Author:  Lori Alden

Audience:  High school economics students

Time required:  About 50 minutes of class time.

NCEE Standards4

Summary:  Does being fashionable really need to be so expensive and bothersome?  According to Thorstein Veblen, an economist who wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class over a century ago, the answer is yes.  Veblen argues that the main point of being fashionable is to gain status by appearing rich and powerful.  This activity asks students to bring in photos of fashionable items and discuss whether these items exhibit conspicuous consumption.

Procedure:  As homework, have students bring in pictures of some of the things they would buy if they wanted to be in fashion.  

Have them share their pictures with their classmates, then ask them to read the following article and discuss the questions that follow.


The Economics of Fashion

           High school students Darla and Scott are out on a date, driving to a restaurant in Scott's gleaming black muscle car.  He's wearing an oversized designer sports coat over a silk shirt.  She's dressed in silk and suede, with her hair in a spiral curl and her acrylic nails painted with French tips.

            They're both very fashionable, but it costs them plenty.  Darla works at a fast food restaurant after school, and spends most of the $400 she earns each month on her hair, nails, clothes, and jewelry.  Scott works as a bagger at a supermarket; most of his income goes towards car payments. 

            As they arrive at the restaurant, it starts to rain.  Scott frets about his car—he’ll need to wipe off the water marks tomorrow and maybe wax it again.  Darla worries about her outfit—silk and suede blotch in the rain and will need to be dry-cleaned later.  She considers taking off her suede pumps before dashing through the rain to the restaurant, but decides against it.  Running just a few yards on the asphalt would ruin her hosiery.

            Does being fashionable really need to be so expensive and bothersome?  According to Thorstein Veblen, an economist who wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class over a century ago, the answer is yes.  Veblen argues that the main point of being fashionable is to gain status by appearing rich and powerful.   One way to display wealth and power is through "conspicuous consumption"—extravagant purchases of clothes, expensive cars, and other status symbols.  Another way is through "conspicuous leisure," or time-consuming activities that suggest an indifference to such mundane concerns as working for a living.

            In Veblen's day, affluent women sometimes crippled themselves in order to put on a convincing display of idleness.  Many women wore tight corsets around their waists that damaged their internal organs and made the women, as he put it, "permanently and obviously unfit for work."  In China, girls in wealthy families would have their feet broken and tightly bound so that they grew to have tiny "lotus" feet.  These were thought to be very fashionable since the women who had them were unable to survive without the help of servants.

             While most women today stop short of these extremes, many endure great inconveniences to give the impression that they do nothing useful.  Darla's long fingernails don't make work impossible, just impractical enough to clash with the image of someone who works hard all day.  Her elaborate hair style and make-up also suggest that she has a lot of time on her hands.  She doesn't, of course.  With her schoolwork and part-time job, she must sacrifice sleep to primp herself each day. 

             While females are commonly thought to be more fashion-conscious, males are susceptible too.  Many high school boys splurge on expensive athletic shoes, and then keep them immaculately clean, as if to suggest that they're wealthy enough to replace the shoes after they've been worn a few times.  Others, like Scott, lavish time and money on their cars.   

            Unfortunately, social status is relative—someone can get ahead in the rankings only if someone else falls behind.  As wealthy people race to stay ahead of wannabe's like Scott and Darla, fashions change.  Long skirts give way to short, wide ties to narrow.  Baggy jeans, so fashionable last year, are now being pushed to the back of closets to make way for the latest fad—distressed bootleg pants.  Not just old, worn-out jeans, mind you, but $75 jeans aged to a fashion designer's specifications.

            One goal of every economy is growth—to produce ever more goods.  But if we use these goods mostly to compete with each other for status, will having more make us happier?  There's no way to be sure, but ask yourself this.  If you were to double the number of eggs at an egg hunt, would it make the children happier?  You might say yes--most of the children would end up with more eggs in their baskets.  But you also might answer no.  Even after doubling the eggs, the kids who end up with less in their baskets may still feel like losers.  So it is with the economy; if it's our relative standing that matters, we may never see an end to poverty. 


1.  Do any of the items on your list demonstrate conspicuous consumption?  

2.  Do you engage in any activities that display conspicuous leisure?

3.  Name some things that have gone out of fashion in the past few years.  Why do you suppose they've gone out of fashion?

4.  Some schools require students to wear uniforms.  What are some of the advantages of that policy?  Disadvantages?



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