Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Status and spending acculturation

Helen has an interesting post arguing in part that elite schools are primarily "a training ground for America's future elite and only incidentally a place to train future intellectuals," and in light of this, these schools should take more seriously their mission to give "middle-class kids instruction in how to act rich—these habits of self-presentation have as much to do with future success as talent does."
If we accept that a Yale education is primarily cultural rather than academic, then the kind of acculturation that should take place there depends on what habits we would like our ruling class to have...Yale emphasizes the ways that it broadens students’ horizons, but never the ways it narrows them. When Yale offers free fellowships to study in China or subsidizes a trip to New York to catch a Broadway show, it bills these luxuries as instruction in how to be open-minded and well-cultured. In fact, these trips are, more than anything, instruction in how to be wealthy.

When Yale sells these tourist’s-eye-view glimpses as a genuine education in worldliness, it leaves students thinking of themselves as in the ruling class but not of it. Really, they're just as insular as any elite.
I think there is much to be said for this claim, though I suspect my fellow-cheapsters will disagree, and that it does relate in a narrow kind of way to the problem of thrift. I didn't attend a particularly exclusive or high-status school by East Coast terms (though it was certainly expensive), but I did attend a school that was, in terms of the students who populated it and what they aspired to, significantly higher class than my prior upbringing. I have no great claims to the standard pre-college deprivations--my family was neither poor nor uneducated, nor were most people I grew up with--but my parents did comment after my second or third year in college that my time there seemed to have influenced my tastes, and not towards greater thrift.

Before college, I had never bought a pair of jeans over $25 and I thought Starbuck's was where the rich drank their fancy, inscrutable cocktails. In college, I still liked that sentiment, but a real "deal" was a pair of $70 jeans marked down to $40, not the shapeless, stretchy $25 ones from Target. Clearly this attitude shift was not the result of a higher income--I was just as poor in college as before it, and more if I considered the cost of my education as personal debt, which I mostly did not. I'm pretty certain that some combination of my friends' spending habits and the sense of status-raising promise (probably entitlement) that everyone at Chicago imbibed dramatically changed my own expectations about money and how to spend it in a way very similar to the kind of class acculturation Helen describes. I still wanted to be thrifty, but I desperately did not want to be trashy, which I took to be anything lower class than the class our graduation from Chicago implied we would join. (Do you see how ambiguous this status game is? Status acculturation seems to go hand-in-hand with status anxiety. Endlessly elusive and self-absorbing.) I wanted to live in a way that anticipated how I expected to live once all the promises of my expensive education were borne out and I was 45 and paid private school tuition for my children and owned a row-house in Lincoln Park, where I walked my labradoodle.

Of course there were obvious limitations to what could be done, and everyone at the same time relished the image of their faux-poverty by eating at places like Depot and decorating their apartments with curbside furniture finds (this was before the Great American Bedbug Infestation). But that was all for ironic show. The real thrift, such as there was in college, was channeled into finding a good price on a nice interview suit that would last a few years. (Miss Self-Important hadn't gotten that far in the acculturation process yet though, and decided that buying the pieces separately at two different sales would be wiser. This proved false. Now her suit does not match.)

This status acculturation process continues apace after college, where I live in comfortable entry-level with no dependents affluence. Recently, a friend sent me an invitation to Gilt, which sends me daily sales on designer clothes I would never buy. They are substantially discounted, but only in the sense in which a previously $800 dress on sale for $250 dollars can be considered to be discounted. Nonetheless, I look at the sales each day, and I am starting to believe that maybe a $160 dress, marked down from $425, is not such a bad deal. After all, I have seen them every day for weeks already and these are the cheapest of the cheap. To which my friend Alex replies, "I think it's a reasonable amount for a nice dress, but more than you would have spent a few months ago. This is how people get acclimated to spending money such that the NYTimes articles about discount designer shopping become relevant to you." That's terrible, I reply. "Yeah, I stopped looking."


Phoebe said...

I agree with almost everything you and Helen have to say about this issue. My only qualm is with your maligning of furniture gotten off the street - unlike, say, t-shirts, furniture is expensive - I doubt if everyone hitting stoop sales or using Craiglist to get a dining table is doing so to make a point.

