26 March 2013

Style, Purchase Habits and Self Esteem

Source: tumblr

"We buy things we don't need, with money we don't have, to impress people we don't like"
-- Fight Club

Although this is a film quote, I think there is some truth in it. When I started questioning my life, my purchase habits changed as my self esteem improved. As an introduction to the subject, let me tell you the story of how I started wondering about the link between style choices, purchase habits and self esteem.

I have known this woman some years ago. Although her style didn't have anything in particular, what I found peculiar is that she would brag about the brands she wore, and most of all the price she paid for her clothes. As if the important was not the object itself, but its brand, its price, its social image. The other thing I noticed over time, was how low her self esteem and confidence was.

Is there a relation between style and social status symbols? Between social status symbols and self esteem? I noticed myself that my purchase habits evolved when I started feeling better about myself.  Of course, two examples don't make a rule, so I decided to dig deeper into this theory.

My first clue was this post from Jess about emotional consumption and the relationship between clothes consumption and social class. In the paper she writes about, she mentions that middle-class women of lower cultural capital tend to engage in an emotional consumption of clothes - buying new outfits to get positive feedback from their peers. Is there a relationship to self esteem here? Why are only the women with "lower cultural capital" concerned, and why is external feedback so important to them?

Which brings the question of the motivations of a purchase. Does choosing a brand mean jonesing after a status symbol? What impact does it have on personal style then? Do these people choose their clothes because they like them, or because they want to impress their peers? Following this idea, how does this need to impress others influence personal style? And what happens to self esteem when people are not as impressed as we'd like?

This whole questioning is still work in progress, obviously I have more questions than answers at this point, but I'll keep sharing questions and theories about consumption habits, self esteem and happiness as they come. If you have ideas, suggestions or opinions about this I'd love to hear about it.

19 comments:

  1. Such an interesting post. I think it is mostly due to education and amount of leisure time that allows the élites of society to accumulate higher intrinsic cultural value. Beyond just seeing how artificial and "empty" such conspicuous consumption can be, education can also instill confidence and open up the individual to many more possibilities—other channels to show off your cultural capital. Leisure time allows the individual the time needed to pursue those activities and understand him or herself better—again something that not everybody can afford to do when you are earning minimum wage or multiple jobs. For the most part, on some level everything you do is in some way to accumulate that vaunted cultural capital, except that some methods are more discreet than others.

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    1. Good point, I wonder about the relation between education and consumption habits. It is true that it can fill a gap the person feels about a lack of culture.

      I wonder if there isn't something about belonging too. Maybe a woman with lower cultural capital needs to reassure herself about belonging to the middle class even though she feels she doesn't have the same level of culture. So she needs to purchase expensive brands to reassure herself about her status. I remember, this woman I mention in my post was obsessed with social status, money and belonging to an elite...

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  2. agreed, I was about to disagree with you Joy but the more I think about your answer the more I agree. Everyone has a way of trying to show off "status", and it's a lot quicker and easier to just buy a label than to culture yourself (I'm not even sure if that's a verb, but you know what I mean).

    (warning, long story...)

    The one thing that reminds me of this is when I used to waitress some years back and I had two regular customers. One was loud, obnoxious, always had several lady friends hanging off his arms, would drink too much, would leave a mess and never tipped more than 5%. He also had a bunch of jewelry, large watch, and all the right labels displayed prominently.

    Another guy who always came in to eat alone with his book, always had on the most beautifully cut suits and leather shoes, but it was the kind of quality that you didn't really notice unless you are really into quality clothes. He always tipped well and would pay with a platinum credit card, you know, those extra heavy ones.

    I brought up the difference one day and the bartender just laughed and said, "It's true. Money screams, but wealth whispers."

    I think that when you are confident in yourself and you don't need to prove to the world your status, whether it's your character or your financial status, then you can afford to be quieter. Real luxury doesn't scream.

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    1. That's a very interesting story! It also has a relation to "belonging" doesn't it? This first man you mention who was loud etc. behaved as if he wanted to show off his status, prove it to the world (to reassure himself?). But maybe the second man grew in wealth, was confident about his status and didn't feel that need to show it off.

      But, what's interesting here, is that, if you're right about the first part of your comment, people would substitute culture for material social symbols, which is a weird thing, to me at least. How can appearances replace a good conversation? Or maybe it's our materialist society that leads people to think that way...

      Anyway, the relation with culture is very interesting because this woman I mention would force herself to watch some films or read some books she didn't like just because, with "her status", she needed to know about them. So, definitely a link here.

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  3. I am attracted to certain labels for all kinds of reasons - I like the aesthetic, the brand values, a certain emotional attachment (eg, Chanel always meant glamour to me, because of my aunt who wore Chanel and was really glamorous). I'm also deeply aware of the impressions certain labels make. But this has come to mean less and less on me over time because it's obvious that Hermes doesn't make a tacky person (style-wise) classier. And also because I developed a stronger personal point of view style-wise, and I no longer needed labels/brands to "define" me.

    So I think there is definitely a correlation between status symbols and self-esteem.

