Class, Status and Culture
How can you tell how financially well-off someone is? Do you look at their clothing and scan for certain labels? Is that why designer labels/emblems are outside garments and other products?
How about their shoes? Do those give you some indication? Do you try to see what kind of car they drive to make a judgment? Or perhaps you examine their fingernails to see whether they are well manicured or their feet to check for pedicure status?
Does the fact that someone carries a 24 carat gold e-reader signal their arrival at the summit of the socioeconomic heap, or does their home have to include the $6,400 Kohler Numi toilet which features a heated, motion-activated seat and built in speakers for playing its radio or an MP3 player? And if a woman is carrying a Birkin bag does that cement her status as among the glitterati? (For tips on how you can own one of these bags which start at around $8,000, and for a peek at how Samantha, of Sex and the City snagged a Birkin be sure to look at the following video.)
We display status symbols to telegraph information about our status to others. And we read those symbols to make a determination about others. There is nothing intrinsically valuable about the status symbols that we use to connote wealth—or any other status—and without the relevant context, these status symbols are lost on us.
For example, what does a six-foot concrete bird or airplane statue perched on a roof mean to you? Here, in the U.S., they probably mean nothing, and might make us ask “What’s up with that?”However, in Punjab, India these statues connote wealth.
What about owning a dog? Lots of people have dogs as pets in the U.S. But in China, where costs associated with registering and owning a dog have been prohibitive, owning a dog has become a symbol of wealth. Dogs, particularly Tibetan mastiffs which are considered holy, are the must-have status symbol in China and may cost about half a million dollars there; one puppy sold for $1.5 million to a Chinese multimillionaire. People extend their purchase of status symbols to their pets as well, buying diamond encrusted collars, designer clothing and matching jewelry for themselves and their pets: At one website I visited, items included a gold plated silver collarette with stones on sale for £2,200 (about U.S. $3,600) and Louis Vuitton dog carriers range from $1,920 to $2,490.
Like other symbols, status symbols derive meaning from their cultural context. You’ve probably seen an uncomfortable-looking man holding a woman’s purse. In the U.S. it is a reasonable assumption that such a man is granting a favor to a woman. However, in China, men and women don expensive designer purses. Lest you think this a fringe element, 45 percent of the high-end purse market in China is male. What experiences have you had with status symbols differing in meaning based on their cultural context?
There is sometimes a transformation in the meaning of a status symbol. I remember seeing High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles, or Humvees, on TV in coverage of the Gulf War, so I associated them with war. The symbolic meaning of these vehicles was transformed when they became symbolic of wealth with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s purchase of a customized version–making him the first civilian to own one in 1991. Schwarzenegger encouraged its manufacturer to produce the vehicles for the public, and Hummers became a symbolic of wealth and muscle—and for many detractors, gas guzzling vehicles belonging to wealthy people willing to ruin the environment.
Bear in mind that status symbols tell us various types of statuses, not only that one is wealthy. For example, an engagement ring announces that a woman plans to marry. The kind of engagement ring may hold clues to her and/or her fiancés wealth. Also, a status may be negative. Frustrated with her 15 year-old son’s poor grades and his disregard for his school work, one mother had the youth stand at a busy Tampa intersection with the following message written on poster board and hung around his neck:
I did 4 questions on my FCAT and said I wasn't going to do it … GPA 1.22 … honk if I need education.
(The FCAT is Florida’s Comprehensive Assessment Test. See a picture of James Mood III and read more about his story here.) What status did the sign convey? How about when judges sentence offenders to hold/wear signs of their crimes? Two women who found and then used gift cards at a Wal-Mart store were sentenced to hold signs with the following message:
I stole from a 9 year- old on her birthday! Don’t steal or this could happen to you!
Similarly, one judge ordered a sex offender to display his status as such with a sign on his car and notices around his home.
Status symbols connote distance: distance between me and the person who can afford a Birkin bag and knows what one is; and also distance between law abiding citizens and those who transgress and must indicate this by hanging signs of their activity. Status symbols serve to demarcate boundaries, and the meanings of those boundaries are rooted in cultural contexts.