The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett wrote in 2017:

* In the 1920s, Muriel Bristol attended a summer’s afternoon tea party in Cambridge, UK. A number of professors and their spouses were also in attendance. On this particular occasion, the host poured Bristol a cup of tea and poured in the milk thereafter. Bristol protested, explaining that she liked her “milk in first,” as the tea tasted better that way. Despite skeptical resistance from those in attendance, Bristol insisted she could tell the difference. Ronald Alymer Fischer, one of those present, who would later go on to become “Sir Fischer” and the godfather of modern empirical statistics with his famous book The Design of Experiments, had an idea. Surely, if eight cups of tea were poured, four with “milk in first” and the other four with tea in first, and the lady identified them correctly then she would be proven right (her chances of merely guessing by chance would be 1 in 70). Fischer, like everyone else present, believed Bristol would likely fail the test. In other words, they believed Bristol’s belief in her tea acumen was embedded in a false sense of aesthetics and taste rather than reality. As it turns out, Bristol correctly determined the order of tea and milk in each of the eight cups.

Fischer’s experiment, which went on to transform statistics and modern science (it became the foundation for testing the “null hypothesis”), 1 would not have been possible if not for the embedded status and its accompanying aesthetics in how one drinks one’s tea. Milk in first or last has been a sign of status since the Victorian era, as the choice of one or the other implies one’s class position. In fact, the difference boils down to the materials from which one’s dishware is made.

In the Victorian era, materials used to make lesser-quality teacups would often crack if hot tea were poured into them. Pouring milk in first mitigated the chances of cracking one’s cup. However, those with money could afford the fine china that could withstand the heat of tea, thus milk in later was a signal of one’s elevated economic position. 2 Even when the order of milk and tea was primarily a practical matter, it revealed class more than taste. After all, those owning fine china would put the milk in last to demonstrate this luxury. As the butler in the famous British drama of the same time period, Upstairs, Downstairs, remarked, “Those of us downstairs put the milk in first, while those upstairs put the milk in last.”

Even in more contemporary times, when the quality of almost all dishware is strong enough to withstand hot tea, milk in first remained a sign of social class. The twentieth-century English novelist, Nancy Mitford, employed the term “M.I.F.” to describe the lower classes, and the turn of phrase is still used satirically in popular media to describe the working classes or those without refined social skills. Today, the famous English tea purveyor Fortnum & Mason characterizes the choice as a “thorny question,” devoting an entire essay on its website to how to drink tea. How did such a prosaic choice of action, so subtle and ostensibly innocuous, become an amplified sign of class? Throughout time, matters of seeming practicality have evolved into symbols of status. In Victorian England, the displaying of medicines in the parlor was a sign that one could afford to see a doctor and buy medicine. In pre-Revolutionary Paris, the use of candles was rare and expensive, yet even when access to light (and later electricity) became more democratized, the lighting of candles at dinnertime remained a sign of taste and breeding. 3 The same is true for the use of cloth napkins when paper napkins would do (and eliminate the hassle of laundering). Everything we do has social meaning.

* The increase in online shopping has also had a profound impact on consumer access to coveted brands.

* Globalization, mass marketing, mass production, and knockoffs have created a conspicuous consumption profile for many more people. This deluge of material goods would suggest that the barriers to entry into upper-class conspicuous consumption have been all but eradicated. The “stuff” once associated with a wealthy lifestyle— cars, multiple handbags, closets full of clothes— is seemingly accessible to mainstream society. At first blush, conspicuous consumption has been democratized.

* the upper class now maintains its exclusivity by attaining limited edition versions of goods. Whether artisanal cheeses or limited vintages of wine or Ferraris— regardless of the price point— the item in question accrues status by virtue of simply being scarce rather than merely expensive. In Europe, where manufacturers are having trouble selling mass-market $ 15,000 cars, Ferraris, starting at $ 275,000 are going like gangbusters.

* Today abundance of leisure no longer indicates higher status.

* The choices to practice yoga, take kids to hockey rather than soccer, drink almond milk instead of regular milk, and reuse grocery bags every week are all signifiers of position that are not inherently more expensive than their alternatives but thought to be more informed. By turn, these behaviors become markers of status.

