You get Barracuda Straight Leg Jeans—complete with “crackled, caked-on muddy coating”—on sale for $425 at Nordstrom.
When Thorstein Veblen invented the term “conspicuous consumption,” in his Theory of the Leisure Class (pdf), he was referring to late-nineteenth-century America as having entered the “predatory phase” of culture, when the people at the top obtained their goods by seizure and imputed indignity to the “performance of productive work.”
The clothing of the leisure class reflected this distancing from the world of work—conspicuous consumption combined with conspicuous leisure and conspicuous waste.
In dress construction this norm works out in the shape of divers contrivances going to show that the wearer does not and, as far as it may conveniently be shown, can not engage in productive labor. Beyond these two principles there is a third of scarcely less constraining force, which will occur to any one who reflects at all on the subject. Dress must not only be conspicuously expensive and inconvenient, it must at the same time be up to date.
Nordstrom’s muddy jeans are therefore a perfect example of contemporary predatory culture, when those at the top are afforded the luxury of ironically quoting—but not actually doing—any productive work. Instead, they capture a portion of the surplus and use it to purchase clothing that—in the form of conspicuous consumption, leisure, and waste—shows they are exempted from the exigency of work imposed on everyone else, who are of course required to dress in neat and clean uniforms, just like the servants of the first Gilded Age.
Now, in the latest stage of predatory culture, those at the top can purchase fake mud-stained jeans while McDonald’s employees will now wear uniforms reminiscent of the Hunger Games.
What’s next, corsets?*
*Here again is Veblen:
The dress of women goes even farther than that of men in the way of demonstrating the wearer’s abstinence from productive employment. . .
the woman’s apparel not only goes beyond that of the modern man in the degree in which it argues exemption from labor; it also adds a peculiar and highly characteristic feature which differs in kind from anything habitually practiced by the men. This feature is the class of contrivances of which the corset is the typical example. The corset is, in economic theory, substantially a mutilation, undergone for the purpose of lowering the subject’s vitality and rendering her permanently and obviously unfit for work.