Consumption in the Age of Inequality

Endorsed by the BHC

Thursday, March 30, 2023, 2:45 PM - 4:15 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Consumerism and Consumption; Postwar; Social and Cultural


This panel seeks to understand the transformation of the American consumer landscape since the 1960s. How, we will ask, did consumption shape and was in turn shaped by important changes in the expression of racial, gender, and sexual identities? Why did market researchers turn from material definitions of class to the more fluid and expansive category of “lifestyle”? Ultimately, how did Americans come to see their purchases as an essential way to express themselves, enact their values, and take political action—and what might that tell us more broadly about life in the United States in the closing decades of the twentieth century? It wasn’t always this way. Until the second quarter of the twentieth century, one’s relationship to the mode of production was more important than one’s habits of consumption. And those consumer choices, marketers believed, flowed in a relatively uncomplicated way from one’s class position. Retailers pursued market segments that were arrayed according to ascending levels of income (as well as along the broad and reductive white/black racial divide). Most famously, GM aimed each of its product lines at specific slices of the market, from Chevrolet at the bottom to Cadillac at the top. But by the end of the 1960s, those strictly material definitions of class became less relevant for marketers and consumers alike. On the marketing side, researchers developed new “psychographic” categories that grouped consumers in clusters based on their “lifestyle”—a constellation of their tastes, age, gender, region, education, and ethnicity—that found expression through consumer choices. Social class, they believed, had come decoupled from income. Other forms of identity, and the values and preferences that accompanied them, seemed to matter more. A similar process was also occurring on the consumer side, as buying choices became freighted with social and political meaning. The rise of identity-based movements—in the gay and lesbian, feminist, African-American, and Latinx communities—were accompanied by calls for recognition in the consumer marketplace by Americans acting as self-conscious members of those groups. Meanwhile, as knowledge work moved to the center of the American economy, one’s education level, and the cultural and consumer tastes it fostered, came to determine one’s place in the social hierarchy. This panels’ three papers attempt to make sense of the consumer marketplace in the wake of these seismic shifts, examining, in turn, the realms of outdoor recreation gear, gourmet food, and natural lifestyle marketing. They seek to understand the complicated meanings of consumption, which, on one hand, promised liberation—a space to become one’s truest self, free from the ascriptive forces of class, gender, and race—but, on the other hand, signified the commodification of one’s very identity and group belonging. Together, they ask us to consider how studying consumption might shed new light on our histories of the late-twentieth-century United States.

Papers Presented

Puffy Jackets and Bean Boots: Lifestyle and America’s Outdoor Heritage

According to a 1989 federal study, the yuppie lifestyle supported the concept of wilderness, but their recreation habits suggested they were less likely to actually go to it. Many were perfectly happy to “enjoy” wilderness from the comfort of home, by looking at books, films, and outdoor catalogs. The concept of outdoor lifestyle was ubiquitous in the 1980s, visible in how advertisers talked about cars, houses, and most especially, clothing. Taking a cue from its ambitious but busy customer base, the outdoor industry began to sell a vision of an outdoor lifestyle, a new concept that was distinct from being someone who hiked or fished or hunted. It meant that the leisure-time activity was self-consciously a defining part of the self, a way of life, and shared set of consumer choices. Women and people of color were the biggest growing market for outdoor products, but many companies avoided marketing to them because of the perception that they would dilute brand heritage. Outdoor stores spread across the country, editing out hardware and bringing soft goods like sportswear and preppy styles of the 1980s with them. Even as companies benefited from housewives in L.L. Bean boots and rappers like the Notorious B.I.G. in puffy down jackets from The North Face, they continued to sell a vision of the white male frontier in their advertising, emphasizing the same narrow vision of the American past that had been part of the outdoor industry since its inception.

