Bloggers and designer handbags - the debate rages on
'Rages on' might be overstating it a bit. Celebrated skincare blogger Caroline Hirons (I met her on the tube once - she was hilarious) sparked mild outrage and a moderate rallying cry of support over the weekend when she tweeted her exasperation at what feels like a creeping tide of luxury-centricism (not a word) in the blogosphere. As more and more influencers earning above average for their age funnel some of their excess cash towards high fashion purchases and, in this particular case, designer handbags, youtube can feel like it's becoming, in Caroline's words, "MTV Cribs: 'Luxury' Version". She also lamented their seeming lack of forward planning, pointing to expenses which arise in later life, such "the cost of raising kids".
Fair enough. Some responders jumped on the red herring of the 'cost of raising kids', pointing out that not everyone wants to bring up children, thus completely failing to engage with Caroline's very interesting central point whilst also stating the face-palmingly obvious and boring us all to tears in the process.
Others argued eloquently for a bloggers' right to spend money fairly earned however they choose to, which is totally legit, and yes, we all have the right to spend our own money however we like. Even if we didn't earn it! Yup! Got a trust fund? Fine, it's legally yours, so yes, it is your right to splurge whenever and on whatever you choose. Get a Birkin in every colour. It's your prerogative.
Of course, I'm being provocative. It's obviously not just about splurging inherited cash. For some people a designer bag is a treasured thing. As well as often being a very beautiful object in and of itself, it can be a symbol of accomplishment to the buyer as much as to the outside world. If you've got yourself a hard-won promotion or have saved for months for something, holding it in your hands at last can be a very happy moment, and that bag/watch/whatever can remind you of your accomplishment every time you use it. There's value in that. It's a personal thing, and we should be careful not to mark handbags as silly, valueless and frivolous just because men don't buy them. (Notice how people are nowhere near as disparaging about luxury cars, which are primarily purchased by men, and which can cost up to 100x as much as anything ever sold by Chanel. That is sexism kids, don't get it twisted).
But there are two sides to every thousand or so coins, and nothing in the age of social media is so simple as all that. Because when it comes to luxury items in the blogosphere, it's not really about so much what you buy as it is about how you display it. That's where the problems start to arise.
Problem #1: Consumerism ain't cute
Generally speaking, consumerism has never really been looked upon kindly. I think good ol' JC had something to say on the matter along the lines of:
“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” - Matthew 19:21
Yup. According to my man on the inside (google) Jesus said that. But I'm not really into Jesus so here's United States president Jimmy Carter in a televised speech he delivered in 1979:
"too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption"
I'm telling you all this not because I want you to renounce the very concept of weath and go and live in a cave, but to illustrate the point that consumerism has been around forever (at least since 1979 kiddos!) and has never been regarded neutrally. So perhaps we shouldn't be surprised if, in 2017, a blogger flaunts a very obvious display of wealth like a £3000 handbag, and receives a little backlash.
Scepticism of consumerism is woven into every chapter of our history, and designer handbags elicit an extra angry response because they fall into the category that we in the advertising world refer to as 'conspicuous consumption' - ie items for which consumers pay high prices not justified by functionality (like a higher priced car with a bigger engine) but by style, branding, and crucially the fact that other people can easily recognise said item as expensive. In other words, part of the allure of a designer handbag is that other people will know it's designer, and so in wearing it you will have successfully communicated something about your taste and social position to them.
As it's perfectly possible to lug your crap around town in a free plastic carrier bag, and thus a designer bag is never actually necessary, they occupy a small space near the top of the 'conspicuousness' scale of retail consumerism, and so elicit maximum scrutiny and ire from onlookers who have suspicion of consumption baked into their culture dating back many millennia before they were even born.
Problem #2: Luxury is alienating
This follows on from problem number 1. We already know that people are prone to feel suspicious of obvious, unabashed consumerism. Humans seem to have figured out a very long time ago that number of material possessions and levels happiness don’t tend to correlate positively. We just keep forgetting.
