Coolness as conformity

An essential element of coolness--or fashion, or modes of any sort--is that it was born under a different guise: that of convention and conformity. Veblen's leisure class, a century ago, spent and sported as part of a social contract. This contract was one formed not only with the public at large, to whom they served as "leaders of society, of fashion, of taste, of gentility," (Montgomery, 1998, p. 9) but also with the press that documented their antics. Society journalism, born at the end of the 19th century along with the international press, constituted an essential part of the development of the mass media, and with it a heightened public awareness of how the other half lives.[3] Even casual entertainment bore the message of mandatory consumption and excess--George Bernard Shaw, nibbling meanly at the hand that fed him, called the society play "a tailor's advertisement making sentimental remarks to a milliner's advertisement in the middle of an upholsterer's and decorator's advertisement." (Wolff, 1993, p.272) This hints at the double-edged sword that society had become with the rise of the mass media; what purports to entertain must also promote. Papers slid advertising space down the public's throat with a sugary spoonful of stories, and the culture of marketing began to take up a certain amount of real estate in everyday life.

It is in the late 19th century that we see the proliferation of the status symbol, Veblen's infamous "conspicuous consumption", along with the establishment of strict codes of behavior according to class and one's place in society, and of mandatory displays of gentility. The industrial boom of the late 1800s created a whole new class of superwealthy, self-made men, who found that they could not enter the ranks of Society (with a capital S) by virtue of their wealth alone. Only by demonstrating their Suitability (with a capital S) could they gain social access, with its concomitant pressures of continued obedience and conformity at any cost. There were also rewards; in the old boys' network, commerce depended on connections, which were made and reinforced by one's reputation. The old boys' wives, on whom the primary burden of leisurely display and critical observance fell, simultaneously made calculating use of and were vulnerable to public scrutiny. John Berger echoes this well into the twentieth century, when he says a woman "is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. . . she has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others. . . is of crucial importance." (Berger, 1972, p. 46)

In this social world, it was quite common for the major rules to be completely, scandalously, shattered, but for those who shattered them to go on observing to the last letter the rest of society's standards. Scandals of this nature populate the fictional and theatrical work of Edith Wharton, and their piercing ironiesare perhaps the best illustration of the dilemmas of conformity in her time. [ 4] Despite the power of these conventions, however, society at the turn of the last century still had its early adopters, its trendsetters, its "latest things." As Carol Wershoven put it, "the rich are restless." (1993, p.119) She goes on to quote from Wharton's novel The Children: "Nothing. . . chilled their interest in whatever they were doing as rapidly as the discovery that one of the party had had enough of it, and was moving on to the next item of the day's program." The defiance of those conventions which control others, and the subsequent acceptance of that defiance by those who are typically conventional, is the very life cycle of coolness.

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