But your post makes sense. All I can add - although I realize this takes us away from the question of thrift - is that the social influence of college goes beyond class, even if class is the big one. What residential colleges sell is also... normalness. People who grew up wealthy but in homes that were unusually conservative/eccentric/insular, people who were homeschooled, people whose parents were foreign (no, Canadian doesn't count), or for whatever reason didn't allow them to go out past 5pm - and such people sure exist at Chicago - are thrown into dorms, into roommate situations, and, the thinking goes, are just a few frat parties and seminar classes away from being reasonable people who will be able to function in professional office settings without freaking anyone out.

But you're right - for those who didn't grow up wealthy, the change means being taught how to seem upper-class. While this is a much bigger deal than having eccentric parents (oppressive parents being another story), there's still the shared knowledge among those who didn't arrive at Yale wealthy that they achieved more in getting to that point than their classmates who did. And I think that has something to do with the popularity of faux-poverty among wealthy college students - there's certainly an easier adjustment for college students who grew up rich, but there's also a certain shame, in a meritocracy, in being where you are at least in part because of your parents' help. So maybe the set who went to NYC prep schools but dress in rags ala the Olsen twins do so because they think it reflects poorly on their intellects that they did not overcome any sort of odds or stand out amongst their peers in order to get where they are.

Miss Self-Important said...

Oh, the point about the furniture was that it had been thrown out for a reason. Like, it was missing legs or had giant, duct-taped tears. That was part of the aesthetic. Nothing against Marketplace or Craigslist, except, now, the bedbugs.

Matt said...

I'm pretty sure that U. Chicago counts as both exclusive and high-status. Certainly among anyone whose opinion is worth-while it does. (Anyone who thinks otherwise doesn't know enough to be taken seriously.)

I look at the sales each day, and I am starting to believe that maybe a $160 dress, marked down from $425, is not such a bad deal.

Doesn't it depend heavily on whether it's good quality and if you'll wear it for a long time? If it's made well and you'll wear it for years it might be a good deal, depending on your other expenses. If it's not made well (there's lot of expensive junk), or you'll think it's out of style and so not wear it next year, then it's a bad buy.

The thrifty (and all right-thinking people) should avoid broadway shows and get the $15 seats that are often available for the Metropolitan Opera. The view isn't great but the sound is. (Note that if you're any taller than I am, though, you'll likely think the chairs were built as torture devices.)

PG said...

This makes me feel grateful that I went to a state school for college and didn't go to an Ivy or live in a big city until after I'd had a full-time job and paid my rent for a couple of years. And I think it's part of why my sisters, who both went to private colleges (though at not much greater expense than my school, because I went out of state), ended up with a slightly more accepting attitude toward $200 sundresses. (A $160 dress, if it can be your standby for black-tie events, is a good deal. If you can only properly wear it to an outdoor summer wedding, probably not worth it.)

My friends were all educated middle-class, the children of government employees and professors; one of my older sister's good friends was the heir apparent to a huge beer distributorship (Cindy McCain kind of thing). So when I shopped with my friends in college, we went to Old Navy; when my sisters shopped with their friends, they went to Banana Republic. All the same corporation, but crucial differences nonetheless.

However, I think even before I went to college, I got messed up by reading the NYT just as it first was online, and by reading the New Yorker whenever I could get my hands on a print issue, such that spending a lot of money on "experiences" -- on excellent restaurants, or going to the theater -- is acceptable to me. This might be closer to the kind of educated-elite thinking that Helen is talking about. $170 for a cotton dress still seems excessive, but for a ticket to see Twelfth Night seems reasonable. (Hey, "donations" to the Public Theater are tax deductible.)

Phoebe said...


Re: dresses: "Doesn't it depend heavily on whether it's good quality and if you'll wear it for a long time? If it's made well and you'll wear it for years it might be a good deal, depending on your other expenses."

The problem with clothes is you always think you'll wear them forever, but stuff spills on them, you change in size, what seemed 'timeless' goes out of style all the same, 'quality' turned out to be nothing more than a label that said 'J.Crew', things fall in the back of your closet and become obscured by winter coats... In other words, clothing is never an 'investment.'


