Fashion is a means of expressing oneself and it works particularly well in identifying one’s social class. As Georg Simmel would state, fashion “unites those of a social class and segregates them from others”. This statement is particularly true in fashion, given that status if often dictated by wealth and through conspicuous consumption—buying things that are not necessarily utilitarian, yet satisfying one’s desire of having luxury goods and displaying them. In other words, every time you chose something to wear or to buy, this particular fashion object allows you to relate to a certain social class, and distinguish yourself from others. Therefore luxury goods are signifiers that signify wealth, status and power, and the higher hierarchy of objects, the higher hierarchy of people. (Bordieu, Distinction) The intent of this curation is to investigate how designer bags classify social subjects through the existent hierarchy in luxury handbags.
As Veblen would argue, “in order to gain and hold the esteem of men is not sufficient to posses power, it must be put in evidence” and handbags are the engines that drive luxury brands today (Veblen, 24). In 2007, handbags had an estimated sale of $7 billion in the U.S.A, with the average American woman purchasing four handbags per year. (Wilson and Thomas 2007, p.168) The reason why handbags are so popular among women is that unlike clothes and shoes, they do not require sizing, thus suggesting that there are far more options to choose from. (Young, 15) Furthermore, designer handbags are luxury goods that contribute to ‘brand prominence’, as they serve as visible markings that help ensure observers recognize the brand, thus signaling something about their social standing (Young, 15) Through this need of signaling status with luxury goods, Bordieu states that, “social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make” (Distinction, 6). In this case, different designer handbags are what make these distinctions, as each luxury good has a specific implication.
In order to examine what these implications are, we must first acknowledge the hierarchy among luxury goods, for the more exclusive an object is, the more prestigious this consumer is viewed among society. Once aware of this ranking within designer handbags, the easier it is to identify where each luxury brand and handbag style fit. A Louis Vuitton bag for instance, has more implications of wealth and status than a Michael Kors handbag. The first reason is its reputation: LV has been in the market far longer than MK, thus consumers were given more time to create a bond of trust and loyalty with Louis Vuitton than with Michael Kors. Secondly their prices differ tremendously: the average cost of a LV bag is between $700-2000 whereas a MK bag varies among $300-1000. Thirdly, there are two other lines more viable and accessible to consumers than the Michael Kors runway collection: the MICHAEL Michael Kors and Kors by Michael Kors. Louis Vuitton on the other hand, never made itself more accessible to consumers—the only ones who are able to shop at LV are the ones who have a substantial wealth to afford buying the product at full price. Finally, the MICHAEL Michael Kors monogram collection is interesting because it resembles Louis Vuitton’s Monogram Canvas’ collection; however MK’s target audience is upper middle-class whereas LV’s targets women in the Upper Class, to Upper-Middle class. Thus, in the fashion hierarchy, Louis Vuitton is ranked higher than Michael Kors.
Though a more prestigious brand than Michael Kors, Louis Vuitton is less esteemed than Chanel. Though both are highly respected French luxury brands, Chanel offers a greater sense of sophistication, as its design is ‘simple’ yet chic, whereas Louis Vuitton tends to be more flashy, especially with its monogram collection. Furthermore, the price range for Chanel bags is between $1500-4000, whereas Louis Vuitton’s is $700-2000. A possible reason for Chanel’s higher esteem in terms of brand can be that “wealthy consumers low in need for status want to associate with their own kind and pay a premium for quiet goods only they can recognize” (Young, 15). While consumers in need for status want loud luxury goods to signal and distinguish from the less affluent, and associate with the wealthy ones. Also, a Louis Vuitton bag is the perfect accessory for when you do not have enough time to dress up, for the bag is enough to make it up for you. Yet for a Chanel, or even a Hermes bag, it seems like you have to dress up to the bag—as if that luxury good is not just an accessory anymore, it is part of what you are putting out there to the world. In other words, you have to prove to others through your style that you are not only able to afford these luxury goods, but that you also have enough understanding to dress up to the crème de la crème of fashion.
The Canadian sociologist, Erving Goffman’s wrote the book Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which conveys to our discussion about signaling status within the hierarchical system of designer handbags. The author’s study relates to the ‘performance of self’ and how the world, or the society we live in, serves as a place/stage to perform as we try to signify ourselves or/and who we are in relation to our surroundings. “Sometimes the individual will act in a thoroughly calculating manner, expressing himself in a given way solely in order to give the kind of impression to others that is likely to evoke from them a specific response he is concerned to obtain” (Goffman, 6). However not any designer bag will emit the exact message we want to send to others. As we have previously discussed, a bag from MICHAEL Michael Kors is much different than a bag from the Michael Kors runaway collection, which in turn is far less distinct than the luxurious Hermes Birkin bag. A MK bag sets you apart from the “haves” and the “have-nots”. However a Chanel bag sets you apart from the upper middle class, and segregates you with the upper class. Furthermore, a Hermes Birkin bag, which costs may vary between $9,000 – 150,000, sets you apart from the upper class, and associates you with an elite minority that are able to afford such expensive luxury goods.
The hierarchy within the world of designer handbags goes beyond their price tag or what is “in”—material, durability, manufacturer or designer’s reputation, history and exclusivity are other imperative factors that count towards the order of importance of these luxury goods. Moreover, “handbag hierarchy” is extremely important when used as signifiers of wealth and status, for a person must know where each product stands in order to make a distinction from a class and an association with another. Conspicuous consumption is not enough to gain and hold the esteem of men, as Veblen would argue. A person must be aware of the existing hierarchy among these luxury products within the fashion industry, so that the luxury goods are actually associated with the selective class or group this person wants to indicate that they are part of.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1984.
Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1959.
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Simmel, Georg. “Fashion.” American Journal of Sociology 62.6 (1957): 541-58.
Signaling Status with Luxury Goods: The Role of Brand Prominence Young Jee Han, Joseph C. Nunes, & Xavier Drèze.
Thomas, Dana (2007), Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster. New York: The Penguin Press.
Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Dover Publications, 1994.
Wilson, Eric (2007), “Is This It for the It Bag?” The New York Times, (November 1), 10.