The reading list
- Barnard, Malcolm (1996) Fashion as communication. London.
- Bourdieu, Pierre (1984) Distinction – A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. USA.
- Davis, Fred (1992) Fashion, Culture and Identity. London.
- Veblen, Thorstein (2001) The Theory of The Leisure Class. New York.
To be continued..
Smoking and Women
I recently watched an episode of the show, ‘What women want…really’ broad casted by Channel News Asia, where the last part of the show was titled ‘Women & Smoking.’ The show took a very anti-smoking stance and claimed that women in Singapore want ‘good health and a longer life, instead of tobacco-related disease, disability and death.’ However statistics show that consumption of cigarettes by women in Singapore has increased in the last few years. In fact, the consumption of cigarettes by women all over the world has increased in the past few years such that organisations like the WHO are taking notice. So why are women smoking more? Let’s find out!
Women of any sort of social standing did not publicly partake in ‘vices’ such as smoking before the 19thcentury because according to Veblen, ‘symptoms of expensive vice are conventionally accepted as marks of a superior status,’ and women, as we all know, were of inferior status. Privately however, the practice started gaining popularity among the British upper and middle class women such that women’s clubs provided smoking spaces for ‘ladies of social position’ and even members of the aristocracy (Tinkler 2006).
Veblen, in his theory of the leisure class puts forth the idea that people are driven by their desire to to emulate the upper classes therefore keep up with their social norms and practices. This can apply women’s desire for a more superior status and efforts to reclaim their power through emulating men and masculinity which was (and maybe still is) much more desirable. In the 1920’s smoking was deliberately linked directly to the gaining momentum of the feminist movement by tobacco companies such as the Lucky Strike brand which convinced a group of debutantes to smoke as they walked in the 1929 Easter Parade in New York, hailing cigarettes as “torches of liberty.”
(see : http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/9/1/3.extract for more information)
One of the participants in the ‘Torches of freedom’ campaign
Appropriation of traditionally masculine behaviour signified progress for feminists at that time who sought to have their status equalled to that of men. Once the practice was seen to be accepted by women of the upper classes, it diffused to the middle classes and became much more widespread.
‘False modesty is a relic of an anciet prejudice’ reads the poster
Veblen’s concept of pecuniary emulation also explains the success of marketing aimed specifically at women from the 1920’s to the present. Smoking was slowly glamorised and associated with sophistication. Smoking started to signify femininity, attractiveness and sociability. Beautiful actresses and models were used to advertise cigarettes. From emulating men, women started emulating other desirable women.
Hollywood star Marlene Dietrich
However cigarette smoking quickly gained opposition. Medical research showed horrific consequences of smoking and slowly but surely smoking fell out of favour with modern day upper-class ‘gentlemen’ and ‘ladies,’ with issues like health and environmentalism taking precedence over standing around smoking. Cigarette advertising was banned from television and strong anti-smoking campaigns with the support of most governments over the world actually led to a decrease in percentages of smokers in some developed countries.
Advertisements like these probably led to a decrease in consumption of cigarettes by male smokers
Even popular shows like America’s next top model carry anti-smoking messages
If it is no longer attractive to smoke and pecuniary emulation has motivated smokers to quit, why has the consumption of cigarettes by women increased instead? In Singapore alone, for the 20 to 24 age group ‘the prevalence of female smoking increased by just over two and a half times in the past decade compared with a slight decrease for males in the same age bracket’. In a country with such stringent tobacco control measures where even advertising for tobacco related products is banned, an increase in cigarette consumption by only women can be slightly puzzling. This is because, following Veblen’s framework, we equate women’s motivations by their desires to emulate the upper classes. This disregards the fact that perhaps women are smoking more than ever in order to defy what is considered ‘upper-class.’