* Over the past several decades, there has been an increase in three important macro trends in American spending behavior. First, the rich and upper middle class— that is, those in the top 1% and those in the top 5% and 10% income brackets— spend less as a percentage of their expenditures on conspicuous consumption relative to what the US average spends on the same goods, while the middle class— the 40th– 60th percentiles— spends more. Second, as a share of their expenditures, the middle class is spending more on conspicuous consumption relative to their income while the wealthy (and the very poor) are spending less. Third, conspicuous consumption among the rich has been replaced by “inconspicuous consumption”— spending on nonvisible, highly expensive goods and services that give people more time and, in the long term, shape life chances. These include education, health care, child care, and labor-intensive services like nannies, gardeners, and housekeepers.

* For example, in 1996, we devoted 14.2% of our total expenditures to food; in 2014, our total expenditure in this category was 15%. 5 Alcohol is similarly constant, hovering at just less than 1% of total expenditures, as is tobacco, which remains static (surprisingly so, given the huge anti-smoking campaigns of the past 15– 20 years). We spend the same on personal insurance and pensions (roughly 11% of total expenditures), and housing (slightly more than 30%).

* In a few instances, we spend notably less: apparel (from 4.1% of total expenditures in 1996 to 2.2% in 2014) and transportation (19.7% in 1996 and 16.9% in 2014), both of which reflect globalization’s cheaper cars and cheaper clothes. There are two categories where we spend more: health care (up from 5.1% to 8.1%) and education (up from 1.4% to 2.1%).

* while education expenditures have increased 60% since 1996, the top 1%, 5%, and 10% income fractiles have increased their share of education expenditures by almost 300% during this same time period. Conversely, education expenditure shares have remained almost flat for the other groups, which suggests that top groups drove the uptick in education spending.

* The children who benefit from increased investment in education go on to obtain better jobs, higher incomes, and a better future for their families. Those who can afford it devote more to their pensions and insurance, have a better retirement (and in fact, can retire), better medical care, and better quality of life.

* A notable expenditure item for lower income families is funerals. Since 1996, low-income families consistently rank as the highest spenders on funerals relative to their total expenditures, while the rich spend less than the national average on them for most of the years studied. In 2014, the top 1% spent significantly less on funerals than everyone else even in absolute dollars…

* Paul Johnson remarked that funerals were an important display of status among the working class of Edwardian and Victorian England, while they were shunned by the bourgeois (who would have had myriad alternative outlets to display status). In comparison to the rich, who host and attend museum galas, charity events, and endless dinner parties, the poor are relatively limited in their avenues to engage in conspicuous consumption.

* Controlling for all other factors and just looking at the effect of race, Charles and his colleagues find that blacks and Hispanics spend more of their income on conspicuous consumption than whites within the same income and education groups.

* Our results show that Hispanics are the most likely to spend on conspicuous consumption: 4.4% more than non-Hispanic whites, 15% more than blacks, and almost 20% more than Asians, though next to Asians, Hispanics are the least likely to spend on inconspicuous consumption. Non-Hispanic whites are the biggest spenders on inconspicuous consumption, followed by blacks. Controlling for all other factors, Asians spend the least on both conspicuous and inconspicuous consumption.

* In the beginning, Essie Weingarten just liked nail polish colors. In 1981, Ms. Weingarten packed up her bags and displayed her initial 12 nail polish colors at a trade show in Las Vegas. In her collection she had, as she explained, “a true red, a blue red, a pink red and an orange red,” along with the translucent pink and white tones that made her famous. Essie was the first in the business to push the sheer colors, of which Ballet Slippers has become the iconic shade along with Vanity Fairest (Essie #505), Baby’s Breath (# 5), Sugar Daddy (# 473), and Mademoiselle (# 384). As Essie explained, “I personally loved the look and nobody was doing it.” In 1989, Queen Elizabeth’s hairdresser sent a note to Essie requesting Ballet Slippers, Essie #162. As Essie recalls, “About two years after it came out, I received a letter from the Queen’s hairdresser [with the request] complete with Royal seal. I thought, ‘I’ve arrived.’” In the decades since, Ballet Slippers and its sheer sisters have reigned supreme as the de rigueur nail polish colors for a particular group of women within Beverly Hills, New York’s Upper East Side, and London’s Kensington. Given the cult following by this aesthetically conscious elite group of women, and the Queen of England no less, surely there must be something special about Ballet Slippers— iridescent sparkles, unique mineral composition, or some attribute that would make its cult following so obvious. Yet, once applied, the color hardly screamed “notice me” or “I’ve just had a manicure.” One coat leaves nails a slight blush, two coats creates an opaque white with hints of pink. Rather, this delicate color, almost childlike, merely signals subtly that a woman grooms herself.

