A Work of Art? It's in the Bag

dreamlet

Find Beauty in the Ordinary
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Oct 22, 2010
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Interesting article from yesterday's Financial Times:

Earlier this year I was out in Hong Kong with two Englishwomen. We saw a handbag in a shop window. The women were moderately tempted. It was priced in Hong Kong dollars. “What’s that in pounds?” we wondered. Eventually we worked it out: £12,000. We staggered off, amazed. Later I asked an executive in luxury goods who would buy that handbag. “A secretary,” she replied.

That handbag is a key artefact in our current status game. Nobody has understood better than the luxury goods industry how status works today.
Humans seek status, and usually deny they’re seeking it. The best route to status used to be high birth. You were born posh, and then marinaded in posh codes from the nursery. Nancy Mitford, in her essay “The English Aristocracy”, divulged some upper-class speech rules. Crucially, if the topic arose, you had to say “lavatory paper” and not “toilet paper”. “Lavatory paper” was upper-class (or “U”, in Mitford’s code) while “toilet paper” was “non-U”. However, Mitford doubted that “non-U” people could ever become “U”.
But when she wrote this, in 1954, she knew that meritocracy was already changing things. High birth no longer guaranteed status. Status was becoming something you had to acquire. Often people did this by mastering high culture. If you “knew book” (to use the excellent Liberian expression) you had status. But from the 1960s, high culture too began losing status. As pop culture made its own claims, people began to ask why knowing book was better than knowing TV.
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The third main route to status was to buy things you didn’t need. Thorstein Veblen in 1899 called this “conspicuous consumption”. Whereas high-culture people sought status in knowing, conspicuous consumers sought it in having. The “knowing” lot had to mock the “having” lot, because everyone else’s form of status threatens your own. If I know book, then I want status to derive from knowing book. I then have to mock anyone who claims status from anything else.
But rising incomes changed the status game again. Suddenly new groups could afford things they didn’t need. Clearly their claims to status had to be mocked. And so in pre-recession Britain, working-class people who bought luxury goods got called “chavs”. In China, I’m told, secretaries who buy the same stuff are known as “Madame Bovarys”. The Bovarys are derided for inhabiting a fantasy world of £12,000 handbags. Because of these women, conspicuous consumption lost some of its status, just as high birth and high culture had previously.
Simply “having” luxury goods is no longer enough. Other conspicuous consumers, anxious to prove they aren’t “chavs” or “Bovarys”, now try to “know” the goods too. “The whole game now is to be a connoisseur,” the executive in the luxury goods industry told me. A Bovary merely buys the handbag. A more ambitious status-seeker visits the Parisian atelier where the handbag is made, watches the workman finish the handbag on the spot and gets told a story about how the company has made handbags for posh Europeans forever. What was once a handbag is now sold as a work of craftsmanship, or even art. After all, nobody can say for certain any more that handbags aren’t art.
Luxury goods companies now wrap themselves in the language of high art. They call themselves “cultural and creative industries”. Louis Vuitton pays artists such as Takashi Murakami and Olafur Eliasson to design its products and shop windows. And the guardians of high culture increasingly accept luxury goods as art: the Met in New York gave the fashion designer Alexander McQueen a fantastically popular posthumous exhibition.
But that £12,000 handbag, as well as being art, and being expensive, has a third trait too: a whiff of poshness. Luxury brands are forever trying to anchor themselves in the prewar European aristocracy.
I saw this recently when (strictly for research purposes) I visited Louis Vuitton’s flagship store in Paris. About half the customers were Chinese. (Here is the only plausible economic future for France, Italy and Britain: flogging our posh prewar past to non-Europeans.) From a wall beside the store’s entrance hung old monogrammed trunks of the sort that prewar aristos such as Nancy Mitford used to travel.
On a shelf stood a book called 100 Legendary Trunks, open at a page marked, “Artists and Scholars”. I became probably the first person ever to read the quote on the page. “What is interesting about the imagination,” wrote someone called Anne Baratin, “is that one never knows to what country it will take us. We packed our trunks to go north, we left for lunch.” I smirked at the ludicrousness. Of course I did: intellectual snobbery is my only claim to status.
Still, the luxury goods industry is clearly cleverer than I am. The store (or “maison”, as the industry likes to call it) screamed out a new symphony of the three main forms of status.
High birth, art and conspicuous consumption have now merged into one handbag. That’s why it costs £12,000.
 