Re: private versus public, it all depends what crowd you run with. At UChicago as well as at my (public, magnet) high school the rich kids were not the ones shopping at Banana Republic - they were faux-poor and wore the clothing equivalent of duct-taped tables. It's not that wealth didn't matter - it did - but it wasn't signified by expensive clothes.

Matt said...

In other words, clothing is never an 'investment.'

Hmm, well, this certainly isn't my experience. (It doesn't seem to fit my wife's behavior, either, so it's not _just_ a male thing.) It's true that things can get ruined, or it might not turn out to be as well made as you thought, but that's true of everything, not just clothes.

Miss Self-Important said...

These dresses are definitely not "classic pieces." But in women's clothing, I tend to agree with Phoebe that even things that seem obviously timeless are, in reality, not. You think a plain black cardigan can't go out of style? Depends how thick it is, what the cuffs look like, what the neckline looks like, etc. Everything goes out of style. The question is, how much unstylishness are you willing to wear? Life becomes a whole lot easier if you stop caring, but that is a Zen I have yet to achieve.

Phoebe said...

Matt (and MSI),

In my experience, in nearly all cases, when it comes to clothes, 'quality' is just an excuse to buy something more expensive than necessary, because one thinks it looks better, because one has a preference for a given brand, etc. Perhaps you and your wife have found stores that produce especially durable and non-hideous clothes (if so, do tell), perhaps you're both immune to the influence of fashion, and perhaps neither of you ever gain or lose a significant amount of weight, or, if you wear fitted clothes, an insignificant amount of weight. All of these would be necessary if you're going to confidently predict a clothing item (not a winter coat) will last 'for years.'

As for 'timelessness' - as MSI notes, everything, from t-shirts to jeans, socks to skirts, starts to look dated, enough so that even someone not caught up in looking of-the-moment might, without even thinking of it, shove those flared jeans to the bottom of the drawer. Most thrifty people are, I think, willing to look a bit dated - I'm hovering somewhere in 2004, style-wise, on a good day - but it isn't just about what is or isn't in, what does or doesn't fit. It's also that certain clothes remind you of being a certain age or at a certain stage in life, and seem inappropriate for where you're at later on. This continues to be true, I'd imagine, well into adulthood.

Point of all this rambling being, cost-per-wear is really an after-the-fact assessment. I, for one, have bought sensible-looking items that, for whatever reason, never looked right with anything else I owned, and ended up complete wastes of money (such as) while some sillier-looking items - a militaristic light jacket from Brooklyn Industries, for example - became everyday wear.

Miss Self-Important said...

Quality is an interesting problem of its own, I think. How many people do you know actually know how to sew, or know enough about tailoring that they know what makes good garment quality? I know a couple things--which fabrics are generally higher quality than others (though not always more durable, like silk), how well-sewed button-holes should look, that blouses should have darts to compensate for boobs. But relative to my mother, who actually knows how to sew clothes from patterns, I know essentially nothing. Thus, I rely on price as an indirect indicator or determining quality, as, I suspect, do most Americans. There is obvious space for manipulation in this scenario, whereby polyester tent dresses made in China can cost $500 if designed by someone famous. On the other hand, Target may (and has, in my experience) sell perfectly serviceable items that last for years. The way to determine what's "worth" any given price in advance is by knowing what constitutes quality. At this, we fail.

Matt said...

I can say that when I buy clothes from Old Navy they last less long than when I buy similar looking clothes from (wherever- I forget) that cost more most of the time. Why? Because, though I like them, part of the reason why Old Navy clothes cost less than their siblings at Gap or Banana Republic is that they are made with lower quality material and workmanship.

When I wanted a pair of black leather shoes, I spent a bit more to buy a pair of doc martin's. They were the best shoes I'd bought and lasted for years, unlike most shoes I've ever had, and were well worth the extra money.

A well-made suit will usually last for many years.