Presented By
Rachel Gross, University of Colorado Denver

“I Sing the Body Positive”: Nudity and the Marketing of Natural Lifestyle Consumerism

Today, “naked” is a marketing term infused with related meanings including clean, honest, healthy, natural, sexy, organic, and authentic. What naked does not mean, however, is free. To drink Naked® juice, wear Naked and Famous® jeans, and wash with Herbal Essences Naked® shampoo is to engage as wholeheartedly in the consumer marketplace as if these commodities were branded Baroque®. Meanwhile, actual nudity, certainly any performed in public, is generally illegal in the United States and is frequently sexualized or rendered degenerate. This paradox between celebrating and repressing nudity has long been a challenge for organized nudists in the United States and has proven a sticking point for women whose freedom to publicly display their bodies remains more fraught than that of men. Meanwhile, an international Body Positivity Movement (BPM) has coalesced around body acceptance, race, and gender equality assisted by social media platforms that highlight the display of diverse bodies. The BPM encourages the online posting of images of naked or near-naked women as symbols of body pride, self-realization, and expressive authenticity. Not surprisingly, capitalism has seized on body positivity’s claim to “love the skin we’re in” to better market beauty products. Critics of body positivity point out that however righteous the goal of accepting one’s body as is, the BPM continues to foster a self-limiting focus on body image as key to female identity and experience. This paper posits “natural” lifestyle consumerism as a response to historical contradictions created when social movements and capitalism use the body to promote their cause. Placing the naked body out-of-doors or claiming nudity as inherently natural have become touchstones of campaigns as eclectic as luxury vacations, wellness retreats, and feminist self-expression. The effort to seize nature—an inherently unstable category—to both liberate and commodify the body can be traced back to the early twentieth century when health-seekers, nudists, and feminists alike sought embodied self-empowerment amid a new and seductive consumer culture that heightened body awareness.

Presented By
Sarah Schrank, CSU Long Beach

Good Taste: Yuppie Gourmet Culture in the Age of Inequality

This paper examines yuppie gourmet culture, revealing how it emerged from the increasingly-unequal consumer landscape of the 1970s and 1980s. In those years, shifts in the American economy (as well as in family structure and gender relations) split the once-broad middle class in two: an upwardly-mobile metropolitan professional class on the one hand, and a downwardly-mobile class of workers on the other. Even as most Americans' real wages fell, yuppie households saw their income, and, more importantly, their levels of disposable income, soar higher. A chasm—a disposable income gap—now divided the American middle-class market. This paper explores how that divide remade the world of food and restaurants. It discusses retailers' efforts to segment and pursue the yuppie consumer. It charts the rise of New York gourmet outlets like The Silver Palate, Food Emporium, and Dean & Deluca. It tracks the emergence of a new sidewalk café culture. And it recounts how the Zagat guide—created by two corporate lawyers in 1979 to “democratize” fine dining—became a way for professionals to demonstrate their expertise, high salaries, and education. (It is no accident that the guide was designed to fit in the pocket of a business suit jacket.) Ultimately, yuppie gourmet culture was far from democratizing: it erected new hierarchies of taste that reflected and reinforced broader inequalities in late-twentieth-century America.

Presented By
Dylan Gottlieb, Bentley University

Marketing “Beyond Demographics” in the 1980s: How Marketers sold Lifestyle to Merchandisers and the American Public

Beginning in the early 1960s, the ready availability of speedy data processing technologies, and the wide circulation of public and commercially held consumer data, enabled marketers to surface previously unseen correlations in consumer behavior. Proponents of this approach argued that the strength of these correlations would generate better rationales for clustering consumers into market segments—which they pitched to merchandisers as ‘lifestyles’—than segmentation by demographic vectors like age, race, gender, or class had ever achieved. Marketers lauded ‘lifestyle marketing’ as an objective science that would free the profession from the “slapdash interpretations” of the past, moving marketing “beyond demographics” by instead generating consumer segments through the supposedly objective power of computational fact. How did marketing professionals sell this transition to both their merchandisers clients and the American public alike? To answer this question, this paper examines Arnold Mitchell’s marketing text, The Nine American Lifestyles: Who We Are and Where We Are Going (1984) as well as trade press responses to it. Mitchell drew upon mid-century sociology in order to present the manuscript’s marketing claims as sociological fact. In doing so, the text pushed 1980s market research beyond the arena of consumption to instead address anxieties over inequality, social division, and the future direction of American culture and life in the 1980s. Taken together, both the text and critics’ mixed reaction to the study itself reveal how marketing professionals wrestled over lifestyle marketing and its tendency to conflate ‘individual’ and ‘community’ with ‘consumer’ and ‘market.’