Iwantaspybag

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Aug 16, 2011
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This article brings up the ambivalence I feel about status seeking. I am jealous when I seek a status item that is truly art and wish I was in the league to own something like that. But I am not in that league and trying to be a secretary with a mega expensive bag would make me feel like a fraud and pathetic. The whole status conundrum makes me feel sad. Why do people even want status?
 

BgaHolic

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May 23, 2009
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This article brings up the ambivalence I feel about status seeking. I am jealous when I seek a status item that is truly art and wish I was in the league to own something like that. But I am not in that league and trying to be a secretary with a mega expensive bag would make me feel like a fraud and pathetic. The whole status conundrum makes me feel sad. Why do people even want status?
You have it wrong girl! Just because you're a secretary doesn't mean you're not entitled to wear a high end designer handbag! You most certainly are! Your job is pleasing others all day long and you are just as entitled to wear a bag that your employees would wear without question! You earn it, you can wear it. Whether you would feel comfortable or not wearing the bag to work is a different discussion but you most certainly are entitled to wear any bag you can afford!!
 

CrayonMarks

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Nov 6, 2011
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The social and cultural evolution of luxury goods and their consumers is fascinating. Read "Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster" by Dana Thomas.
 

Iwantaspybag

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You have it wrong girl! Just because you're a secretary doesn't mean you're not entitled to wear a high end designer handbag!

Whether you would feel comfortable or not wearing the bag to work is a different discussion but you most certainly are entitled to wear any bag you can afford!!
I'm sorry I was not clear in my post. The original article poses the question who would buy a £12,000 bag and the answer was a secretary. The author told the story and because he obviously was struck that someone would buy a bag that represented a big portion of her salary.

I am not a secretary. I am a CPA and make much more than a secretary, but the issue is still the same. I was using secretary as the article's metaphor for someone who is buying something that is not reasonable based on income. £12,000 translates to roughly $18,750 which is the price of a Hermes Kelly on my wish list. Do I want that Kelly because I absolutely love it? No, not really. I want it for the status.

I feel judgmental of myself because while I could save and buy the Kelly, it is stupid and (IMHO) pathetic to spend that much to buy status. So when I think about status and how seeking it would make me do something stupid, it makes me feel sad. If I loved the experience of the bag, then I would view this totally differently.

I am touched by your support though. Thank you for the kind words, even though what I apparently said was not what I meant.
 

BgaHolic

Emma 4ever in my <3
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May 23, 2009
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I'm sorry I was not clear in my post.
I feel judgmental of myself because while I could save and buy the Kelly, it is stupid and (IMHO) pathetic to spend that much to buy status. So when I think about status and how seeking it would make me do something stupid, it makes me feel sad. If I loved the experience of the bag, then I would view this totally differently.

I am touched by your support though. Thank you for the kind words, even though what I apparently said was not what I meant.
Ahh! I understand. But you have proven to be smart and not stupid because you see the light! I couldn't agree with you more! In fact this is the way I was brought up. My entire life, it was ingrained in me, "If you can afford it, buy few, buy good but don't buy to pop someone else's eyes out!" This has stayed with me forever. I love admiring an iconic bag on someone else but it just isn't for me. Truthfully, most very affluent family members do not own one either. They see no need to. Their monetary spending is in giving back (charity) and living comfortably.

What I gained from this article, and other articles like this one, is manufacturers are making a fortune from marketing. Wonderful people need the sense of feeling powerful and rich and if it's a single handbag costing close to $15K or a Rolex watch for $8K, then so be it. Fortunately, people like yourself and I don't fall for this. This is not to say we don't own wonderful things, it's just to say we don't fall prey to the hype, status = mega $ purchases. :smile:
 

Iwantaspybag

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I have continued to think about that article and the last time I saw a status symbol work of art. DH & I went to breakfast at the Ivy which is known locally as a place that movie stars go. We were setting outside and it was a gorgeous day. The woman in the couple next to us could have been sent over by central casting as an asian trophy wife. 10 carat diamond ring and 5 carat earrings, diamond tennis bracelet, incredible feather trimmed shawl, $50k rolex watch, beautiful gray boots. And of course when they left, she was carrying a croc birkin and they got in their bentley.

DH was commenting how she was probably wearing $100k in accessories and I said, oh $200k at least.

