Leisure Class vs. Hipster Culture

Rosecliff, wikicommons

No other homes represent the wealth of the white upper classes from the end of the 19th century better then the historic homes of the Preservation Society of Newport. These homes are huge, beautiful and ostentatious.  Features that I came to realize symbolized the nouveau rich discussed in Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class and brilliantly rendered in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  I thought the final reading by Mark Grief called “The Hipster in the Mirror” would be my least resourceful article for this blog assignment. However, it turns out that current day hipsters and 19th century industrialists have more in common than I previously thought.  The leisure classes at the turn of the century and members of the hipster culture of today struggle for superiority within their social class by adopting the standards of the class in which they aspire to [1].

The homes owned by the Preservation Society represent the conspicuous consumption defined by Veblen that permeated the nouveau rich of the late 19th century [2]. For the first time Americans were able to acquire excess capital to purchase items above their base needs [3].  This display of wealth was characterized by all classes during the Gilded Age of economic growth, but was derived from the desire to emulate the leisure classes.  Within the leisure class itself there was a further stratification between the ostentatious conspicuous consumers of the nouveau rich and the more conservative old elite.  The difference between them involved the degree to which they embodied the accepted standards of the leisure class.  The nouveau rich were not just emulating the old elite, but striving to establish themselves as members of that elite group and strove to adopt their characteristics in taste and lifestyle.

wiki commons

Tours conducted in each of these “cottages” in Newport draw attention to their European influences and bring to mind the British and European aristocracy. One home in particular, Rosecliff, owned by Nevada silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs, was influenced by the Grand Trianon at Versailles in France and was the site of scenes from the film adaptation of The Great Gatsby. To the nouveau rich, wealth and features of European taste reflected in each home was meant to provide proof of their owners’ right to be included in the established cannon of the elite class. To the established elite however wealth alone did not mean inclusion.  In fact they most likely viewed the nouveau rich as being on a different social level.  According to Veblen, the standards or characteristics of the leisure class included aversion to work and innovation, and oppositions to changes in their cultural views and social standards.  These were also seen as inherited traits in the leisure class [4].  Since the nouveau rich industrialist embodied hard work, innovation and made their money from the second industrial revolution, they were seen as distasteful to the established “old money” class [5].   To the old elite, the new rich represented a threat to their established standards and life style and could not be truly accepted.

wiki commons

Today societies continue to rely on inner superiority based on standards of taste and intellect to justify privilege [6].   Today’s hipsters provide their own stratifications and standards.  Hipsters use sensitivity to trends deemed culturally “authentic” (they despise the mainstream) and tasteful as standards that define their subculture group [7]. Like the conflict over true elitism between the nouveau rich and old elite, hipsters within similar economic backgrounds use these standards to assert their superior knowledge of the hipster culture in order to distinguish themselves within it [8].  Grief’s article uses the Bourdiunian idea (an update of Veblan) that taste and money are not indicators of superiority to other social groups. Preferences and tastes are based on the characteristics and exposure of your education, family and profession [9]. In other words, your preferences are related to your social class, not inherent superiority.

Grief does not go on to reveal whether these standards of hipster culture permeate other social classes or ethnic groups, though Veblen does assert that the domestic classes adopted examples set by the leisure class in terms of consumption and social temperament [8].  What about the influence of leisure class on various ethnic groups?  Several of the historic homes of the Preservation Society are beginning to reflect on the lives of the domestic servants through the oral histories of the descendents of the 2,229 servants who worked at these grand mansions.  Research is still in progress. Hopefully these topics of the influence of the leisure class on other classes and ethnic groups may be discussed in future blogs.

[1] Grief, Mark. “The Hipster in the Mirror.” The New York Times, 2010.;Veblen, Thorstein. “Selection from The Theory of the Leisure Class.” In The American Intellectual Tradition , by David Hollinger and Charles Capper, 127-141. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

[2] Veblen,  134

[3]  Veblen 1997, 133

[4] Veblen 1997,  132

[5] Veblen 1997, 132

[6] Grief 2010, 4

[7] Grief 2010, 3

[8] Grief 2010, 3

[9] Grief 2010, 3

[9] Veblen 1997, 140-141

4 thoughts on “Leisure Class vs. Hipster Culture

  1. Personally, I am sick of interpretation of the rich and the nouveau riche. I am excited about the stories of the domestic servants you found. It will be interesting to look at these old stories in a new way.

    You hit on some really interesting ideas about how culture permeates between classes and interclass relations. I look forward to your presentation in class.

  2. Ouch. okay fair Christine.Call me crazy but I actually liked the articles on the social ideas of rich white culture and how they function as a class. It was challenging writing this article because of the sources and the focus on the museum aspect. I would have liked to write about Gatsby and the influence of the wealthy class on the lower classes in the book. Particularly striking to me was the tour that Gatsby gave Nick in his Rolls Royce, the passed a funeral and an upper-class black family that turned their nose at them and Nick laughed and said that anything was possible with Gatsby. I actually was thinking about that black elite group and how they perceived their position in society relative to whites and blacks within their social circle. Why did Nick feel like driving by the hearse would be a bright light for those people on a sad day (bit presumptuous).

    The servants section in the Preservation Society website is a bit bland, but I hope to put forth ideas for possible improvement. I know that Veblen spoke about upper-class ideas permeating into lower levels of society, but I wonder if that’s true and whether oral histories would prove that.

  3. I think your assessment of the Preservation Society houses is fair in regards to the reading. While I can see Christine’s point, as I find myself to sometimes unable to relate to, or really, honestly care about the interpretations presented by historic houses of the rich and elite from this period, it is important to understand how these people lived in order to understand the big picture. I think we especially are drawn to how the lower classes interacted not only as servants inside these homes, but what was leisure to them. I find it interesting that some of the homes have tried to incorporate this idea (although somewhat limited) on the website, but do they really interpret these people throughout the houses and the tours?

    I really look forward to discussing this idea, and what you proposed Mia, in class today.

  4. Hipsters are quite in tune with the echos of Veblens. Veblens (rather stupidly) argued that: ” The motive that lies at the root of ownership is emulation; and the same motive of emulation continues active in the further development of the institution to which it has given rise and in the development of all those features of the social structure which this institution of ownership touches. The possession of wealth confers honour; it is an invidious distinction.” Hipsters are in fact attempting to shun emulation of others. What’s less cool than emulating the stuffy old rich. That they end up looking like tattooed clones is merely an artifact of the fact it is really hard to be original.

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