December 19, 2008

Status Symbols

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

clip_image002A few years ago when I bought my newest car—not new, just new for me—I had the following thought: How do I see myself in my new wheels? I loved (and still love) this car, enjoy driving it, and like the look of it, but it struck me that I could never see myself in it! So imagine if I could afford, and bought a car for $40,000, $60,000, $80,000 or more. Regardless of the price, I would never be able to see myself in it. But is the point of buying certain items to see ourselves with them or is it for others to see us with them?

Owning and making known that you own brand named items is all the rage; designer items fly off the shelves, even in hard economic times. Gucci, Coach, Hermes, Burberry, Dolce & Gabbana goods are must haves.

I’m more of the mindset that wearing any label on the outside of my clothes is advertising for that company. And while I’m not necessarily opposed to advertising a brand, I really want to be compensated if I do so. Companies have a pretty sweet deal – free advertising from the people who wear their labels emblazoned on their chests and elsewhere. It’s not enough to have Versace glasses, those looking at you should know that you own Versace by looking at the name of the slain designer on the frame. Many of us value these status symbols and want to display them to any one observing us. But why?

Status symbols telegraph to others what we can afford to buy. They tell you that, for example, I can afford these designer jeans or shoes. They say that I can afford to dress my baby in designer duds and shoes, or that I can afford this expensive car and boat. Because we know how others will interpret these status symbols, many of us are willing to put ourselves into considerable debt to pretend that we can afford things that we truly cannot. Do you know people who can barely afford to put gas in their swanky cars (even before the prices of gas skyrocketed)? Or who own cars they cannot do simple maintenance on because it’s too pricey?

clip_image004But what about in the really rarefied air breathed by millionaires? Do the same symbols that I am familiar with indicate status in their world? Surely if I can afford to pay for Coach shoes on sale, or at least go into debt for them and pay for them over the course of several months (I do work in academia, not exactly the most financially lucrative career), the items that I am aware of and can try to attain are not the same as the ones that billionaire Oprah Winfrey can. And what about the status symbols that are popular among “mere” millionaires, of whom there are far more?

Expensive, limited-production cars are popular with millionaires and billionaires. Jerry Seinfeld’s and Jay Leno’s affinities for expensive cars are well known, for example. And they each own several such automobiles. Leno’s owns more than 100 cars! And Seinfeld has a specialty – Porsches! He owns one that costs $700,000. (This car does not meet emission standards so he can’t drive it, but hey, we know he owns it.) What other symbols do the very wealthy display? According Richard Conniff in his book on the rich, the  symbols among the rich change often to keep the rest of us from catching on and attempting to catch up to them! In any case, would I even recognize any of the less than obvious indicators of wealth even if they were under my nose? I wouldn’t know a Cy Twombly painting if I saw a wall-sized one, but his work was named one of the most expensive among living artists, and it would be recognized by many who can afford such pieces.

Status symbols are one way—a quick, short-hand way—of telegraphing who we are--or at least who J0300495 want people to think we are, based on what we have. Take one look at my designer label ensemble and you’ll form one impression of me. If I trotted out my clearance sale Coach purse purchased at the outlet mall, in certain circles I would get some points. But in more affluent circles that purse would be a giveaway, and so would my car, home, and my clothing. 

Do people buy expensive goods so that others will appreciate that they can afford them? Or do they buy them for their own enjoyment and interest? Both, of course, are likely to be true and the two motives are not mutually exclusive. However, in this consumerist culture, it might be fair to say “we are what we have”. How do you think status is displayed in other societies?


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Status Symbols:


Though I agree with the main thought of the article, I find the examples of status symbols for the rich not very well suited. I would see collectors of art or historic cars (or for that matter any serious collectors) as people who first and foremost are passionate about what they collect. Just because Cy Twombly is not a household name, does not mean that people buying his "obscure" art for a lot of money do so out of desire to impress others. I am writing this of course not to disagree with you on the fact that people DO buy into brands to project the image of the person they want to be--even if they cannot afford it.

I never really thought much about why we boast certain labels on our tee-shirts, but now I understand. I would always look at the beautiful woman in a mustang and think, "Dang I wish I was given an ascribed status like that rich girl". Yet as I think more about it, many of the people that boast their belongings can't really afford their luxuries. Even I admit to purchasing a specific outfit just because of what the tag read. Now I will definitely be aware of the symbols that people use in order to achieve certain status'. I know that belongings aren't necessarily the best thing to base status upon.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Become a Fan

The Society Pages Community Blogs

Interested in Submitting a Guest Post?

If you're a sociology instructor or student and would like us to consider your guest post for please .

Norton Sociology Books

The Real World

Learn More

Terrible Magnificent Sociology

Learn More

You May Ask Yourself

Learn More

Essentials of Sociology

Learn More

Introduction to Sociology

Learn More

The Art and Science of Social Research

Learn More

The Family

Learn More

The Everyday Sociology Reader

Learn More

Race in America

Learn More


Learn More

« Gender in Politics | Main | A Modest Proposal to Save Journalism »