterest Board Curation illustrates that there might just be
a “more complex array of consumers who use luxury to signal in many different ways and for many different reasons”(Han, Nunes, Drèze 27), than even Han, Nunes, and Drèze have come to consider.  The Hermes bag for instance, which the authors believe is “unlikely to be recognized” by anyone other than a patrician, has become recognized throughout classes as a symbol of wealth.  Due to the ever growing accessibility and consumption of media in our culture, the lines between classes have blurred making it harder and harder to categorize individuals simply into just one.      

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