That was a lot of status. I wondered who they were trying to impress. Me & my DH? what a waste if that is the case. It was like he was trying to announce his success to the world. But why? They were the opposite of the secretary who struggles to buy a $20k bag. They appeared to have money to burn. I doubt she enjoys her birkin as much as someone who struggles to get one.

The thing I noticed was she and her DH didn't seem very happy. Her DH seemed down right cranky.

Like the article said, everyone else's status threatens yours. So I rationalized to DH, "well, they may have $$$, but we are tall and happy and all the money in the world can't buy height or happiness. LOL"

Then I walked across the street to the MK store and the SAs made me feel important. Ha.

But after that experience I wondered again why I want a status symbol. People will probably be no more impressed with me than I was with them. Sorry to be doing my second Hamlet on this forum on the issue of status. Clearly it troubles me.
 

gratefull

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Jan 8, 2010
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I have continued to think about that article and the last time I saw a status symbol work of art. DH & I went to breakfast at the Ivy which is known locally as a place that movie stars go. We were setting outside and it was a gorgeous day. The woman in the couple next to us could have been sent over by central casting as an asian trophy wife. 10 carat diamond ring and 5 carat earrings, diamond tennis bracelet, incredible feather trimmed shawl, $50k rolex watch, beautiful gray boots. And of course when they left, she was carrying a croc birkin and they got in their bentley.

DH was commenting how she was probably wearing $100k in accessories and I said, oh $200k at least.

That was a lot of status. I wondered who they were trying to impress. Me & my DH? what a waste if that is the case. It was like he was trying to announce his success to the world. But why? They were the opposite of the secretary who struggles to buy a $20k bag. They appeared to have money to burn. I doubt she enjoys her birkin as much as someone who struggles to get one.

The thing I noticed was she and her DH didn't seem very happy. Her DH seemed down right cranky.

Like the article said, everyone else's status threatens yours. So I rationalized to DH, "well, they may have $$$, but we are tall and happy and all the money in the world can't buy height or happiness. LOL"

Then I walked across the street to the MK store and the SAs made me feel important. Ha.

But after that experience I wondered again why I want a status symbol. People will probably be no more impressed with me than I was with them. Sorry to be doing my second Hamlet on this forum on the issue of status. Clearly it troubles me.
Oh my, I love your posts!
So insightful too. I was kind of wondering the same things too.
BTW I am in OC so I sea a lot of the same wealth showing off as you mentioned.

Maybe humans are naturally competitive, and that is why the status seeking??
I was thinking about that. I notice it even at preschools, lol....moms trying to outdo each other sometimes with the cutest outfit, the nicest cookies, lol. (sometimes its not competition, maybe just having standards, or pride :smile:

Maybe it's from caveman days, lol, and something having to do with limited resources, or humans creating social hierarchies....hence the status...someone has to be on top?? It's a way of deciding....??? An interesting topic!!

BTW I had the same thought you did just tonight! Before I saw this thread. I realized how stupid it was to buy the expensive purses....how I got caught up in the hype and marketing. Weird...was thinking along these exact same lines. Well, a few of the bags were worth it, just not so many, and the prices. I realize I bought into the dream they were selling. the money would be better spent elsewhere. Well, live and learn :smile:. (and resell). :smile:

As far as the happiness thing goes, aside from any of us knocking the lady with the bling, I have a thought about that......not to knock her form of status! - - but I truly think "things" will not really make people happy.....so even though she had cool stuff, it won't ultimately make her happy....it won't mean she can't be happy though, of course, but it is separate....
 

Iwantaspybag

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Aug 16, 2011
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Oh my, I love your posts!
So insightful too. I was kind of wondering the same things too.
BTW I am in OC so I sea a lot of the same wealth showing off as you mentioned.
You are very kind. I am kind of embarrassed by my Hamlet speeches. I think they are helping me though. The more I say it out loud, it makes me feel more free to not try to pretend that I have more than I have.

OC? Do you go to South Coast Plaza? The handbag temple of So Cal? For me, it feels like going to a museum to study art.

Pre-school? The values indoctrination starts early. I was in the Bal store at SCP and there was a very small bag on display. I asked the SA if it was intended to be a child's bag. She said no, but I bet there is a child somewhere in OC carrying it.
 

papertiger

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This is such a great thread :biggrin: I have to teach some of these cultural/anthropological concepts to (mostly) young adults who worryingly never seem to have thought about them even though they have to work in cultural industries including fashion.

