[ Tiffany Peacock. Image: Oliver Hammond ]

Conspicuous consumption

Of course, people consume goods as well as leisure in their efforts to signal status. As social networks expanded during the process of urbanization and thereafter, leisure became an ineffective signal -- people could not longer monitor the time expenditures of their many neighbors and acquaintances. As a result, Veblen argues, conspiciuous consumption of material goods began to replace conspicuous consumption of leisure. The drive for conspicuous consumption becomes so all-pervasive in our behavior that it infiltrates our aesthetic senses, as our notion of beauty become inextrictably blended with our sense of costliness.

The marks of expensiveness come to be accepted as beautiful features of the expensive articles. They are pleasing as being marks of honorific costliness, and the pleasure which they afford on this score blends with that afforded by the beautiful form and color of the object; so that we often declare that an article of apparel, for instance, is "perfectly lovely," when pretty much all that an analysis of the aesthetic value of the article would leave ground for is the declaration that it is pecuniarily honorific."

Thorstein Veblen (1899; Ch.6)

Veblen surveys a multitude of examples: hand-made silverware, manicured lawns, the latest fashionable dress, exotic dog breeds. He explains the attraction to fast horses: "[It] gratifies the owner's since of aggression and dominance to have his horse outstrip his neighbour's. This use being not lucrative, but on the whole pretty consistently wasteful, and quite conspicuously so, it is honorific, and therefore gives the fast horse a strong presumptive position of reputability." (Ch. 6) Today people drive Porsches or Hummers instead, but like a thoroughbred these horseless carriages cater to the driver's aggressive urges at the same time as they conspicuously display our ability to waste.