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    1. I think that's the important part in the end: the motivations for choosing a brand. If it is about aesthetics, fabrics - in other words, the object itself, it's completely different than when it is about using brands to "define" oneself.

      I think there is something about choosing social symbols versus choosing personal favourites, too. That's what I noticed when my style evolved. I started focusing on what I really wanted to wear versus what would make me look good in the opinion of others...

      And, the ironic thing is, in my experience, the people who make the biggest impression are exactly the ones that follow their own rules, who are confident about themselves, not the ones who are trying so hard to prove something to others.

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  4. Lin's comment articulates my opinion perfectly.

    There's a fascinating first-person article in this month's GQ about one man's addiction to shopping for Gucci:

    http://www.gq.com/news-politics/newsmakers/201304/buzz-bissinger-shopaholic-gucci-addiction

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    1. Thanks for the link, that was a very interesting article, diving into the disturbing depths of addiction. And definitely showing the intricate relations between style, identity, self esteem, social status...

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  5. i belive this is a phenomenon that comes with the development of our western culture.
    we are no longer a society of survival or war, our place/role in society isn´t determinated. with this freedom we also lost focus and security.
    we don´t have a purpose, so what to do?
    we make it our task do live a good life.

    we don´t consum products, we consum symbols and image. everything becomes a part of defining your identity.
    i think apple is a good example for it, because this brand understands to advertise lifestyle. but it is important to me to say that it is not only buying a particular brand, that defines us. it is also rejecting them.
    i for example don´t own any apple products by choice. i can pretend to see what all the stupid users don´t see but after all: this choice defines me just as much as the choice to buy a particular brand.
    i don´t know if i can bring across what i am trying to say^^

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    1. I see what you mean. We go beyond purchasing simple products, we purchase an idea of lifestyle, image and status through brands. As a marketing professional, I can see where this comes from: it is actually brands that use advertising and other marketing stunts to create an image of themselves, with values, abstract ideas an emotional concepts so people identify to it.

      Apple is indeed a good example. The brand has an image of high quality, high-end design and services, technology savvy city dwellers etc. As an Apple user I can understand the influence this brand image has on me. But I bought my first MacBook also because the battery was much longer than any laptop PC at the time and I needed it to last all day in class. Then I kept purchasing Apple to have a consistency in accounts, programme & file synchronization etc. So there was a real product-related reason for purchase too. I think the problem comes when one chooses a product ONLY because of the brand image and with no relation to the real qualities of the product.

      I also agree with you that boycotting a brand says something about the person too. If a brand creates a universe, an image of lifestyle and identity around it, then rejecting the brand means rejecting that identity and lifestyle - so it also can be a part of the process of being defined by brands.

      I personally think that a healthy relation to brands means to be aware of the marketing tricks, and be aware that we are targets for specific brands so we can include that parameter when choosing an item. However, I don't think we should blindly choose a brand, nor completely boycott one. Brand should be a criteria of choice among others and shouldn't be too important, one way or the other... But that's only my opinion of course.

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    2. i totally agree with your last point. and i think this is the part where education comes in. there is a connection between education and awareness of the influences of society and "meta-thinking".

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  6. Another great post, Kali. I have noticed this in myself, as when I was younger I was so much more likely to go after something just because it was the right brand. I even spent a long time convinced I wanted to save up for a Chanel bag. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Chanel bags, but it would be ludicrous when you consider my lifestyle - I never "go out", I live in the rainiest city in northern Europe and I walk everywhere. What would I do with a Chanel bag, exactly?

    I think ditching the glossy magazines (and glossiest blogs) has helped a lot. When you start to read more about conscious consumption and less about how 4000$ shoes are a "wardrobe staple" your perspective will naturally shift. Getting educated on things like fabrics, quality and fit has also helped a great deal, as it has forced me to look beyond the logos.

    Of course, I am still attracted to certain brands. We all are. I have a Mulberry fetish, and I will nearly always choose Essie or OPI nail polishes over other brands. I wrinkled my nose at Apple products for years until I had to use a mac at work and discovered that they were actually quite nice. I would have a really hard time purchasing jeans from Diesel, because I usually hate their advertising. It is a glorious mish-mash of marketing and personal values, where you in the middle of it all try your best to make a semi-educated choice and pick the product that will do the best job at clothing your legs/coloring you nails/carry your stuff.

    I don't even know where I'm going with this comment, you'll have to forgive me. I usually leave ramble-mode at around 10am , and it is only 9 at the moment ;)

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    1. I see what you mean (and you know my position on long comments haha). It is true that a good way to try to escape from that marketing grip is to stay away from advertisements and temptations of all sorts, although it isn't easy...

      There is probably a lot to do with education as well, and becoming aware of how things work in general. I guess you are right, the resulting purchase habits are probably a jolly mix of personal values, brand attachement, advice from peers. The important is to be aware of these factors and make an educated choice, in the end.

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  7. I saw a research paper just the other day about the use of branding on clothing to convey identity by children. I suppose in a way it's entirely unsurprising, but of course the results showed that by age 12, kids use fashion branding to position themselves socially, and are quite nuanced in their views about what particular brands said about them. So it's not just a case of copying adults or giving in to peer pressure - the kids were absorbing the cultural value loaded onto various brands, and the kids also had a sense of identity, and they were skillfully deploying the associated values of the brands to communicate a sense of self to others.

