Tag Archives: Luxury Consumption

Identity, Class and Contemporary Contexts

It has been widely noted by many who know me well how binary I can be  – that is, I am prone to extreme moods, fancies, etc. Most of the time I don’t even realise this but it struck me symbolically whilst organising some recent photographs. I could split photographs featuring myself in two distinct categories. I was either wearing ripped jeans, heavy metal hoodies and flannelette shirts with my hair pushed in a messy ponytail. Or I had full makeup, manicured platinum blonde curls and the Marilyn Monroe look with either a fussy frilly structured dress or a neat business casual outfit. It was rather perplexing. Who the hell was I? And if I didn’t know, how were others meant to know? Was this endemic of the fabled late modern identity crises? Or simply, as friends would jokingly point out, an ‘Anoushka problem’?

We live in a world of multiple roles (parent, sister, daughter, wife, friend, boss, colleague etc), confusing messages that identity can be worn and discarded like clothes (the ‘sex kitten’ that one’s partner likes is hidden in the proverbial closet when Mum comes over for tea and cake!) and perhaps most importantly, within an advanced capitalist system with a sophisticated consumer culture that also sends many messages regarding self-authenticity and identity. Social media allows us to carefully construct an ideal self alongside these contradictions, perhaps worsening our crises. Many wring their hands over a supposed explosion in narcissism and self-absorption, which over-simplifies the very human social need to be accepted and liked.

These phenomena do not allow for a straightforward and fluid narrative. However, as I am exploring in my thesis, there are some cultural codes that are becoming embedded in global contexts – and potentially, emerging as a globalized linguistic sign. Such as the luxury symbol. Regardless of language spoken, the luxury brand symbol, some makes/models and styles, are recognizable across linguistic barriers and sociocultural lines. For example, luxury goods are experiencing strong demand in China – and a show of the ‘right’ clothing, watch or bag when doing international business may engender more trust or a display of power/class than carefully chosen translated words. This could explain how ruling classes dominate in civil societies; how power is shown symbolically without the show or suggestion of violence or force. This may even assist us in moving towards understanding why the lower classes fawn over the elites like giddy tweens at a One Direction concert.

Social identity is a shifting construct that moves, often depending on who you want to see it – a ‘conspicuous consumption’. I would not wear my jeans and shirt to get a bank loan or do anything professionally related. This is likely related to class-positioning – or my cultural capital, if you will. My mother was brought up in a upper-middle class home with old-fashioned bourgeois values and manners; which she pushed on to my brother and I. My father was raised by his traditionalist Scottish-British grandparents whilst his radio star mother flitted around the world and his father drank himself stupid. To say I was raised with old-fashioned cultural values is an understatement – and admittedly, this accumulation of cultural capital is something that often benefits me. As I examine my thesis data that shows how wealth keeps compounding at the top of society, despite the quantity of social theories proposed since, I return to Veblen and Bourdieu, because few theorists describe the symbolic power of class and capital better. People can often guess if you are not ‘one of them’, regardless of how well you may imitate them. Masks slip, or prove to never be very good anyway.

Returning to the problem of self-authenticity, it may be debatable whether it is even an issue for sociology to be concerned with. There exists a body of work in philosophy and the psychological sciences that treats the issue rather extensively. It is doubtlessly a bourgeois puzzle – an existential self-query that troubles the caricatured ivory tower academic.  Recently, I have come to realize that I like a lot of ‘stuff’ that I probably should not dedicate my scholarly career to studying. For me, an onus exists for the sociologist to interrogate society, locate it’s problems and legitimize discussion about urgent issues such as socioeconomic inequality – unpacking this to causes, drivers and results. Writing about phantasmagoria and culture is enjoyable; but not particularly socially important. To utilize a Marxian term, it provides little ‘use value’. As what can be considered Australian society extends via technology and markets, the sociologist is pressured to keep up with the reflexive social changes and the constant shifts in winners and losers of this transformation. This is no small challenge…