Presented By
Dan Guadagnolo, University of Toronto

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, The New School
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is a historian of contemporary American politics and culture. She is the author of Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (Oxford University Press, 2015), and the forthcoming FIT NATION: The Gains and Pains Of America’s Exercise Obsession (University of Chicago Press, 2022). She is co-producer and host of the podcast WELCOME TO YOUR FANTASY, from Pineapple Street Studios and Gimlet – and recognized as the “best of 2021” by Vogue, Esquire, The New York Times, and Vulture – and the co-host of Past Present Podcast. Her work has been supported by the Spencer, Whiting, Rockefeller, and Mellon Foundations. Natalia is a frequent media guest expert, public speaker, and contributor to international and domestic news outlets, from the New York Times to the Washington Post to CNN to the Atlantic. She is Associate Professor of History at The New School, co-founded and directed the wellness education program Healthclass 2.0, and is a Premiere Leader of the mind-body practice intenSati. She holds a B.A. from Columbia and a master’s and Ph.D. from Stanford and lives with her husband and two children in New York City.

Presenter: Dylan Gottlieb, Bentley University
Dylan Gottlieb is a historian of cities and capitalism in modern America and an NEH-Hagley Fellow on Business, Culture, and Society at the Hagley Library in Wilmington, DE. Since receiving his PhD from Princeton University in 2020, he has been working on his in-progress book, Yuppies: Wall Street and the Remaking of New York, which is under contract with Harvard University Press.

Presenter: Rachel Gross, University of Colorado Denver
Rachel S. Gross is a historian of the outdoor industry as well as a gear enthusiast. She is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Colorado Denver where she teaches U.S. environmental, business, and public history and is at work on a book, Selling Nature: The Outdoor Industry in American History. Her research has appeared in Enterprise and Society, Technology & Culture, and the International Journal of the History of Sport. The Smithsonian Institution, the Lemelson Center, the Hagley Museum and Library, and the Mellon Foundation have supported her work on the history of outdoor clothing and gear. Her public history work includes a museum exhibit on “Outdoor Gear Stories From the Treasure State” and lectures at historical societies and museums.

Presenter: Dan Guadagnolo, University of Toronto
Dan Guadagnolo is an Assistant Professor of marketing and media history at the University of
Toronto. He earned a PhD in history from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 2020.

Presenter: Sarah Schrank, CSU Long Beach
Sarah Schrank is Professor of History at California State University, Long Beach where she specializes in modern US history, the history of the body, urban history, and cultural theory. She received her PhD in 2002 from the University of California, San Diego and her BA from McGill University in 1994. She earned her Baccalauréat Français from the Lycée Marcelin Berthelot in Saint Maur des Fossés, France, in 1990. Professor Schrank is the author of Art and the City: Civic Imagination and Cultural Authority in Los Angeles (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009); Free and Natural: Nudity and the American Cult of the Body (University of Pennsylvania Press, Nature and Culture in America Series, 2019); and is the co-editor of the collected volume, Healing Spaces, Modern Architecture, and the Body (Routledge, Studies in Architecture Series, 2017). She has published articles in the Journal of Social History, Modern American History, Journal of Urban History, American Quarterly, American Studies, and the Journal of Planning History. She is the recipient of research fellowships from Princeton’s Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies, The Huntington, the Haynes Foundation, and the Wolfsonian-Florida International University. In 2018, she received the CSULB President’s Award for Outstanding Faculty Achievement. Professor Schrank was Associate Editor of American Quarterly (2013-2015); book review editor of Southern California Quarterly (2005-2013); and currently serves on the editorial board of Public Art Dialogue. Her new projects include books on urban film and the feminist politics of wellness in the twentieth century. She has presented at many conferences, both locally and internationally, including the Organization of American Historians annual meetings in Boston (2004) and in San Francisco (2013).