Emotions, Culture, Sign value and the Asymmetry of Meaning


The engagement ring can be seen as an exemplar of an object or symbol ‘doing work’ as a signifier. When worn on a certain finger; or when given to someone in a particular manner, it’s meaning is clear. However, what I want to explore is how this sign-value can be ‘damaged’  – or altered, through alternative forms of consumption. Let me pose a scenario: married man and woman divorce – she sells her engagement ring to a second-hand shop or another kind of retailer. The ring, once a symbol of the love in the marriage and ’til death do us part, now signifies the destroyed relationship for the woman. She just wants to ‘move on’ – the emotional losses she is suffering are somewhat soothed by re-selling the ring that symbolized her relationship. It gives her a bit of power in a situation where she feels helpless and alone. Now rid of the ring, she can perhaps put this money towards her new life – a deposit for a new home, a piece of jewelry to signify this new period or something else entirely. But what of the ring? Now sold to a second-hand retailer, it has lost it’s original sign-value and it sits in the glass cabinet, in limbo, waiting for someone else to decide what it can mean.


It could be that a new couple purchases the ring to signify their engagement and impending marriage. However, superstition bestows ‘bad karma’ on these kinds of rings. The new couple are more likely to purchase a new ring from a jeweler; a ring without a tarnished torrid past. The new engagement ring is seen as a better signifer; without the dark cloud of where the ring may have been and what it may have meant to another couple. A friend of mine likes to buy diamond engagement-style rings at Cash Converters because she knows that they have been symbolically de-valued and she gets the diamonds re-set into new rings. She doesn’t say it like that and looks at me strangely when I do. She just likes getting diamonds cheap.

wedding dress

The wedding dress is another example of this. Any woman who has been married will tell you that purchasing a new dress is expensive. But buying one second-hand is much cheaper. I bought my wedding dress second-hand. In the shop, the new ones were $5000 – $10,000. My second-hand dress, looking identical to those other dresses, cost $2000. Family and friends still think I’m weird for wearing a dress ‘with a history’ or with ‘mileage’. One asked me, ‘What if the other couple got divorced? A second-hand wedding dress is really unlucky’. My pragmatism could not justify the price difference and I thought the superstition around weddings was illogical. I didn’t enjoy playing the role of ‘bride’. The relationship I had (and still have!) with my partner superseded all this frou-frou and cultural custom. I was a poor sport going through some of the motions; I changed out of my dress after entree at the reception. I was antagonistic towards the sign-value of the bridal dress – I felt objectified and unauthentic. It did not symbolize my relationship and the generic bride culture left little room for uniqueness. I had the traditional wedding in the beautiful old mansion on acres of garden that my mother wanted for herself but couldn’t have due to her father’s ill health. It was a wonderful day with my family and friends; yet my grouchiness at having to ‘be’ something probably dampened the mood at times! My gorgeous sister-in-law just got married – and she was not only a vision of beauty and grace, but a class act. I cried like a baby several times that day, moved by her glorious womanhood and happy relationship. Only now can I see how ‘the bride’ can be conceptualized by loved ones – when someone special is playing the role, the role becomes a prosthesis on top of your warm feelings towards the person. I didn’t see my gorgeous little sis as a generic bride that day; she was The Bride – glorious, elegant and regal. I was in awe of her and I can’t wait to see the wedding pictures in a few days (I was her bridesmaid and didn’t get the chance for happy snaps).


There could be divergences to my thoughts – such as a beloved family heirloom wedding dress or engagement ring, rich with happy narrative and stories. Vintage objects fascinate me as a material culture researcher and theorist. They are rich with potential stories, symbols and romance. I find it interesting to think on the object – and it’s sign-value, how it can be asymmetrically understood. By this, I mean to address how we can keep secrets from each other. What if your fiance didn’t tell you that he bought you a second-hand ring? Would it change it’s meaning if he told you later about it? And what happens when couples disagree on the use of heirlooms to signify their marriage? I think that this is why the lead-up to weddings can be so emotionally charged; there are multiple worldviews – and familial cultures – colliding. It can be messy – like some awkward weddings I have attended – or it can be so loving and beautiful that it moves one to tears – like the union of my in-laws and my sister-in-law’s new family.The wedding also became a celebration of a widening family. When symbols, shared meaning, love, culture and emotions collide, it can be an incredible human experience.


3 thoughts on “Emotions, Culture, Sign value and the Asymmetry of Meaning”

  1. ah Cathedral Arcade ceiling to pair with Strand Arcade at Twtr.
    Great post.
    Friend’s daughter working in London just made visit with fiance of SIX years, to Tiffany store and they were plied with Champagne. My immediate thought was that being .05 would affect judgment. Naughty Tiffany.
    When I needed a watch and needed it to be old I crossed the CashConvertors threshold to be surprised by the presence of a classic Tiffany solitaire in the blue box at $3000. Gosh I wanted to know the story of the ex-owner who gave it up in Ballarat.
    I am old and very cynical but when Wills & Waity appeared on the nightly news I spotted That Engagement Ring as they crossed the room to the x mark for the cameras and I burst into tears.
    Then I wondered if steel-heart Will was sticking it to stepmother who has to cop the symbol of Diana EVERY time they meet. oh symbolism and emotion.

    1. I love Parisian arcades – especially the ones in Melbourne, so gorgeous. Going to be studying The Block as a part of my PhD research. My partner who is a software engineer & web programmer is currently making me a new website where I will be able to share more of my current research – as well as a place to blog!
      Wow – a Tiffany solitaire in Cashies Ballarat! I love the jewelry at Cash Converters – and I also look at op shops as well as antique shops. I much prefer the older styles…my engagement ring and eternity ring are new yet made to look antique 🙂

  2. a friend I had in the 80’s had rooms upstairs at The Block. Her design label was ‘Michelangelo’ and she had this in the window in pink neon.
    The Block just makes me think of ladies getting their trousseau lingerie made at Allouette salon which had a glass display case next to the stairs entrance. and of course when it was newly built, tout le Melbourne spent Sunday after church ‘doing The Block’.
    Did you get that divine book of Nov 2014 called ‘Remembering Georges’?

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