Conspicuous Leisure

Veblen's exploration of the dress of the leisure class extends beyond the ways in which individuals consume items of clothing and engages with the very forms and styles assumed by these garments. As he wrote, "Dress must not only be conspicuously expensive; it must also be 'inconvenient'" (p. 127). This is because, within the competitive logic of the leisure class, overt displays of wealth can be supplemented by wearing clothes that show the person in question "is not engaged in any kind of productive labour" (p. 125). Veblen uses this idea of conspicuous leisure to great effect in explaining the enormous differences in the form taken by men's and women's clothing at the end of the nineteenth century.

In scrutinizing contemporary men's clothing for evidence of the principle of conspicuous leisure, Veblen argued that there should be an absence on the male garments of any evidence of manual labor such as stains, shiny elbows, or creasing. Rather, elegant men's dress must exhibit signs that the wearer is a man of leisure. As he states, "Much of the charm that invests the patent-leather shoe, the stainless linen, the lustrous cylindrical hat, and the walking stick ... comes of their pointedly suggesting that the wearer cannot when so attired bear a hand in any employment that is directly and immediately of any human use" (p. 126).

The dress of the women of the leisure class, while embodying the salient principles of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure, is also influenced by the inferior social position they occupy within the leisure-class household. It is the job of the woman, argued Veblen, "to consume for the [male] head of the household; and her apparel is contrived with this object in view" (p. 132). By wearing garments that are both expensive and inconvenient, such as ornate dresses, corsets, and complicated hats, women show that they do not need to work and so increase the "pecuniary repute" in which the head of the family is held. Veblen was one of the first modern thinkers to relate the appearance of women to their weak social and economic position.

Although Veblen's analysis of dress and fashion has proved fruitful in social and historical contexts beyond what he originally envisaged, he always considered his study to be an explanation applicable primarily to what took place within the leisure class, not as a universal theory of dress. Strongly influenced by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, Veblen believed that in the future men and women would progress beyond the restless changes of dress styles encouraged by "pecuniary culture." In their place would emerge a set of relatively stable costumes similar to those Veblen imagined had existed in ancient Greece and Rome, China, and Japan.

See also Fashion, Theories of; Fashion and Identity. BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bell, Quentin. On Human Finery. London: Hogarth Press, 1976. An extended interpretation of Veblen's ideas on dress and fashion.

Carter, Michael. Fashion Classics from Carlyle to Barthes. Oxford and New York: Berg, 2003. See chapter 3, "Thorstein Veblen's Leisure Class." Dorfman, Joseph. Thorstein Veblen and His America. New York: Viking Press, 1934. The standard biography of Veblen. Contains fascinating details of his personal taste in clothing.

Riesman, David. Thorstein Veblen: A Critical Interpretation. New York and London: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953. See chapter 8 for a discussion of Veblen's analysis of the corset. Veblen, Thorstein. "The Economic Theory of Women's Dress." In Essays in Our Changing Order. Edited by Leon Ardzrooni. New York: Viking Press, 1964. This is Veblen's account of the historical and economic origins of women's dress.

-. The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: The Modern Library, Random House, 2001.

Michael Carter

VEILS Veils, veiled, and veiling emphasize different aspects of related "English" terms. As a noun, a veil is a piece of fabric draped as a head and upper or full body covering that functions as an item of dress. Whether an item of clothing or adornment, veils are physically used to cover and conceal, yet simultaneously draw attention to some visual aspect of the wearer. As a verb, "to veil" refers to the act of veiling or covering and concealing some visual or social aspect of the wearer, yet possibly, still inadvertently, revealing their identity. As an adjective, veiled, differentiates between the identity of the wearer who dons a veil or head covering or veils and covers and others who don't in the a variety of social contexts.

Derivative terms for veils, veiled, and veiling and their meanings exist in other European languages such as in French (voile) and Latin (vela and velum). And elsewhere comparable terms are used for items of dress that function in a similar manner, that is, as a piece of fabric draped as a head and upper or full body covering, that covers and conceals, yet reveals the identity of the wearer f»

Woman in wedding dress with veil. In many religions such as Christianity and Judaism, veils are frequently worn as part of a bride's wedding ensemble. AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.

and that differentiates between those individuals that choose to cover and those that do not.

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100 Fashion Tips

100 Fashion Tips

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  • donatella
    What is conspicuous leisure?
    8 years ago

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