* Historically, professional manicures were very much relegated to high society and the affluent. “Getting a manicure before the 1980s was really special,” Essie explained. “Before then, it was an outrage [to spend money on a manicure].” Then things changed. Starting in the 1980s, with the increased availability of low-wage service workers (located disproportionately in major cities), the price of manicures decreased such that average women were able to go to the salon. Now women can pop into a salon and have their nails done for $ 15. Thus, a former habit of high society was easily translated by the masses.

* Thus social class is not produced through consumption (you can’t “buy” your way automatically into the upper class) but rather it is attained through the adoption of values and aesthetics and the ability to decipher symbols and signs beyond materialism.

* The key to most all inconspicuous consumption is that it is nonvisible except to those in the know, and is difficult to emulate without tacit information or a significant amount of money. Inconspicuous consumption is the source of the new class divide.

* Acquiring manners and demonstrating them took time and was often possible only for those who led a life of leisure, exemplifying two important qualities of Veblen’s upper class. Language has also always been a means to show social position— like manners, it takes time to acquire and practice particular word choices and turns of phrase. To quote the late social critic Paul Fussell, “Regardless of the money you’ve inherited … the place you live, the way you look … the time you eat dinner, the stuff you buy from mail-order catalogs … your social class is still most clearly visible when you say things.” 6 Fussell goes on to discuss the “pseudoelegant style” of the middle class: their discomfort in calling a toilet a toilet (rather, it is a restroom/ lavatory/ powder room), a drunk a drunk (he is someone “with alcohol problems”), or to comfortably use swear words or the word “death” (rather, it is “passing away” or “taken to Jesus”). Conversely, they are self-conscious using words that the upper classes use with reckless abandon: “divine,” “outstanding,” “super,” “tedious,” “tiresome.” In their place, the middle class uses those umbrella words of banality: “nice” and “boring.”

* “Culture is a resource used by elites to recognize one another and distribute opportunities on the basis of the display of appropriate attributes.”

* Similarly, saying one went to a “small school in Cambridge” when everyone knows you mean Harvard suggests the downplaying of something that is actually prized and rare, just like the option to have dinner in the dining room or the kitchen. A household’s rule of taking one’s shoes off when entering suggests too much regard and preciousness for the house (nouveau), while the aspirational class wouldn’t dare imply their house was worthy of such care (even if it actually is).

* If one is not brought up within an elite habitus, one remains an outsider. This explains why we see the true upper class of Britain poor as paupers but status rich, and why Tony Soprano, with his big New Jersey suburban house, would never be invited to attend a Met gala or to serve on the board of the New York Public Library.

* Breast-feeding [is] the twenty-first century signifier of what motherhood ought to be… Ask Corky Harvey, the founder of the LA– based breast-feeding and baby boutique The Pump Station. With outposts in Santa Monica, Hollywood, and throughout the city, Harvey’s little boutiques garner an almost cult-like following. Her stores offer everything from high-end newborn onesies to CPR classes to breast-feeding classes and consultations, replete with breast pump rentals and sales (thus the name of the store). A new mom can find anything she needs for her baby. Before the average upper-middle-class Angelino mother gets pregnant, she likely doesn’t know what The Pump Station is; thereafter it almost becomes a rite of passage to attend classes and get one’s Medela breast pump “serviced.” Yet, as Harvey herself explained, “We would never survive in rural Mississippi or NE Pennsylvania,” where the notion of a breastfeeding boutique would be hilariously weird.

