Fashion is like clay. Each morning, individuals are granted power to mold their image into any given shape or form. The process of self-creation is performed to appear to others who we wish to be. In class, we’ve touched upon the many functions of fashion as the markers of an individuals’ identity, whether it be gender, social status, political opinion, subculture, or simply self expression. In fact, fashion is so powerful an identity marker, that even the knowledge of certain fashion (what’s in, what’s not, what’s expensive, what’s not) is deemed as an indicator of wealth and power, given that different incomes allow familiarization with different stores. Over time, methods have been created and utilized by the public to seek attention and gain control such as transgression and appropriation. We also specified the exceedingly crucial the role of self-expression in large, urban cities composed of pure anonymity and large crowds. This week, we focused on the relationship between fashion and economic status.
In a large city full of strangers, there exists a large space prone for disguise. How than, can fashion accurately indicate the wealth of a passerby? Does a consumer’s handbag, per-se , truly represent their socio-economic status and position in the hierarchal chain? To answer this, we study the work of Veblen, Han Nunes & Dreze, and Bourdieu, and analyze Marcela’s Pinterest board.
Think of it this way. Each piece of clay differs in that it is composed of the recourses derived from the location of which an individual is raised. Also, the clay is subject to variation in consistency or texture due to climate (and other exposition factors.) As a result of the mentioned precursors, yes we can mold the clay, but we are confined to pre-existing differences (both cultural and geographic.)
What’s all this clay talk?
In “Distinctions, A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste,” Bourdieu explains that there is an unconscious realm that exists before we start blank each morning, before choosing outfits/accessories, or even before the decision of what to purchase. This realm consists of cultural and background experience, which gears us consumers to the decisions that we’ll make. Basically, as Bourdieu describes, we are a product of our upbringing. Our styles, our taste, our access to knowledge, and the colors that we like are all influences of what we’ve grown up learning.
There are many factors that come into play for the decision of a handbag purchase. When a consumer chooses their handbag, they take into consideration several details from the price, to the choice of designer, to the logo size- if any. Note that it’s not impossible for a working individual to “save up,” even for a while, to purchase an object of admiration (or handbag of admiration.) That destructs the precision of the assumption that any designer handbag immediately signals “wealth.” So now what?
Let’s dig deeper into the process of “choosing of a handbag,” to breakdown it’s representation of a consumer’s socio-economic status. First, we’ll apply Veblen’s concept of the “waste” factor from his book, The Theory of the Leisure Class. According to Veblen, conspicuous consumption indicates wealth and hierarchy, he says “The lasting evidence of productive labour is its material product- commonly some article of consumption ( Veblen, 29.) “Waste” can be described as the proportion of excess in a purchase, measured by a comparison between the cost of similarly functional product (say two handbags), one designer and one generic. Veblen theorizes that individuals of a higher socio-economic status tend to both know of and consume products that call for a larger margin of waste. In Marcela’s “Target” pin, we see that a fully functional handbag can be purchased at Target for $34.00. Therefore, the consumer who purchases a designer handbag has some money to “waste,” as well as access to knowledge that the designer product even exists. As we can see from Marcela’s board, waste can be anywhere from hundreds to thousands of extra dollars.
But we’re still unsure if the handbag was a gift or a lifetime of piggy-banking. To investigate further, we can apply Han, Nunes and Dreze’s study from the article, “Signaling Status with Luxury Goods: The role of Brand Prominence.” The study proves that the choice of product, whether it be choice of designer or the choice of product within the designers collection, varies depending on an individual’s socio-economic background. This concept is known as “brand prominence,” the “construct reflecting the conspicuousness of a brand’s mark or logo on a product” (Han, Nunes Dreze, 1.)
Han Nunes and Dreze note that there are four groups of individuals that create brand prominence. Marcela provided images on her board that allow us to get a better grasp on the four categories of consumer the author’s cite; Patricians, Proletarians, Parvenue, and Poseurs.
1. As Marcela’s Patrician image shows, “patricians” are “those who use inconspicuous quiet signals (brands) to (associate) each other. The “no logo strategy”, which makes the Hermes Birkin bag (in the image) unrecognizable to the casual observer and identifiable to only to those in the know. (p1 Han, Nunes, Dreze.)” It is likely that those within the highest economic class will purchase “no-logo” items, since they have more to “waste,” and more knowledge of pricy fashions. These people, at the tip-top of the hierarchal chain, tend to not feel the need for ostentation nor separation from the lower class, but instead to identify with others like themselves.
2. The image Marcela selected to represent the “parvenu” reveals women who have purchased conspicuous handbags, with the Louis Vuitton logo imprinted throughout the surface of the bag, just as the author’s describe. (3.) Marcela’s caption, “those who with conspicuous signals wish to associate with the patrician and at the same time do not wish to associate with the lower status” summarizes Han, Nunes, and Dreze’s idea that the parvenus “are concerned first and foremost with separating or dissociating themselves from the have-nots white associating themselves with other haves, both patricians and other parvenus (3.)” This group of individuals may very well be of the same economic status as patricians, with the exception of difference in personality. The parvenu have more urge to separate themselves from the lower class, or flaunt their ability to purchase wasteful products.
3. The third category of consumer is the “poseurs,” which Marcela constructs with an image of youth who long to be what they are not. Marcela describes poseurs as those who “wish to imitate the parvenus, but do not have the financial means to.” Hans, Nunes, and Dreze explains that the poseurs are likely to purchase counterfeit luxury goods, like Marcela’s example of “the classic Burberry scarf,” or any other logo-centric items.
4. Last but not least, the proletarians, who Marcela quotes our authors, are “simply not driven to consume for the sake of status and either cannot or will not concern themselves with signaling by using status goods. (3.)” Her proletarian image shows teens wearing sweats, seemingly uninterested in latest fashions, whether they have the financial means or not.
Marcela’s board unearthed a terribly interesting market that I’d been unaware of. Her pin of the fake signature Louis Vuitton handbag, (which she captions that poseurs would be likely to purchase) reveals an entire market of “faux” goods. Marcela’s image on the board presents the poseurs as youth, which may be the reason why there is a demand for a counterfeit market. College students or those initiating a career exemplify a population that has access to knowledge of the designer fashion market, yet limited means to consume. Perhaps this causes a demand in counterfeit products.
In fact, the counterfeit market is so real and so large, that there exist businesses that thrive from product replication. Note that the counterfeits are not necessarily low-priced. Instead, the items are priced proportionally less than the original versions, but more than a non-designer good. Marcela’s pin shows the counterfeit Louis Vuitton priced at $149- way more than the Target $34.99, but way less than the $895 Gucci shoulder bag with signature logo. Deeply interested in this entire market of counterfeit products, I’ve found dozens of counterfeit designer websites just by using Google (type in “fake Christian Louboutin and see for yourself)! Exact imitations of designer products are less common than similar versions, due to patents and copyrights. In simple terms, the more similar a product is to the original designer version, the higher the price. There are products available on these counterfeit sites that do not exist (never existed) in the designer collections, but bear the company logo.
Marcela’s board captures very well the overall essence of the types of people likely to inhabit the categories that define brand prominence. It would have been helpful to provide other images/examples that display “inconspicuous vs. conspicuous” consumption other than Hermes, Gucci, and LV, which were already mentioned in the Han, Nunes, Dreze study. For example, the Alexander Wang and Phillip Lim handbag collections, contemporary designers which use the “no-logo” (or minimal logo) strategy and appeal to a class exposed to high-end products, given that the products are sold at exclusive stores and advertised in high-end magazines. Also, the demonstration of the variation in price within a designer collection, as in, bags with flashier logos being less expensive (to appeal to the parvenu, as mentioned by Han, Nunes, and Dreze) would have been interesting.
To sum up, there are cultural and background related factors that lead consumer’s to decisions in the fashion related items they purchase. Veblen names the process in which the individual acquires “taste” over the course of their upbringing, “cultivation,” “this cultivation of the aesthetic faculty requires time and application (Veblen, 47.)” Understanding the studies performed on the tendencies of different socio-economic groups can help reveal social class from which a buyer originates, therefore deeming fashion an accurate marker of socio-economic status.