Retro Style
Retro Style

Sarah Elsie Baker

Sarah Baker is Lecturer in Culture and Context at the School of Design, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. She has researched and published numerous articles focussed on consumption and domestic space. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2013


Content Type:

Book chapter

Peoples, Cultures and Religions:

British (modern)

Related Content

Retro Style and the Cultural Politics of Everyday Life

DOI: 10.5040/9781474294034.ch-003
Page Range: 34–53

Two of the central questions asked in this book are whether domestic retro style represents an uncoupling of the relationship between class and taste, and whether the production and consumption of the style allow individuals to challenge and play with gender norms. In this chapter I discuss the theoretical frameworks that set up the discussion of my ethnographic work. I begin by exploring the history and the legacy of discourses of possessive individualism. I consider the role of authenticity in consumer culture and the salience of ideas around the aestheticization of everyday life. I go on to consider debates around the disintegration of class and outline the ways in which the Bourdieusian concept of capital has been utilized to counter these theorizations. While I argue that metaphors of capital are useful to explain class distinctions in a context that continues to be structured by individualism, I describe a number of problems with Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas in relation to gender and materiality. Drawing on work from consumption studies that has been influenced by actor-network theory and theories of affect I explore approaches to social life that go beyond symbolism and capital. I conclude by offering a theoretical module that attempts to synthesize these seemingly opposing perspectives in order to detail, analyze and theorize the production and consumption of domestic retro style. In the spirit of Luc Boltanski (2011) this position attempts to reconcile critical and pragmatic theoretical paradigms.

Consumer Culture and the Aesthetic Economy

A number of accounts of consumer culture have suggested that the processes and values identified by James Clifford in the art-culture system have become central to production and consumption in postmodernity (e.g., Featherstone, 1991; Holt, 1998; Lury, 1996). For example, in her seminal discussion of consumer culture, Celia Lury writes that the art-culture system has increasingly influenced the production, consumption and representation of all consumer goods, “particularly following the rapid growth in the so-called culture industry in the twentieth century” (1996:52). Building on the work of Mike Featherstone (1991), she suggests that

the art-culture system has provided a context within which an aestheticised mode of involvement with objects has been adopted by many consumers, a mode within which the objects of material culture are related not simply to social relationships but also to specifically symbolic or cultural values, especially authenticity.

 --(Lury, 1996:54)

Lury calls this aestheticized mode of involvement the stylization of consumption. She argues that the value of goods in consumer culture derives partly from the legacy of complex ideas relating to artistic genius and the artwork’s transcendence of everyday life that were prevalent in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Euro-American societies. Lury goes on to suggest that these developments contributed to the intensification of the concept of the “possessive individual” as an ideal (1996:57).

The individual as “possessive,” or as the “proprietor of his or her own person or capacities, owing nothing to society for them,” was first consolidated in the writing of Enlightenment thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke (Macpherson, 2007 [1962]:3). As Crawford Brough Macpherson (2007 [1962]) emphasizes, possessive individualism is a market society’s version of the self in which selfhood becomes aligned with exchange value, circulation and competition. In discourses of possessive individualism the terms of individuality depend not only on the possession of a unique body but also on the continuity of consciousness and memory (Lury, 1998:7). Rather than being defined by the ownership of objects, individuality is dependent on the ownership of oneself: on the articulation of a plausible history (Abercrombie et al., 1986:33; Pateman, 1988). As such, it is the capacity to stand outside of the body and relate to the self as property that defines the individual. A possessive self is “a self who is judged in terms of the accumulation of possessions and for whom identity itself is a kind of wealth (of objects, knowledge, memories and experience)” and for whom authentic culture becomes valuable (Lury, 1996:57).

The intensification of the possessive self as an ideal in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Britain and the United States reflected and contributed to the increasing separation between the public and private spheres. For example, in her discussion of nineteenth-century U.S. literature, Gillian Brown (1992) argues that the rise of domesticity and its associated values of interiority and privacy are part of the history of the development of individualism. She observes that as women were removed from the public sphere of production, the home became increasingly thought of as a stable, timeless and traditional retreat outside of modern public life. At the same time, however, nineteenth-century domestic culture was distinctly new, modern and inflected with ideas around property and exchange. Brown argues that the role of discourses of domesticity and middle-class modes of femininity in shaping the development of possessive individualism often goes unrecognized.

The gendered division of labor that contributed to the separation of the public and private spheres meant that women were more likely to be involved in, and associated with, consumption. As Don Slater argues, when consumer culture and commodification gathered pace in the twentieth century, “women’s responsibility for domestic reproduction [was] increasingly defined…as a responsibility to manage consumption” (1997:56). In this process, the female consumer became associated with passivity, irrationality and frivolity (Slater, 1997:57). Slater argues that this was because women had not had full access to the terms of subjectivity central to the model of the possessive self that formed the basis of the conceptualization of the consumer (Abercrombie et al., 1986; Cronin, 2000; Slater 1997). I return to this argument below.

It has been suggested that the idea of the “self as project” continues to structure recent consumer culture and is a continuation of the notion of the possessive self as an ideal (Cronin, 2000:274). For example, Anne Cronin documents how in advertisements for Nike the self is represented “as a project to be aimed at” as well as a “projecting forward of an already-established identity” (2000:276). As in earlier discourses of possessive individualism, individuality is defined as the capacity to relate to self as property and to articulate a plausible history. Investment in the self is also fundamental to ideas regarding the change from way of life to lifestyle. As Lisa Taylor notes, “Lifestyles are performed improvisations in which authenticity is conceived as an entity which one can manufacture” through symbolic repertoires (2008:83). In light of these arguments, the popularity of retro objects and styles may be a product of the greater importance placed on the symbolic dimensions of domestic life and of the increase in value of authenticity in contemporary consumer culture.

