She shops to conquer

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By TT Bureau
  • Published 15.01.06
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Shopping is bad for women. It must be true, all the feminists say so. In fact, it’s the one thing they’ve always agreed on. In the first wave of women’s liberation, Germaine Greer and her sisters defined consumerism as just another face of patriarchal oppression, a way of tricking the powerless housewife into servicing the capitalist machine.

There followed a brief backlash, in which the advertising industry tried to colonise the concept of women’s self-determination, that icky Revlon fragrance Charlie sold a bomb to the new career girls and feminism became anything that pushed a product. Then Naomi Woolf and the new guard arrived. They caught the fashion and beauty industries in the act of making sure that the new, career-focused, independent woman kept consuming, and defined the “beauty myth” that, they insisted, kept women right back where we had started from. As Woolf saw society: “The really crucial function that women serve is to buy more things.”

We know this, we believe this ? and yet we shop. And now a leading historian has put forward a counter-argument. In her new book, Consuming Splendor, Linda Levy Peck, the Columbian Professor of History at George Washington University, suggests a deep-seated reason why women in the developed world seemed compelled to consume so dramatically beyond their needs. Just in time, since shopping has become our sickness, an addiction, a compulsion beyond our control.

Who could possibly need a ?5,000 handbag, or that solid-silver Marmite lid for ?85? And yet all media are full of these trinkets. We can identify with the actress Geraldine James, who recently said that whenever she had been away filming, she didn’t feel at home and back in her own skin until she had gone out a bought “a little thing”.

Consuming Splendor is a study of the consumption of luxury goods in England during the Stuart period, and Professor Peck argues that we have been here before, and that the first time round the power to shop was crucial to women’s newfound identity as free and independent beings. “Women have been the same about luxury from Eve onwards,” she asserts. “And at this time I think shopping was related to women’s social and economic power. It was in the 17th century that women began to emerge as independent people in the legal sense, and they had the ability to spend their own money for the first time. That was when women began to make the consumer decisions for the whole family.”

Only a couple of generations earlier than this, an Englishwoman was virtually the property of her husband or father, with little earning power and no legal right to control her own money. Shopping then, as now in many Muslim countries, was a man’s job. Men literally controlled the purse strings and markets were men-only gatherings.

What changed things in 17th-century Britain was the free-thinking Renaissance, and the obvious intelligence and abilities of women rulers, such as Queen Elizabeth I in England or Catherine de Medici in France, which changed the way people thought about gender. On the economic side of society, a middle class of merchants and artisans emerged, and changed the way purchases were made. And so shopping was born.

“England had become a porous nation,” Professor Peck explains. “This was a time of great social mobility and people felt a need to express their status in the things they owned. Luxury affected identity, it challenged gender roles. Women could affirm their new freedom by shopping.”

“I completely believe it," agrees Sophie Kinsella, author of the bestselling Shopaholic novels. “Shopping just does empower you. We’re manipulated by retailers and manufacturers, of course, but we are also pretty savvy. The high street is on the run from the savvy consumer; it knows it can't sell us anything we don’t want.

“Part of shopping is about control; you feel you can control what you buy even if you can’t control anything else in your life. Even if you can’t control your weight, you can buy a great pair of shoes and feel good. Women were completely powerless for so long, and now we can claw our independence back. There’s a feeling of ‘Now we’re going to show you who we really are’."

At first sight, the 17th century, a time we think of as peopled by ladies with heaving bosoms and beauty spots clutching silly lap dogs, has little in common with the 21st century, but Professor Peck persuades otherwise. The parallels between then and now are extraordinary: soaring credit levels, a government arguing that spending is good for the economy while raking in stealth taxes, and huge new shopping destinations opening up to entice women out for spending sprees with their girlfriends..

Shopping itself has put enormous power in the hands of modern women, who make 85 per cent of all purchasing decisions in the developed world, and influence a further 10 per cent. “I Am Woman, Hear Me Shop,” was how the American financial periodical Business Week headlined an investigation into women’s spending this year. It highlighted the gender paradox: women still earn less than men, but they spend more, and control the spending of their partners and families. A woman earns 78p for a man’s ?1, but, directly or indirectly, we control all but 5 per cent of all personal spending. No surprise, then, that selling to women now accounts for an entire sub-genre of business books, led by a volume entitled Don’t Think Pink: What Really Makes Women Buy.

They sure knew how to spend, those 17th-century babes. Where we might splash out on a pro-spec digital camera, they bought their own Old Masters. Consuming Splendor is an appropriately luxurious volume and its cover bears a portrait of Aletheia Talbot, Countess of Arundel, the granddaughter of another shopping superwoman, Bess of Hardwick.

Aletheia not only spent millions on clothes, jewels, houses, furniture, art and antiquities, but was also the first person in England to commission paintings from Peter Paul Rubens. She died on a shopping trip to Amsterdam in 1654 ? and you can bet that she died a happy woman. After all, she had bought a to-die-for sculptured marble funeral monument.

From the perspective of history, Professor Peck comforts the addicted with the reassurance that this madness is cyclical. It has all happened before. “At the bottom, although you can argue that shopping is just about displaying wealth and status, it’s also about demonstrating that you have cutting-edge taste, that you really are at the forefront of your era, that you are morally and intellectually as well as socially, superior.

“Shopping never stops, but it changes. There will be a period of expansion, with a strong desire for luxury goods, and then the objects of desire change. Right now, in America, everyone wants a dual-fuel car to show that they’re not gas-guzzlers. They want to demonstrate avant-garde taste by consuming less, although hybrid cars are actually more expensive right now.

“So people can have good motives for shopping ? it’s not always a purely selfish thing. And England did emerge from this period of history as a centre of economic growth and scientific innovation. So the era of luxury consumption may end, but women live to shop again. I think it really is important to us, it’s a part of who we are.”