I MAY not know quite how the economy affects me—I have the same apartment, job and paycheck—but I still feel the weight of its fall. I don’t know exactly why I should worry, but people tell me I should, so I do. I go to fewer coffee shops, spend more at the grocery store and less at restaurants, fret at the impossibility of saving money, and agonize over grad school timing and my choice of profession.
There’s a little fuzzily righteous phrase that contributes to my anxiety: “inappropriate in a recession.” In other words, continued success is an embarrassment, and those who are still doing well should hide it lest they provoke the jealousy of the less fortunate. But this scaling back to tasteful asceticism isn’t helping anything—morale, or the economy that rides on morale.
Take fashion. The New York Times quotes an editor at Allure magazine saying, “Shopping is almost embarrassing, and a little vulgar right now.” Wealthy women have turned to secret, invitation-only shopping extravaganzas in hotel suites and private rooms. The Daily Beast caught Kathleen Fuld, wife of Lehman Brothers C.E.O. Dick Fuld, opting for a plain white bag to conceal the thousands she spent at a Hermes boutique. Other wealthy women are doing the same.
The fashion titans are toning down the panoply, too. Betsey Johnson and Carmen Marc Valvo have decided against Bryant’s Park Fashion Week this year. Vera Wang has also opted out and her reasoning sounds familiar: “I don’t want to seem irrelevant or unaware of what’s going on in the rest of the world—not just the fashion world. … The intimacy of a smaller show feels much more appropriate for these times." Chanel has canceled its traveling Zaha Hadid art exhibit, saying, “Considering the current economic crisis, we decided it was best to stop the project.”
This unsettles me because on a more lowly level, I feel the same way. I still have a paycheck. Is it inappropriate to make my little Banana Republic sale purchases? Should I be shopping somewhere cheaper (or not shopping at all) in deference to the hardships of others?
Saving money makes sense, but saving money because spending will make others feel bad does not make sense—and it doesn’t make anyone feel any better. Those who are still doing well should show it. It means that not all is lost because some are still doing just fine, and the rest of us could eventually be among them. Not all boats will sink in the sinking tide.
I hope the fashionistas, especially, have a little less discretion. Fashion is commerce—Fashion Week brings in tourists and employs models, security personnel, maintenance crews, personal assistants—but it’s also more than commerce. Vera Wang symbolizes not just wealth but culture and class, art and leisure—and those are important not just because we need them on the other side of this recession, but because they’ll help to get us through.
It’s about morale. In hard times, we shouldn’t abandon the things that keep people cheerful, hopeful and happy. In the 1930s and 1940s they had screwy comedy. Music was hopeful to the point of saccharine: “You gotta accentuate the positive / Eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative.” Women went to ingenious lengths to look good. Pretty things and funny things can give us pluck—an old-fashioned word that means everyday cheerfulness against the odds.
It’s not just that we need pluck for our own sakes. We need it because our own emotions affect the economy, too. An Opinion Research Council poll just found that 77% of Americans think the media is making the economy worse by making people worry. Adam Gopnik captured this in last week’s New Yorker:
Economies are emotional processes. … When you turn to wise men for wisdom now, you learn that feelings—the interplay of fear and faith—generally trump rational economic decisions. … An economy is not a rational model; it’s an emotional muddle. It depends on how you feel about your neighbors, about next year’s hopes. … Which is why another new President once warned against fearing fear, and why the only thing that can cause us to panic now is panic.
That phrase “inappropriate in a recession” doesn’t make me want to do what Gopnik says—“take a breath and shop.” Sad for me, sad for the stores, and sad for society.
At least media personality Julia Allison is holding firm. Her parents criticized as ‘inappropriate’ the lavish bi-coastal birthday party she’s planning, she grumbled on Twitter: “Apparently one shouldn't plan birthday parties ‘in this economy.’” Allison is still planning one, though. Good for her. Now if only Vera Wang would take the hint.
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