My parents, in a gleefully mean but entirely apt fashion, nicknamed me “Miss Malaprop” when I was younger. Because as both a bookish and slightly show-offy child I was prone to sprinkling my conversations with words I had picked up from the books I devoured. Words that I mangled but nevertheless said with supreme confidence. Like hippopotamus (hittimus pottimus), antique, (an-tee-cue) La Boheme (la-bo-heem) and botanical (bont-tee-cool).
I was kind of like a tiny and not-rich version of the infamous Cleveland socialite Laura Mae Corrigan who was dubbed “Queen of the Malaprops” for her tendency toward descriptors such as the “gothic buttocks” of a cathedral. That, or those “foxy morons” Kath and Kim with their glasses of “cardonnay”.
And indeed there is a correlation between those prone to malaprops and mispronounciation and, well, striving. Corrigan remade herself as a wealthy woman of the world from humble beginnings, Kim wanted to show Bretty what he was missing out on and me? Well, I so badly wanted to be grown-up already – often telling my parents when I was about six or so that I’d really like to have “a coffee and a chat”.
So perhaps it makes sense that in China, where a new generation of rich are looking for ways to spend and flaunt their money, people are paying more than $21,000 a week for a course that, among other useful things such as folding a napkin and wearing a hat, teaches you how to pronounce luxury brand names.
“There’s an etiquette class in China, where people spend $16,000 for a two-week course where they learn how to pronounce luxury brands, eat caviar, and sit at the table like a Westerner,” says Lauren Greenfield, a photographer who has spent her career documenting the ways the 1 per cent spend their money in an interview with Bloomberg.
Her subjects are now part of a book titled Generation Wealth (Phaidon, 2017) – showing her 25-year career as a sort-of anthropologist documenting a world most of us will never see.
There are two courses on offer, offered by Sara Jane Ho, a Hong Kong-born graduate of Harvard Business School – a 12-day hostessing class for married women, and a 10-day “debutante” course for unmarried women. Ho tells Greenfield in the book that “in China we have a culture of conspicuous consumption, but my students are trying to move beyond just buying a label for its label”.
“When I first went to China [in the early 2000s], everybody wanted Hermès and Louis Vuitton bags,” Greenfield says. “But by the time I went back everyone could have it, so it wasn’t special anymore. So now the way they distinguish themselves is to emulate the [Western] aristocracy.”
“If you have a Louis Vuitton bag, there are thousands of those bags,” added Ho. “But if you have a horse in an Hermès saddle, it defines you in a different way.”
Isn’t that the thing about status? It’s not really about what you have, but having the right stuff at the right time. Or the stuff that nobody else has. Or the stuff that only signals to those in the know, the ones that you want to impress – and also perhaps the ones that you never will.
In the fashion and luxury world, it’s being on the inside. It’s knowing that you’re not really wearing a tracksuit but you’re wearing Vetements (pronounced vet-mohn, by the way) aka high fashion hoodies that cost more than $1000. You’ve got the Dior kitten heels that are wait-listed around the world before kitten heels made a comeback, and know how to track down a Birkin bag (that you wear casually, to the gym say, and not like it’s precious). You know when logos are in (Gucci!) and out (Celine!) and you never, ever get flustered and flub the name of the luxury good that you’re buying.
But is there not something anti-status about caring so much about status? It’s like trying to give yourself a nickname, or caring too much about your Instagram grid – it’s deeply uncool to try to be cool. And anyway, if you’ve got enough money to buy all the luxury goods in the world, should you really give a fig if you pronounce it wrong?
Probably. But that doesn’t mean the status symbol will ever go away. But it does mean that it becomes ever less obvious, but no less insidious. Look at the status symbols of late – sleep, health (those green smoothies and pilates-honed physiques are one way to flaunt one’s status) and this just in – work.
According to Ben Tarnoff, prodigious amounts of work – the right kind mind, not the sort that means backbreaking labour for just enough money to scrape by – is the new status symbol.
As Tarnoff writes, “[C]onspicuous production isn’t about meeting one’s material needs. It’s about the public display of productivity as a symbol of class power. In an era of extreme inequality, elites need to demonstrate to themselves and others that they deserve to own orders of magnitude more wealth than everyone else.”
So whether it’s pronouncing Hermès correctly or logging 100-hour work weeks, it seems likely that status symbols aren’t going anywhere, only getting trickier, more slippery, to define.
Anybody else in need of a glass of cardonnay?