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Dress as an expression of the pecuniary culture

Thorstein Veblen was born on 30 July 1857 on the Wisconsin frontier, the sixth of twelve children. His early life was relatively unstructured, although he finally picked up two doctoral degrees, in philosophy and economics. At the age of 35 he got his first academic job, at the University of Chicago. Although he had a reputation as an indifferent lecturer, a difficult colleague, and a bit of a womanizer, he gained recognition as a man with important new things to say about the relation of cultural forces to business transactions. In 1899 he published The Theory of the Leisure Class, which came out of a series of papers he presented on the place in American society of the most affluent. In the excerpt below, he examines constantly changing women’s fashion as an example of “conspicuous waste”.

The dress of women goes even farther than that of men in the way of demonstrating the wearer’s abstinence from productive employment. It needs no argument to enforce the generalisation that the more elegant styles of feminine bonnets go even farther towards making work impossible than does the man’s high hat. The woman’s shoe adds the so-called French heel to the evidence of enforced leisure afforded by its polish; because this high heel obviously makes any, even the simplest and most necessary manual work extremely difficult. The like is true even in a higher degree of the skirt and the rest of the drapery which characterises woman’s dress. The substantial reason for our tenacious attachment to the skirt is just this; it is expensive and it hampers the wearer at every turn and incapacitates her for all useful exertion. The like is true of the feminine custom of wearing the hair excessively long.

But the woman’s apparel not only goes beyond that of the modern man in the degree in which it argues exemption from labour; it also adds a peculiar and highly characteristic feature which differs in kind from anything habitually practised by the men. This feature is the class of contrivances of which the corset is the typical example. The corset is, in economic theory, substantially a mutilation, undergone for the purpose of lowering the subject’s vitality and rendering her permanently and obviously unfit for work. It is true, the corset impairs the personal attractions of the wearer, but the loss suffered on that score is offset by the gain in reputability which comes of her visibly increased expensiveness and infirmity. It may broadly be set down that the womanliness of woman’s apparel resolves itself, in point of substantial fact, into the more effective hindrance to useful exertion offered by the garments peculiar to women. This difference between masculine and feminine apparel is here simply pointed out as a characteristic feature. The ground of its occurrence will be discussed presently.

So far, then, we have, as the great and dominant norm of dress, the broad principle of conspicuous waste. Subsidiary to this principle, and as a corollary under it, we get as a second norm the principle of conspicuous leisure. In dress construction this norm works out in the shape of diverse contrivances going to show that the wearer does not and, as far as it may conveniently be shown, cannot engage in productive labour. Beyond these two principles there is a third of scarcely less constraining force, which will occur to anyone who reflects at all on the subject. Dress must not only be conspicuously expensive and inconvenient, it must at the same time be up to date. No explanation at all satisfactory has hitherto been offered of the phenomenon of changing fashions. The imperative requirement of dressing in the latest accredited manner, as well as the fact this accredited fashion constantly changes from season to season, is sufficiently familiar to everyone, but the theory of this flux and change has not been worked out. We may of course say, with perfect consistency and truthfulness, that this principle of novelty is another corollary under the law of conspicuous waste. Obviously, if each garment is permitted to serve for but a brief term, and if none of the last season’s apparel is carried over and made further use of during the present season, the wasteful expenditure on dress is greatly increased. This is good as far as it goes, but it is negative only. Pretty much all that this consideration warrants us in saying is that the norm of conspicuous waste exercises a controlling surveillance in all matters of dress, so that any change in the fashions must confirm to the requirement of wastefulness; it leaves unanswered the question as to the motive for making and accepting a change in the prevailing styles, and it also fails to explain why conformity to a given style at a given time is so imperatively necessary as we know it to be.

For a creative principle, capable of serving as motive to invention and innovation in fashions, we shall have to go back to the primitive, non-economic motive with which apparel originated, — the motive of adornment. Without going into an extended discussion of how and why this motive asserts itself under the guidance of the law of expensiveness, it may be stated broadly that each successive innovation in the fashions is an effort to reach some form of display which shall be more acceptable to our sense of form and colour or of effectiveness, that that which is displaces. The changing styles are the expression of a restless search for something which shall comment itself to our aesthetic sense; but as each innovation is subject to the selective action of the norm of conspicuous waste, the range within which innovation can take place is somewhat restricted. The innovation must not only be more beautiful, or perhaps oftener less offensive, that that which it displaces, but it must also come up to the accepted standard of expensiveness.

The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen (1899) is a landmark study of affluent American society that sets out to discuss “the place and value of the leisure class as an economic factor in modern life”. The Oxford World’s Classics edition is edited with an introduction and notes by Martha Banta, Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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Image credit: Die Pariserin bei ihrer Toilette. By Dupons Brüssel, April 1899 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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