Why do we buy luxury goods? Why do we prefer the Rolex to the Timex? Both tell the time as well, though neither tells it as well as your iPhone. When we flash the Rolex are we showing off our status or are we allowing others to appreciate the aesthetics of the Rolex, the sensuous delights it produces?
Those are two prominent theories of why we buy luxury goods. One would say that the Armani suit is better made and better looking and better designed than is the one that’s on sale at the Men’s Wearhouse and that people in some worlds will notice the difference. The other will say that the suit designates your status, your place in society and your position on the social status hierarchy. As Paul Bloom points out in an extended essay on the topic in the Boston Review, if everyone is wearing a good suit to the interview and you wear a sad looking sack you are likely to be dismissed for not fitting in.
One notes that male and female dress codes differ considerably. Male dress codes are based on uniforms. Every man’s suit looks pretty much the same. The devil is in the details, in things that the uneducated eye will not pick up on—most especially the cut. Of course fabric matters enormously, but some fabrics look better to the eye while others need to be touched.
In some worlds men signify their status by whether or not their suit sleeves have real buttonholes—Tom Wolfe once wrote an essay about it-- and one would like to say that a better cut suit has greater aesthetic appeal. Since the look of the suit has something to do with the shape of the body it adorns, we can qualify that by saying that many suits of clothing are designed to enhance the body’s appearance.
And yet, given the rules of humility, men who wear bespoke suits do not advertise it. Those in the know will know. Those who need not know will not.
Female attire is more about fashion than about cut. It is more about individuality than about conformity. A woman will be decidedly discommoded if she goes to a party and discovers three other women wearing a dress that is identical to hers. It is partly about the aesthetics, but it is also about her ability to create an image that is uniquely her. No woman wants to think that, to a man, she can easily be replaced by some other woman.
In the world of women’s fashion, aesthetics also denote status. The more pleasing the outfit or the look, the higher her status. And the higher her companion’s status. In traditional cultures, a woman’s expensive clothing denotes the fact that some man loves her enough to buy her a lot of expensive clothing. But, it also shows that some man is important enough to want her attire to reflect on his success.
It is a question rarely addressed, but what changes when the women has earned her own money and has purchased the Prada purse herself? Does it still look and feel the same?
And yet, Bloom continues, we revere and venerate some objects because of their history, because of their real and not apparent connection to an individual or an event. We know that Kurt Cobain’s sweater is going to be auctioned off for an absurd amount of money, and we understand that today’s object touched by a celebrity functions in roughly the same way that a relic did for some religions.
How better to show that celebrities are secular saints. Bloom writes:
Celebrity objects aren’t just a modern obsession. For centuries, Christians have revered objects said to be the bones of saints or fragments of the True Cross. As literary scholar Judith Pascoe has described, after Shakespeare’s death, fans cut down the trees around his house for lumber they claimed was sourced for their high-priced furniture. The trees surrounding Napoleon’s gravesite were also pulled apart and pieces brought home as souvenirs. Napoleon’s penis suffered a similar fate, reportedly removed by the priest who administered last rites.
Napoleon’s penis notwithstanding, medieval Christians believed that the relic of relics was the foreskin of Jesus. They launched a crusade to the Holy Land to recover it.
Relics are not valued for their aesthetic appeal. They are not valued because they designate status. In truth they are valued, Bloom continues, because the possessor is signifying his membership in a community through his attachment to real and unique objects from its history. Reality grounds people in a way that aesthetics and symbolism does not:
The importance of history is clearest in cases of objects such as teddy bears and JFK’s golf clubs because these are unique items with special stories behind them. But it applies as well to kinds of items. After all, a brand is a way of explicitly marking an object’s distinctive history. The genius of marketing is crafting the story told about that history. Perhaps the objects are made in a special place or in a special way; they reflect family tradition; their production is a labor of love. They are in short supply; they are the oldest; they are the newest. Sometimes, the relevant aspect of history may be the connection to particular communities: these objects—but not others that might look, feel, and smell just like them—originate from a community to which one wishes to belong.
