Sunday, September 03, 2017

Is your suitcase a status symbol? The preformance of social class.

Will Barratt
Professor, Roi Et Rajabhat University

I fly around every few months so I see a lot of airports and people in airports.  (Mostly I fly using other people's money - OPM - as an invited speaker.)  Twice a year I fly from Asia to the USA and other times I fly around South East Asia, where I live.  I always book plenty of time between flights for connections, based on experience, so I have a lot of time to watch the flow of people.

I like luggage and I like airports in different places.  There are different social norms for luggage in different world regions.  There are, as always, different sets of social class performance norms.  Luggage is always the performance of social class. 

Class and contra-class.

The obvious analysis is that designer brand luggage, obviously labeled fashion, is part of the performance of the upper classes, at least the upper half of the general population, but the traveling public is hardly a random group.  Even in mid-range luggage, name brands like American Tourister, and Samsonite have obvious class meaning.  Most air travelers have luggage from non-prestige brands or regional brands.  Some travelers use cardboard boxes and duffle/gym bags. 

Do people purchase luggage by price range and perceived brand prestige?  Yes, and no.  The obvious display of social class comes from expensive designer luggage, brand names imported from other fashion accessories, with brand logos as the pattern on the bag.  Secondary, and more prestige, is luggage from a high prestige luggage brand like Tumi or Briggs and Riley, with a small and discrete label.  Trusted brands, like American Tourister and Samsonite, come in second place in perceived prestige.

Class conscious and contra-class travelers will use luggage as part of their performance of social class within the framework of a hierarchy of prestige in order to manage attributed social class by using non-name or not well known brands.  The bag reflects their attitude about social class.  While this requires a minimal awareness of social class performance through public possessions like luggage, the media environment constantly makes this point obvious, especially in airports and in in-flight magazines and shopping.  Class conscious and contra-class travelers will use luggage at odds with their current felt social class.  This can be expressed as up or down prestige luggage, for example the traveler with a modest income traveling with an obviously expensive bag. 

Class conscious and contra-class travelers do not wish to be class identified, hiding among mainstream travelers.  The public display of wealth, social status, and prestige is not part of their personal identity.  Considering expensive travel fashion as a "rob me" poster these individuals seek to be class invisible using luggage purchased for usability and personal preference. 

tl;dr - You are judged by your luggage.  By everyone including yourself.