* The biggest purchaser of formula in the nation is the US government, which channels much of it through Women Infants and Children (WIC), the federal assistance program for low-income pregnant women and mothers. As Harvey put it, “Why wouldn’t you take it for free if you’re poor? Medicine plays a role [by not advocating heavily enough with mothers]. For instance, in cultures like low income African Americans in Atlanta Georgia nobody breast-feeds and if you do you’re a fool … As my son, who is a physician in Atlanta, explained to me, ‘Mom, it isn’t even discussed here.’” The research suggests that mothers who are eligible for WIC (and use it) are less likely to breast-feed than mothers who are not.

* Another pediatrician, who worked at a community clinic, explained to me that, in the past, in some populations, the women were given a shot of Depo (a birth control medicine) almost immediately after birth.

* Despite the health imperative, breast-feeding at 6 and 12 months remains a rarefied practice. It is mainly prevalent in particular cultural and class groups— women with higher education levels who learn about the benefits of breast-feeding and women of higher income groups who can afford the insurance to deliver in baby-friendly hospitals with round-the-clock nurses and lactation consultants providing breastfeeding classes, expensive and efficient breast pumps, and help throughout the mother’s entire stay.

* To the rest of the world, the battles on the New York Times opinion pages about the moral imperative of breast-feeding may seem like aspirational class navel gazing— it reflects a debate completely detached from most mothers’ lives, and indeed it is. The Mommy Wars— to breastfeed or not, the stay-at-home versus the working mother face-off, C-sections, and home births— are debates for a particularly privileged set of women.

* if one has the time and money to attend cardio barre classes several times a week, it does start to show. As the New York Observer less than delicately put it, women who attend these classes do look physically different from their non– barre workout class attendees. So merely by picking up coffee, stopping at the grocery store, or going out to dinner, those who attend classes at Pop Physique, Physique 57, The Bar Method, or any permutation of cardio barre class, reveal their conspicuous leisure by simply living their lives. And if one is ever concerned that the world is unaware of the hard work of such conspicuous leisure, there is always the “healthy selfie,” which is a photo taken post-workout that can be instantly posted to Facebook or Instagram, or one’s blog.

* Consider the maelstrom of aspirational class parenting: the elite, private preschool. Tuition runs $ 10,000– $ 40,000 a year and wait-lists start before a child is even born. Forty-five-year-old dads race out of work to pick up their kids by 5 pm (only to work into the wee hours after bedtime). Some dads work in the broadly drawn “creative class,” and thus their flexible hours allow them to join their children for lunch. Stay-at-home moms, some with Ivy League graduate degrees, are shopping for organic vegetables and organizing play dates and music lessons while their children are at school.

* Where Starbucks made its fortune in bringing luxury to the masses, Intelligentsia makes its (smaller) fortune proclaiming its rarity.

* People who shop at Whole Foods are not oblivious to its contradictions of capitalism. Affectionately called Whole Paycheck, the grocery store beams purity, goodwill, and a return to nature— but all at a shocking price tag that is unaffordable for most of society. Whole Foods shoppers know that they can get organic tomatoes for half the cost at Trader Joe’s, or even the local chain, but the grocery store creates an entire shopping experience that for many is worth the price. Even people who probably don’t earn the income to afford luxury food (those same unemployed playwrights and artists buying $ 5 cups of coffee) end up in the store’s deli buying sweet summer kale salad for $ 11.99 a pound.

* Farmers’ markets perhaps most closely embody the merging of localism and conspicuous production and successfully exist in the heart of distinctly non-agrarian cities across the United States. Any weekend afternoon in Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, or Notting Hill offers half a dozen such gatherings of farm-fresh produce heralding from pastures and fields located in the city’s hinterlands.

* Indeed, from an economies-of-scale or -scope perspective, the farmers’ market makes no sense— there aren’t significant advantages for the farmer or the consumers, who would otherwise be Whole Foods customers perhaps avoiding long lines and the parking lot. People don’t go to farmers’ markets for deals— most of the fruit and vegetables are the same price as in upscale grocery stores— nor do they go to get diversity of produce.

* The problem is that cheap goods simply can’t be made in America. …consumers are taking notice of globalization’s discontents and slowly pushing back. Globalization may have brought $ 5 t-shirts but increasingly, consumers are willing to pay more to ensure that workers are well cared for.

