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 Clé 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?