Friday, August 1, 2014

Beauty and (In)conspicuous Consumption

It wasn't just her last name that marked Gloria Vanderbilt as one of those Vanderbilts.

I've been enjoying participating in this month's structured conversation on visual persuasion and the state at Cato Unbound. Virginia Postrel (whom regular readers will recall authored the excellent The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion, which I reviewed here) wrote the lead essay, in which she argues for the use of glamour, iconography, and visual appeals in politics; Grant McCracken, Martin Gurri, and I were invited to write responses from there. Much of the discussion is relevant to readers here, particularly McCracken's musings on sprezzatura and Postrel's thoughts on the true danger of glamour—and, hopefully, my own thoughts on what the faces of our politicians say about the nature of beauty, the glamour of the therapeutic narrative, and why we appreciate glamour in politics but eschew luxury.

This last essay brought up inconspicuous consumption—an inversion of Thorstein Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption that shows how the truly wealthy will invest in less-visible goods (such as travel and education) and that it's actually people with less net worth who spend more on visible goods like expensive cars, jewelry, and clothing. It made me wonder about the money people spend on beauty, and whether beauty goods are examples of inconspicuous consumption, or examples of the opposite. After all, our faces and bodies are the most visible things we own—but most run-of-the-mill beauty products are meant to be inconspicuous, and few advertise themselves as markers of wealth once on the wearer. Sure, a Chanel lipstick says its owner is able to spend $35 on a tube of wax, but freshly applied it's not going to look much different than the $7 tube from the drugstore.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder whether beauty work is coded similarly to other forms of inconspicuous consumption. Education is a prime example of inconspicuous consumption—higher education costs money, and while financial aid makes it possible for plenty of bright, poor high school seniors to go to Ivy League schools, you're also unlikely to run across a whole lot of Rockefellers at the local community college. And going to the sort of schools where you do find Rockefellers gives you a level of cultural capital you're going to have a harder time finding in other ways—you pick up on certain language patterns, cultural references, experiences, and fashions that mark you as having access to a certain social class, regardless of what your paycheck says. Prestigious education is a long-term investment, in other words, and we understand such forms of investment as being correlated with wealth, even more so than we correlate it with being merely rich. (As Chris Rock puts it on wealthy vs. rich: "Here's the difference: Shaq is rich. The white man who signs his checks is wealthy.")

I don't want to lapse into stereotypes about Upper East Side housewives with their plastic surgery and expensive hairdos. But the fact is, there is a marked difference in the faces of women walking down East 86th Street in Manhattan and 86th Street in Queens, you know? Wealth enables you not to buy expensive foundation, but to buy the kind of skin creams, personalized skin care and access to the world's best dermatologists, and long-term know-how that enables a wealthy older woman to have the sort of look that marks her as a wealthy older woman. That is: Wealth enables you to treat beauty as a long-term investment. You see something similar with hair care—maintaining the kind of cut and color that you see among the wealthy takes time and money, both of which are in shorter supply among working-class folks. A working-class woman might well have a fantastic haircut and do a nice job with hair color from a box, but keeping it up week after week is going to be a lot harder for her than it is for her wealthier counterpart.

Any reader of ladymags has seen enough of those "$10 face vs. $100 face: Can you tell the difference?" features to know that it's easy enough to replicate the look of pricey makeup. But makeup isn't an investment in a person's looks; it's short-term, washed off at the end of the day. Skin care, body care, hair care—just the repetition of the word care here shows that these forms of beauty work require something more than just slapping down some money at the ClĂ© de Peau counter. (I mean, that terminology is deliberate, framing beauty work as "care" instead of as, well, work, but go with me here.) The word care reflects the investment factor—and sure enough, it's those forms of investment that mark the most visible differences between your average rich lady and your average not-rich one.

But that's just it: These beauty investments are visible; they're just not obvious. (And, of course, there are plenty of older women who never use an expensive skin cream in their life and have gorgeous skin, and vice versa.) Having good skin at age 60 due to expensive maintenance is hardly the same thing as driving around in a Rolls-Royce, but it is something we can look at and say, Oh, well, that makes sense, she's wealthy—especially when paired with other bodily markers of wealth like well-tailored clothes, certain kinds of shoes, etc. So we're back to the initial question: Are beauty products a form of conspicuous consumption, or of inconspicuous consumption? I'm leaning toward the latter but would love to hear arguments for the former. Thoughts?