The Channel News Asia show I mentioned earlier featured all of 2 female smokers for less than 30 seconds. The host claimed that ‘among the chic, smoking is seen as cool’ and equated with sexual allure. The two women featured were young and dressed in fashionable clothing and interviewed in what seemed like a nightclubs. One explanation that seems plausible is the association of smoking with a certain lifestyle. According to Bourdieu, people have certain cultural attitudes that are specific to their class and position in society and through these attitudes they distinguish themselves from those around them. Social behaviours are internalised by people as they adjust to certain lifestyles. Smoking being a norm in the clubbing scene coupled with the booming night life in Singapore could be one of the reasons for an increase in young women smokers in Singapore.
Although smoking itself is waning in popularity in developed countries, young women in Singapore and other Asian countries probably equate it with modernity and emancipation not unlike the feminists of the 1920’s. A desire to emulate what is perceived as ‘mordern’ values and at the same time distinguish themselves from other traditionally compliant women might have led to the conflation of smoking with independence.
Strict smoking laws in Singapore
Despite the increase in female smokers, they still remain a very small and sufficiently hidden minority in Singapore. This could be due to strict smoking laws that leave most public spaces unaccessible to smokers, but perhaps also because of the taboo of smoking. Although this situation sounds very much familiar to that of Britain in the 19th century, I would argue that the increase in female smokers in Singapore and elsewhere is not due to a desire to emulate men and masculinity but rather a desire to distinguish them self from what they perceive as traditional and mainstream.
According to a study, women in Singapore smoke “to feel relaxed/to relieve stress/to help me cope with problems.” The situation for female smokers is somewhat different now because smoking is no longer seen as socially acceptable for both women and men. Powerful public figures are rarely seen smoking in public and those that do almost always face scathing criticism. Most countries are taking the anti-smoking stance rather seriously therefore smoking is no longer a young woman’s rebellion against the standard set by a patriarchal society, but a rebellion against society’s stressful demands in general. This is especially true for Singapore where women (ideally) are expected to be resourceful at the workplace and still be the exemplary primary caretaker to (the government hopes) many children.
what do you think?
Why restaurants make you wait so long
Felix Salmon, on the economics of waiting for a table at a restaurant:
… In theory, a no-reservations policy creates, in economic terms, a huge price hike for the restaurant’s customers: The cost of their wasted time and increased inconvenience has to be added to the amount at the bottom of the check. Such a policy should therefore result in less business for the eatery in question. In practice, however, things seem to work the other way: The more that a restaurant makes its customers wait, the more popular it becomes.
… what explains this phenomenon? The answer comes from an internalization of other economic concepts. First of all, there’s the idea that if something is selling out, it’s underpriced. There’s an hour-long line for falafels? In that case, they must be a bargain! People are waiting for over an hour to eat at Al di Là or Shake Shack? That must be an indication of quality!
What’s happening here is that restaurants are making their popularity visible and turning it into a signaling device. If you take reservations and you’re very popular, all that happens is that it becomes harder to get a reservation. If you don’t take reservations and you’re very popular, then everyone can see how popular you are — and all those people are likely to be curious as to what all the fuss is about. …
There’s also a behavioral-economics perspective to this: The more you invest into something, the more you tend to get out of it. That’s why expensive wine tastes better than cheap wine, even if you would have preferred the cheaper wine in a blind tasting. A $79 foie gras appetizer in Paris tastes that much better for being expensive. And once you’ve waited an hour and half just to be seated in a restaurant, you’re going to be more excited to eat its food — not to mention hungrier.
Retrospective: Inside Job.
(Full text. 11 September 2010.)
Analyze ‘The Inside Job’ using the lens of any TWO of the following 3 theoreticians: Simmel, Marx or Veblen.
Inside Job analyzes the 2008 financial crisis in a step-by-step approach. In ‘How we got here’, I observe Marxist elements—a crisis developed from structural contradictions. In tracing the blame to individuals, many economic actors, critics, and academics made comments that could have come out of Veblen’s mouth though perhaps with less flair than Veblen.