Since Featherstone’s (1991) and Lury’s (1996) discussions of the aestheticization of everyday life, it has been argued that aesthetics and affective experience have become even more essential in generating economic value in the global economy (e.g., Andrejevic, 2011; Lash and Lury, 2007; Thrift, 2008). The creativity that is integral to design supplies the new commodities and markets on which capitalism relies (Gilbert, 2008:109).[1] Innovative products and new consumers have become increasingly difficult to find in the saturated markets of developed economies, and thus the value of creativity has increased. In recent years the creation and design of new technologies have become particularly valuable to organizations (Boyle, 2003:273). It has been suggested that the constant stream of new and updated technologies in the workplace and home is unsettling for some consumers (Boyle, 2003:261). Thus, the growth in the consumption and production of retro style for the home may also reflect a desire for familiarity and timelessness in a society imagined to be fast-paced and impersonal.

Organizations and marketing departments are well aware of these feelings; goods and services appear to resist commodification through association with past styles, creativity and the arts. As Fred Myers argues, “[T]he valorization of “art” and material culture in the West has often been based on the object’s resistance to, or transcendence of, global processes involving commodification, markets, money and mass culture” (2001:4). In Samuel Binkley’s (2008:600) terms, the “fetishized defetishization of commodities” is highly valuable in a market saturated with goods and becomes a common selling strategy. For example, as I explore in Chapter 5, high street producers and retailers often attempt to disassociate themselves from markets, money and mass culture in order to make their products more attractive. Therefore, it could be argued that the authentic and its associated values of originality, singularity and connoisseurship have become synonymous with the fashionable. This may be one of the reasons retro objects and styles are often in fashion.

Despite the relevance of theories of the aesthetic economy to retro style, the extent to which aesthetics have become central to all consumption and production practices has been questioned. For example, Alan Warde (2002:192) is doubtful whether the logic of cultural goods can be extended to other types of items. He writes that the production and consumption of a screwdriver are likely to be “practical, mundane and ordinary, rather than driven by aesthetic considerations” (2002:193). Warde is also skeptical of the extent to which everyday life is aestheticized, arguing that, in the end, his “guess would be that most people prefer a comfortable to a beautiful life” (2002:194). He suggests that aesthetic considerations may be important only to certain sections of the population, most notably youth subcultures and fractions of the middle class. Therefore, while the prevalence of retro style may be a symptom of the increase in importance of aesthetic values in consumer culture, its consumption and production may be limited to these specific groups.

Lifestyle, Cultural Capital and Class

So far in this book I have proposed that the definition of retro style is dependent on cultural knowledge and that this is valuable capital in the symbolic economy. I have argued that previous studies of retro have failed to focus on the perspectives and processes involved in the making of the style, even those studies to which I am otherwise indebted (Gregson and Crewe, 2003; McRobbie, 1994; Samuel, 1994). I have also suggested that it is partly because of this omission that Angela McRobbie and Raphael Samuel are able to argue that the consumption and production of the style have contributed to a blurring of class boundaries. This is an argument with which I feel more than a little uneasy because making old-fashioned objects and styles into retro ones depends on the possession of specific preexisting identities and contexts. In order to explore the disparity between my perspective and theirs in more detail, I now consider recent sociological debates about the relevance of class to everyday life.

In the early 1990s a number of social theories emerged that argue that class has become less relevant in late modernity or postmodernity (Beck, 1992; Giddens, 1991). Ulrich Beck (1992) and Anthony Giddens (1991) suggest that the emergence of new “consumer freedoms,” driven by changes such as globalization, economic restructuring and shifts from Fordist to post-Fordist modes of production, had blurred previously established class boundaries and driven a change to lifestyle-based consumption patterns. They both argue that in a consumer society individuals reflexively constructed their identities. In Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, Beck suggests that “class society only remains useful as an image of the past” and that it has lost its “subcultural basis and is no longer experienced” (1992:91). He argues that individuals, although influenced by structural forces, can choose which lifestyles to acknowledge and take up and which ones to ignore. In Modernity and Self Identity, Giddens similarly writes that “the signposts are now blank,” meaning that the choices consumers make are now their own rather than inherited (1991:82). He suggests that the self becomes a reflexive project to be worked on. Giddens theorizes that “individuals are forced to negotiate lifestyle choices” rather than having decisions be determined by class, race or gender (1991:5). In his view, even those “under severe material constraint” make lifestyle choices (1991:6).

Zygmunt Bauman (2000) and Michel Maffesoli (1988) have also theorized the decline of class cultures. However, they argue that consumers are not detached from group affiliation: they are grouped in neotribes. Neotribes are transitory, affective and emotional groups formed on the basis of shared lifestyles and consumption patterns. Bauman suggests that this “spawns communities as fragile and short lived as scattered and wandering emotions, shifting erratically from one target to another” (2000:34).

This view of the decline in relevance of social class has been adopted in discussions of consumption. For example, in “Identity, Commodification and Consumer Culture” Robert G. Dunn writes that the “democratizing tendencies inherent in consumption have been rapidly accelerated in the post-war period” (2000:123). Based on an exposition of the conditions of postmodernity (including the blurring of the boundaries between high and popular culture, the aestheticization of everyday life and the “historical transition from production to consumption”), he argues that there has been an ideological shift from occupational to consumer roles and a weakening of class consciousness (2000:123). Thus, Dunn suggests that “lifestyle consumption” has overtaken “socially delineated statuses” (2000:116).