    I wonder how that impacts on self esteem - if kids that young feel compelled to convey this identity information about themselves, and they're also at the age where they're incredibly vulnerable to peer feedback and evaluation, then I wonder if self esteem and branding get closely intertwined in childhood and then persist into adulthood (and then factors such as personality and income affect how it all manifests, whether it's as conspicuous consumption or more understated consumption or whatever alternative). And I also wonder how much of the desire to accurately convey an identity through dressing is innate human behaviour and how much is societal pressure because we learn that, no matter what, we're going to be judged in some way for how we look. It'd be interesting to look at a range of cultures and see how the use of status symbols varies, because I think it would be pretty difficult to find any cultural group that doesn't use them, since so many cultural groups have status-based hierarchies which kind of naturally give rise to status symbols of some sort.

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    1. Jess, I've really enjoyed the research papers you've mentioned on your blog. Or, I guess, what I really mean is that I've enjoyed your synopses of the papers and your commentary! Thanks for providing lots of food for thought....

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  8. Yes I thought about that too when I met that woman I mention in my post - I remember junior school and "gangs" that formed around values, tastes and clothing brands (example skaters with quicksilver clothes, the metal group with doc martens...). According to the research you mention that would be a part of adding a cultural and value related image to the brands they choose, shaping their identity through their looks.

    What's interesting though, it that I remember these defined groups and their physical appearance tendencies tended to fade through high school and almost disappeared in college, giving way to something more nuanced, more personal maybe? So why do some adults need to perpetuate that need for social belonging through looks and brands? And how is that need perpetuated exactly? Is it about showing off status to "lower" people? Is it about a sense of belonging to a social group? Is it a way to define someone's peronal identity?

    As you say, it might be interesting to see research on social status symbols, hierarchy systems but also social groups in various cultures. For example in Japan, where social status, groups and hierarchy are very important, brands are really popular (I think the Japanese buy more Vuitton bags than the French).

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    1. I suppose some adults might want to broadcast their need for social belonging through conspicuous consumption because of personal insecurities, and it's kind of depressing to think about because it's rarely a positive situation. Some of my good friends who are a bit more "broadcast-y" than others have insecurities that might explain their behaviour - someone who thinks they're too fat, someone who has never been in a relationship and personally feels inadequate because of that, etc. I'm sure there are some very self-confident, assured people out there who still enjoy flaunting their expensive branded purchases, and there are plenty of people with major insecurities but who don't feel the need for conspicuous consumption, but I think that insecurities and the consequent need for external validation would play a part in a lot of conspicuous consumption, at least in "Western" cultures.

      China's increasingly enormous middle class is also playing a huge role in luxury consumption, and that's a really interesting cultural difference. I've read some books and articles about it, and as for Japan, in that case it's more about the cultural hierarchies. Unfortunately the Western view of it all is that Chinese luxury consumers are therefore crass and tacky and shameless, because they're all about broadcasting their brands, but that's possibly partly driven by a sort of xenophobic reaction to China's ever-increasing economic power as well as a misunderstanding of what the brands mean within the Chinese cultural system.

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  9. That Fight Club quote sums it all up perfectly. A co-worker of mine said on the topic of Vuitton/monogram if he was going to spend a lot of money on something he would want everyone to know it. But his statement fits into his overall “all talk” behavior. I think many/some people that claim to be fans of a certain brand, let’s use Vuitton or Gucci, use it as a status symbol and know little to nothing about the brand other than that they are expensive. (All the better for me that epi leather has little resale value!) Reminds me of an interview with Emma Watson talking about Bling Ring, where she said something along the lines that young people think that by wearing this celebrity’s clothes, that magically all their problems will go away.

    While consuming for status is good for business, I can imagine the actual designers appreciate the person that has a genuine appreciation for their work. Saint Laurent (the original) used to criticize “stupid rich people.” Personally, I would feel uncomfortable wearing something that so identifiably screams I’M EXPENSIVE!!!! from across the street.

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    1. I guess that is the reason why many luxury brands have a very identifiable logo or style (like Vuitton's monogram, Van Cleef & Arpel's alhambra...), because many people purchase them because they are expensive, show off a status symbol, which only works if you actually recognise the brand.

      Another interesting thing though, is I remember this woman I talk about in my post, said she didn't like ostensible and easily recognizable brands (for example she hated Chanel). What she wanted was to wear "discreet" expensive brands that would show she had real taste, that would be recognizable to other people from the social class she wants to belong to, but not recognizable by the "mainstream" public. That is also an angle I'm thinking about investigating further...

      I think the matter of wearing the same things as a celebrity is also interesting to investigate, although maybe a bit different in a way: it is not (only) about adopting social codes from a particular group, it is trying to look like one model or idol in particular. I think this phenomenon can also happen with a loved one who is not a celebrity (big sister, aunt...), the need to identify to someone else in the process of constructing one's identity. But then again, while it makes sense until the teenage years, I wonder what it says about self esteem when adults keep doing that.

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