High-End Malls, Dead Malls: Consumption in Surfers Paradise

I just recently holidayed in Surfers Paradise, Queensland (Australia) and observed many interesting sites of consumption. Although my current research uses Melbourne, Victoria (Australia) as it’s case study, mostly due to Melburnian’s widespread fixation on luxury consumption, Australia’s Gold Coast could have also been an excellent site. What Surfers Paradise has which Melbourne does not is ‘dead malls’. In the USA, a mall is deemed ‘dead’ when less than 30% of its retail space is untenanted (so, a mall 70% full of tenants is declared ‘dead’ and closed). However, it seems apparent that Australian retail has no such ruling. Piazza on the Boulevard is a shopping mall/arcade on Surfers Paradise Boulevard, in a relatively prime retailing position. From the details on a plaque, I was able to ascertain that the 1980s mall had a face-lift in 2002. However, I would estimate that this mall reversed the US ‘dead mall’ ruling: about 30% of its retail space was tenanted and 70% was vacant. In this mall, ‘for lease’ signs were more common than shop signs! At 6pm, when other malls in Surfers Paradise were a-buzz with activity, this mall was completely, and eerily, empty. Few shops even bothered to open. The lighting was on, the doors open, the escalators working…but there were no customers, or even people taking short-cuts. I felt like I was in one of those post-apocalyptic horror films…2015-03-10 19.09.51

The entrance, a prime space in an arcade, was messy as it was being used for storage (see above). Although it was fairly clean, the mall was not immaculate, as most of the highly used malls such as Chevron Renaissance were (more on that later). And although it has been updated in 2002, the decor did not quite reflect this. It felt like the aesthetic amendments were minimal and cheaply done. It also felt like too much of the dated 1980s character had been retained. Malls boomed in the 1980s – as did Surfers Paradise as a holiday destination. Piazza on the Boulevard is a weird ghost of the boom, somewhat maintained but mostly disregarded, shabby and forgotten – despite its top location on the main strip of town. It’s street frontage is small and does not scream for attention. The sliding glass doors, possibly added to an older arcade opening, almost look like an entrance to a mundane old office building. I only found this place on my third day, despite having walked past it perhaps ten times or more, during mornings, afternoons and evenings.

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I have taken the pictures at night, but it was the same during the day. Empty, spacious, lonely. My footsteps echoed loudly as I walked through the place, snapping pictures and musing on how the Piazza may have died. My postmortem was the only attention being given to this mall.

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I have made this image ridiculously immense so you can begin to get the feeling that the mall had. The musty air was rich with frustration, sadness and toil. I thought about what I would do if I owned it, much like ‘well-meaning’ jerks will tell a ‘fat’ girl that she has a pretty face. Across the street from the Piazza, stands the Chevron Renaissance. If The Chevron Renaissance was human, it would be Charlize Theron: polished, old-style classical beauty, almost unmarked by age and stunningly beautiful. Designed in 1999 and finished in 2003, the Chevron is of a similar age to the Piazza’s renovations. Could the Piazza have dolled herself up as much as she could afford to so she wouldn’t look so dowdy against – and possibly lose tenants and customers to – Chevron?

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Like other phenomena that I observed in Surfers Paradise, this in some ways is a materialisation of stratification. The Piazza has a website that presents itself as alive and well, with its landing page showing images of its external body. The shops facing the Boulevard and Elkhorn Avenue were tenanted by everyday businesses such as pharmacies and franchised eateries such as Subway, suggesting a degree of security, perhaps even life, for the Piazza. At the end of Elkhorn Avenue closer to the beach, high-end luxury-branded fashion shops such as Hermes and Louis Vuitton have recently cropped up, sandwiching Piazza between Chevron and a luxury strip. Like everyday women next to Charlize Theron (importantly; without the access to the cultural capital that being a superstar entails), the Piazza looks startlingly ordinary against the showy Chevron Renaissance and even worse when considered against the tasteful beige row of pretty new luxury shops (see below):

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Whether we can start eulogizing Piazza just yet remains to be seen. It is likely that she is next in line for a Pretty Woman moment in the form of some serious gentrification. Last time I holidayed in Surfers Paradise was 1991, so I was surprised by some of the changes. Although I intend to come back sooner this time, I am sure that my next trip will show me a new side of Piazza, and a new Surfers Paradise. The city was buzzing with life at all hours, just like how I remember it in the 1980s and 1990s. But faces had changed – some locals complained of an alleged ‘Asian takeover’ but I see this as an opportunity for Surfers Paradise to grow into a more cosmopolitan city. Surfers Paradise is, therefore, an interesting case for consumption – but also, it provides us with some deeper thoughts about modernity and our current culture. Australia can attest that the process of maturity is a difficult process and current high-tech, and high-stratified, norms complicate this further. The agency of the individual is stressed; yet the binding problems of structure often get left out of media or social interactions about class mobility and change. As with most things in life, there is always so much more than what meets the eye….