Reality TV & Fashion: Can we be Friends?

It’s not just the contestants of Project Runway that dream of being part of the fashion industry, but it seems like a common theme amongst reality TV stars to dive into the world of fashion. Nicole Polizzi, more known as Snooki from the hit MTV reality show, Jersey Shore, has an online clothing shop, The Snooki Shop and announced that she’s working on a new project, Snooki Couture, a collection ‘couture’ clothes that are more cheap and affordable. Moreover, Lauren Conrad and Whitney Port from The Hills both have their own clothing lines: Paper Crown and Whitney Eve and the Kardashian sisters have their own boutique DASH. From this phenomenon of reality TV stars going into fashion, it seems that given the money, time and fame, launching clothing lines or a brand isn’t too difficult. But does  having a clothing line represent one’s reputation in the fashion industry and their contribution to high fashion?I think not. In the world of reality television, virtually anything can be made into a show. But in the world of fashion, there exists a hierarchy and it is organized by the level of taste. Then, where in the hierarchy of fashion does the reality TV stars fall under?

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Bourdieu writes in “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste”, “taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier”, which means that we can determine people’s class and taste level along with their cultural capital through their display of taste (2). Moreover, Bourdieu suggest that one’s cultural capital can determine one’s taste level because there are certain cultural codes that can only be deciphered through sufficient cultural capital and competence. Therefore those who have the cultural capital to understand a work of art or other cultural artifacts are part of the dominant taste class.

Most reality TV stars have attained the social wealth and fame through their one-hit TV series. They are considered to be ‘nouveau riche’, a social class that display their wealth in vulgar ways who attempt to signal that they have higher taste though they lack cultural capital. However, some reality TV stars are portrayed to be more fashionably acceptable and ‘tasteful’ then others. Lauren Conrad was featured in numerous fashion editorials like Teen Vogue, Seventeen and Glamour and she has her own site called The Beauty Department that offers daily beauty tips. In her spin-off show The City, Whitney Port was featured to be working for Diane Von Furstenberg, a respected fashion designer. Personalities like Snooki and the whole Jersey Shore crew and cast from the Real Housewives series are portrayed to be more vulgar and distasteful than Conrad or Port. This suggests that there is a hierarchy within the nouveau riche group, which is also determined by the level of tast and cultural capital.

Celebrities Visit "Late Show With David Letterman" - February 10, 2011

Continuing the discussion on cultural capital, Young Jee Han divides consumer into four categories – Partisans, Parvenus, Poseurs and Proletarians in her research, “Signaling Status with Luxury Good: The Role of Brand Prominence”. The nouveau riche group resonates best with Young’s definition of parvenus, which she defines as people who “possess significant wealth but not the connoisseurship necessary to interpret subtle signals, and element […] referred to as the ‘cultural capital’” (17). Young’s studied showed that the parvenus group will “pay a higher price for a functionally equivalent good because they crave the status brought about by such material displays of wealth” (18). Hence, the nouveau riche is interested in products with loud signals that don’t require any cultural capital to be understood. So is it that Conrad and Port seem to have more cultural capital than the other reality TV stars and make more subtle signals in their display of wealth that they are considered to be ‘style icons’ and fashion-magazine-worthy?

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In “The Theory of the Leisure Class”, Thorstein Veblen discusses the idea of conspicuous consumption, which is to consume more than necessary to display social wealth and status. Veblen thinks that people are consuming no only to differentiate themselves, but also to join a particular class. Given this, in relation to Bourdieu, people are practicing conspicuous consumption in order to display their ‘level of taste’ or as Veblen puts it, to achieve a particular “standard of decency” (63). However, different social groups have varying definitions of ‘decency’ – therefore, people consume to keep up with the socially constructed measures of ‘decency’ and ‘standards’. Then, reality TV star’s attempt to be part of the fashion world can be interpreted as their efforts to join the dominant taste class and to prove that they have sufficient cultural capital to understand the level of ‘decency’ that is require to be part of the dominant taste class.

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Fashion magazines and editorials function as an authority in fashion to tell the public the most recent trends, what is acceptable or not in fashion and they determine what is of ‘good’ taste and style. High-end fashion designers and personalities like Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, also have the authority to design and to confirm what is going to be in style for the season and shape the norms around what is fashionable and tasteful. Look at the judges at Project Runway – there’s a model, a fashion director, and a fashion designer and they decide the winner of the contest at the end. So fashion authorities are those of higher taste, who are at the upper half in the hierarchy of taste. I’d say that Conrad and Port are more of a ‘fashion authority’ than any other reality TV stars, who are generally portrayed to be abusing their instant fame and wealth both in and outside their shows. They have been trying to establish a reputation as a fashion designer, rather than just some reality TV star through their collections and online presence through their blogs. Does this make Conrad and Port’s taste more ‘dominant’ or more high fashion compared to the other reality TV stars and does this make them less ‘nouveau riche’ than other reality TV stars?

Heidi Klum, Michael Kors, Nina Garcia

Recently, there was a rumor going on that Kanye West is begging Anna Wintour to have his girlfriend Kim Kardashian on the cover of Vogue, but apparently Anna thinks Kim is the ‘worst thing since socks and sandals’. We all know that Kim Kardsashian has the wealth and the leisure time to pick out a fashionably acceptable outfit, and her clothes are mostly from high-end designers. If Kim’s rejection from Anna Wintour is true, it shows that fashion isn’t about displaying and wearing the loud signals, and those of higher taste can read through the nouveau riche’s intention to just look like they have higher taste. Then perhaps what divides the nouveau riche group internally into their own hierarchy of taste is the degree of display. In other words, those who are consuming louder signals will be considered more vulgar and conspicuous than those we consume subtler signals. It all goes back to the level of cultural capital – for reality TV stars to be respected in the fashion industry and go up the hierarchy of fashion, they must recognize and learn the “standard of decency” of the higher taste class and display accordingly.

Works Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre. “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste.” Massachusetts: Harvard, 1984. Print.

Veblen, Thorstein. “The Theory of the Leisure Class.” Dover Thrift ed. New York: Dover Publications, n.d. 23-70. Print.

Young, Jee Han. “Signaling Status with Luxury Goods: The Role of Brand Prominence.” Journal of Marketing (2010): 15-30. Web.

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