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The Rise of Inconspicuous Consumption & Its Effect On Fashion

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I recently learned about inconspicuous consumption (IC) on my new favorite NPR program “Hidden Brain” hosted by Shankar Vedantam.  The show, provocatively titled “Never Go To Vegas, and Other Unspoken Rules of Being an A-Lister,” was irresistible.   Who isn’t curious about how to penetrate that exclusive and often elusive status? The answer wasn’t what I expected, but the signs are everywhere.

When you finish this article, read my post: “Inconspicuous Consumption & Style: 5 Ways A-Listers Do It” for ideas on how to incorporate IC fashion and beauty trends into your lifestyle.


What is Inconspicuous Consumption?

According to The Atlantic, inconspicuous consumption was at the heart of a University of Chicago study in 2001 that found visible luxury (expensive cars, designer clothing, and bling) is more prized by lower income classes. Specifically, African Americans.  Subsequent studies proved that it didn’t matter the race. The lower your income, the more you spend on visible luxury– whatever your color. In conclusion, less affluent people feel more pressure to “fake it.” Or at least not be perceived as poor. It’s the proverbial “keeping up with the Joneses” through status symbols that luxury goods provide. This is conspicuous consumption.

Conversely, wealthy people are spending less and less on visible luxury, which has become more available to the working class. Consider the likes of Rent The Runway and black market knockoffs. Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania’s  Jonah Berger noted that social media brings together these “educated elite” by communicating subtle signals to one another about discreetly branded products or telltale designs/styles (Harvard Business Review).  Furthermore, instead of investing in what I’ll call blatant depreciating luxury, the rich are investing in value-based purchases like:

— Education for their children (almost four times as much as they did in 1996 per The Economist)

— Domestic services such as personal chefs and nannies to free up precious time

— Cultural capital (like attending the opera, or exotic holidays, or yoga studio memberships)

According to the book The Sum of Small Things, buying bottled water or organic fruit is how the “Aspirational Class” now participates in an elitist lifestyle.  Think of Hipsters and other middle-class urban or coastal groups. If it’s healthy, environmentally friendly, or ethically produced, it likely falls into the category of inconspicuous consumption.

If we define an “A-lister” in this context, it doesn’t necessarily refer to the Top 1% as far as income is concerned. The Aspirational Class can fall into this “educated elite” group. For example, an IC A-lister could be an english lit teacher with a degree from Sarah Lawrence College with three kids.

How Does IC Affect Fashion?

Traditionally, fashion magazines bathe in designer brands that embrace conspicuous consumption. Study ads from Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, and Gucci. Everything about them says “Look at me!” Visible, status-associated designer branding is everywhere: Louis Vuitton’s “LV” print handbags, Chanel’s double-c diamond earrings, Christian Louboutin’s red-soled pumps.   Their lure is undeniable. I am personally guilty of owning and coveting such possessions.

There’s a dark underbelly, however, that IC may no longer tolerate.  Such as:

— The fashion industry’s contribution to the earth’s pollution (second only to the oil and gas industry).

— Child labor, unlivable wages, and inhumane working conditions.

— The focus on “skinny” versus “healthy” as the industry’s beauty ideal. Aging is a sin.

These industry stigmas could very well affect fashion’s $2.4 trillion global bottom line (McKinsey & Company).  Giana Eckhardt, a professor of marketing at Royal Holloway, University of London, said 80% of the organizations she talked to are way behind on this trend. “Their reaction is, ‘What are we going to do? Our entire strategy is based on people buying products to signal their social status to others,’” as reported in the same Harvard Business review article mentioned above.

This is where I see the big opportunity for niche fashion, beauty, and wellness brands and services.  I’m also hopeful that brands will see the value in diversifying their concept of “beauty” by associating brands with people who are not tall/lean/white/young.


How Are A-Listers Getting Fashionably IC?

If you’re so inclined to keep reading… I’ve listed some fashion and beauty IC trends that are rising in affluent (or aspiring) circles.  Mind you, I’m totally behind IC as a responsible way of consuming but in *no way* judge those who let their Flash Flag fly. It’s all about making choices that are in line with who you are and where you’re going. Read my post: “Inconspicuous Consumption & Style: 5 Ways A-Listers Do It” for ideas on how to incorporate these trends into your lifestyle. Remember that your style and beauty choices work best when they are in line with your values and goals.

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About The Author
Thea Wood mona lisa
Thea Wood


Thea Wood is the co-publisher of and a certified image consultant from Austin, TX.  She wrote the upcoming e-book The Intentional Makeover  and co-authored the book Socially Smart & Savvy. Thea shares styling advice at, helping women create a signature style that says who they are and where they’re going.



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