I’ve discovered that it bothers me when books focus overmuch on clothes and material possessions, especially designer name brands and other class markers. Part of this is that it doesn’t much pique my interest because clothes aren’t my favorite thing ever. But my reaction goes beyond a lack of interest; I feel disgust that seems philosophically justifiable. Two recently blogged books where I found and objected to materialism were Revelations, part of the Blue Bloods series, and the memoir Bitter Is the New Black.
I think I understand why writers put in specific details of the characters’ clothes, furnishings, and vehicles. This information adds to characterization, and helps the reader to understand the characters’ personalities. I remember reading books like The Babysitters’ Club, where each character had a signature style, and their every outfit was meticulously described, usually in the second chapter. It made sense because the readers were little girls working to figure out their own style, and the babysitters provided a personal style barometer against which to measure and define oneself. However, I don’t think the babysitters ever wore anything you couldn’t get at J.C. Penney, and the more artistic ones even made their own clothes and/or accessories. Even though a few of them came from well-off families, their style was totally attainable. The class issues that I see in more recent books just weren’t there. I even hesitate to call this materialism. These passages were just about enjoying clothes and expressing yourself through them. It helped that Kristy, the leader, had a pretty utilitarian style, and that they almost always wore comfortable, age-appropriate outfits.
The materialism I saw in the Blue Bloods series was of an entirely different breed. Out-of-reach commodities are glorified almost beyond belief in this series. Modeling is presented as a realistic career option. Thinness is shown to be essential to this chic lifestyle, and for these supernatural characters it’s effortless. Though the worldly power of the vampire/angels in this series is important to the plot, I didn’t think this power should have been represented in such superficial ways. I ultimately decided to quit reading the series because my annoyance with its materialism outweighed my enjoyment of the plot and characters.
The materialism in Bitter is the New Black is plot-relevant, and it’s something that the main character mostly grows out of, which is good. However, the privilege and entitlement she displays along the way was so grating that it negated the positive growth for me. Especially in the first half of the memoir, she snarks at people with fewer resources, disparaging their taste for not being able to afford better clothes, jewelry, purses, and perfume. This is unforgivable, and not as funny as the author thinks it is.
For some reason, materialism bothers me less in period novels than in contemporary settings. In The American Heiress, the Bright Young Things series and the Luxe series, there are many detailed descriptions of gorgeous period-appropriate clothes, which add to the atmosphere of the book, as well as to characterization. I’m not really sure why this manifestation of materialism doesn’t bother me much, because the characters and their worldview are equally acquisitive. Maybe things seem less trendy and tacky after 90 years. A superficial difference may also be that there are fewer brand names mentioned; Tiffany’s made an appearance in all of these books, but was just about the only brand, or at least the only one that’s still around and recognizable.
One important contrast seems to be the effect that these different presentations of materialism have on readers, who are usually young girls. Materialism in a period setting adds to a fantasy world that girls know they cannot really live in. As much fun as it might be to imagine sumptuous ball gowns, complete with corset and kid gloves, they know that fashions in real life do not include such styles, except maybe on Halloween. It’s the equivalent of magic wands and unicorns. Period materialism is not aspirational.
But in a contemporary setting, descriptions of expensive clothes, houses, and cars do become aspirational. These items exist in today’s world and are paraded in front of young people in all aspects of the media. These books only add to a larger problem when characters are shopping in designer boutiques where they don’t even put price tags on the couture and paying with daddy’s credit card, and it’s all presented as a wish fulfillment fantasy for readers to enjoy. It’s a novelization of a flashy magazine article that tells you that $200 jeans are such a steal. And that’s when it becomes ridiculous and teaches bad values.
So what’s the solution? Writers can’t ignore the physical realm or the material objects that surround their characters. There are good character- and plot-related reasons to give details of clothing and furniture. But overindulgence in a fascination with fashion poisons literature and its readers. (It also binds a book to a particular short time period, as the styles go out of date so quickly.) What’s the middle ground?
One recent book I read that turned materialism on its head was Partials. It’s a postapocalyptic dystopia, and one activity that the main characters do a lot is scavenge. Kira, the main character, takes pleasure in her amazing wardrobe, and says that everyone she knows has great clothes, because they looted malls and the houses of the dead. This is entirely believable, but also makes a chilling point: you can’t take it with you. The book is a thriller, and the clothes are only the focus for about half a scene.
I observed bits of materialism in Before I Fall. The teenage narrator observes the brands and clothes all around her, and intuits their meaning in the language of teenage style. Clothing choices can be used to characterize, and brand names sprinkled with a sparing hand can add specificity to descriptions. But it’s best if the class issues are made explicit. For example, in this book, the narrator envies her friends’ wealthier parents and compares her tight budget for clothing to theirs, discussing how it’s hard to keep up with them, and how the issue keeps her from enjoying shopping with them. Later, she goes on a shopping spree and gets a makeover, but she has to steal her mother’s credit card to do it, and she only does it because she’s convinced she’s going to die so nothing matters. I think this is the best way that an author writing contemporary YA fiction can deal with the issue of materialism and aspirationalism: present it as a problem that a character is dealing with in a realistic way, rather than as an unrealistic fantasy come to life.