But hostility towards conspicuous consumption is felt particularly keenly at this point in our history in the UK because, thanks to the banking crash of 2008 and the massive financial deregulation preceding it, wealth inequality in this country (and the US and India and Japan and Russia - the list goes on) is enormous and growing. The fact is that we now inhabit an economic climate in which the richest 10% of the population own 45% of the entire country's wealth - this is currently the case in the UK - see chart number 1 if you don't believe me.
In such a climate, to routinely and casually display a level of wealth which most people will never, ever be able to attain is to out yourself as completely politically oblivious and frankly tone deaf. It reminds me of the scene in The Hunger Games where Katniss and her friend (Brioche? Breadroll? I can’t remember) go to the Capitol for the first time. They’ve left their dilapidated, starving, desperate home district behind, and are greeted in the city by crowds of people who clearly have hours of free time and mountains of excess cash to spend on perfecting their highly intricate, impractical outfits. The sudden shift in priorities is startling, and watching it in the cinema I was like ‘Fuck. This is what the west looks like to the people who make our iPhones’. In other words; absurdly, self-indulgently, cringe-worthily out of touch.
It’s not a good look is it? And this is what bloggers who haul several designer bags a year look like to a large proportion of their viewers/followers. Not that their viewers are ‘dilapidated and starving’. They’re just normal. But normal doesn’t buy you a £2000 purse every season. If anyone thinks it does or even could, they should have a quick check in the mirror for signs of stray butterflies.
Problem #3: Failing to question consumerism is worryingly a-political
It's only recently that the number of voices questioning this kind of behaviour has diminished. It’s probably linked to the rise in social media. We seem to blame it for everything, but you can see how an increase in sharing of daily details of our lives would in turn normalise the sharing of our consumption habits as well. That, and the fact that condemnation of consumerism has so often been couched in religious terms that it’s now quite unfashionable to even go there in terms of questioning the buy it all and buy it now status quo. But consumer power is political power, and it’s disheartening in a way to see a generation of younger women unquestioningly swallowing the nonstop consumption paradigm hook, line and sinker. To see the group of intelligent, influential, forward thinking people that make up the pro and semi-pro blogosphere accept wholeheartedly a range of four-figure price-tags because a multi-national corporation has successfully pipped its competitors to the post in constructing just the right air of desirability around this season’s particular ‘it’ bag.
The debate around this has certainly made me think a little harder about why I buy what I buy, and how compliant I am being in believing that any leather accessory is actually worth £2000+, just because the marketing department at Chanel told me so. Maybe we should all just stop and have a think for a second.
But in the end, what are bloggers supposed to do? Just disappear?
No, but I think there may be a strong case for a little reassessment here. One which I will be engaging in myself. First of all, we should all make peace with the idea that if you bang on about all the extremely high value, essentially frivolous stuff you have bought, you cannot expect all people to react well, or even most . Expect people to call you out. Expect people to find you a somewhat unsympathetic character. You have every right to buy whatever you want and to use your money for things you may regret at a later date - I know I personally have a pair of black suede & Other Stories ankle boots knocking around my wardrobe that barely see the light of day, the cost of which could have paid for my food shopping for about three weeks - but don’t expect people to find your conspicuous displays of wealth tasteful or unproblematic. Because it’s not tasteful, and it is problematic.
We can share things we love, and which we think other people will want to know about, but we should try to do so with some sensitivity, with some kind of secular nod to the religious idea of modesty, and with a sense of a wider economical and political context. Because if we don’t, we look dumb.
There is so much joy to be had in blogs and youtube, and so many wonderful creators who make brilliant, entertaining content all about shopping, and I don’t want that to stop (nor will I stop shopping). But a little self-awareness is never a bad thing, and maybe a little look at what kind of corporations and attitudes that we’re really supporting in continually buying stuff (myself included).
Let’s all stop showing off, basically.