  1. I had a similar conversation with Mr Musings last weekend, noting how both Bill and Hillary Clinton look "better" now (IMO opinion at least) than they did when they were in college. How was this so, I pondered. "Money," he replied.

    Regarding the question of conspicuous vs inconspicuous consumption, it's a tricky one. I want to say it's inconspicuous consumption, because the whole point of that very expensive beauty work is for it to appear effortless. But since it identifies the person doing it as wealthy, perhaps it is a conspicuous marker of wealth. Then again, you could say the same thing about an Ivy League education, so I am flipping back to the inconspicuous side again...

  2. So many people share photos of their vast cosmetic collections now --- and are clearly COLLECTING them, not buying them for practical daily use --- that I think the possibilities for conspicuous consumption are higher than in the past. But I agree it's the hidden work that adds up to what we consider beauty, or at least class.

    Isn't it largely our perception of Good Taste that makes wealthy people distinguishable from the rest of us? It's one part having the cash to acquire and maintain the look, and one part knowing the unwritten rules and preferences of other rich people, knowing what to signal to your peers.

    The word "classy" might make an interesting Thoughts on a Word. I've been mulling over it for years and never gotten far.

  3. I think to a certain extent it is, but too, that beauty and certain beauty regiments are a marker of class.

    As an anecdote, I grew up working class in Philadelphia, and beauty, when I went to a city high school in the late '90s/early '00s, meant loose permed hair with a ton of hairspray or gel, curled, sprayed bangs, heavy eye makeup, and a sweatsuit with a designer brand printed across it. I had friends try to teach me these beauty techniques, and while I did my own thing, this "look" was the standard.

    But as referenced in your piece, I became one of those working class kids to get a scholarship to a top school in Boston, and going from Philadelphia to a college campus full of upper middle class kids meant a stark change in beauty standards. You had to look effortless. Your hair had to be straightened all the time. And you could wear a track suit, but it had to be the right brand -- and not a knockoff.

    I tried matching this impossible-to-grasp beauty standard with the knowledge I acquired in Philadelphia, but it translated to overly-gelled hair that was straight but stiff, heavy makeup, and casual clothing that was more slovenly than effortless. In short, even though my grades and knowledge showed I was just as capable as my classmates, my appearance, mostly by different beauty standards, made me look like incompetent white trash, and that meant I was passed over for practically everything -- internship and job opportunities, relationships, and even acknowledgement from teachers.

    However, knowing what to style and what to wear doesn't always come down to buying the most expensive, or "upper class," products. The internet helped me pick up the "right" beauty tips in many ways, and most of these, like straightened hair and correctly applied eye makeup, are easily found at any drug store.

  4. That's an excellent point about how the classed markers of beauty aren't necessarily product-driven but rather process-oriented, and how the process involves an ongoing investment of time and money that far outstrips the investment of time and money required by beauty products. Like, yeah, a $35 lipstick is pretty expensive but as far as the cost goes, that's still way less than the cost of regular injectables and facials and nutrition.

    As far as my own consumption of beauty products - which have, admittedly, changed a lot in recent months - I realize that I do tend to gravitate now toward mid-range (and increasingly high-end) beauty products for the simple fact that it is a kind of luxury I can afford. I can't afford a lot of the other markers of the luxury class, but I *can* afford a NARS blush or a Guerlain lipstick. So I will buy the more expensive products even though I know it's possible to buy dupes that cost a fraction of the price (although I do try to limit that to products where I know there will actually be a difference in quality), because I get something more ineffable out of it than just the colors on my face. No one else notices the difference; it's something that's purely for me.

    But then this isn't the kind of spending that is meant to mark me as a member of a certain class, and I really only talk about it with other beauty junkies, so I guess the question is, is this really conspicuous consumption if no one else knows about it? IDK definitely something to think about.

  5. And don't forget how much of beauty is also tied to health care, which itself is a huge marker of wealth and privilege. having a set of straight white teeth, for instance, is a huge part of American beauty standards, but you had to have had good dental care as a kid.

  6. I don't know much about makeup in general. However, I can say that good nutrition and access to medical professionals like dermatologists are things that can affect how a person looks, and both of those are a significant expense.

    I'm inclined to say that the effort put into health can be rather inconspicuous because when you see a person walking down the street, you don't know whether they just have "good genetics", or whether they buy acne medication and eat healthy food in order to have the skin that they do.

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