I will just add to what everybody else has already said so well

1. Most animals seek higher status in their group and we are all only human animals. Feudalism was a mere hiccup in human development, social mobility is normal, that's why people dress up to impress and down to take cover.

2. This is why it said that 'New Money' overcompensates for inborn insecurity

3. Secretaries, PAs and even shop workers often 'front' for their companies and are now put under huge pressure to represent (visually) and project a lifestyle beyond the capacity of their pay packets.

^ this is at odds with 50 years ago when in most companies, staff were not allowed to dress as though they were the customer or client and were admonished for dressing 'above their station' even if their personal 'station' was above that of the client's

4. In formal industries staff often 'compete' with personal accessories, the only allowable variables in dress.

5. Most women are pressured into feeling imperfect for many reasons, buying a 'perfect' thing may helps her feel identified with the object. That is why when someone complements your dress you say thank you and not the designer.

6. People look for validation for their efforts and reward themselves accordingly, good for them.

7. Some rich people do spend a lot of money and some don't, rich people are a demographic not a species
 

gratefull

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Jan 8, 2010
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You are very kind. I am kind of embarrassed by my Hamlet speeches. I think they are helping me though. The more I say it out loud, it makes me feel more free to not try to pretend that I have more than I have.

OC? Do you go to South Coast Plaza? The handbag temple of So Cal? For me, it feels like going to a museum to study art.

Pre-school? The values indoctrination starts early. I was in the Bal store at SCP and there was a very small bag on display. I asked the SA if it was intended to be a child's bag. She said no, but I bet there is a child somewhere in OC carrying it.
yes yes and yes.
haha.
You know what's really weird though?? I have been going to SCP for DECADES. Before most people had heard of it. Simply because I grew up here and that is where my mom took me. It was here and we were here. Now it is very crowded, sought after, popular. Weird for me because I remember when it was never crowded or known at all. Anyway, I digress.
And yes, it has always had all of the boutiques....funny, before the majority of people were into nice bags, the boutiques were different. I remember Chanel for example....it was almost all clothes, then part of the store was makeup (you could even have your makeup done there)....the few bags they had were an afterthought. They redesigned the boutique and now it is almost ALL handbags. Funny.

Anyway, yeah, I have always loved the "artfulness" of it. Many times I have browsed there, just for fun and relaxation, not to buy, but to feel good, because it is beautiful. Don't do that a whole lot now, though, as I am trying to support myself on my "ban" lol and it would just make things harder for me. :smile: (like an alcoholic in a bar or something) :P

Hey I like your Hamlet speeches if you will. Yes, the status thing is very interesting. People will always be doing something like this. In Africa, we would be seeing who could stack more bracelet things around their neck - thereby being higher status or more attractive. Lol.

BTW I read something interesting somewhere about wealth and all this. It said humans get used to what they have. Becomes commonplace. So if you drive a Honda, say, and see a new gorgeous top of the line Mercedes, say, you might lust after that and be wowed. "If only".... Then say you get the Mercedes. After a while, of owning and driving, it becomes normal to you. No longer high status. Feels just like you in your old skin. But to others, they see you and think, wow, that must feel great, to have that - but to you, it's business as usual. Then you need something new or greater to have that feeling again. Interesting.
 

gratefull

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Jan 8, 2010
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You are very kind. I am kind of embarrassed by my Hamlet speeches. I think they are helping me though. The more I say it out loud, it makes me feel more free to not try to pretend that I have more than I have.

OC? Do you go to South Coast Plaza? The handbag temple of So Cal? For me, it feels like going to a museum to study art.

Pre-school? The values indoctrination starts early. I was in the Bal store at SCP and there was a very small bag on display. I asked the SA if it was intended to be a child's bag. She said no, but I bet there is a child somewhere in OC carrying it.
oh, hey, one thing, iwantaspybag, I meant something different about the preschool comment, but, yeah, I hear you on that....

what I was referring to is that people will always seek some kind of status.
- even if it is something mundane, like which mom made/ brought the nicest looking cookies to the preschool, etc.
:biggrin:
 

gratefull

Member
Jan 8, 2010
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... I think all of this might have to do with genes, and survival, too, if you will.

Say if a caveman goes out and shows/ proves his prowess and higher skills or intelligence as compared to his peers, he will have more available mates to choose from to mate with, thereby allowing him to choose from the highest "quality" and intelligent females, thereby ensuring the gene pool will have a chance, etc. At least this is what some people claim
:lol: