Social Class Hanging from a Shoulder

by Lindsey

Between Louis Vuitton and Prada, there is wide-ranging market for expensive handbags. The ability to afford and flaunt such luxury items has created a visible distribution of wealth among women in various cultures. However, it is clear that the desire and ability to possess such opulent products is not universal. Designer handbags have come to display more than a woman’s personal style; they now distinguish the hierarchy and social classes within the American culture. Using the Marxist and post-structuralist theories of cultural anthropology, this ostentatious trend can be explained.

Marxism addresses the ways that material factors cause social transformation.[1] In present United States society, the capitalist economy has created barriers for lower-class individuals, but has made it easier for upper class individuals to continue on their path to success. Focusing on women in particular areas of the U.S., one may be able to see the differences in values and socioeconomic statuses simply by the purses that women own. Karl Marx, a founding figure of this theory, compared the many positions within a capitalist society and found that peasants, previously agriculturists and presently day-laborers, provide the upper classes the resources needed for their inherent prosperity.[2] The transformation of an average American to an elitist seems to occur by acquiring well-known couture handbags, produced by so-called peasants. This, in turn, reshapes a woman’s social status. By carrying designer brands under their arms, women may gain a sense of power and entitlement because of the known prices of their possessions and esteem that comes from the ability to own such a good. The Marxist belief that economic relationships are based on power may reveal why women seek to enhance their social rank or alleviate class struggles by reaching for materialistic objects.[3]

Through the lens of a poststructuralist, power is expressed differently in each culture because of the idea that it is relational and acts as a liaison for many social trends.[4] Women attempting to create or solidify the social stigma associated with the purchase and use of designer handbags shows that in their culture, power is asserted in the form of physical goods. Because there are various cultures and illustrations of power, poststructuralists identify the subject position, or category of being, for each individual.[5] In the case of women and designer handbags, one might say that their subjectivity is “wealthy” or “influential”. Analyzing each of these classifications helps in understanding how particular people in society chose to be viewed by their peers because of their choice in buying perceived symbols of power. Another aspect of this theory states that power fluctuates and is a form of consent or resistance.[6] In the search for power and recognition through designer purses, women are consenting to a particular subjectivity in return for a form of material power.

Designer handbags are material factors that have transformed social and cultural ideas of power, which have created differences in social classes. Marxism and poststructuralism provide an interesting viewpoint of the variability in expression and meaning of power.

 

[1] http://anthrotheory.pbworks.com/w/page/29532604/Marxism%20and%20Political%20Economy, accessed 6 November 2015.

[2] http://anthrotheory.pbworks.com/w/page/29532604/Marxism%20and%20Political%20Economy, accessed 6 November 2015.

[3] http://anthrotheory.pbworks.com/w/page/29532604/Marxism%20and%20Political%20Economy, accessed 6 November 2015.

[4] http://anthrotheory.pbworks.com/w/page/29532663/Poststructuralism, accessed 6 November 2015.

[5] Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan, ANTH 2100 Introduction to Cultural Anthropology: Globalization, Capitalism, Resistance II, 4 November 2015.

[6]  http://anthrotheory.pbworks.com/w/page/29532663/Poststructuralism, accessed 6 November 2015.

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29 Responses to Social Class Hanging from a Shoulder

  1. Your paper was fascinating. I think it is also important to think about how women are limited by this phenomenon. Women of a higher socioeconomic status have far more options. The higher the rank, the more options they have. A woman of a lower socioeconomic status is far more limited. While the symbolic status of a handbag may empower the women who have the means to obtain one, it is not a strong feminist practice. In my opinion, for something to be beneficial to women, it has to be advantageous to all women. I think the idea that status is shown through a price tag is very valid in our society. I worry that the want for the status will take power away from women because they look to a man to provide these things. The handbags do not celebrate the ways in which the handbag was obtained.

  2. “In the search for power and recognition through designer purses, women are consenting to a particular subjectivity in return for a form of material power.” I really love how you tie this subject into working within our hegemonic society.
    I think this article was really well written and made a clear and poignant argument on how the accessories, such as designer bags, influences a specific power-relationship between the women wearing the bag and the those who perceive her a particular way because of it.
    It would be interesting to tie symbolic and interpretive elements into this piece with regards to how the symbol of this designer bag influences the connections and interactions the women in possession of it is involved in. Also, how those around her perceive her differently and why that is.

  3. Faisal Lalani says:

    Great work! Your paper makes perfect sense, and is well supported. I believe that this handbag display of power can be extended to most other clothing; for example, take expensive watches. It does the same thing my ten dollar Walmart-bought watch does, but because it’s luxurious, it signifies men and women of higher class. I find it fascinating and a little ridiculous how an item’s aesthetic, despite it’s similar functionality to all others of its kind, gives it so much power. I suppose it’s all societal context we’ll have to accept.

  4. Alexis Bush says:

    This essay is very interesting and I love your choice of topic. I also find interesting that so many women buy fake designer bags to be perceived in a certain way and I wonder exactly what that means. I liked your use of theories and I think that it would have been interesting if you brought up structural violence when talking about post-structuralism because I think that it could definitely be related to this topic. I also think that tying in the symbolic interpretive theory with this topic could be really cool. For example, how a symbol like a designer purse is interpreted in America as opposed to some other places.

  5. BethanyA says:

    anther interesting topic to look at would be how locational styles change what’s considered prestigious from brand to brand. Or even, in larger terms, how designer bags known in the U.S. have become a status symbol in other countries as well such as the Dominican Republic, and how it’s origins (in the U.S) changes whether or not a bag is a status symbol for some people.

  6. Lily Mindel says:

    This was a great essay! And I really enjoyed reading it. This is definitely something that everyone see’s on a daily basis and really is a symbol. I really liked the theories that you chose to analyze this from. I liked how you said, “by carrying designer brands under their arms, women may gain a sense of power and entitlement because of the known prices of their possessions and esteem that comes from the ability to own such a good”. I think our society today really reflects this sentence and it is something to think about.
    Great Job!

  7. Griffin Kauvar says:

    Great job. I think its important to note that socioeconomic status is extremely important in evaluating this phenomenon as well. The more money one has the more options they have and the greater social rank they can acquire, the less money a women has thereby limits her much more in this system as well as makes it harder to acquire social capital. It would be interesting to look structural violence as I fell like it would relate really well to this topic. The designer bag industry is a perfect example of social structures proliferate and exaggerate class and social rank systems. Also symbolic interpretive could be an interesting analytical tool in exploring how a high status bag in one area of the US could be viewed very differently somewhere else in the US or even internationally.

  8. Madison Arata says:

    I really enjoyed your essay because although you used the example of a handbag, a lot of other objects could relate to your idea. Therefore a lot of people can relate to your essay and understand what you are trying to convey. You hit the nail on the head with the idea that women find power in luxurious items. I thought the theories you chose to apply and how you applied them was very interesting. I also think you could have applied how the owning of materialistic items shows power through wealth has increased over the years because post-structuralism uses history in order to understand the present.

    • Haley Pflum says:

      I agree, the topic of the essay was very interesting. I never really noticed the significance of such a widely used, general accessory. It is relatable because there are many simple things similar to handbags that give the image of power, wealth, and status. The theories that were chosen and how they were used made the essay very understandable and thought provoking.

  9. Victoria Prager says:

    I really loved your essay and I thought you used your theories impeccably. I think it was an excellent way to describe the situation when you related high end purses to having a known price tag. I understand that you only had 500 words to work with, but some other branches that could be explored is the idea of being like celebrities who own those specific purses and thus being considered of similar status. I’ve heard many times people brag that Miley Cyrus, Kim Kardashian, or Paris Hilton had been seen sporting an identical hand bag to theirs. Also, the notion of knock-offs could be interesting to be explored through Marxist or even practice theory.

  10. Anna Bockhaus says:

    Great and imaginative subject choice and I really like your take on it. It’s something I feel I’ve been trained to notice, the various labels someone is sporting. It’s interesting once it’s been unpacked and analyzed to see how silly it seems. With the prestige and influence, high-end labels are perceived to achieve, it gives a new perspective to those selling and buying fake handbags. Very well done!

  11. Megan Swenson says:

    This is a really interesting topic as it relates to my own life pretty closely. My mom once openly yelled at me in a restaurant because I dropped my fork onto her expensive purse. I think the couture culture surrounding material items like purses is kind of ridiculous; I, for one, am fine buying a second-hand purse from Goodwill for eight dollars, and I think that growing up with a mom who is pretty attached to things like purses has made me want to rebel against such things. I think it would be cool to analyze second-hand shopping from a Marxist perspective. Good essay!

  12. Hayley Bibbiani says:

    I really liked this article because it was something that I don’t consciously think about when I am walking down the street and see a woman with an expensive handbag, but my brain automatically makes the connection that she is of either higher or lower class because of what type of bag she is using, whether or not that is truly the case. I liked that you used Marxist anthropology to analyze this topic because you talked about class distinctions which made me think of the people who are making these handbags. For example, upper class women are buying these bags, yet in developing countries it very may well be that “peasant” workers (often women) are making these bags that they cannot even afford to wear, for women halfway across the world. This example to me shows how broad class distinctions really are. I also liked that you used poststructuralism because it made me think how when I finally get a piece of “nicer” clothing, it does change the way you feel about yourself a little bit. Often women who buy nicer clothes feel more confident because of the fact that they have a material power over others.

  13. Heidi Shortreed says:

    This was a very well written and interesting article! It was fascinating how you blended gender into Marxist anthropology so seamlessly. It was very effective in both explaining class struggle, as well as gender hierarchy. While reading your article, I began to wonder what a feminist anthropologist would think about this phenomenon. A feminist anthropologist might ask the question “why are handbags being marketed to women, but not men, as a symbol of social status?” I also wondered what sort of products are marketed exclusively to men in the same way that handbags are marketed to women.

  14. Peter Koukov says:

    I definitely surprised myself by actually enjoying an essay on handbags! This was very well written and for someone who doesn’t know or care too much about female accessories it kept me very engaged and interested. I never really realized it but that is crazy to think how something as simple as a handbag can tell you so much about a single person and their status. It is quite a shame actually how socioeconomic class can be decided by what brand of purse a woman is wearing but there really is nothing much to do about it and thats just how woman will feel empowered or more important showing off a more expensive accessory.

  15. Casey Wilson says:

    I loved this paper. You brought up such a good point when you said that peasants are making handbags for the wealthy Americans. I love this connection, but I think there’s an easy way to explain this. All corporations, these days, are successful because they provide very little money to their workers (in this case the peasant laborers) and in that way they earn a ton of money. However, the confusing part comes here. Now that the owners of these corporations have billions of dollars, what makes people buy the handbags? Do you think it’s because the Americans want to be like the owners (billionaires) or are they just trying to show how much money they have, which the paper sort of suggests. What do you think of these ideas? I also liked the connection between resistance and the purse. Obviously there are wealthy women that don’t have expensive clothes/purses, so how do you think that influences their lives? Perhaps they get less pretentious (because they don’t think their ‘material goods’ are better than someone else’s) and maybe they also become more wealthy because they saved their money instead of wasting it on these handbags that were made through unjust labor.

  16. Alex Havlick says:

    Great paper! i was brought here after Dr. McGranahan mentioned this paper in class. i never thought to think of handbags as an object of class distinction but now every time i see someone with a handbag, i feel like i will now understand that i am subconsciously determine which class they are probably in based on their class and make a couple of assumptions about their character based on the status of their bag. Weird!

  17. Martha Wheeler says:

    We live in an interesting culture where women can define themselves through their materials like purses, makeup, clothes. We clearly see that women change attitudes when they feel special to own a certain thing. By understanding this phenomena we can further evaluate our capitalist society and it was very interesting to read this and reflect on this particular function in society.

  18. sophiesquire says:

    I enjoyed reading this essay for two reasons- one being that you analyzed the cultural aspect to material wants really well by focusing on a specific item that can then be generalized for all designer products; by doing this I was able to visualize your points and analysis. Two being that your article made some really good points that I believe we as a society should focus more on and begin to stray away from such as judgement based on wealth. I feel like feminist anthro could as well apply to this topic.

  19. beel9934 says:

    While I liked both theories you used, I have to say that the Poststructural approach was by far the more interesting of the two. I would never have thought of using conspicuous consumption as an example of consenting to subjectivity, but I think your explanation of it makes sense in a somewhat disturbing way, It makes me wonder what an example of resistance would be in the world of handbags.

  20. Priya Byati says:

    Great essay! I wonder, if you were take Marxist theory even further into the phenomenon of the handbag, if the producers of jeans have somewhat of a say in the push of handbags being more luxurious. Women’s jeans usually either have ridiculously small pockets or no pockets at all, which kind of forces you to buy a handbag. Because of the lack of space in pockets, you aren’t able to put as much stuff in them, but with a handbag you can put loads more objects in them, which could even further the idea of opulence, and therefore power, associated among handbags. Perhaps the production of women’s jeans has led to the privilege and power now associated with handbags. Just some food for fodder.

  21. katemccort says:

    Wonderful essay and relatable application of Marxist anthropology and poststructuralism. Its interesting how effortlessly complex theories can be applied to handbags. Its true women are known to flaunt their power through flaunting wealth through material objects like luxury designer apparel. A lot of the time in our society, wealth is power, and power leads to wealth, and wealth can’t be seen as power unless it is shown off like the Kardashians, or Donald Trump do so well and so publicly. It comes to a point where it really isn’t about style and its all about showing what they can afford, which is ridiculously outside of the average persons income. I think it would be cool to also look at the outrageously priced clothes celebrities wear to events and then never wear again, or the designer fashion show clothes which are made solely to be worn in fashion shows and never appropriate to wear anywhere else.

  22. Sandeep says:

    Oh my god as a man I never thought that handbags were such a big deal. A simple thing to put your things in has become a valuable good that shows status of women. It isn’t just hand bags our culture is become more and more materialistic, our clothes, cars, foods and even school seem to define our status in society. Is this the effect of capitalism or just human nature?

  23. Chandler Bettis says:

    I found your paper to be fascinating and something I knew in the back of my head to be true but had never thought about in such clear terms as you explained it. Just walking around campus and knowing different brands of the bags people are carrying you automatically form judgments and that is the whole point. You buy an expensive bag not because you think oh this bag is really nice it is definitely worth the 3,000$ price tag but because it is a status symbol that is easily recognizable to others. Men don’t have handbags but they do the same thing with watches and both genders buy nice cars not only because they will get them around and they are worth the luxury but because it signifies their class to others. These symbols of status have become a large part of American culture and I think an interesting follow up question would be how does the symbolic value we place on these items compare to other countries views on them.

  24. Carissa Mann says:

    The idea of a handbag having a meaning far greater than the obvious use as a means to carry your personal belongings, and instead being a way to prove where they stand in the social hierarchy is a fascinating topic. Your use of marxist anthropology was not only insightful, but was something I could personally relate to as I have seen how powerful a tangible good can be when it comes to proving one’s self-worth. Going off of the question you posed, I too would love to know more about why it is women do reach for materialistic items to show their worth.

  25. Canyon Cain says:

    Your paper was a really cool idea of something that i noticed but couldn’t really put into words. The idea of something like a purse or handbag having more meaning is really kind of moving and cool. I like how you used the marxist approach with this as well, it really fits..

  26. Liam Kelly says:

    I really enjoyed your take on consumerism, and how it is more than just buying something for yourself. I enjoyed how clear and concise your essay was, it was very easy to fallow along, and you were able to make me think about things in a different light than i usually would.

  27. Dylan Shannon says:

    Great article, love the refreshing take on this prompt. Im curious what barriers has the capitalist economy put on women of lower social classes? Is it the hegemony of these women working in clothing factories for richer people? Very interesting hearing about handbags as a symbol of status and power; as a male, I’ve always just assumed it was more of a utility than a status symbol. I suppose it would be the excessive branding letting people know your purse is “gucci”. Marketers surely understand this, so I wonder if they’re the underlying influence on the adaptation of these cultural practices.

  28. Juan Guevara says:

    Excellent article. My girlfriend is always saying how she wants Michael Kors bags and all these other super expensive things. Like why? Whats the point? There’s no difference in a bag with “MK” on it and a bag that doesnt. I mean to me a bag is a bag regrdless of who “designed it” I would consider this the same as cars, however with cars, comes higher end quality and design both inside and out. A 2015 Lamborghini Gallardo is a lot more powerful and anesthetically pleasing than a 2015 ford Fiesta for example. So perhaps this is it? To show class and self worth? I guess. The topic of this is great. I loved this idea of this article.

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