Dress and Conspicuous Consumption

Veblen argued that a prime function of dress within the leisure class is to display the wearer's wealth by their consumption "of valuable goods in excess of what is required for physical comfort" (p. 125). According to Veblen the most immediate form of conspicuous consumption is quantity, or the possession of items of clothing (for instance shoes or suits) far beyond the requirements of reasonable daily wear. However, dress in the leisure class is also subject to considerations of quality. Ability to pay can also be demonstrated by the ownership of garments distinguished by the expensiveness of their materials, such as the goat hair used to weave pashmina shawls. Time-consuming methods of garment construction, and therefore expense, can, Veblen argued, insinuate itself into the esteem in which its wearer will be held. The comparison between a handmade garment and a machine-made one

Portrait of Thorstein B. Veblen. In scrutinizing the leisure class, economist Veblen studied fashion trends and their relationship with the desire to display wealth. © Bettmann/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.

is almost always in favor of the former. Finally, the scarcity of a garment can also be a factor in adding to the repute of its wearer. An original item from the studio of a famous designer, or a garment bearing the label of a chic fashion house, carries more prestige than an undistinguished item of clothing.

One final way that members of the leisure class exhibit pecuniary strength is always to appear in fashionable, up-to-date clothing. Veblen observed that "if each garment is permitted to serve for but a brief term, and if none of last season's apparel is carried over and made further use of during the present season, the wasteful expenditure on dress is greatly increased" (p. 127).

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