Marxist theory of crisis deals with structural contradictions. Crises occur when relations of production no longer support economic growth and productivity. This is inherent in capitalism as surplus is extracted from the exploitation of labor and crises are thus inevitable that as that class relationship, one of conflict, is not sustainable along with growth. The 2008 crisis is also called the ‘subprime crisis’—a crisis of the sale of derivatives generated from indiscriminate lending. From a Marxist perspective, the need for loans illustrates the unsustainable nature of capitalism and one of its inherent contradictions. As capitalists seek greater productivity, wages are depressed, employment is reduced, and they are unable to actualize profits from production as the workers have no means to consume, thus the need for loans to sustain capitalism.
Marx is not against capitalism. Instead, he views capitalism as a natural development and it is inherent in any system (a.k.a. mode of production) to have contradictions along class interactions. At critical levels, class conflict would cause a change in the system. Meanwhile, capitalism is a positive development as it enhances productivity and breaks down barriers between markets as capitalists seek greater profits. In late capitalism, however, the system is no longer productive. Inside Job traces the start of financialization to the 1980s when manufacturing in the U.S. declined (partially due to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening up of China)—it is irrational to continue manufacturing in the U.S. as profits are not maximized (i.e. cost is not minimized). The development of the financial market can then be construed an attempt by the capitalist class to prolong the system but it is irrational and is based on more exploitation which only serves to further imbalance the system.
Inside Job presents instances in which regulators chose to not regulate even though they were warned of the potential crash. The way for there to be an illusion of growth is profit-making and for that to happen non-capitalists have to be exploited; policies favoring regulation would lessen exploitation but lowers profits and capitalism would then fail. Yet, the crash now is a result non-regulation: both ways, capitalism cannot survive—the inherent conflict calls for systemic change.
Veblen agrees that the capitalism is characterized by exploitation of the lower classes by powerful capitalists. However, his explanation for the origins of capitalism differs from Marxist materialism. Marx proposes that modes of production shape social relations, but Veblen can be said to suggest that social relations and individual agency shape structure. Veblen assumes that individuals seek status and prestige. In a primitive society, those are gained through manual labor but when the society becomes predatory, as when it seeks expansion through acquisition, predators gain status. One way to gain status and prestige is to emulate and thus the structure is reinforced as more people begin to emulate the predatory class and exploitation (predation) is aggravated. Financial capitalists belong to the predatory class.
The predatory class is characterized by conspicuous consumption (both individually and vicariously) and leisure. Predators gain through capturing productive units for the sole purpose of profit-making and do not produce anything of value, anything that would contribute to long-term growth. The Inside Job labels subprime mortgages ‘predatory loans’, directly referencing the predatory nature of the financial market. The ‘financial product’ is not value-added as it passes through the system—essentially passing on bad loans to more and more people and at each level the deal-maker gains from selling nothing real.
Why are these predatory capitalists part of Veblen’s leisure class and not just exploitative capitalist class of Marxist theory? Marxist theory describes capitalists who are rationally trying to maximize profits—people who would make money to gain more money. The economic actors portrayed in the Inside Job do not care about making more money but the SPENDING of money—the display of wealth. This is observed in their habits, for example hiring prostitutes for $1000/hr. There is a need to display wealth through conspicuous consumption as that is the manifestation of status and prestige—money is the means to an end, not an end in itself. As Veblen notes, the competition is not between individuals but also between institutions. The defense of Marxist rationality does not even survive at the institutional level. As an interviewee commented, when the interviewer noted that one of the banks had 6 aircrafts, it is all about having more and bigger things than the other banks.
Veblen talks about the ‘dead weight of funded capital’ which refers to the inertia to change experienced by developed societies as they fall prey to their own success in a paradox of development. In a socially advanced society, existing physical and social infrastructure deters change even if it is rational. Mancur Olson, in The Rise and Decline of Nations, develops Veblen’s idea and notes that powerful economic coalitions have access to central power. This capture of the state is observed in many instances illustrated in Inside Job. Interest groups influence decision-making and there is a revolving door of employment between politics/government and the financial sector. As Robert Gnaizda comments in the movie, ‘it’s a Wall Street government.’
Like Marx who values productivity, Veblen praises engineers whose creations benefit the society. When asked why corruption is more prevalent in finance than in companies such as Google, an interviewee in Inside Job replies that the high tech industry is creative (implying that it thus does not have to resort to corruption); profits are reaped in the long run and are dependent on the long term well-being of the company. In comparison, the bonus culture in banking rewards short term individual profits and these individuals get away with their wealth intact when crisis strikes; there is no vested interest in safeguarding the companies or the investors.
The solution is change. Marx would foresee that the engine of change will be a revolution fuelled by the unhappiness of the exploited class. There is little hint in Inside Job that that is indeed happening. The closest we get to that Marxist idea of class conflict is in the lawsuits against financial institutions. The exploited come together, forming a kind of class consciousness Marx argues is needed for there to be revolution, to go against the financial capitalists but they are still working within the legal system which complements capitalism (think compensation).
What the interviewees in the Inside Job propose instead seems more Veblenian. Andrew Sheng asks the question at the end, ‘Why should real engineers who build real bridges be paid less than financial engineers?’ Veblen calls for a technocratic revolution—for the engineers, who can produce real growth, to take the lead. Even if this is not a political lead, real industries that focus on innovation and creation such as based in Silicon Valley should become the main economic engine. If being a creator becomes high-status, then more would emulate and economic growth will be stimulated. In this way, capitalism is prolonged as engineering feats increase productivity and help the U.S. maintain its economic leadership.
Inspirato and the Rented Future of Luxury
One of the potentially tectonic shifts in the global economy is the move from buying things to buying experiences.
In the last few years, studies have suggested that purchasing experiences - meals out, theater tickets, travel - do more to increase our happiness than comparable expenditures on material objects. Researchers posit that these sorts of purchases help fulfill higher order needs for feelings of social connectedness, and produce “memory capital,” the value of which fades less over time than the perceived value of material goods.
The shift to an experience economy can be seen across the startup landscape; from daily deal and location companies offering new ways to explore and discover the cool things you can do in your city to social travel startups and more.
What’s more, the shift can be seen in a progressive change in the perceived value of ownership. Companies like Zipcar aren’t simply an alternative strategy for getting around, but represent a different belief about the importance of having something versus having something when you need it. The rise of “collaborative consumption” represented by companies like AirBnb, GetAround (a P2P Zipcar), Neighborgoods and more is attracting considerable attention from investors. Earlier this year, a new seed venture fund called Collaborative Fund launched to fund these sorts of companies, and super-angel Ron Conway made it clear at TechCrunch Disrupt SF this year that they are one of his firm SV Angel’s primary focuses.
Interestingly, the trend away from ownership and towards access is making inroads into the luxury market as well.
One of the newest segments of the luxury travel industry is the set of “destination clubs” that allow the wealthy a flexible alternative to owning additional homes. These clubs generally require a large (several hundred thousand dollar) upfront membership join fee and thousands in annual dues, which give members access to a menu of destinations and residences around the world.
In 2003, AOL founder Steve Case was looking for an alternative to home ownership or hotels. He and his large family owned three vacation residences, but often found themselves wanting to visit different places, and feeling guilty about not using their existing houses. Hotels tended not to be designed for a full family. He ran across the website for Exclusive Resorts - a destination club that offered members many choices for well-appointed, family-accomodating residences - and by the end of the year, owned an 80% stake in the company.
Exclusive Resorts has since become the leader in the industry. They charge a 75% refundable membership fee that ranges from $160,000 to $500,000 depending on how many days per year you want to have access to, as well as charging annual dues that average out to about $1,000 per day of use at their properties. While expensive to those of us who still scour Hipmunk and Kayak for great deals, it’s a much better financial deal for wealthy families who are interested in having a variety of vacation options.
