A hundred years ago, a new comic strip was published in the New York Globe. Called Keep Up With The Joneses, it featured the adventures of a family vainly trying to keep up with their well-to-do neighbors. Mr and Mrs McGinis and their daughter were social climbers, people desperately wanting others to think of them as higher on the ladder of success than they really were. The strip was so popular that the term passed into general usage.
Even older than Keeping Up With The Joneses is the notion of conspicuous consumption, first defined by sociologist Thorsten Veblen in 1899 as spending money on expensive things so as to impress other people.
The best status symbols are portable
If they are kept at home or in a safe deposit box, few people will see them and perceptions of our positions are not enhanced. If we carry them around with us, more people can see them, and that’s the point. How often do you see status seekers set their shiny new smartphone on the table or on the bar, where we can’t miss it?
Readily identifiable status items are important to higher and lower social strata alike. At the higher end, handbags, wristwatches, sunglasses, and luggage all need to be instantly recognizable as expensive, hence the logos and proprietary designs.
For those on the lower end, clothing with names writ large and ostentatious jewelry occur frequently. Ironically, as people at the lower end of socioeconomic scales have less experience with luxury goods, the status items need not be authentic to impress the peer group. While high income people can tell a real Rolex from a fake and diamonds from paste, lower income groups are less likely to be able to do so. Do you remember the fake pagers people used to carry around to show how connected they were?
As Great Grandmama used to say, “In my day, people wore clothes with the labels on the inside.”