These ideas about class, lifestyle and consumption echo some of the theorizations of retro style discussed above. While having a decidedly different politics from theorists such as Giddens, in their discussions of retro style McRobbie and Samuel both suggest that class distinctions are less marked than they once were. McRobbie and Samuel write as if those who are interested in retro style are linked by lifestyle choice and not by their class identity. For example, in the earlier version of “Second-Hand Dresses and the Role of the Rag Market” McRobbie (1989) contests Bourdieu’s (2005 [1979]) theorizations regarding the correlation between lifestyle and social class. She writes that Bourdieu thought that students and bohemians could “risk looking poor and unkempt while their black and working-class counterparts dress up to counter the assumption of low status” (1989:27). McRobbie argues against this because she believed that the relationship between class and taste had changed since Bourdieu first published Distinction in 1979.

More recently, however, a number of sociologists and cultural theorists have returned to Bourdieu’s ideas in their discussions of class and taste (e.g., Savage, 2000; Skeggs, 2004a; Southerton, 2001a; Taylor, 2008). They have questioned concepts of more mobile identities formed through consumption, especially the conclusions of Beck and Giddens. Before I discuss these debates in detail, it is necessary to outline Bourdieu’s conceptual framework.

In Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Bourdieu (2005 [1979]) argues that consumption is one of the principal ways in which class-based distinctions are reproduced. He suggests that class is a relational process, or mode of differentiation. In a later discussion of Distinction, Bourdieu writes that “to exist within a social space, to occupy a different point or to be an individual within a social space, is to differ, to be different” (1998:9). He suggests that individuals occupy social space through accumulating resources (capitals) that can be converted into status (symbolic capital). He identifies four types of capital: economic, social, cultural and symbolic. Economic capital consists of an individual’s financial resources. Social capital is formed of the social networks that can bring advantage. Cultural capital exists in three forms: as objectified in cultural objects, in an embodied state (implicit knowledge and practices) and as institutionalized through educational qualifications. Capitals function differently according to their context, or in what Bourdieu (2005 [1979]) calls “semi-autonomous social fields” (for example, the fields of politics or of the arts).

Bourdieu (2005 [1979]) suggests that cultural capital, as objectified in material objects, partly defines the power or status of that object within social space. He argues that the symbolic power of objects is a reflection of the cultural capital needed to consume them. In Distinction he suggests that as “distance from necessity” grows, stylization of life increases and material objects that represent a “taste for reflection” become more attractive. For example, he argues that the difficulty in appreciating a picture of an object “socially designated as meaningless,” such as a picture of a car crash, makes it more powerful as a symbol of elite taste (2005 [1979]:35).

Bourdieu suggests that cultural capital in the embodied state is formed through habitus. Habitus “designates the system of durable and transposable dispositions through which we perceive, judge and act in the world” (Wacquant, 2006:6). According to Bourdieu, the system of dispositions or the “feel for the game” that an individual has is based on the internalization of objective structures learned as a child that continue to influence, and be influenced by, different contexts. Thus, as an internalization of objective structures, habitus is always mediated by fields. In Distinction Bourdieu (2005 [1979]) argues that it is always a combination of habitus (and its capitals) and fields that creates differentiated practices. He suggests that because members of particular classes have common features in their habitus they are likely to participate in similar cultural practices and possess similar lifestyles. From this perspective, taste, as a product of habitus, is one of the areas in which class relations are played out.

Bourdieu also suggests that cultural capital is institutionalized through educational qualifications. This, as Holt notes, “certifies the existence of the embodied form” (1998:3). Bourdieu claims that the education system sanctions the hereditary transmission of cultural capital as the “rules of the game” are already established to support those with greater access to resources. Once legitimated by qualifications, cultural capital can often be converted into economic capital in the labor market.

Legitimation is also the key to understanding the fourth type of capital that Bourdieu identifies: symbolic capital. Symbolic capital is the form that all types of capital (economic, social and cultural) take once they have been made legitimate within specific fields. Cultural capital, for example, has to be legitimate before it can have symbolic power and be used to maintain social dominance over those who do not possess similar tastes or competencies. As David Swartz suggests, symbolic capital is also often denied capital, or in Bourdieu’s terms it is “misrecognized”; “it disguises underlying interested relations as disinterested pursuits” (Swartz 1997:90). For example, as Bourdieu documents in Distinction (2005 [1979]), the categorization of certain material objects as inherently beautiful works to secure the positions of those who have the symbolic power to make their judgments and definitions legitimate. This can result in the direct or indirect ridicule or abuse of those with the “wrong” type of taste, which Bourdieu calls “symbolic violence.”

These concepts and arguments have been highly influential in recent discussions of class (see Crompton, 2008). Mike Savage (2000) is one of the academics who has discussed them at length. He argues that Bourdieu’s idea of class as differentiation serves as a corrective to those, like Giddens and Beck, who think that class is no longer relevant. Savage (2000:xi) suggests that Giddens and Beck misinterpret the change to individualization as a decline of class cultures. Instead, he proposes that what has been interpreted as a decline in the relevance of class should be seen as a “shift from working-class to middle-class modes of individualization” (2000:xi). Savage writes that “by setting up the idea of individualization against the ‘Aunt Sally’ of traditional, collective class culture, some plausibility for [Giddens’s and Beck’s]…account can be mustered” (2000:105). He goes on to argue that individualization should be viewed as “resting on social, cultural and political struggles which permit some to claim the right to full individuality at the expense of others,” and thus individualization is itself a product of class relations (2000:107). Therefore, Savage reclaims a culturalist approach to class analysis, while also highlighting how class is implicated in economic inequality.

Savage argues that this approach to class analysis is advantageous because it focuses on class as a relational process and as “modes of differentiation rather than types of collectivity” (2000:102). From this perspective, the emphasis shifts from the development (or not) of class consciousness to “the classed nature of particular social and cultural practices” (Bottero, 2004:989). Thus, taste and cultural practices place individuals in social space and construct “classed”[2] identifications. However, Savage is also critical of mechanically applying Bourdieu’s theories, especially those in Distinction, to a British context. He suggests that they do not theoretically register the positive resources attached to the working-class culture and the power of populist motifs (2000:109). This point is particularly important when exploring the value of retro style and, as I suggested in Chapter 1, also applies to other international contexts. I come back to Bourdieu’s understanding of working-class culture below.