It's of course quite possible to buy poorly made but expensive junk, especially if you care for fashion first or especially care about brands as such as opposed to markers for quality. But it would be quite surprising if there were no market for well-made things that lasted, no?

Helen said...

That's why I do all my shopping at Beacon's Closet.

Phoebe said...


We'll need a post here about clothes/quality. Interested?


"It's of course quite possible to buy poorly made but expensive junk, especially if you care for fashion first or especially care about brands as such as opposed to markers for quality."

There's also the question of clothes/shoes that were difficult and expensive to produce, but that are made out of delicate materials, such that the quality is not about durability. People will still talk about the 'craftsmanship' behind stilettos, even though obviously the point is not that you can wear them, every day, through mud, etc. (Personally, I don't get stilettos, so, speaking for those who do...)

"But it would be quite surprising if there were no market for well-made things that lasted, no?"

Not necessarily, if by "things" you mean things like jeans, t-shirts, skirts, etc., that, again, may look right on a slim 22-year-old and become problematic on the same person once a pudgy 27-year-old. That, plus the issue of not wanting to look dated, is why people don't really want many clothing items to last as long as possible. It might be nice if we did, so they'd be in better shape by the time they get to the thrift shop (or when we're buying them there), but I think that's how it is.


Beacon's Closet, indeed. It's certainly great for jeans, and if I weren't quite so fixated on Uniqlo, I'd have to admit, for other stuff as well.

WhatKathyDid said...

In my experience, some clothes do last forever (or at least for several years...). I have t-shirts (from H&M, Zara and other cheap places) that I bought 8 years ago and still wear regularly.

What I find impossible is to *predict*, at time of purchase, which clothes will become your "live and dies" and which just die. High quality clothes (and I take the point above about not knowing what is real quality and what is just expensive), if they don't make you feel good, will be relegated to the back of the wardrobe and eventually given to the charity shop/a good friend (who inevitably gives them to the charity shop within weeks).

Matt said...

Phoebe, very often when you say "people want X" or "people don't want X", what you mean is "I don't want X" or "I want X". It's fine that you don't want to "look dated" or the like- it's your choice with the attendant costs and benefits. But you have a pretty strong tendency, it seems to me, to universalize your experience and tastes much more broadly than is warranted. I'm not really sure why this is so- if it's a matter of writing style or world-view, but you put a lot of things in a general or universal form that are really much more limited to you or your set than is implied by your claims.

As for the more basic claims- T-shirts are a good example. Cheap T-shirts wear out very quickly. More expensive ones tend to wear out more slowly. It's true that you might get too pudgy for them, but it's hardly certain. Whether one ought to pay more for better T-shirts depends on a lot of factors, but the higher priced ones might well be the better deal.

MSI is right that it's hard to know much first-hand about workmanship. Experience and reputation are the guide here on clothes, just like anything else. I know nothing about car workmanship in particular, but it's easy to know that certain cars have better workmanship and materials than others based on reputation and experience with them.

Phoebe said...


With me, as with any other blogger, or writer, you should feel free to add on an implicit "I think" before all statements not obviously of fact. Stylistically, I find doing so explicitly, each and every time, a bit... off. But for the purposes of this comment, I'll be extra-clear.

In terms of general criticisms of my writing style... if you want to do that, I guess that's fine? I'm not insulted, and such comments can be constructive and all that. It's just, in this particular case, I'm not sure what it achieves, since this particular criticism basically amounts to me not spelling out that what I write (on a blog; papers are something else) is informed by personal experience. So I don't know as much about shopping habits among fashion-indifferent men in Wichita or Beijing as I do about fashion-conscious women in New York. And if I were writing an academic paper on the subject, I'd do something to correct that.

Anyway. I think I do distinguish between what I think is generally the case, and what I think is particular to me or those like myself. And in terms of dated-ness in clothes, all you need to do is look at photos from various decades to see that, while some clothes stick around, even people not especially hung up on fashion do tend to switch what they wear according to the era. This is partly because of what's marketed - when your flared jeans wear out, you might find the stores now only sell tapered jeans - but it's also due to an (often unarticulated) desire to look like one has made some effort to look of one's own era. In other words, I think most people behave this way. Not all, but most. I might be wrong, but if so, it's not because I'm projecting how I feel about fashion onto others: I also don't think I'm especially interested in looking of-the-moment, certainly as 25-year-old women living in NY go, given that that's not central to how I like to dress. I'm not clothes-indifferent, but looking very 'now' is not my priority, as you've implied in your comment.

