Recently, I had a stimulating conversation with a friend over a delicious lunch at L’azia. The discussion ranged over a number of topics, including fashion. My friend characterized herself as not being very “knowledgeable” or “into” fashion; faced with my response – to paraphrase, something to the effect of “Say whut?” – she added that, despite her love of clothes and accessories, she doesn’t consider herself very fashionable. Upon further grilling, she explained that she simply doesn’t care about designer labels and, in fact, consciously avoids anything that might be immediately identifiable as such; which is not to say that she doesn’t have any designer pieces in her closet, but merely that she prefers things that don’t broadcast their provenance with overt logos and the like. Up to this point, I was totally on the same page with her. I, too, hate in-your-face branding, as I find it tends to detract from and overshadow the style of a particular item (though it’s probably fair to say that my aversion to logos is a lot milder than hers). But as we continued talking, it became clear that her outlook was premised on something more than mere aesthetics.
She illustrated her point with an anecdote about a Louis Vuitton bag that she received as a Christmas gift from her spouse. [And here I am going to have to apologize in the event that I am about to disclose any marital secrets.] My friend shared that she has never used it, and has reservations about doing so because it would “feel wrong” in the current economic climate. Because, as she put it, “other people are struggling to get by, and here I am with this purse” – a purse most people can recognize as being expensive.
Let me pause here to mention two things. First, my friend and her husband are not, from what I know, in any kind of financial difficulties whatsoever. Second, I happen to have the same bag, and have never felt any constraint preventing me from wearing it. [To be fair, I wouldn’t wear it just anywhere, mostly because it’s not really a “T-shirt and jeans” kind of bag. But I digress.]
Her response gave me pause. Jokingly, I asked her whether the same principle would apply to our lunch; after all, it would be far more recession-appropriate of us to grab a $5 sandwich (or brown bag it!) than enjoy our comparatively luxurious spread. But this got me thinking: is flaunting wealth (or, put another way, financial security) an offence against moral or social decorum? And does my lovely Louis Vuitton bag come into it at all?
My answer is, respectively: maybe, and not really.
To get to the answer, though, we first have to talk about what constitutes “flaunting” wealth. The etiquette-minded upper classes have, from time immemorial, looked down on the social ladder-climbing efforts of the nouveau riche, as primarily manifested in the conspicuous and public consumption of luxury goods. But it’s important to keep in mind that, generally speaking, both sides here were consumers of the same goods. The etiquette fail came not necessarily from buying certain things, but from the mode of display and enjoyment of those things. It might not be vulgar to buy a Lamborghini, but it’s probably in poor taste to incessantly talk about your Lamborghini, or drive it through your neighbourhood in the most obnoxiously loud and ostentatious manner possible, or generally ram it down (metaphorically speaking) the throats of people who may or may not give two hoots about it. And, as far as I’m concerned, it’s vulgar to do any of those things irrespective of whether your friends and neighbours are minimum wage workers or millionaires. If you’re the sort of person who derives their sense of self-worth from the expensive toys you own, better keep it to yourself; acting in ways that purposefully invite others to judge (or, rather, value) you on the same basis is not only in poor taste, but also a one-way ticket to No-Friends-ville.
With that said, I don’t think this is in any way a moral issue, as opposed to merely a question of social decorum. Being an asshole, after all, is not a sin. Unforgivable, it might be.
And I don’t think it has anything to do with whether the people around you are poor or not. This is a sensitive topic, and I’m going to try to make my next point without violating any of the 6 rules for what “rich” people shouldn’t say. [I put rich in quotation marks because I don’t consider myself to be rich, though I realize that, nowadays, I am a long way from being poor.] Having been poor, I have nothing but respect for people who work hard and do the best they can to get by on little money. The fact that I might have more (or higher quality) things than they do doesn’t make me a better, cooler, or more valuable human being, and I would never act as though it did. However, I am not going to make decisions about what I am going to buy, wear or use based on the fact that there are people in the world who might not be able to afford those things – and would like to. I’m going to make those decisions based on what I can afford, need and like. And I don’t think that makes me an asshole either.  Would I brag about my Louis Vuitton purse to an unemployed friend if I knew that she wanted one? No. [Actually, I wouldn’t brag about it to anyone. Material things are generally not brag-worthy.] Would I feel bad about wearing it on an occasion when I happen to run into her? No. To me, the purse is not a status symbol – i.e. not a measuring stick for my (or anyone else’s) sense of identity or self-worth. Sometimes a purse is just a purse.
And here’s another thought. Generally speaking, the fact that one person has something you want isn’t the reason why you don’t have it. Let’s say that I covet Richard Branson’s private island. [I kinda do. It’s not in my top 5 “things I’d own if I were a billionaire” but it’s definitely in the top 25.]  Does the fact that Richard Branson exists, and owns a private island, somehow make my life a little more unbearable? No, because Richard Branson has nothing whatsoever to do with my life – except possibly my monthly Virgin Mobile bill. If Richard Branson did not exist, it would have no impact on the life I have now. It wouldn’t make me richer, and it wouldn’t mean that I would suddenly get my own private island.
To get back to my original anecdote, I deeply respect my friend’s mindfulness about the optics of perceived luxury in a downward-trending economy. I think it’s proof of her innate kindness and thoughtfulness. But I have to (respectfully) disagree with her. Hope our next lunch is still on!What do you think: is there a moral or social aspect to an individual’s visible consumption of wealth? How do those considerations influence the way you spend your money?