Beverley Skeggs (2004a) also uses Bourdieu’s concepts to critique the claims of Giddens and Beck. She suggests that their accounts assume that everyone has equal access to “resources by which the self can be known, accessed and narrated” and that there is no sense that “the possibility of having a self may itself be a classed, raced and gendered issue” (2004a:53). Skeggs argues that constructing a biography is not neutral and always “invokes a position in terms of social differentiation” (2004a:53). She, like Savage, argues that class inequalities have not disappeared (2004a:2). Indeed, Skeggs suggests that ideas surrounding the disintegration of class, and theories and processes of individualization and reflexivity, are “in effect, a re-legitimation and justification of the habitus of the middle-class that does not want to name itself, be recognized, or accept responsibility for its own power” (2004a:60).

Drawing on Bourdieu’s concept of capital, Skeggs (2004a) demonstrates how class has not disappeared but is made and given value through culture, including through judgments of good or bad taste. She argues that this creates new forms of exploitation based on cultural appropriation and the ability to convert culture into symbolic capital, as well as traditional exploitation from production. Skeggs’s approach includes the ways in which value is made and unmade through representation and consumption, breaking with more conventional Marxian perspectives on the construction of exchange value. As Skeggs notes, Bourdieu’s theory of capital attempts to “dispute the centrality of the economy as a separate sphere, whilst also developing a model to illustrate how different resources and assets accumulate in bodies and are carried across social spaces” (Skeggs, 2004a:16). She argues that this type of analysis is particularly important given the “predominance of symbolic exchange in post-industrialization” (2004d:47). Thus, like Savage, Skeggs does not interpret the changes in the latter part of the twentieth century as the disintegration of class. On the contrary, both Savage and Skeggs argue that individualization and related theories of lifestyle illustrate the increased centrality of cultural categorization and distinction in the making of class.

While the theorizations of Savage and Skeggs arose partly in reaction to the individualization theses of Giddens and Beck, they question the validity of ideas regarding the change to more mobile identities in theories of postmodernism. They also cast doubt on the optimism that McRobbie and Samuel derive from the “fluidity across old class lines” supposedly represented by the production and consumption of retro style. This optimism is also challenged by studies of taste and domestic space that have found that consumption continues to be stratified along class lines and that lifestyle is central to the making of class rather than illustrative of its decline (Southerton, 2001a, 2001b; Taylor, 2008).

Interestingly, McRobbie’s recent work takes a similar theoretical line. In The Aftermath of Feminism, McRobbie questions the individualization thesis of Giddens and Beck and suggests that they do not grasp that lifestyle is “productive of new realms of injury and injustice” (2009:19). McRobbie is critical of her earlier optimism regarding women’s capacities to “turn around and subvert the world of consumer culture” (2009:2). She cites her work on women’s magazines as an example of her misjudgment. However, she does not return to her work on retro style. While this may be because of the subcultural and countercultural origins of retro style and its anticonsumerist potential, I believe McRobbie’s arguments about retro need to be reconsidered. Thus, in the empirical research in this book I ask whether the production and consumption of retro style are representative of the uncoupling of lifestyle and class or whether retro has an alternative history, one very much linked to cultural distinction and class position. To do this, I draw on some of Bourdieu’s arguments and use some of his concepts.

Everyday Life, Gender and Symbolic Exchange Value

There are some problems with Bourdieu’s conceptual framework, particularly in relation to working-class culture and gender. These issues make a wholesale application of his approach inappropriate for an analysis of the production, consumption and representation of retro style.

The problems with Bourdieu’s conceptual framework are evident in the mapping of different tastes in Distinction. Bourdieu observes that there is a correlation between taste for popular culture and those from working-class backgrounds. He suggests that working-class taste is shaped by both necessity and resignation and that this sensibility frequently results in pragmatic and functionalist aesthetics (2005 [1979]:376). Although Bourdieu describes working-class practices and dispositions as dignified (albeit in a rather nostalgic and romantic manner), his methodological and theoretical approach means that they are only represented as entering a zero-sum game. They feature at the bottom of Bourdieu’s diagram of the “space of social positions,” as lacking in cultural capital. While this is fine as a reflection of the dominant symbolic culture and an excellent model for understanding the way cultural distinctions are made, it consigns working-class culture to a position of inferiority. This is problematic because, as Claude Grignon and Jean-Claude Passeron (1985) argue, it ignores the “autonomous and creative styles of life, which are not negative or second-rate versions of the styles of dominant culture, and which are not reducible to function or utility” (quoted in Rigby, 2000:299). Grignon and Passeron suggest that working-class cultures “are neither fixed in a perpetual state of deferential awareness of legitimate culture, nor are they mobilized day and night in a permanent attitude of revolutionary confrontation” (summarized by Rigby, 2000:298). For example, as outlined in Chapter 1, the symbolic value of flying ducks in the media did not affect their value in my grandmother’s eyes.

The diagram of the “space of social positions” in Distinction also highlights problems with Bourdieu’s approach to gender. As Terry Lovell points out, if women were included, they would feature twice because women could be entered in terms of their own economic and cultural capital, as well as “in terms of the value of these holdings for their families” (2000:20). This problem, Lovell argues, is indicative of Bourdieu’s view of women as capital-bearing objects who are markers of taste rather than capital-accumulating subjects who are makers of it. Bourdieu’s model of capital, habitus and field also suggests that “masculinity exists in the public (via the economic) and femininity in the private (via forms of cultural reproduction)” (Skeggs, 2004b:22). This position is problematic because it reproduces the discourse of public and private spheres. It is also highly inappropriate when applied to a discussion of domestic retro style. As McRobbie (1994) suggests, women and girls have been central to the production and consumption of retro, and because the style has been widely adopted they have been involved in the making of “good” taste.

