Before we analyse in detail the fashion show window and its ritualisation during the sales, we will briefly outline the cultural context of the phenomenon in the Western consumer society. According to Marshall Sahlins, the term culture denotes a meaningful order of persons and things.29 The difference between culture and social structure is that social structure is the social system of interaction itself, while culture is a structured system of meanings and symbols where social interaction takes
26 Nietzsche (2000:131)
27 In the year of our research, fashion magazines presented the new trends simultaneously with the winter sale. Even if this was not always the case, it would not change the narrow (also economic) relation in fashion magazines of the symbolic representation of the new collection on the catwalk and the need to get rid of the existing stock in order to present the new garments. During Barthes' (1958/59) research phase, the new collection was not presented by using documentary-style photos of catwalk presentations of today but by traditional studio or outdoor fashion photography.
28 Liessmann (2000:13)
29 Sahlins (1976:X).
Death of place.30 Don Slater defines consumer culture as a culture of consumption:
"The notion of 'consumer culture' implies that, in the modern world, core social practices and cultural values, ideas, aspirations and identities are defined and oriented in relation to consumption rather than to other social dimensions such as work or citizenship, religious cosmology or military role."31
One such core social practice connected to consumption today is the ritual. The ritual has the important social function of making relations stable and visible. A function that has not changed in consumer culture. Rituals not only stabilise our relation to consumption they stabilise social relationships as well. Cosmologies are the sum of those principles and terms that are holy to society.32 Lévi-Strauss analysed many such cosmologies in tribal societies. When we look at his diagrams, we see, for example, heaven, earth and water as the axes of the cosmos.33 The social structure is organised by these powerful elements and represents various rules of coexistence. Categories of life and death have their contemporary equivalents in the diagrams of consumer research - in terms of cheap and expensive. However, the order of things continues to be meaningful, even though the link to elementary experiences has been lost over time. A diagram for analysing soap, for example, is divided into four quadrants: price and design, ideology and premium quality, split by a vertical axis showing symbolic and functional values, and the horizontal axis represents materialistic and spiritual qualities.34 The soaps are now positioned according to price and design. Above the horizontal line is the handmade soap, which smells of apple and the soap used by film stars. Below the line, we find the soap with real moisturising cream. In the lower left quadrant, we find the soap, which is sold in a double pack at a bargain price. Welcome to the commodity cosmos! The consumer society has learned to live within these quadrants. The choice of commodities defines our position in the universe of target groups. We are free to choose what we want: the smell of apples or none at all, a nice packaging or a cheap look: we
30 Geertz (1973:144)
31 Slater (2003:24).
32 Tamblah (1979:121).
33 For example, the diagram of the Wlnnebagos In Lévi-Strauss (1977:153)
34 Karmasln (1998:214).
can be film star today and feel the moisturising effect of our new soap tomorrow. The brand universe today can be compared to the number of stars visible in the firmament. Thousands of brands are glowing in it, some of them brighter than others.35 The great number of stars calls for specialists to draw the maps of our commodity firmament. The main rituals of a society stand in close relationship to its cosmology.36 Since the whole cosmos is bursting full of commodities, our main ritual is shopping. There is the everyday shopping, which we have already described as the act of selecting the appropriate soap for our personal grooming "rite"
"An even simpler example might contrast the routine activity of buying some regularly used article of clothing for spouse or child (such as gym socks) and the ritualised version of buying a similar but different article (argyle socks) and giving them as a gift."37
Ritualised shopping is not family shopping; it is a strategic version of it38 and it is not only controlled by the consumer, but also by industry. Shopping rituals have been established as so-called calendar rites which is why there are fixed dates during the year, denoted with fixed meanings, when the consumers do their ritual shopping. The biggest (commodity) feast of all is Christmas. Starting at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the market for Christmas goods kept growing, reaching its apotheosis in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the department store of Christmas.39 Consumer culture has transformed the religious festival into a festival of consumption. Santa Claus has been established as the secular version of Christ. While Christ is related to the realm of spirit, Santa Claus represents the realm of material abundance.40 In this sense, Santa Claus (or his several alter egos in the different countries where Christmas is celebrated) is the god of consumption. He appears once a year, with his bag full of material goods, as the embodiment of satisfied consumer desires. That consumer culture - with its god drawn by graphic designers - has created a new successful material religion can be observed in its world-
35 The biggest food company today owns about 4000 Brands
36 Tambiah (1979:121).
39 Schmidt (1995:108;
40 Belk (2001:83)
Death of wide success. Christmas is now celebrated even in those parts of the world where Christianity's myth of the poor, newborn Christ in the stable was not very successful. Although in countries like Japan, local religious rituals cover the need for rituals dedicated to the family, its consumer society found a new reason for celebrating Christmas:
"In many respects the way in which Christmas is celebrated in Japan acts as a negation of the Taoist and Shinto celebrations. Christmas is located in the realm of mass culture, the city, and is thus placed beyond the reach of both local community and family. Young couples escape their social obligations for a night when they go out to celebrate themselves, romance, and consumerism,"41
Thus, in Japan, the original purpose of the ritual to make the family stable has been adapted into a ritual that helps young couples to escape family and tradition. But the celebration of the consumer rite does not depend on its social function. The industry also has the liberty to take Santa's help so that it can do business during the sacral time. Every field of business is free to place its goods in the festively decorated Christmas show window. Christmas is a good opportunity to sell everything, from sex paraphernelia to soft drinks.42 There seems to be no taboo on goods to be exchanged as gifts.43 The strategy of consumer culture is to replace a festival thus far celebrated in order to start a parasitic life, which in the end kills the original festival. Several tribal festivals were overlaid by Christian rites to prevent heathen customs. We can thus assume that in a couple of years from now, only social scientists and anthropologists will know the true origin of the rites.44 The successful transformation of Christmas owes to the fact that the sacral period does not last just one day or a few days, but extends over a couple of weeks. The coming of Christ is preceded by several ritual weeks before the holy day is celebrated. Therefore, the materialisation of the festival can begin weeks in advance, and will expand from year to year. Christmas music in the supermarket appears sooner than the year before. The problem of covering a single religious holiday