* Consumption may define the urban experience generally, but Los Angeles and San Francisco, despite both being Californian cities, couldn’t be more different from one another, not just in the idiosyncrasies of their micro-scenes of glamour or grit, but also on a macro level. These cities are of course both great meccas of urbanity and all of its trappings— luxury coffee, great restaurants, museums, and big sports stadiums. But if you confused a San Franciscan with an Angelino, the former would be deeply insulted, priding himself on a bohemian intellectualism that the latter surely lacks. Angelinos find New Yorkers neurotic, New Yorkers find Chicagoans too Midwestern, and so forth. Herein lies a simple but important point about cities and their consumption: As New York is known for finance and fashion, San Francisco for technology, Detroit for automobiles, and Los Angeles for film and video games, the cities’ consumption options are equally important in underpinning their identities.

* Los Angeles, New York, Miami, and San Francisco are home to the biggest fruit and vegetable consumers….Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore rank as the lowest consumers… Philadelphia cheesesteak sandwiches may not be a daily habit but they do reflect a culture that is more meat than kale. Candy, chewing gum, cola, and artificial sweeteners are popular in the Midwest but for the most part are avoided in coastal cities. Northeast cities consistently spend less than the national average by a significant amount. In 2010, for example, New Yorkers spent about half as much as most cities spend on artificial sweeteners and 55% less on candy and chewing gum. Non-metro areas consume a lot of artificial sweeteners, cola, fats, oils, and fresh milk and cream— exactly the items that city dwellers don’t buy. They also buy more frozen and canned vegetables and fruit rather than fresh. These are items that are, across the board, rarely bought in cities.

* urban dwellers have something in common when it comes to nonalcoholic beer, dining out, and drinking wine. They consume none of the country’s nonalcoholic beer (and I mean none of it) and universally spend more money on dining out and drinking wine— social activities that go hand in hand. San Francisco, San Diego, New York, and Boston have been known to spend more than twice as much on wine, in total expenditure, than the national average. And for those cities that are less likely to drink wine— Philadelphia and Detroit— they make up for it in beer and cocktails. Generally, beer is less of an urban drink than wine or cocktails, although Boston and Minneapolis are overachievers in all areas of alcoholic consumption. Only Miami is a teetotaler across the board, spending about 40% less than the rest of the country on alcoholic beverages.

* Housekeeping services are also a remarkably urban phenomenon, with New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco spending almost double the rest of the country (whereas housekeeping supplies is a disproportionately non-metro purchase).

* No one really hosted dinner parties or had people over for coffee. People did everything outside of their home in the cafés and bars located on all corners of the city. Working on my first book, I remember interviewing Ingrid Sichy, editor of Interview magazine at the time, and she said the same thing, unprompted by me— that the city was one’s dining room, living room, and extended home— rather than the apartment, which is just where we went to sleep at night. Sichy, friend of Andy Warhol, glamorous cultural icon on the New York City scene, was, just like the rest of us, merely paying rent to actually live and be entertained in the city at large. Thus it is no surprise at all to see that many urban households seem to have similar priorities. Across all cities, urbanites reveal remarkably less expenditure share than the national average on household textiles, bathroom and bedroom linens, furniture, and silver serving pieces— all the trappings of the tidy, beautifully maintained home.

* Urban folks spend their money on things outside of the material goods of the home. They may outsource labor to make their home lives easier, but they are not spending money on the material aspects of their homes. This decision is in part because they eat and entertain outside the home. It may also be due to the transient nature of many people’s urban experience— people live in cities for some parts of their lives, then they get married, have kids, and move to the suburbs, which is when they start to care about sofas and bathroom towels. Yet, another important aspect of this pattern is that urbanites spend so much time outside of their homes that their materialism is devoted to their own external physical appearance, rather than that of their internal world, thus encapsulating Georg Simmel’s early-twentieth-century observation of eccentric urbanites who use clothing as a quick signal of identity and individuality.