In my opinion it is feminist theory, particularly Skeggs’s work, that has addressed these problems most successfully. As well as drawing on the concepts of Bourdieu, Skeggs is influenced by the Foucauldian tradition. She is concerned with how various models of the self are brought into being through discourse. This has led her to question the concept of habitus. She suggests that “the habitus is the embodiment of the accumulation (or not) of value given by the volume and composition of the different forms of capital (economic, social, cultural, symbolic), displayed as dispositions” (2004b:85). In this regard, fields, or the contexts that determine what capital is, are “a precondition of the habitus and the habitus will always submit to the field” (Skeggs, 2004c:29). Although Bourdieu was critical of the idea of the self and devised the concept of habitus in an attempt to move away from theories of conscious action, Skeggs (2004b:86) suggests that Bourdieu reproduces the idea of the individual as defined by the accrual of property and exchange value when using the concept of habitus. This, she proposes, is not dissimilar to the idea of the exchange-value self in discourses of possessive individualism.

As outlined above, the concept of the possessive individual was first consolidated in Enlightenment texts and represented a change in the way that certain European individuals thought about property and their own identities. In his discussion of fetish and its associations with European personhood, Peter Stallybrass (1998:186) observes that the “civilized” subject who could recognize the true (i.e., market) value of the object-as-commodity was historically constituted in opposition to those individuals who were seen as the objects of value and imbued their material goods with history and memory. Colonial subjects were demonized for their “irrational” relationship with material objects and denied the ability to accumulate value and build an exchangeable self (Kopytoff, 1986; Stallybrass,1998). So, too, were women and the working classes (Pateman, 1988; Skeggs, 2004a, 2004b; Strathern, 1992). As argued above, the discourses of possessive individualism influence the terms of selfhood prevalent in contemporary consumer culture. This means that certain groups continue to be structured out of the “social, cultural and epistemological status of the individual” (Cronin, 2000:285).

For this reason a perspective that considers the self to be defined by the accrual of property is problematic because it reproduces the “colonialist model of exchange-value” as “the defining factor in the construction of personhood” (Skeggs, 2004a:11). It risks both representing those who are excluded as lacking, and reproducing the rhetoric of the market that suggests that exchange value is the proper way to view the world. In addition, the model of the self as accumulating individual ignores “a significant part of social life” (Skeggs, 2004b:29). For example, Skeggs argues that due to the emphasis on the accumulation of capital, the values of “altruism, integrity, loyalty and investment in others” are often missing in Bourdieu’s accounts (2004c:29). I would add that the intimate relations with material objects that are very much a part of everyday life are also neglected, a point I return to below.[3]

To address these issues, Skeggs recommends a model that recognizes that individuals have resources that are valuable in their own right but may not be exchangeable because they have not been made legitimate by fields. She suggests that “it is possible to re-work cultural capital not just as high culture if we think more generally about culture as a resource or a use-value which can be separated from the fields and the means by which it is exchanged” (2004c:24). Like Bourdieu, Skeggs uses exchange value in the broad sense to mean the exchange of symbolic value across a range of fields. However, drawing on Marilyn Strathern (1992), she adopts an approach that suggests that it is relationships and the processes of valuation, rather than equivalence, that create exchange value. Thus, it is when one party becomes interested in the cultural, economic, social, emotional or material resources of another that exchange may take place. Skeggs conceptualizes use value as value that goes beyond that which can be exchanged. Quoting Gayatri Spivak (1990), Skeggs suggests that use value has “no literal origin or referent, because…[it] will always exceed that which it claims to represent” (2004a:186).

By using both categories, use value and exchange value, Skeggs argues that it is possible to see how class distinctions are maintained while avoiding the reproduction of a ubiquitous model of the self based on the accumulation of capital. This allows the exploration of practices and value systems that exist outside the “dominant symbolic” (Skeggs, 2004b:88). She also suggests that this reworking of the relationship between practice, capital and field enables a better account of gender than the one that Bourdieu offers (2004c:24). By separating resources from fields it is possible to see how femininity can be used as capital when it is symbolically legitimated, while also recognizing the complexities of gender relations. In this respect Skeggs is influenced by feminist and queer theory, which has emphasized the contradictions of gender relations, unlike Bourdieu (2001), who suggested that women misrecognize masculine domination.

These differences come to the fore in Judith Butler’s (1997) comparison of Bourdieu’s conceptual framework and her own. Both Butler and Bourdieu use the notion of “performatives” to mean utterances that exemplify or bring about the conditions that they name and that are always authorized through social conventions and norms. For example, a marriage declaration secures a social contract and is authorized by various institutions, discourses and practices. It is the extent to which individuals are able to question, transgress or dislodge socially embedded performatives that differentiates Bourdieu’s and Butler’s opinions. For Bourdieu the authority of performatives derives from the power of social institutions and from habitus that “suggests no easy freedom to adapt or change the self” (Lovell, 2000:15). There is little space for resistance because individuals are always-already positioned and take on the “view of the dominant on the dominant on themselves” (Bourdieu, 2001:42). This means that, as Bourdieu argues in Masculine Domination (2001), traditional gender roles and family relations are reproduced through the habitus. He suggests that early experiences of parental bodies and the sexual division of labor naturalize gender inequality. However, there is scant acknowledgment of the different ways in which people live or of the contradictions and ambivalences of gender relations. For example, Bourdieu suggests that people in gay and lesbian relationships reproduce traditional gender roles.

