Want to show off? You still can, but the rules are different now
It used to be easy being a snob. You just had to know a lot about wine, watches and the arts. But these days you could come across as a try-hard. So how do you show off your status, then?
It’s tough out there for a snob. Showing that we were better than other people used to be so easy: Know a lot about things such as wine, classical music and boats; wear expensive (but slightly tattered) clothes; avoid television; find a way to drop the name of the fancy school you attended into conversation. An idiot could do it and, God knows, plenty of idiots did.
Today we live in the age of conspicuous egalitarianism, a trickier code to master. Now it’s important to feign indifference to fine wine while picking the right bottle. No longer can one brag one never watches TV other than a little public broadcasting – one has to be able to talk about junk TV at work, or you look pretentious. The biggest risk in getting dressed is being a smidge too formal and coming off as a try-hard. Every corner of the culture now offers a similar mine for stepping on. Snobbery, like life, finds a way. But it has to work a lot harder now.
A recent academic paper is here to help. Genres, Objects, and the Contemporary Expression of Higher-Status Tastes, by four sociologists at the University of Toronto and Duke, describes a trick successful modern high-status people have mastered: Democracy in genre preferences, paired with elitist choices within those genres.
A good American example the authors raise is barbecue, once a humble (or, as the authors have it, “unconsecrated”) food. Now everyone talks about it, but it is important for high-status individuals, having displayed egalitarianism by liking the stuff, to then demonstrate refinement by making nice distinctions within the genre and rising the authentic above the crassly commercial. Perhaps you could mention that you prefer dry-smoked Texas barbecue to the vinegar-sauce Carolina style but, in any case, not the fake stuff that’s not even cooked in a proper smoker.
The authors walk through various examples in music (you must like pop, but prefer Beyonce to Britney) movies (horror is fine, if it’s The Sixth Sense not Final Destination) and TV (in the reality genre, take Top Chef over The Bachelor). Mixing regular-folk genres and snobby particulars allows high-status types to connect to others and set themselves apart at the same time, so taste can “be used as both a bridge to other groups and to construct a fence around one’s own group”.
I think this is a sharp analysis (though it misses a key point or two, for example, it is important for contemporary class aspirants to display one or two truly low status, “dirty” in-genre selections, whether for Britney or McDonald’s fries, to emphatically demonstrate that they are salt of the earth).
The authors don’t tackle fashion, and I can see why. Clothes are even trickier because they are so persistently visual and present. You don’t casually mention your vintage Rolex and let it pass. It’s right there on your wrist during the whole conversation, staring everyone in the face.
Clothes shout “look at me” in a way that choices in food, music or movies can pretend not to, so class-signalling mirror tricks take more skill.
Workwear is an area where a lot of American men try to pull it off. Jeans are jeans, but a discerning eye can appreciate grades of Japanese selvedge denim or even the choice to wear classic Levi’s 501s.
I love my Red Wing Moc boots, which are both totally standard work equipment and a nod to American design. If I were slightly richer I would have a pair of John Lofgren’s beautiful US$1,000 (S$1,354) logger boots, which after a little wear and tear would look a lot like, well, logger boots.
Other efforts at trying to signal discernment while preserving, or gesturing at preserving, egalitarian casualness and comfort range from Entireworld sweats to Aime Leon Dore hoodies (Supreme is over now, I’m told) to (for women) a handbag from The Row. A pair of penny loafers (once weekends-only, now a paradigmatic smart casual office shoe) can be a signal to menswear snobs if they are from Alden; the stitching is unmistakable.
Of course, there are people with a special interest in clothes, just as there are foodies and oenophiles and music obsessives. These lucky souls can go for it with fabulous outfits and look great. But they are a special clan, who tend to work in the creative industries. Most of us working stiffs, in particular men, face a harder dilemma, trying to look distinctive and attractive without making an awkward scene.
The rules of taste are unstable, and the current rules of performative indifference seem to me particularly so. Who are we kidding? We are vain, status-obsessed creatures. The time may come when we are more comfortable with that fact.
By Robert Armstrong © 2021 The Financial Times