A number of years ago there was a strange phenomenon at the local high school. Many high schoolers just had to have this certain brand of designer jeans. Adjusted for inflation, a pair of these pants cost $128 in present day dollars.
I don’t know about you, but that’s an awful steep price to pair for a pair of everyday breeches. These pricey pants were of no higher quality than much cheaper run-of-the-mill jeans. The “unique styling” really wasn’t very unique at all. But stores that sold these things couldn’t keep them on the shelves. Telephone chains spread the news whenever it was leaked that a store had gotten a new shipment. People would wait in line and stores sometimes sold an entire shipment in minutes. Ka-ching!
Within a few months, other manufacturers put out specialty jeans, seeking to capture a piece of the hot market. Some even had styles that looked nearly identical to the preferred brand. But snobbish teens with a heightened sense of coolness could easily detect those wearing pants with an inferior label.
I assumed that the designer jeans fad would fade away by the next school year, but it didn’t. The French clothing designer brought out a greater variety of styles and had ramped up production so that stores usually had adequate supplies.
A coworker at that time reported that she gave her high schoolers a clothing allowance. One daughter spent nearly her entire allotment on a single pair of French designer jeans and a pair of “must have” designer tennis shoes (that she didn’t dare wear when it was wet or snowy). The other daughter, deciding that status was less important than variety, bought enough sensibly priced clothes to last the season and put the leftover funds in her bank account.
By the next summer, the French designer jeans fad went bust in our area. Stores were slashing their prices by late spring and the once expensive jeans soon found their way to bargain racks.
After availability increased, pent up demand kept prices high for a few months. But once that demand was met, retailers had a hard time moving the pricey products. Gradually they eased prices to free up space for better selling products. Decreasing prices meant that more people could afford the pants.
As the French jeans proliferated among the high school students, the utterly cool pants suddenly lost their coolness. No longer able to distinguish themselves by wearing expensive designer jeans, the status conscious crowd soon shifted to a different fad.
We like to think that we outgrow this kind of childish one-upmanship as we mature. But I’m not sure that we do. It seems, rather, that we simply shift to more elaborate ways to demonstrate our supposed superiority over others. A certain segment of our adult population is forever on a coolhunt for the next elite status symbol. Most of the rest of us pursue the coolhunt at least in a minor way.
Of course, we don’t ever see ourselves as being into superficial fashion the way some others obviously are. Rather, we seek to demonstrate our superiority in the stuff we own and in our various pursuits; our hobbies, the things we eat or drink. Sometimes we wear the façade of piety either in spiritual or secular religious pursuits.
Latter-Day Saints along the Wasatch Front like to be seen in the finest Mormon Assault Vehicle. Some secular religionists show their devoutness to the god of social consciousness by driving a politically correct hybrid. Aging baby boomers dress like bad boys and gals tearing up the roads on expensive Harleys.
Our continual quest for higher status doesn’t stop with what we drive. We engage in myriad fads, not unlike the high schoolers in my story. One entire line of high end media devices is almost wholly aimed at those that willingly pay more to have products that are perceived to be more elite than the devices used by the masses. Almost from its inception, this company has sought to carve out a niche for smug status hunters. I’ll let you guess which firm that is.
Sometimes we seek to demonstrate superiority in our ability to get deals on stuff, in the amount of food storage we have, in our educational credentials, in the music we enjoy, in the causes we support, etc.
The main goal of our coolhunting is to achieve a sense of being exclusive — of being superior to others. The most elite coolhunters are constantly changing their target because the moment anything that is exclusive reduces in cost to the point that it achieves more general usage, it is no longer exclusive. Thus, the never ending pursuit of the next exclusive thing.
The human tendency to seek for superiority often gets a bad rap. It is frequently viewed as a moral negative. And sometimes it definitely is. But it is also a very important and essential piece of human nature. Despite constant pleas to compete only with ourselves, we simply cannot help competing with others. It is this competition that defines who we are — that helps us discover who we are.
It is this very competition that is responsible for almost all advances in quality of life. But like all good tools, it is a double-edged sword that can be used for good or evil, for mutual advancement or for stupidity. But even in using this tool for what we believe to be good, it is wise to avoid the smugness that so easily accompanies any sense of superiority.
I may know this, but I’m a long way from that ideal.