The appetite for nice things

I quoted a piece from Mary McCarthy a few days ago about the accrued labour of others (in terms of the labour theory of value) and fashion, briefly summed up in one sentence which she then explores:

The toil of many hands is the sine qua non of fashion.

Laura quite rightly pointed out that without broader context, the piece I quoted could give the impression that Mary McCarthy was simply disapproving of “the feminine appetite for nice things”, whereas in fact she very much favoured finely-crafted luxurious and elegant surroundings, costume and paraphernalia – but was also keenly aware of the artifice involved. Because I found the quote as I reproduced it, contextually isolated, I hadn’t known that.

This got me thinking. The aesthetic of appreciating finely-crafted consumables – a gourmet meal, a luxury car, an original artwork – is a basic component of hierarchical display. Teenage boys “rate” each other on the quality, or at least the expense, of their athletic footwear. Executives “rate” each other on the paper and engraving used in their business cards. The higher one is on the totem pole, the more handcrafted rather than mass-produced items tend to surround one: handstitched shoes, frenchpolished furniture, tailored clothing, handrolled cigars etc. One also patronises master craftsmen rather than regular purveyors of goods and services – haircuts, manicures, “name” chefs, the elite theatre etc. The aesthetic of fine-craftsmanship and its reliance on the toil of many hands runs alongside and eventually is subsumed by the aesthetic of conspicuous consumption.

The aesthetic of conspicuous consumption, and the fashions of the accoutrements involved in it, underpin the climb up the greasy pole and the corporate ladder to the cabinet rooms and the boardrooms, those rooms above all still dominated by men. So why is it overwhelmingly women (and those men perceived as effeminate) who are accused of being “trivial” simply because they too like to surround themselves with nice things?

Categories: culture wars, gender & feminism

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8 replies

  1. Because the fabled babbles that the chaps buy sit at personal remove in the realm of the connoisseur, the impersonal. Because the nice things that many women display are about personal adornment; inherently part of the transaction of status display projected on the female body. Because what men do, still matters more.
    And the question of the role of the hand made, the unique, the precious sits like a boil, a carbuncle upon the practice of art, making and design. Art, craft only has meaning when it is accorded status – status that is very much based upon exclusivity, hierarchy of meaning be that located in precious materials, rare skills or the smug surety of the artist’s genius.

  2. Tigtog, if you’re the kind of person who can tolerate reading on planes (and if you’re looking for something engrossing to take on your trip) I very much recommend Mary McCarthy, either “The Group”, “Memories of a Catholic Girlhood” or “The Company She Keeps.” You would love her, I know. She’s a terrific writer, and so interesting, and has so much to say, still.

  3. I shall seek her out at my favourite bookshop, Laura.

  4. Snap, Laura, I too was thinking of The Group — full of brilliantly observed people and their relationship to things, finely crafted and otherwise. Worth reading for the scene of Dottie’s visit to the gynaecologist, and its aftermath, alone.
    My own take on finely-craftedness is highly coloured by the memory of my mother, of whose rare gift for making things I was a beneficiary daily for the whole of my childhood. Summer dresses, sprays of home-grown rosebuds to wear for good luck in exams, merry-go-round birthday cakes with silver-paper horses. I associate the finely crafted with unconditional love, which unfortunely skews my political take on it all to hell.

  5. My mother is crafty too (though not so much on the cakes), and I think I can save your political take!
    I make strong distinctions between the finely handcrafted offerings of a single pair of loving hands, the finely handcrafted offerings of a single artist offered for sale, and the finely handcrafted offerings of many pairs of poorly paid hands.
    The folk tradition, especially strong in snowbound countries, of womanly winter needlework (matched by manly winter woodcarving) for purely decorative purposes enabled the poor to share in an aesthetic of beauty for themselves when there was no crops in the ground. We’ve inherited that habit, and also the habit of appreciating the aesthetic of handmade items for the maker’s own home and family.
    I particularly like a story (possibly apocryphal) of one of those Middle Europe countries with a tradition of wives embroidering festival shirts for their husbands (unmarried men had plain shirts). Apparently the saying was “the finer the needlework, the finer the husband, for what woman would ruin her eyes for a worthless husband?”
    My mum made me a patchwork handbag for my birthday. She made an enormous effort with the fabric selection and it is absolutely beautiful. I get comments on it every week, along with disappointment when I tell them she doesn’t make bags to sell. She thought about it, but she wouldn’t cover costs selling them at a price people would be willing to pay, since she’s not a famous designer.

  6. It’s hard to single out highlights of The Group. But the chapter about breastfeeding (also Dottie) is one of the best things I’ve ever read on the subject.

  7. I think David bittie Walliams liked it too.
    “Who’d have thunk it?”
    is the groups equivalent of “Dear Reader I married him”
    Going to see the movie of The Group was SUCH a big deal at the time – lesbians! shock horror!
    and never mind Confessions Of A Catholic Girlhood if you find a copy of an old book Confessions Of A Southern Girlhood you may be better pleased by its author Florence King a true virago. I had no idea when I read it that the line “Dear Reader I fkd him” referenced Jane Austen (because i had not heard of her) but it was still extremely droll.

  8. Thanks Brownie! I’ll add your recommendations to the list.
    I’m a great admirer of David Walliams and Matt Lucas – methinks I shall have to drop by the BBC shop while I’m in London.
    I keep finding new references to the work of Jane Austen in other authors, often not until I’ve reread them. Time to read P&P again – I’ve only reread it once so far this year.

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