For Butler, gender is doing rather than being and is a process open to reconstruction. She suggest that, rather than taking on the views of the dominant, individuals with no prior authorization can refuse domination and overthrow “established codes of legitimacy” (J. Butler, 1997:147). Using the example of drag acts, Butler illustrates how the performance of gender reveals the constructed nature of masculinity and femininity. She suggests that revealing the “regulatory fiction” of gender offers “performative possibilities for proliferating gender configurations outside the restricting frames of masculine domination and compulsory hetereosexuality” (1997:193). Thus, from Butler’s perspective, there is a possibility that transgressive acts that seize their own authority by acting as if they owned authority can alter the meaning of performatives and change social norms and conventions.

The differences between Bourdieu’s and Butler’s frameworks are bound up with the social spaces they focus on. As Lovell (2000) suggests, both perspectives have advantages. On the one hand, Bourdieu’s emphasis on the almost “permanent sediments and traces which constitute embodied culture” is useful for thinking through how inequalities are reproduced through custom and practice (Lovell, 2000:16). It is also useful for thinking though the difficulties in claiming authorization if your habitus is always represented in negative terms (Lawler, 2004). On the other hand, Butler’s focus on the constructedness of gender and sexuality through play and masquerade is more able to deal with contradiction, and her emphasis on transgression offers space for a radical politics. If taken in their entirety these positions are irreconcilable. However, if one adopts an approach that separates use from exchange value, as Skeggs does, performances that are institutionally legitimate can be explored, and so, too, can authorizations that may disrupt symbolic legitimization.

This theoretical approach is the most relevant to the production and consumption of retro style and the most useful contribution to my analysis. It can account for the way that the appropriation of objects and styles by certain groups does not necessarily change or take away their value for their original owners. It enables me to consider the role of women in the production of tastes for retro and to acknowledge the complexities of gender relations as well as the possible challenge to traditional gender roles that the consumption of retro may represent. It also allows me to recognize the symbolic value of retro objects and styles while exploring the practices of retro enthusiasts that go beyond the accumulation of capital.

Materiality, Practical Competencies and Affect

As I have argued above, Bourdieu’s theoretical framework is problematic not only because it reproduces a model of the self based on exchange but also because it misses a significant part of social and material life. A number of approaches have emerged within consumption studies that attempt to move away from symbolism and capital. I discuss two of these approaches here.

The first, relatively recent shift has been to explore ordinary consumption through materials, practices and routines (Shove, Watson et al., 2007; Warde, 2005; Watson and Shove, 2008). For example, in The Design of Everyday Life Elisabeth Shove, Matt Watson and colleagues suggest that “the hardware of consumer culture and its role in the reproduction of social practice repeatedly fall between the cracks of disciplinary inquiry” (2007:2). In a discussion of kitchen renovation and DIY (do-it-yourself) they explore how everyday objects “configure the performances, routines and aspirations of domestic life” (2007:15). They focus on the distribution of competencies among various actors and argue that most consumption takes place “as part of the effective accomplishment of social practices,” rather than for its own sake (2007:152). This perspective is influenced by actor-network theory (ANT).

Latourian ANT maps the ways in which human and nonhuman actors are configured and come together in networks. Each actor in a network plays a part in the unfolding of events, yet without each other they are lost. For example, John Law (1987), a key proponent of ANT, argues that the actors that contributed to Portuguese imperial expansion included kings, explorers and boat builders as well as reefs, building materials and tides. Without any one of these actors events would have been different. Therefore, ANT views the “stability and form of artifacts as the interaction of heterogeneous elements that are shaped and formed into a network” (Law, 1987:107). In actor-network analysis individuals are “engaged in activities that make and remake their competencies and capacities” (Silva, 2010:15–16). This is significantly different from the way individuals are conceptualized in the work of Bourdieu because power is thought of as deriving from combinations of actors and actions rather than the amount of power someone has. The description of actions is a common theme in pragmatic rather than critical sociology (Boltanski and Thevenot, 1999; Callon, 1991; Latour, 1987).

Perspectives on consumption and design that are influenced by ANT are useful because they take materials seriously and describe activities in detail. This means they “consider as many actors or persons as there are types of action and none of these figures…[are] ossified” (Benatouil, 1999:385). This is useful in relation to retro style because it highlights that the qualities of retro objects such as patina and age are material “realities.” It flags some of the practical competencies needed to produce a retro home. It also emphasizes how material objects and subjectivity are always in process and created through practice. This resonates with the methodological approach to retro style outlined in Chapter 2.

However, pragmatic sociology and ANT have been criticized because power is represented “as capacity and effectiveness, while power as domination remains invisible” (Silva, 2010:16). I would suggest that this problem is apparent in the study of kitchens by Shove, Watson and colleagues (2007) referred to above. Their research is excellent at exploring how the design of kitchens and appliances encourages, restricts and discourages certain activities. However, while Shove, Watson and colleagues mention gendered divisions of labor and kitchen design in their review of the literature, the study does not develop an analysis in terms of gender relations. Instead, it suggests that specific products and designs are needed for the accomplishment of practices and does not explore the family politics or divisions of labor central to those practices. This is problematic because it neglects the way technology as a material object, knowledge and process enters into gender identity (Cockburn, 2004). The gender-neutral approach of ANT has been criticized more generally and has an uncomfortable relationship with the critical tradition informed by a feminist politics (Star, 1991). Indeed, while a pragmatic sociology is “genuinely attentive to the critical actions developed by actors,” even Boltanski, whose sociology of critical capacities has been argued to be symmetrical to ANT (Guggenheim and Potthast, 2012), has suggested that “its own critical potentialities seem rather limited” (2011:43).

ANT-type approaches have also been accused of neglecting “human capacities for expression, powers of invention, of fabulation” (Thrift, 2008:111). For example, in Shove, Watson and colleagues’ study (2007), the emphasis on activity and practical considerations avoids the exploration of aesthetic and emotional relations. Approaches to material objects informed by theories of affect have addressed these issues. Thus, this is the other approach that attempts to go beyond symbolism and capital that I briefly explore here.