Recently, the original founders of Exclusive Resorts have been building a different version that takes the cost of luxury rentals down even further. Called Inspirato, the company enters long-term leases with residence owners (instead of buying the properties outright, which incurs significant brokerage feeds), bringing their overall cost structure down significantly. The company then can offer properties that would be thousands and thousands of dollars a night for hundreds, making the majority of it’s money off of a one-time initiation fee of $15,000 and annual upkeep fee of $2,500. The company just announced $17.5m in new financing from Kleiner Perkins and Michael Arrington’s new Crunchfund.
The car sharing space also has a new luxury entrant to the market. San Francisco-based HiGear allows members to rent BMWs, Mercedes, Teslas, Aston Martins, and other high end cars for what amounts to about half of the price of commercial rentals. The company raised $1.3m earlier this year from BV Capital, Battery Ventures, 500 Startups and other angels.
It’s much too early to know if and how these sorts of companies will impact our definition of luxury, but they do provide interesting evidence that the act of ownership is becoming less valuable relative to simply having regular access to luxury items and accommodation.
In 1899, economist/sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class. The term basically suggests the behavior of buying expensive things not for the utility they provide but for the utility derived from being seen to own them. In other words, you buy a Tesla not to drive it but to be seen driving it.
I wonder to what extent these new startups are creating or responding to a demand for luxury goods that is decoupled from conspicuous consumption, and if so, what that suggests about the changing perception of value and wealth in society?
El método de publicidad sufre un refinamiento cuando se ha desarrollado una clase opulenta suficientemente grande y que tiene tiempo disponible para poder interpretar hábilmente signos de gasto más sutiles. Los vestidos “chillones” resultan ofensivos para el buen gusto de la gente que lo tiene, ya que ponen de manifiesto un deseo indebido de impresionar la sensibilidad no educada del vulgo. Para el individuo de alto linaje sólo tiene importancia material la estima más honorífica que le da el sentido culto de los miembros de su propia clase. Cuando la clase ociosa opulenta ha llegado a ser tan grande y el contacto del individuo de la clase ociosa con los miembros de su propia clase tan amplio que se ha llegado a consituir un medio humano suficientemente grande para la finalidad honorífica, surge una tendencia a excluir de ese esquema a los elementos inferiores de la población, aun como meros espectadores cuyo aplauso o censura haya de buscarse. El resultado de todo esto es un refinamiento de métodos, un recurso a artificios mas sutiles y una espiritualización del esquema simbólico del vestido. Y como esta clase ociosa superior marca la pauta en todas las cuestiones de decoro, el resultado para el resto de la sociedad es también una mejora gradual del esquema del vestido. Al mejorar la comunidad en riqueza y cultura, la capacidad de pago se demuestra por medios que exigen en el observador una discriminación progresivamente mas fina. Esa discriminación mas fina de los medios de publicidad constituye un elemento muy importante de la cultura pecuniaria superior.
The Theory of the Leisure Class
An Economic Study of Institutions
Cap.VII El vestido como expresión de la cultura pecuniaria
Thorstein Veblen, 1899.
Thinking about pulling the trigger on the Veblen, as I'm in serious need of a ramen-noodle-budget brown lace-up to wear to work. Which color would be most versatile? Is there a color that would work with dark jeans, chinos, gray wool trousers, and perhaps even a gray suit?
I’m a fan of the wine, however, I think it might be a stretch to put it with a grey suit. For that, I’d go with black.
afistfulofstyle said: Not to stick my nose in, but I think brown longwings compliment gray trousers at least equally as well as black, and are a better match for denim and chinos. One mans opinion.
Could you wear grey trousers with brown? Sure. I do it all the time. Grey suits though, I think look better with black. But if you can only buy one, go with the deep wine/burgundy or brown, especially if you’re not wearing a suit every day.
youngthousands said: You can pick up the Florsheim by Ducky Brown longwing in dark brown for $87 shipped. Cheaper than the Veblen, likely better quality, and half the price.
Yet another reason to lurk on StyleForum. Good tip!