“Dress as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture”
from The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899)
Thorstein Veblen, the iconoclastic American economist, wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class as a stinging indictment of the capitalist elite of the late nineteenth century. His arguments are written in a jargon-filled academic style that produced several new terms to the English language, most notably the concept “conspicuous consumption.” The following excerpt on fashion and luxurious dress illustrates Veblen's thesis that consumer culture becomes the means for the superwealthy to compete for status. By showing off publicly their ability to spend money, the wealthy challenge one another to the sport of wastefulness. To put it crudely, whoever can squander the most money in the face of his peers gains the most honor. This simple principle becomes quite elaborate, however, as society develops more complicated means of spending money. Elaborately unproductive rituals help the elite to demonstrate their own exemption from all useful labor. Servants, wives, children, and lackies all assist the wealthy patriarch in his efforts to waste resources publicly. Because the rich are always eager to preserve their distinction from the lower classes, their luxurious behavior often takes place in rather exclusive confines. Often the “public” theater of “conspicuous consumption” is reserved for the handful of peers who are the intended audience.
Fashion follows closely the logic of conspicuous consumption. Clothes are an obvious means of displaying wealth, but, just as important, they affect the individual's ability to work. By wearing not only expensive but also impractical clothing an individual makes clear that he or she does not need to work for a living. High heels, delicate fabrics, tight cuts are all subtle means of displaying enforced leisure. Sporting clothes for boating, hunting, golf, or tennis are another means of making obvious that the individual is not obliged to earn his keep. Veblen understood quite clearly that the middle classes strove to emulate the wealthy. The gendered division of labor common to “respectable” middle-class families of the nineteenth century reflected the dichotomy between the financial necessity to earn money