Aesthetics is about appearance. Status is about symbolism. Neither comprises the point that Bloom wants to make, namely that by seeing or possessing a relic, whether historical or religious, we are maintaining contact with reality in a way that everyday blue jeans do not:
Rather, the surfaces of things are significant largely because they reflect an object’s deeper nature. This mode of thought might be a biological adaptation, since what really matters—what is important to think about as you make your way through the world—isn’t what things look like but what they really are. So young children appreciate that a porcupine surgically modified to look like a cactus is nonetheless still a porcupine; that a drawing of cat doesn’t have to look like a cat; that two people might look identical, but one might be kind and the other cruel.
For now it is certainly intriguing to think that if you surgically modify X, to the point where it resembles Y, that most sentient adults know that it is really not Y.
Despite what certain cultural warriors want us to believe, we cannot change the nature of reality by seeing it or interpreting it differently. And we cannot change it by performing an operation. Thus, Bloom concludes, we are interested in surfaces because they offer access to the reality of objects.
Our beliefs about the hidden nature of things influence the most seemingly sensory experiences, such as the taste of food and drink. Protein bars taste worse if they are described as containing “soy protein,” ice cream tastes better when labeled “high fat,” and cola is rated higher when drunk from a cup with a brand logo. Neuroimaging studies reveal that areas of the brain associated with pleasure are more active if you believe that you are drinking expensive wine. Perhaps the most troubling finding was reported in a working paper called “Can People Distinguish Pâté from Dog Food?” The answer is no: if you grind up a product called Canned Turkey & Chicken Formula for Puppies/Active Dogs in a food processor and garnish it with parsley, people cannot reliably distinguish it from pork liver pâté.
He also wants us to consider that even if we buy things for reasons of status or even aesthetics, our enjoyment might well surpass our initial motivation:
And then there is the psychological data suggesting that status might not be the whole story. If I buy a watch to impress my friends, one can worry about the cost of envy. But what if I buy it because it gives me pleasure? That one child enjoys a teddy bear doesn’t seem to detract from his playmate’s enjoyment of his own. That no one watches me eat mom’s cooking doesn’t make it taste any less wonderful. Some goods, including luxury goods, are valued for properties that have nothing to do with what other people think, so worries about arms races just don’t apply.
But, what does it mean to say that real objects, especially luxury goods, have a history and that when we purchase or enjoy them, we are taking their history into account? Surely, this applies to religious relics or even celebrity tee shirts, but it also applies to art.
I suspect that when we say that an object has a place in history, we are saying that it has a kind of permanence, that it is what it is regardless of how you interpret it or look at it.
But then, if you change its history, which may have nothing to do with its appearance, it will no longer be the object that it was.
In Bloom’s words:
Like many luxury goods, art is not valued for its practical utility. And, like many luxury goods, artworks get their meaning and value in light of their histories—who created them, when they were made, and what the artist intended. This is clearest for modern pieces: objects such as a urinal or an unmade bed can be transformed into artwork if created and displayed in the right way. But origins matter even for more traditional art. When The Supper at Emmaus was thought to have been painted by Vermeer, it was priceless; when it was discovered to be the work of forger Han van Meegeren, it became a relatively worthless curiosity. Its appearance didn’t change, just its history, but people no longer wanted to look at it. If you were to discover that your Rolex is an inexpensive duplicate, you would experience the same effect.
Why does it matter? Why should we care about an object’s history? And why do human beings care about objective realities? One reason might be that they cannot easily survive in a world defined merely by aesthetic appearances. They cannot do business when interpretation trumps facts or when they act like they have their own facts.
And they cannot, as I have pointed out in another place, connect with other human beings in society if they cannot stand on common ground—meaning that when they are talking about the weather or the football score or the painting on the wall, they are talking about the same thing.
Bloom is intimating that luxury goods, especially branded goods, have a history. They have a reputation for quality as well as good design. And they are recognized by other people. They inspire confidence and suggest permanence. Fads come and go. Trends change, seemingly with the wind. Rolex may not be forever, but it is one of the few almost-forevers that you can wear on your wrist.