41 Moeran/Skov (2001:122).
42 See Belk (2001:76) on the softdrink-consuming Santa Claus.
43 I recently passed by a gun shop that had a Christmas animation!
44 Today, most people know nothing about the origins of the Christmas tree. One day we, too, may forget that Christmas shopping was invented by consumer culture only in the mid-nineteenth century.
by consumer rites arises from the simple fact that people are unable to shop because all shops close down so that they can perform their religious rites at their own holy places. Sometimes these holidays fall on weekends and sometimes on weekdays. Consequently, consumer culture has created its own rites, its blueprint being the social function of Christmas. In most cultures that celebrate Christmas, the rite is performed to stabilise the institution of the family. As there are other basic social functions not celebrated by religion, like the father, the mother and the beloved, consumer culture created new rites. These rites are in the calendars of all the marketing departments around the world: Father's Day, Mother's Day and Valentine's Day. And they are sacred to consumer culture. In fact, they are so important that industry even creates special products or product packaging for these events. A good example for this is the fragrance business. Secular products for everyday use are covered by the animation colour. Special altars are erected at the points of sales in order to present the oblations for fathers, mothers and the beloved. These altars have to be designed more innovatively and strikingly each year and a large proportion of the annual marketing budget is sacrificed for this religious service. The best designers are asked for their assistance, for it is not the duty of the salespeople to decorate the altar. Everything is designed in advance; nothing is left to chance. Companies go a long way to produce ever more attractive decorations for their events. Everyone wants to be more striking, more festive in order to enhance sales during the period before the rites are celebrated. The creation of special show windows dedicated to Father's Day, Mother's Day and Valentine's Day is yet another important marketing tool. As a result, everyone in the streets becomes aware weeks before the day arrives that they must do their ritual shopping. Owing to the significance of the occasion, no costs are spared for the artistic decoration of the window presenting the merchandise. Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood describe the function of goods as follows:
"Consumption uses goods to make firm and visible a particular set of judgements in the fluid processes of classifying persons and events. We have now defined it as ritual activity."45
45 Douglas/Isherwood (2002:45)
Rituals are not only practiced on few fixed dates during the year, there are in fact rituals that are performed every day. People in Christian Europe had to pray to God on their knees everyday in acknowledgement of the final truth.46 What kind of everyday ritual was it that created consumer culture? For example, there are rituals that are based on the preparation of daily food. "Food is a medium for discriminating values, and the more numerous the discriminated ranks, the more varieties of food will be needed."47 Advertising plays an important role in introducing such consumer rites: The sun has risen and is shining through the window of a nice kitchen. Mother is preparing food for the rest of the family. The children are not in a good mood because they have had to wake up early for school. The ritual food is now brought in. Beams of sunlight fall on a package of cornflakes. Mother takes the package and pours a helping of it into the children's bowls. The children begin to smile and love their mother instantaneously. Music swells up in the background and the whole family is joyous. When we take a step back into reality, we will probably find that the child's mood does not improve by eating corn flakes. But the mother has learned to show that she is a good mother every day by buying a special brand of cereal.48 The magic can only work when the ritual preparation of the food is performed everyday. The preparation of the ritual meal has to be distinguished from the consumption of food, which is not quite as burdened with symbolic value and only expresses a certain lifestyle. Another example for the shift of rituals from the social dimension to consumption are the rites of purification. Numerous rites are known from tribal societies. In this category of rites, our modern, developed Western society is less inventive when practicing the rite because the strength of these particular consumer rites seems to lie in the invention of myths. Since we produce a lot of filth in our commodity cosmos that renders us unclean, we must purify ourselves regularly. The attributes pure, fresh and clean are linked to the sacred in marketing literature:
"Our highly industrialised culture no longer has any notions preformed by religion, yet certain phenomena exist that can be compared to these concepts and they are also important for the market because it is the products/brands that bear certain
46 Langer, in: Geertz (1973:100)
47 Douglas/Isherwood (2002:44).
48 As advertising is very sensitive to social developments, things now exist that are ritually prepared by the father
I attributes which allow us to classify them in these categories"49
Advertisements for products for "purification rites" are an interesting research field. For example, fictitious, fantasy figures that are embodiments of freshness. The funny lemon with eyes, a mouth, arms and legs, capable of performing acrobatic contortions, introduces itself as the priest of purity in our bathroom with the following magic formula: "Huiiiiiiii!" The yellow mystic figure shows how freshness can be brought into the toilet by jumping around and making stars fly out of the toilet bowl. More and more stars keep coming out and finally explode. The soundtrack is taken from fireworks. The product family appears from the explosion. Everything is now fresh and clean.50 It is difficult to compare modern consumer culture with tribal societies, because it is difficult to find a vocabulary that is suitable for both worlds.51 The description of dramatisation on the level of emotion conveys an idea of the power of such symbolic practices. Even today, the use of an intuitive, symbolic and poetic visual language can convey to us an idea of the feelings in former times when societies needed symbolic communication to deal with their fears and dreams.
Was this article helpful?