On Conspicuous Consumption

In 1899, Thorstein Veblen wrote the book ‘The Theory Of The Leisure Class‘. The book was a critique of the emerging class of folks whom, he felt, led lives devoid of real work, instead, living lives of leisure. And one of the phenomenon he noted about this rising group, was ‘Conspicuous Consumption’, a term he invented to describe both the pattern of their buying habits, and the symbolic use in signalling to others the status of this group.

‘Conspicuous Consumption’ was defined essentially as purchasing a thing of little practical use, and in acquiring and displaying this thing, the person whom owned or displayed it, could signal to others, their status of living a life of leisure.

The key here is of little practical use.

There are many examples of ‘Conspicuous Consumption’, and it can be a thing purchased to wear, to eat, or even a thing learned. The idea is that the object can be shown, and status of leisure can be ascribed. For example: The acquiring of vast knowledge of golf, or literature, or audio, known and employed not in a practical manner (IE, not to gain money) but in a ‘leisurely’ or hobby type of pursuit, would be of a conspicuous consumption manner. Accordingly, any equipment, or clothing, or tools for these pursuits would qualify as ‘conspicuous’ as well. Sometimes we may describe these things as ‘esoteric’.

But to truly be conspicuous, it must be used to display the status of leisure to others. And here we see a cross-over into the world of fashion and beauty. An item of clothing that may require one to restrict their movements, and be impractical in every day wear, could be seen as conspicuous consumption, so long as it was not required for work or a duty to be performed. For example: A high-end suit jacket lacks the freedom of movement to do many physical tasks, and being made of fine, fragile fabric, means it’s existence depends on it’s careful wear. Conversely, a straight-jacket, as used in a mental asylum is used for a practical purpose, and therefore doesn’t not have the same purpose.

Even food can be conspicuous. Specialty alcohols and accompanying knowledge would be conspicuous consumption. Macaroons, or other foods which are not useful in gaining nutrition, are more used as an item of conspicuous consumption. And in days where the majority of foods are grown in factory farming type situations, organic foods and free range livestock could be used by some as conspicuous consumption.

And even where we live can be conspicuous. In the time when America was rural, and city space was limited, the City apartment, and it’s restriction of the impracticalities of growing one’s own food, or farming, was conspicuous. But then as America moved into the suburbs, and cities were moved away from, fields of empty rural land, also known as ‘yards’, became conspicuous as they served no useful purpose. And so began the lawn industry, and the growing of the greenest grasses in front of each house. (incidentally, much of the work on grass in the US was done by the kings of conspicuous consumptive sports, the PGA, as detailed in this book).

But some things may be conspicuous at one point, and later, not hold that status. For example, before the 20th century, pale skin was viewed as thing of higher class, and so attaining it would have been in the nature of conspicuous consumption, as it led people to know that you were indoors, and thus, not a laborer out under the sun. Conversely, ith the advent of industrialization, and the shift of jobs from primarily outdoor agrarian jobs to indoors in industrial factories, the rise of tanned skin become the replacement for this, as it meant you could spend time out in the sun, leisurely, or in a tanning salon. So folks shifted the places in which they labored, the meaning of leisure was lost, and a new indicator of leisure was invented. Accordingly, other characteristics of one’s body, such as size, length of hair, muscle tone, have all at one point or another, been indicators of status that carried meanings for a culture.

A very good example of the shift between investment of time in leisure, that now is now viewed as anything but that, would have been the development of photography, as detailed Grace Seiberling’s book, Amateurs, Photography, and the Mid-Victorian Imagination, in the 1800s. This was a time where men of wealth dedicated their efforts to this ‘hobby’, playing with various processes of capturing images to various media, eventually leading to a durable photographic method that could be reproduced commercially. And once this was possible, and commercial photographers appeared, much of those whom led these discoveries abandoned the hobby and went on to pursue other things. One could conclude that once it became a useful, or applicable area of interest, it no longer served their use of it, which was leisure, and that of a class signifier, which was evident in the statements they made of those seeking to professionally take pictures. Much of the same thing happened in the early fields of geology and other sciences.

But perhaps in fashion, it is the collision of protestant ethic, with conspicuous consumption, that clouds the subject as to what is useful or useless. In fashion and beauty, some things are applied to meet social norms, and others to signal class. And through time, these things may change and mean completely different things. At some times things of conspicuous consumption may be practical (perhaps you need to wear a suit at your job) and at other times they may be conspicuous again.

And for some reason (*cough*protestant ethic*cough*) it is mainly fashion and beauty that gets attacked the most for conscious consumption. I believe this is a holdover from the 19th and early 20th century, where most of what could be purchased in the manner of conspicuous consumption had to do with clothing, and the settings in which people interacted and could show status. But as technological gadgets became more available, and people began to have more leisure time, the majority of the objects purchased for conspicuous consumption seem to have shifted to things other than that can be worn. Now there is a heavy emphasis on conspicuous consumption of food, of vehicles, of homes and gardens, even exercise, though we still see much of it in footwear and in jewelry, though, jewelry has generally always been conspicuous.

But knowing what the behavior of conspicuous consumption is (buying a thing of little practical use), and the purpose it has (to convey status of a life of leisure), it may be a little easier to answer for yourself if buying a certain thing, or doing a certain thing, is ‘conspicuous consumption’ or not.


One thought on “On Conspicuous Consumption

  1. thatwordgrrl

    Interestingly, we are seeing a movement here in Southern California away from the lush green ornamental lawns in favor of low-water native plants. My city even has a water bill rebate program for people who do this. We actually put a veggie garden in our front yard, as it gets the most sunlight.


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