I also think, as I've mentioned a number of times in this thread, that perhaps the number one reason people don't want clothes to last forever is that people tend to change in size over the years. So even the fashion-indifferent may be aware that they are likely to shift in size - up, down, or just a change in proportions - and might, on account of that, value a flattering cut over durability. This one is not me projecting, because, for reasons I don't understand, and for better or worse, I've been the same size for ages.

kei said...

I'm a little late, but this is a good, fun blog. I look forward to more posts!

I like how during this one, I start wondering/worrying about how "being rich" is valued and taught, but then I go on to thinking about Gilt and what I think about when I look at their sales everyday, like MSI. It's pretty impressive that Gilt has made such a big name of themselves from selling big name brands and using the strikeout function to show what a great deal everything is. I'll still keep looking but probably won't buy. Today, it was fun to see the thousand-dollar diamond watches with the "In Members' Carts Now" icon on the item photos.

Quick note re: U of C, I also think it falls into the category of "exclusive and high status," though probably in its own special way, different from east coast elite methods, as MSI seems to suggest. Leaving aside Prof. Ted Cohen and the Regenstein, one of the most amazing things about this school to me was its geographic location within Chicago. I understand this might apply to schools out east, but I feel there is something special about the way U of C caters to its students, profs, & some employees so as to "shelter" them from the space between the Garfield Red Line and east of Cottage Grove. It's amazing that the school can get the CTA to cooperate with them. C/o '06 and before missed out on the 174 bus, which is more or less a slap in the face to the 55 local and express routes.

Miss Self-Important said...

Since it's been brought up twice, I do think that Chicago is elite in a way--even its relatively high acceptance rate is much lower than probably 95% of institutions of higher ed, and the tuition certainly puts it out of reach of most of hoi polloi (though not the culturally-savvy ones who know how to work the aid system).

But, having just read like 5 different Woe is the Ivy League books for something I'm working on, it seems to me that status-wise, Chicago isn't quite like the places it matches in the US News numbers. As I've said elsewhere, status conflict is not as big a part of social life at Chicago as Walter Kirn or Ross Douthat claim it is at the Ivies (and who knows? they may be exaggerating too). There just aren't enough kids whose families have houses in the Hamptons to make an exclusive clique out of, so they're forced to mingle with the merely affluent suburbanite types if they hope to have friends. And the private school New Yorkers and East Coast boarding school products who find their way to Chicago tend not to be the ones most into playing status games, but the ones with professorial aspirations.

So the class acculturation process--while still present at Chicago--was perhaps a gentler curve than what it may have been at an East Coast school. More errors of judgment were permitted. Maybe that's just my impression b/c I never personally experienced a lot of class resentment there, but it always seemed pretty Midwestern egalitarian even while being academically elite. I suspect something similar can be found at places like Stanford and Berkeley as well.

Britta said...

I'm a grad student at Chicago, that summary seems pretty apt, (also similar to my undergrad institution Swarthmore, elite in many circles, but not exactly with the name (dropping) recognition and cache in the overall social imaginary as Harvard). I think a part of it, if you want to work hard and get a good education you can parlay into a serious career, Swarthmore or Chicago are top notch, and recognized as such. If you want to run for public office, gain/maintain a place in America's most blue blood elite circles, the Ivy league is the best way to do so.
There are many smart kids of affluent professionals at Chicago and Swarthmore, but few children of movie stars, nationally famous politicians, students with private helicopters etc. In terms of status on campus, that probably plays a big element (i.e., class differences are not as marked, and most wealthy suburban kids seem to be fairly aware being from the suburbs is not considered cool or classy to sophisticated urban types). Plus, the sorts of people who self select to go to a difficult yet not as widely known school are probably not those who care about broadcasting status in other ways as well, e.g. through designer clothes.

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