Within cultural studies there has been a long history of studying material practices; however, in the last decade there has been a marked increase in work that explores the “immaterial material” using theories of affect. While the meaning of affect is contested, it is generally used to describe the capacity to act or be acted on (Seigworth and Gregg, 2010:3). A 1960s vinyl chair sticking to your bare legs on a hot day is an example of how material objects affect the body. This small instance is illustrative of the ways affect occurs “in the midst of things and relations…[as well as] in the complex assemblages that come to compose bodies and worlds simultaneously” (Seigworth and Gregg, 2010:3). Informed by the ideas of Gilles Deleuze, the theory of affect is different from emotion, which has been described as “cognified affect” (Massumi, 1987:xvi). A Deleuzian approach does not presuppose a subject as does the concept of emotion utilized by psychoanalysis. Instead, it focuses on libidinal energies that are not contained by the processes of inscription that classify and control the body (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987).

In the experience of the everyday, however, perception, affect, the senses and emotion bleed into one another (Highmore, 2011:182–183). The feeling of sitting on the sticky 1960s chair and of peeling your legs free may be pleasurable or painful and/or conjure up powerful memories. Ben Highmore’s (2011) work on design and everyday life offers a way of thinking about how material objects work in relation to affect, the senses and emotion. He argues for a reclaiming of aesthetics, not in its dominant mode associated with end products and judgments of good and bad taste, but in the form of an everyday aesthetics concerned with sensate perception and the “ongoing-ness of process” (2011:44). Like ANT this means thinking about material objects not in terms of cultural symbolism or the meanings the owner invests in them but as actors in their own right. For example, Highmore describes the way a 1970s Habitat chair affects his movements, habits and memories. The choice of the Habitat chair is not insignificant. As I explore in Chapter 4, Habitat has been theorized as central to the change from “way of life” to “lifestyle.” For Highmore, the role of the 1970s Habitat chair in his life exemplifies his argument that “life practices are not just ‘consumer’ choices but sensual and ethical responses to a world that makes its own demands on us” (2011:11). He suggests that style is “deeply social and significant,” and while lifestyle “may be hedged in from all sides by commercial forces, it is not simply reducible to it” (2011:11). Highmore’s theorization of everyday aesthetics is particularly useful for thinking through the affectual and sensual relationships that retro enthusiasts have with their objects. It also enables a discussion of the fantasy and nostalgia involved in the consumption and production of retro style without necessarily reading this as some form of childlike state or lack.

Nevertheless, I maintain that the concept of capital is useful to explore the way certain bodies are positioned, categorized and governed. It is precisely because Bourdieu’s model reproduces social hierarchies that it describes the workings of power so well. Thus, I argue for an approach that explores the practices and sensual experiences of everyday life that can contribute to capital, as well as those that go beyond it. This means thinking about localized dynamics as well as wider social relations—about retro homes as a product of complex relationships between material objects, retro enthusiasts and their family and friends.

Using, Experiencing and Talking About Things

The theoretical approaches to material culture and subjectivity discussed in this chapter have various methodological consequences in terms of ethnographic research. For example, studies concerned with the symbolic meaning of material objects tend toward narrative methods. This is because narrative approaches explore the ways in which objects structure the stories that humans tell about their lives, as well as focusing on how objects “acquire cultural meaning and power” (Woodward, 2009:60). As suggested above, studies of consumption focused on meaning and power have been criticized because they have tended to interpret material objects and their associated narratives as symbolic of social class and status (Bourdieu, 2005 [1979]; McCracken, 1988; Veblen, 1925). More recently however, narrative approaches have been used to explore the more complex symbolic, emotional and ethical relations that individuals have with material objects (e.g., Hurdley, 2006; Woodward, 2001). In a study of mantelpieces in homes, Rachel Hurdley (2006) suggests that objects in domestic settings inhabit the intersection between the social and the personal. For example, the same 1950s coffee table may create and reflect cultural capital but also be of psychological use and possess sentimental value if it has been the center of the living room for many years. The strength of narrative methods is that they can reveal both types of value. They can reflect the role of material objects as signaling status and good taste, but also as forming and managing “self-identity and family relations” (Woodward, 2001:120).

In the ethnographic research conducted to produce this book I have used narrative methods in a number of ways. By interviewing tastemakers and retro retailers I have been able to document the history of retro style as well as explore how value and meaning are created through buying and selling retro objects. By talking to retro enthusiasts I have been able to explore their accounts of their own subject positions as well as histories of their interest in retro. In addition, by using a narrative approach whereby interviewees were asked to give me a tour of their homes and select items to discuss, I have been able to analyze stories of acquisition and the memories evoked by retro objects. This approach is influenced by Ian Woodward’s (2001) discussion of “epiphany objects.” Woodward developed the concept, originally conceived by Norman Denzin (1989), to argue that objects can be used as anchors in interviews to stimulate narrative. He sees this method of interviewing as advantageous because epiphany objects “act as resources for thinking through broader social and cultural distinction” (2001:131). Using objects in this way also allows for taste to be described as a historical narrative, which is useful for contextualizing the production and consumption of retro style. This strategy also animated the interviews, with participants remembering more information and being more candid than in the first part of the interview, when they were asked to reflect on their background and their taste.

As acknowledged above, however, the tendency of studies of consumption to reduce material culture to symbolism has been much criticized. For example, Tim Dant has suggested that focusing on symbolic display leads to the overlooking of many of the ways in which people live with objects, such as how material forms lead “to certain types of actions and [curtail] others, or how the presence of objects within a life affects the bodily experience of those who use them” (2005:25). These types of observations have led a number of theorists, including Shove, Watson and colleagues and Dant, to argue for methods that explore human/object interactions. Thus, rather than asking people to talk about their things or to speak about their lives through material objects, the method of choice for studies of human/object interactions is often observation (Miller, 2012). In the ethnographic research completed for the book I have used video technology to record and observe retro enthusiasts, their domestic spaces and their interactions with their possessions. I have also observed working life in retro boutiques and at market stalls, taken photographs of these spaces and used a field diary to record my experiences.

