Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The great fashion divide and Thorstein Veblen

Each day my computer starts up and MSN tells me what's really important. Today, I'm getting "30 skills every man should master", "Wimbledon fashion" and "Boy falls into wolf enclosure" among others.

Yesterday (a few hours ago), one of the pieces highlighted Sadie Nicholas, writing in the Daily Mail, arguing that there is a North-South fashion divide and that Northerners dress more glamorously. Her evidence is largely anecdotal and it's all pretty complex but her article, roughly, boils down to these two paragraphs:

"And the key differences between women in the North and their fellow fashion lovers in the South-East?

'In London,' says Justine, 'women will dress down their Louboutin heels with skinny jeans or leggings and less-is-more hair and make-up, which they see as being very cool.

'In Liverpool, that would be criminal: the girls here make sure the rest of their outfit is as glam as the shoes themselves.


My own view is that Northerners are finally asserting themselves when it comes to what they wear. We love glamour and we're no longer afraid to flaunt it."

Funnily enough, I've recently come across a theory that can explain this, a refinement of Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class. Here is Virginia Postrel, setting out that the 'bling' phenomenon isn't illusory - despite being poorer African Americans do spend more of their income on clothes, cars and jewelry - and explaining why.

"On race, the folk wisdom turns out to be true. An African American family with the same income, family size, and other demographics as a white family will spend about 25 percent more of its income on jewelry, cars, personal care, and apparel. For the average black family, making about $40,000 a year, that amounts to $1,900 more a year than for a comparable white family. To make up the difference, African Americans spend much less on education, health care, entertainment, and home furnishings. (The same is true of Latinos.)


"So the researchers went back to Thorstein Veblen, who coined the term conspicuous consumption. Writing in the much poorer world of 1899, Veblen argued that people spent lavishly on visible goods to prove that they were prosperous. “The motive is emulation—the stimulus of an invidious comparison which prompts us to outdo those with whom we are in the habit of classing ourselves,” he wrote. Along these lines, the economists hypothesized that visible consumption lets individuals show strangers they aren’t poor. Since strangers tend to lump people together by race, the lower your racial group’s income, the more valuable it is to demonstrate your personal buying power.

To test this idea, the economists compared the spending patterns of people of the same race in different states—say, blacks in Alabama versus blacks in Massachusetts, or whites in South Carolina versus whites in California. Sure enough, all else being equal (including one’s own income), an individual spent more of his income on visible goods as his racial group’s income went down. African Americans don’t necessarily have different tastes from whites. They’re just poorer, on average. In places where blacks in general have more money, individual black people feel less pressure to prove their wealth.

The same is true for whites. Controlling for differences in housing costs, an increase of $10,000 in the mean income for white households—about like going from South Carolina to California—leads to a 13 percent decrease in spending on visible goods. “Take a $100,000-a-year person in Alabama and a $100,000 person in Boston,” says Hurst. “The $100,000 person in Alabama does more visible consumption than the $100,000 person in Massachusetts.” That’s why a diamond-crusted Rolex screams “nouveau riche.” It signals that the owner came from a poor group and has something to prove."

There we go, an explanation!

Northerners are, on average, significantly poorer than Southerners, particularly Londoners, and people generalise and assume they all "get up in the morning at ten o'clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, eat a lump of cold poison, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work".

The signal that dressing glamorously sends is, therefore, more valuable to Northerners.


Ruthie said...

Leave it to you to make MSN's fluffy entertainment stories intelligent.

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