Keeping Up Appearances

Just as actors use stage makeup to appear more natural under spotlights, assimilating into high society is also a performance in which reality is stitched together by exaggeration. Signaling one’s status with luxury goods is a common strategy in both the first and modern-day Gilded Ages. In the First Gilded Age, it was common for elites to drape themselves in fine silks and own ornate silver objects to flaunt their wealth and respectability; whereas in the current Gilded Age, having a stylishly contrived ‘selfie’ or a designer tie has the same effect. Beyond the affluence connoted by name-brand items, material possessions convey a plethora of information about their owners’ identity, among these being marital status, age, and personal interests or hobbies. While luxury goods were meant to communicate the class position of their holders, members of the First Gilded Age had to flaunt mindfully to remain “in character” with the social mores of the time.

In the Second Gilded Age, while a less discrete visual contrast exists between classes, the public construction of status still predominantly operates in the same way; the “performative dimensions” of wealth, such as purchasing material goods and presenting oneself publicly in a certain manner, still play a pivotal role in centralizing one’s social position. As luxury goods have become more accessible to the mainstream, individuals eager to promote their social status have greater access to the objects that can construct a more desirable identity.

Objects from this theme:

Click the thumbnails below to learn more about these objects.

  • keepingUpAppearances_split_levine
  • keepingUpAppearances_split_weber
  • keepingUpAppearances_split_willett