However, even by using photography, video and a field diary it is difficult to record the “pluri-sensory” and affectual nature of our relationships with material objects (Pink, 2004). In order to explore the moods, rhythms and affects of everyday life Highmore argues for a “science of singularity” in which the “particular is studied as if it could contribute to a more general account of the world” (2011:2). Although these accounts will inevitably be provisional and contestable, Highmore argues that the everyday, including “the dynamic simultaneity of desire (and its sublimations), of confidence (and its undoing), of concentration (and its dispersal), require[s] a mode of description that is more tuned to orchestration than the ascription of meaning” (2011:2). I began the book by highlighting the narrative of flying ducks to explore the making and unmaking of the value of retro style. In doing so I referred to my own experience and relationship with these objects. In a similar vein, in the rest of the book I discuss enthusiasts’ emotional and affective experiences.

As I am sure all the academics discussed above would recognize, the relations we have with objects are simultaneously symbolic, practical, emotional and affective. Through its material properties a retro chair determines how an individual should act and feel, and it is through narrative that the chair is rendered valuable in a culture. Thus, in my approach to retro style I attempt to bring together the theoretical and methodological perspectives outlined above. To do this I look at the practices with which objects and styles are embedded, used and valued in everyday life using a combination of methods. More detail regarding these methods, as well as the research design and analysis, can be found in the Appendix.


I began this chapter by outlining theorizations that suggest that cultural capital and the art-culture system have become central to consumer culture. I noted the relevance of ideas regarding the aestheticization of everyday life and lifestyle to the production and consumption of retro. I also suggested that the increase in value of authenticity within contemporary consumer culture might explain the popularity of the style. At the same time, however, I recognized the problems with assuming that aesthetic considerations (as defined by the art-culture system) are important to everyone. Thus, I proposed that the production and consumption of retro style might be limited to specific groups with high levels of cultural capital. By implication, this might mean that Bourdieu’s ideas regarding the correlation between cultural capital and social class continue to be relevant.

Since Bourdieu’s theorizations, however, the relationship between class, lifestyle and taste has been questioned. I gave an account of how in the early 1990s a number of social theorists argued that class had become less pertinent because individuals were free to make lifestyle choices. I identified similar ideas about the breakdown in the relationship between taste and class in McRobbie’s and Samuel’s discussions of retro style. In a review of more recent work on class and taste, particularly research by Savage and Skeggs, I questioned these conclusions. I documented how, rather than representing the disintegration of class, individualization and related theories of lifestyle demonstrate the increased centrality of cultural categorization and distinction in the making of class. These discussions led me to propose that retro style has an alternative history that is linked to cultural distinction and class position. Therefore, in the book I aim to explore the relationship between the production, consumption and representation of domestic retro style and class.

As well as documenting the discussions that led to this aim, in this chapter I also detailed my theoretical approach to the making of class and value. I suggested that an approach to class that utilized the concept of capital was advantageous in order to understand middle-class distinction making because the middle-class self has historically been bound with, and produced by, the accumulation of exchange value. I employ the concept of cultural capital to indicate the knowledge, values and practices that are valuable within a given field. Like Bourdieu, I consider cultural capital to be inherited through social position, objectified in material objects and legitimated by educational qualifications. Throughout the book I also explore the role of other institutions in the legitimation of cultural capital.

In the second part of the chapter I documented the limits of a Bourdieusian approach to gender and materiality. I suggested that Bourdieu’s theories could not account for the ambivalences of gender relations or the ways in which women had been central in the making of domestic retro style. I outlined Butler’s approach to gender as performance, as doing rather than being. The approach to gender that I take in this book is influenced by Butler’s work because it allows for a politically empowering and potentially transgressive gender politics. I also suggested that the practical and sensual experiences of material objects were neglected in Bourdieusian accounts. This led me to explore studies of consumer culture that have drawn on ANT and theories of affect. I argued that these studies offered ways of thinking about the appeal of material objects beyond symbolism, which is particularly important in a discussion of retro homes, furniture and decorative objects.

To explore gender politics without considering class relations is short-sighted, and in a consumer culture in which certain affects are highly valuable it is important not to dismiss exchange. Thus, drawing on feminist discussions of Bourdieu’s concepts, I proposed a model that focused on cultural resources, as well as cultural capital. The term resource is used to indicate the knowledge, values and practices that have use value but little or no exchange value as defined by the field. Using the concepts of resources and capital enables me to think about material objects and cultural practices as having many different use values, as well as having symbolic exchange value. As a reminder that an increase in the exchange value of an object may not affect its use value, I also use the concept of regimes of value, drawn from anthropology, to describe the “multiple, coexisting and variously related” contexts in which objects are valued (Myers, 2001:6).

I concluded the chapter by explaining the methods I used to document the symbolic, practical and emotional relations that retro retailers, tastemakers and enthusiasts have with their objects. Findings from this research are presented in Chapters 5 to 8 of the book.

[1] It is important to note, as Nigel Thrift does, that although the use of aesthetics by capitalism may seem all encompassing, “the system cannot work unless there are loopholes through which the new and quirky can make their way” (2008:21).

[2] The term classed suggests that class inequalities are reproduced through the hierarchically differentiated nature of taste, which often functions below the level of consciousness and language (Bottero, 2004:990).

[3] The descriptions in Distinction add richness and depth to Bourdieu’s accounts. However, in the rest of the book Bourdieu (2005 [1979]) makes culture into units to be counted. For example, his use of correspondence analysis has been likened to the “top-line” data gathered from market research questionnaires (Miller, 1987:155).