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How Have Clothes Come to Have a Social Value: Essay

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This essay is about clothes and how they have come to have a social value. In this essay we will discuss the different reasons behind conspicuous consumption and whether or not it is just a means to gain pecuniary strength or not. We will also discuss how a person’s politics can inform their fashions. Looking at the marginalization of women in society we will analyze and break down old-fashioned views of consumption and what their justifications might be, showing the different reasons there can be for conspicuous consumption today.

If we look at the picture of wool cloth, silk velvet, and satin applique dress by E. Coguenhem et Cie (Paris, 1899), we see a photograph of a long baby blue Victorian inspired corseted silk velvet gown with satin applique detailing on it. Underneath there is a wool cloth lining adding to the form of the dress. Looking at the silhouette of the dress it is intended to be worn by a lady who lives an easy life, it is not very adaptable to different situations. The dress is long enough to trail the floor; the waist is corseted. Corsets are not designed to be comfortable they were designed to make women more aesthetically pleasing to the common eye. Veblen believed that the leisure class purchased excessive amounts of things they didn’t really need for the soul purpose of gaining pecuniary strength. “Unproductive consumption of goods is honorable, primarily as a mark of prowess and a perquisite of human dignity” (1899:33), – he said. Looking at the dress in the photo it does assert a level of power just because of the amount of time and fabric that has gone into it. A person could wear this kind of dress to feel elevated, not necessarily around or against other people but within them self. The dress takes inspiration from the Victorian style, so it could be worn by a lady with a nostalgia for the Victorian times.

A person who involves in conspicuous consumption may get a satisfaction from new clothes and the way they make them feel when they put them on. The clothes we wear are meant to enhance our look; they’re meant to put our person into perspective showing one of many ways we can look. Free choice is just one of the luxuries we are entitled to and shopping is just one of the ways it can be exercised and better still if you’re well-off. Most people link the love of clothes with materialism, and materialism with being superficial. In the second paragraph of ‘Living in the Material World’ – the first chapter in ‘Culture and Consumption’, Grant McCracken claims that “materialism is fast becoming the villain of the piece”.

On page 80 Veblen argues, that spending significant amounts of money on clothes that you will eventually disassociate from is a waste of time. “It leaves unanswered the question as to the motive for making and accepting a change in the prevailing style, and it also fails to explain why conformity to a given style at a given time is so imperatively necessary as we know it to be” (Veblen, 1899:80). Veblen making this statement suggests that he is racking his brain in an attempt to understand why people are investing so much of their leisure time into buying clothes that cannot possibly be worth their while. He believed the clothes had no genuine value to the wearers other than to gain status among their peers, even though, they will change again in time for the coming season. Veblen is questioning how the styling of our clothes ever came to have such a high importance, he says “it also fails to explain why conformity to a given style at a given time is so imperatively necessary as we know it to be” (1899:80). Veblen believes fashions are pointless subscriptions as they’re always altering, he closes his sentence with the term “as we know it to be”. This suggests conforming to new trends is something familiar to the human brain and so he is baffled as to why everyone isn’t asking this obvious question. Is this some kind of practical joke? Why are you giving away your money, Veblen is wondering?

Fashions generally respond to the things going on in the world, for example the weather, or injustices in society and so a fashion that is on trend one month may not necessarily be trendy or even acceptable the next. Trends are commonly set by the forward-thinking members of society, however there is more than one type of consumer and so therefore, more than one type of trendsetter. According to the trickle-down theory, the upper class are assumed to be trying to differentiate themselves while the lower class are assumed to just be imitating the upper class with the middle class varying in the middle. Having these different types of consumers means there can be no one answer to the question of, “why conforming to a given style seems so necessary” (1899:80) to so many people. From the late 1800s to the early 1900s It probably wasn’t common for members of the upper class to take elements from the styling of the lower class, as opposed to now where the appropriation is almost the norm. There are many different reasons a person could do this; for example, social gain – to appear down to earth, or to camouflage themselves.

On page 4 of Grant McCracken’s book ‘Culture and Consumption’, he states: “Goods help us make our culture concrete and public – through purchase. They help us display new meaning – through use. And they help us change meanings through innovation” (2005). Our clothes can indicate to people how well we are doing currently in our lives, whether we are organized or disorganized, our punctuality in regard to interviews and the types of company we might entertain. So, while Veblen may only be able to see a person investing in and changing their style frequently as being ‘wasteful’ we can choose to see this as a sign of evolution and growth, a sign of understanding you’re not yet at your destination and you don’t have all of the answers yet but you’re going somewhere. On page 82, Thorsten claims that “when seen in the perspective of half-a-dozen years or more, the best of our fashions strike us as grotesque, if not unsightly” (1899). When evolving as a person, changing or upgrading your outward appearance is usually part of the process; this gives others the chance to appreciate your new way of living and adjust to the new you. It’s the same as when we look back on pictures as children and wonder how our parents could have ever dreamt of dressing us in such dreadful garments or looking back at teenage years wondering how our friends allowed us to think we looked good. We often have these responses because the person we see in the picture and the person we see ourselves as now bear no stylistic similarity or resemblance to one another. On page 42 of the book ‘Consumer Behavior in Fashion’ Solomon states, “Material culture includes handmade material items such as clothing tools, and furniture. We find these things, or artefacts, in museums, they are used to study how people lived” (2003). This is evidence of how important clothes are, when they can be used to examine the quality of life you were living after you are gone. This is a testimony to how important our clothes are in society, they help us tell our story. Our clothes can also help us distinguish the people were likely to connect with in a crowd. “Products and services that resonate with the priorities of a culture at any given time have a much better chance of being accepted by consumers” (2003:39). This suggests that while the clothes may be aesthetically pleasing, the appeal also has to do with what we associate the clothes with and what the clothes can do for us. As humans we have a long way to go in terms of supporting one another and trying to improve our planet. “American products that reflect underlying cultural processes at the time they were introduced: cosmetics made up of natural materials, and not animal tested which reflected consumers apprehensions about pollution, waste and animal cruelty” (2003:39). As people become more informed about the negative things going on in the world, sometimes they begin to make conscious decisions to help fuel a movement they know is good in the long run, inspiring others to jump on the bandwagon so not to look cruel and uncaring in a world that is dying for restoration.

Veblen claims that “most times the agenda of the wearer or purchaser of conspicuously wasteful apparel is to live up to the accredited standard of taste and reputability” (1899:78). Despite this being true in some situations, the seasons of the year see different clothing items as more valuable than others, for example in the winter jumpers are generally more valuable than in the summer. So, if a consumer chooses to purchase a large amount of the most desired sweaters, along with other clothing designed to keep a person warm why shouldn’t we assume they’re consuming so much because of they care about self-protection and preservation? Why should we persecute he or she for wanting to experience shelter? Veblen’s statement begs the question why must the wearers clothes center around a hopeless yearning for vindication, why can the purchase not be about a higher level of understanding. What we can assume is the way people associate women with shopping combined with people’s beliefs that women were only meant to be pretty could be a justification of Veblen’s harsh evaluation. Would Veblen go to a friend’s house and question their wide variety of food types or kitchen utensils? Could Veblen’s inability to express himself from a life spent suppressing his emotions explain why he struggles to understand how it is woman in particular are so comfortable adopting new styles publicly.

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“It grates painfully on our nerves to contemplate the necessity of any well-bred woman earning a livelihood by useful work. It is not ‘woman’s sphere’” (1899:82). Veblen says that her sphere is within the household, which she should ‘beautify’, and of which she should be the chief ornament. This statement gives us an insight into how Veblen views women. What we see here is that Veblen’s views have been sculpted for him by society and so would it be wrong for us to assume that Veblen’s views on woman are mostly stereotypical. Furthermore, can we assume that the role women were forced to play as shoppers in the household, might play a role in Veblen’s belief that excessive shopping of things is unsubstantial.

‘1950’s Domestic Goddess’ is a picture of a woman in a pink long dress, in the kitchen, preparing food, most likely for her family judging by the amount of food on the table. The woman is painted half-smiling, opening the oven. Most people don’t smile when they are opening the oven, some would probably argue she might be smiling with excitement to eat the food, however anyone who spends as much time in the kitchen as a 1950s housewife did would probably want to heave at the smell of any homecooked meal. What kind of a woman was she if she did not feel this mysterious fulfilment waxing the kitchen floor? This kind of mentality being widely encouraged and accepted in society is likely one of the reasons Veblen has such a perverted perception of what being a woman should mean.

Women would blame themselves for wanting more in the 1900s: “She was so ashamed of her dissatisfaction that she never knew how many other women shared it” (Friedan, 1963:19). This infers, that society controlling and brainwashing women into thinking they were only good for things that tuned into their femininity such as, bearing children, left allot of women feeling alone, and thinking there was something wrong with them. Not because they weren’t feminine, but because they wanted more than what being a woman meant at that time. On page 19, of Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’ she writes, “When a woman went to a psychiatrist for help, as many women did, the psychiatrist would say, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with women today. I only know something is wrong because most of my patients are women. And their problem isn’t sexual’” (Friedan, 1963:19).

The woman in the picture is wearing a long pink dress and she has pearls around her neck. In the kitchen most housewives dressed up because they didn’t really live for themselves, they were waiting for their husbands to come home so they could impress them with their looks – one of the few things, women were said to be good for. The woman in the picture is wearing a long dress and pearls just to cook in the kitchen, this suggests that she might be overcompensating for something, she wants people to believe she is happy, she wants people to think she takes care of herself and so everything is well with her meaning she is fit to take care of her husband and children too. We can only imagine what would happen if her husband arrived home one day and she was dressed in a vest and jeans, he would probably rush her to hospital. This kind of thought could only be possible in a society where men have been taught women’s lives should revolve around them.

In ‘Power Dressing’ we can see a picture that was photographed in the 1980’s of a woman wearing a grey and white pinstriped oversized Ralph Lauren suit that would commonly be associated with a rich powerful man – looking at the silhouette, probably working in the city. There are a few reasons a woman might make the decision to adopt men’s clothing – particularly in the work place. In the 1980’s, women were not seen as equals to men, they were constantly subject to being overlooked and suggestive comments. It was a well-accepted view in society that women belonged to men. By power dressing in a suit that had the same aesthetic as a man’s, the woman in the picture is letting the men know that she would like to be treated as an equal and that she is willing to do whatever it takes. In Chapter 15 of ‘All the World and Her Husband’, Joanne Entwistle highlights that the simple ways we choose to style ourselves have an effect on how people choose to respond to us: “More than simply rhetoric, power dressing set out a strategy for self-representation which laid down particular ‘rules’ as to what clothes, hair and make-up to buy in order to increase one’s chances of career success” (2000:226). This statement implies that the way you want to be seen will help to inform the way you dress. Further proving, that clothes’ social value comes from the things people familiarize them with. The way she is poised in the photo with her shoulders back, arms in her pockets and a face expression that reads ‘I’m here to stay’ infer that the suit gives her a sense of confidence, and a sense of empowerment. She feels powerful because of the suit is powerful. You can tell the suit was expensive looking at the amount of fabric there is and the way it creases over her arm giving a clear indication it is heavy weight.

On page 226 Joanne quotes from Molloy’s ‘self-help’ manual on dress, ‘Dress for Success’: “The rule, according to Molloy, is “dress for the job you want, not the job you have” (Entwistle, 2000:226). Molloy tells us that women have usually been recruited in lower echelon jobs for instance a clerical worker. Molloy emphasizes in the ‘self -help’ manual the importance of any woman working in a typically male dominated professional job, distinguishing themselves, in order to establish authority. First associations are highly important as they help to shape the relationships we have with people, also because people remember them and so if you were to be mistaken for a secretary instead of for instance a professional business woman, this could negatively influence your experience in that job altogether, especially at a time where women were marginalized on such a great scale. If by dressing in clothes commonly associated with men you can be treated as an equal, then it can be an opportunity to eliminate peoples learned negative views about women.

To conclude, the social value of our clothes is influenced by many different factors. To somebody who is more old-fashioned, the idea of clothes having any kind of substantial value is absurd. Veblen blames conspicuous consumption on an individuals need for pecuniary strength, however there are many more explanations, for example to evolve as a person. Materialism has often been used as a scapegoat in the past, due to its close link to being superficial and not being skin deep however here we learn from Grant McCracken’s ‘Culture and Consumption’ book that our “clothes help us change meanings through innovation” (2005:4). Our ability to compartmentalize growing up in a much more culturally diverse society means that we are capable of having allot more associations to our clothes.

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