During my research, I took part in conversations about clothing among middle-class women (either self-identified as middle class or structurally positioned in the „middle”) that started, like most conversations about garments begin, with an admirative comment about a certain piece and the taste it betrays. However, less expectedly, in these cases the first reaction to the comment was to literally indicate the „very good price” the wearer paid for it in a second hand clothes shop, a flea market, a yard sale, an outlet or a clothing factory’s shop. The ensuing animated conversations alternated between discussions of the piece of garment, its fabric, cut and style, and exchanges of information about the particular place in which the item was bought and about other places in Bucharest, other Romanian towns and abroad, the list including „well-stocked” second-hand clothes chains such as Monda and Humana in Bucharest and the factories’ shops in the provincial town of Focșani next to „fabulous” outlets such as MiniPrix in Bucharest and TK Maxx in various European cities. The admired piece was sometime discussed in relation to the other elements of the outfit and the collection of clothes the wearer possessed. In these instances too, exchanges about style and fashion accompanied remarks about price and quality.
In one such case, a woman proudly informed her interlocutors that her outfit was entirely assembled from second-hand pieces and costed less than the food she had just served, only to be lectured on the „art” of hunting for „fancy”, „quirk” and „vintage” items in second-hand clothes shops and of combining expensive items with bargains without compromising on style and quality. The lecturer pointed out that this „art” differentiated the savvy from the poor consumer, and stylish consumption from „mere” consumption. And in another case, a woman found the story about the „time consuming but interesting work” of a friend, who scoured these types of shops, found the „treasures” that the poor ignored, curated outfits and sold them online for a markup to „people with taste but no time”, as the appropriate end for a conversation that started from a garment bought at a „very good price”.
These last examples make more evident what all these conversations have in common, namely the material and symbolic marking of class boundaries. The poor buys discounted products and second-hand clothes because this is all they can afford. The middle-class woman is a discerning consumer, whose cultural capital (taste) allows her to engage in the „art” of finding clothes in low profile places and to do the „interesting work” of selecting valuable items and curating outfits.
Bourdieu (1986) argues that every individual occupies a position within the social structure by virtue of the social, economic and cultural capital that he/she possesses. To some extent, these forms of capital evolve from one another. However, none of them is completely reducible to any other. In other words, a limited budget does not translate into a shabby wardrobe. Also the acquisition of luxury (non-necessary) items as a „treat” is a common practice across classes.
Moreover, Bourdieu (1984) emphasizes that people possess a „know-how” of class (and this is valid even for a place like Romania where they are less willing to talk about class and reflect on class differences, but eager to share their appreciative or derogatory comments about their and the others’ taste). Consequently, they decide, for example, on what to wear and judge other people’s dress. In Bourdieu’s (1984: 6) words, “taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier”. Taste does not simply reflect a class position, it actively and effectively makes class distinction.
In addition, Donner (2017: 8) notes that „the experience of being middle-class is fractured and contradictory, outwardly, because it requires control over certain kinds of capital, notably education, but may imply lack of other kinds, notably finance.” To recast the bargain hunting as an „art” and „interesting work” is to try to ease the subjective feeling and structural experience of living through these fractures and contradictions.
In brief, class is „the structuring absence” (Skeggs 1997) in these conversations. The bargains are classed.
Bourdieu, P. (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Bourdieu, P. (1986) „The Forms of Capital”, în Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, J. Richardson (ed). Westport, CT: Greenwood. Pp. 241-58.
Donner, H. (2017). „The anthropology of the middle class across the globe”, Anthropology of this Century 18, accesat 13 septembrie 2017 http://aotcpress.com/articles/anthropology-middle-class-globe/
Skeggs, B. (1997). Formations of Class and Gender. London: Sage.