Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for April 22nd, 2007

Confessions of a brand whore

Posted by digglahhh on 22 April 2007

The New York City Subway system is a graduate school in conceit and humility, though not everyone signs up for its workshops. Earlier this week, I overheard a conversation between two women who appeared to be in their late twenties to early thirties. One of them complimented the other on her new designer handbag and a conversation ensued. Eventually, the question was asked. “How much?”

“500,” replied the woman. “But, if you want quality, you have to pay for it.”

What does that mean?… Nothing of course! It is a meaningless platitude.

When a piece of merchandise doubles as a status symbol, all forms of insincerity and misrepresentation occurs. Ask a woman about her Jimmy Choos and you’ll hear remarks about how she just needed a pair of black heels or how her feet are an irregular shape and only a few (outrageously expensive) types of shoes really feel comfortable. Sometimes you’ll hear her reference the amazing craftsmanship – all of a sudden she’s a cobbler from Lynn, Massachusetts. I’m sorry, m’am, from the pristine French-tip manicure you are sporting, I wasn’t aware that you were such the student of the craftsmanship of leather goods.

I should know. When I was in high school, the style was oversized rugby and polo shirts by Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, and other upscale white designers. I was fully on the bandwagon. Predictably, taste and price were rationalized as quality, not the brand. There was only one problem, the blaring contradiction that the most sought-after articles were those that most prominently displayed the brand name.

Our behavior was understandable. It was high school. We were pimply-faced, insecure kids who were deathly afraid of rejection and yearned for anything that could potentially give us the confidence to make a move on our crushes.

We are not in high school anymore but many of us, like the woman on the train still purchase luxury items for the status they confer. Why are they so ashamed to say so? Do they feel guilty about being shallow?

I have some respect for the woman who says with quiet confidence, “500, it’s Chanel.” There is honesty in that statement. Perhaps she is shallow and rich, but maybe she is not. Somebody actually in the fashion industry would likely give an assured response. It’s the sort of “it is what it is” response that implies security in the notion that to some people spending that kind of money makes sense and to most it does not. It is unapologetic.

Of course, the incendiary version of this response is when somebody will tell you how “nice” or “cute” something is. Now, perhaps Burberry did extensive research involving psychological color and pattern association and concluded that this plaid is the most appealing possible arrangement to women with self esteem issues, ages 18-65. I tend to doubt, though. Monograms that can’t confine themselves to a corner of a garment or handbag are even worse. Is there an inherent beauty to interlocking “C”s or “LV”s that simply escapes my aesthetic sensitivities and is not shared by other letter combinations? Perhaps. But, I’ve been appreciating the art of graffiti since I was in junior high school, so once again, I have my doubts.

And yet, I too have my indulgences, such as a rather large rotation of sneakers and fitted baseball hats. Personally, I feel that my two indulgences are carefully chosen as they both relate to two loves of my life; hip-hop and sports. My mother, with whom I’ve had many political arguments, has called me a hypocrite. She would say that our conversations end with me lecturing her about Marx, but almost always in a different pair of sneakers.

Even as I condemn excess consumption I wrestle with my own purchasing patterns. Am I allowed to buy another pair of Air Maxes? Can my footwear invalidate my professed political sensibilities? It can’t, can it? It doesn’t seem fair but, at least to some, it does. We preach moderation, but think in absolutes – we are socially conditioned to do so.

Thus the hypocrisy is to unilaterally condemn people for their consumerist indulgences. Not all consumerism is mindless. We should, however, indulge moderately and choose our indulgences carefully. This is how I’ve come to think about things– make sense of, or rationalize my own behavior in other words, depending on how guilty you think I should feel about it.

The way we talk about our purchases is a reflection of our personal relationship with consumer goods. A reference to “quality,” “style,” “means of expression,” “craftsmanship” and so forth is almost always irrelevant in the context of consumer culture. Sure there is a relationship between price and quality/craftsmanship, but the cost-benefit ratio is usually closer to the median price point than to the high end. Expressing yourself through your clothing is more about style than cost, unless of course you just want to express your wealth. And style, well, style is in the eye of the beholder. Just ask Christine what she thought of Theo’s Gordon Gartelle, um, I mean Ichy Amorada…

I don’t apologize for what I own. I do realize though, that back in high school, while I was a rather independent thinker in social studies, I was a sheep fashion-wise. I won several “best dressed” polls in high school, which ironically proves the point. Also ironic is that as I become nostalgic about the culture of that era, I really wish I still had a lot of things that I got rid of because they temporarily fell out of popularity. I can’t believe that I find myself purchasing the re-released versions of sneakers I owned and got rid of, or that I could have sold the originals for a small fortune if I had kept them. My junior high school sneakers are my father’s Mickey Mantle rookie cards shred by the spokes of his first bicycle.

I am ashamed to admit that I made fun of my peers who couldn’t afford the newer styles. I shoplifted items I couldn’t afford in order to keep myself looking fresh. With a little bit of revisionist history, though, voila! I can reframe shoplifting as a latent political act. But there’s no excusing making fun of somebody because they are poor. If it’s not the height of insensitivity, it’s pretty near it. I’m ashamed that I judged people on such a shallow basis, especially the outcasts who were wise beyond their years for not caring about such trivial matters. But, I am also proud that I grew up, and out of such a childish mind state. I am proud that I’m secure enough to no longer define myself by what I purchase, but not feel the need to defend my purchases either.

What I am sad about is that so many have not, that consumer society is still one big high school cafeteria where the cool table makes fun of everyone else. Where most of those not at the cool table yearn to be, thinking that they are only one designer handbag away from ruling the school.

That woman on the train is proud to flaunt her new designer bag, but embarrassed of what it says about her. She knows it too, and she makes it most evident when she tries to pretend otherwise.

Posted in digglahhh, language, pop culture | 12 Comments »