* As ostentatious as they are in some respects, there is a subtlety to many city dwellers’ beauty habits. Makeup rarely looks obvious, manicures are often clear or a pale pink. The exceptions to this trend are Houston and Dallas (and Seattle, of all places), where there is more of an inclination to spend on beauty products, including wigs and hairpieces.

* I was eating in a Mexican restaurant in Pasadena with my friend Eric (an avid Grindr user, if only in the passive, trolling sense). While I was eating tacos, he was doing a Grindr search; it turned out that a potential mate was at a table a mere 10 feet away, as indicated by the location button on his app flashing incessantly. Since the Grindr app has to be open for a location to be traced, this guy also would also had to have his app open and would thus be aware of Eric’s whereabouts, making for a rather awkward situation when neither of them made an effort to speak.

* When people move to cities, they become more eccentric, more visually individualistic, as a way to distinguish themselves from the throngs of others living there. Such individuality and distinction must occur instantaneously as we walk past each other on the street, thus clothing becomes one of the most efficient ways to do so. Much of conspicuous consumption rests on our relationship to our neighbors and peers and thus city life plays a significant role in how we consume. In a 2006 article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, Dartmouth professor Erzo Luttmer found that our neighbors’ wealth inversely affected our well-being. In fact, while living next to rich people makes us unhappy, it’s worse to be friends with them. 47 Thus, in New York City, where making $ 500,000 is “middle class,” 48 it’s no surprise that its inhabitants feel the pressure to keep up with their friends who make $ 5 million a year, or to at least appear as though they are on par. In New York City, just like San Francisco, everyone feels poor (even the well-to-do) because the density of the city forces close and frequent contact with others, including those with great wealth. This density puts further pressure on inhabitants to be status-conscious, and reminds them of their social and economic position vis-à-vis everyone else. In general, cities have this effect on us— we are both pressured and rewarded by conspicuous, status-oriented consumption.

* In his book Distinction, the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, wrote about the means by which status was attained across different classes. Bourdieu argued that the working class didn’t simply want what the rich already had, but rather each class’s values reflected their respective social position. In essence, they wanted different things altogether. The working class prized new over vintage or antique, American football rather than tennis, ostentatious weddings rather than small, quiet affairs. 49 To use Max Weber’s term, the rich, middle class, and working class embody and prioritize different “styles of life.” 50 Consumer behavior becomes one of the key elements in demonstrating status, and thus different cities, with their diverse populations in terms of race, income, industry, and educational levels, have dramatically different consumption patterns.

* When there are more people around, there is greater pressure to reveal status and also a greater social bump from conspicuous consumption. Because young people likely have fewer obligations in other areas of their lives and enjoy a highly social lifestyle, the younger the population, the greater the level of conspicuous consumption. Given that they provide more opportunities for their clientele to flaunt their status, greater numbers of drinking establishments and restaurants are also associated with conspicuous consumption.

* When I think about city differences, I am often reminded of a more contemporary, albeit quirky, example— that of the surfer menorah. As its namesake would suggest, this item is a menorah fashioned with a surfboard placed on the stem between the candelabrum’s branches and its foot. New York University sociologist Harvey Molotch wrote in great detail about its popularity on the beaches of Laguna Niguel in Southern California and the impossibility of selling it anywhere else. It is the hybrid culture specific to Southern California that allows such an item to be ironic (even literal for some) rather than offensive. But such an item only exists as a result of the great beaches that enable surfing and the rise of auto design, which brought lots of new acrylics and materials that allowed surfboards to advance along with a liberal Jewish population. Along with surfboards came the “high-jinks” surfer culture that inspired the irreverent art scene of the 1960s which influenced the production of that surfer menorah many decades later. The surfing wouldn’t be possible without the beach and the ocean, but those surfboards were a result of materials spawned from aerospace and cars. So the surfer menorah becomes place-specific due to the confluence of artistic materials, culture, and demographics that are found only in the peculiarities of Southern California.

* By way of anecdote, after moving from New York to California, I found that within five or six years I wore less black, ate more vegetables, learned how to cook quinoa…

* research that suggests that money can buy happiness up to $ 75,000 annual income… those who were wealthier experienced feelings of accomplishment and being in the right place in their life journey. In other words, possessing financial resources is correlated with satisfaction…

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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