Vicarious Consumption - Conspicuous consumption must not be to direct
Baby- and children’s clothes boom
In short, the whole category baby- and children’s clothes is becoming an important new arena in the economy of symbols. But why? It is kind of unlikely that 6-year-old babies would demand designer jeans and Nike shoes. They cannot even walk. Of course, the answer is that the parents see a need to consume through their little ones and the phenomenon can be seen as an interesting continuation of consumption patterns, which had their Golden Age in the late 19th century among the superior middle class.
The concept ‘conspicuous consumption’ is an important key concept within classical, symbol-economical thinking. In its original interpretation by Veblen, it is about showing one’s status through consumption, which happens through a more or less complex symbolism and not just by showing ostentatious luxury. Today, it is a debate where the concept brand is used to explain the symbolic quality and visibility. But even though the concept “brand” was not used in the time of Veblen, his theories can explain why you today can get away with demanding 1500 Dkr. for a pair of trousers in blue denim, which even looks worn out. This kind of waste of money is namely a sign of economic surplus and therefore they both become a beautiful design and wanted.
“The requirement of conspicuous wastefulness is not commonly present, consciously, in our canons of taste, but it is none the less present as a constraining norm selectively sustaining our sense of what is beautiful…” Veblen  s. 95.
Few possibly remember that Veblen’s idea about conspicuous consumption was attached to the idea about vicarious consumption, which is a very important mechanism for also being able to show good taste in one’s way of displaying the consumption’s visibility. Phrased in present-day Danish, you can say that it is obviously loser-like to spend a lot of money on golden chains and hang them around one’s own neck. Instead, you should hang them around the neck of your “chief ornament”: the woman. Veblen writes: “…our social system makes it the woman’s function in an especial degree to put in evidence her household’s ability to pay” (s. 126). Today, where women have got individual rights as real people this mentality seems pretty strange and anachronistic to most people. However, women have not only acquired rights, they have also gotten income and economic possibilities to display their own consumption among others through their children. A practice, which can be seen as an imitation of the male’s previous status, where the female was a totally dependent wife-function and a clear extension of the male’s “self”. Furthermore, to understand the child as a part of the mother’s identity is most likely deeply rooted in quite basic, psychological mother-child mechanisms.
Veblen also mentions kids as instruments for vicarious consumption but his example on the ultimate development of consumption per representative is through servants. As an example, the queen’s status is shown through the conditions her servants are offered and is not harmed by the fact that she herself is picking roses in clogs and an old sweater. Few Danes have the resources to build a separate building for their au pair, but they can manage a baby in the newest designer clothes. This is exactly why children’s clothes above all, is a status-game for the middleclass where the real rich people will find other methods of conspicuous consumption, which can distance them from the middleclass.
[After describing consumption through servants: ]
“[A]nother scarcely less obtrusive or less effective form of vicarious consumption, and a much more widely prevalent one, is the consumption of food, clothing, dwelling, and furniture by the lady…” (Veblen 1925, p. 60).
So, to Veblen it is very clear that the development of good taste through consumption is tied to the fact that consumption is carried out through a substitute. And here you might find the explanation for the baby-consumption-boom. The middleclass have gotten more resources to display a conspicuous consumption and instead of just burning it all of on cars and B&O- equipment, the bourgeoisie’s old consumption pattern is imitated through substitutes.
What do the women say themselves?
One thing is Veblen’s old theories but how does the women experience it themselves? Marianne Babiel Kjør has been visiting mothergroups and in her master thesis she finds many interesting nuances among the new mothers she has been interviewing. It is impressive how clear and self-assured the mothers express their insights in how they consume through their children and what it means to them and the children.
The new mothers do not want anonymous romper suits and indifferent sweatpants but desire for their children’s clothes to reflect a grownup style. Preferably, they would like to recognize themselves and their own style in the clothes they dress the child. But on the other hand, it cannot be too “stylish”, because then it is no longer good taste. Too squared copies of “grownup” lifestyle brands do not work. So, Dior’s baby-line is probably not spot on (yes – it really exists!) however, for example Katvig’s nostalgic 70’s style has recently been the big hit so both, mother, father and child could be fancy in the same stripes or print. Altogether, the hit is the small, offbeat brands with a hand-knitted look, which pretends that the mother has a lot of the scarce resource time, maybe not so much so that the mother has been sewing herself, but anyhow, so much for her to be able to familiarize herself with the trends of the time and find the shady street corner where the clothes can be bought.
One might imagine that the consumption for children is merely a surplus consumption, something that they all of a sudden can afford and thus, is more a residue-phenomenon attached to the boom more than an actual transfer of consumption to the substitute. However, the transition to a mother-identity is, to the interviewed women, clearly connected to the fact that consumption actually is experienced as vicarious and not merely as an extra category. They directly indicate that it has become a more satisfactory experience to shop for their babies than for themselves. Which, for some has entailed that their clothes-budget, to a great extent, has been changed from shopping to themselves to shopping for their children. On one side, they realize that the babies probably don’t care what kind of clothes they are wearing and on the other side they argue that the child’s surroundings will react more positive to the child if it is looking good and looks like something that comes from a home with “good resources” (which is not only to be understood economically.)
The symbol-economical mother
The mother-identity, which can be seen in these stories, lies end to end with the ancient self-sacrificing mother figure. Yet, more down to earth explanations have also been suggested (by men): that women simply don’t have anything else to do, when on maternity leave, than to shop, a welcome and well-known diversion. Or that there isn’t anything self-sacrificing or sociological complex in the fact that it is more satisfactory to shop for the little princess when your own body has been ravaged by pregnancy and are bulging on completely wrong places.
More mechanisms can play a part at the same time, but the interviewed women are very explicit about how they understand how other people see their children as a very important expression for their identity, not just as something external. Now, some might look at this as “decay” and in a prime Marxist style claim that the marketing-industry has taken away the women’s power over their own motherhood when they are fooled to buy children’s clothes (and all sorts of equipment) to needlessly high prices. However, it makes sense in a society where the mechanisms of the economy of symbols is the dominating way to express yourself that it also applies to how women interpret and express their identity as mothers. Or said differently: The money is not wasted, they are an expression for how women take their role as mothers seriously and they obtain real self-confidence as mothers by their way of consuming. And that may rebound favorably for the child.
Naturally, just like it, in Veblen’s time, rebounded favorably for the woman when the man’s status was displayed through her role as an ornament – also even though it involved much more discomfort to be wearing the trophy dresses than wearing a track suit. It will probably be an a-historical misinterpretation to believe that the trophy women had better opportunities to choose to do without the corset than the present babies have for choosing to do without their mother’s new-bought Diesel-jeans.
Andersen, Lars Pynt, Elin Sørensen & Marianne Babiel Kjær (2007), “ Not Too Conspicuous, Mothers’ consumption of Baby Clothing”, European Advances in Consumer Research, vol. 8. (under udgivelse)
Veblen, Thorstein (1925 ), “The Theory of the Leisure Class: an Economic Study of Institutions”. London, Unwin books.