What Is a Status Symbol?

A status symbol is generally an object that signifies its owners' high social and economic standing.

Key Takeaways

  • A status symbol is generally an object meant to signify its owners' high social and economic standing.
  • What serves as status symbols often changes as a culture and its values change.
  • One's vocation also may dictate various status symbols, and certain types of uniforms may read as status symbols.

Understanding a Status Symbol

Objects that act as status symbols change over time but are almost always linked to the primary differences between the upper and lower classes within society.

In capitalistic societies, status symbols are most often tied to monetary wealth. Elsewhere, status symbols can take on different forms. For example, in places where warriors are respected, a bodily scar may represent honor or courage, and thus become a status symbol. 

Types of Status Symbols

Expensive Items

Expensive goods such as luxury vehicles and watches that can cost more than a downpayment on a home are mostly out of reach for lower economic classes. For this reason, they have become status symbols.

Because much of the utility derived from status symbols comes from their high price, if the price of a status symbol goes up it may actually increase its demand, rather than diminish it. A product that exhibits this phenomenon is known as a Veblen good.

Uniforms

Another type of status symbol is a uniform that symbolizes membership in an organization, such as the military or law enforcement. A uniform may also display additional insignia of rank, specialty, tenure, and other details of the owner's status within the organization. A state might confer decorations, medals, or badges that can show that the wearer has heroic or official status.

In many cultures around the world, dress codes may specify who ought to wear particular kinds of styles of clothing, and when and where specific items of clothing are displayed. A modern example of this is in the professional world, where certain brands of ties, suits, or shoes confer status on the wearer.

Status Symbols Change According to Cultural Values

Culture and society are fickle and the actual goods that become status symbols change constantly according to taste, popularity, branding, psychology, and a host of other factors. Items that have become status symbols range from jewelry and clothing to recreational vehicles and how many homes one owns. Many have speculated that the earliest foods to be domesticated were luxury feast foods, used to establish one's place in society as a rich person.

Status symbols can also change according to one's vocation or avocation. For example, among intellectuals, an ivy league education along with the ability to think intelligently is an important status symbol regardless of the individual's material possessions. In academic circles, a long list of publications and a securely tenured position at a prestigious university or research institute are marks of high status.

Gilded Ages Spawn Various Status Symbols

Mark Twain dubbed the decades after the Civil War the "Gilded Age." It was a period dominated by political scandal and the "Robber Barons," the growth of railroads, the economization of oil and electricity, and the development of America's first giant—national and even international—corporations.

During the first Gilded Age, sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption.” He was referring to rich people flaunting their wealth through wasteful spending. Why buy a $1,000 suit when a $100 suit serves the same function? The answer, Veblen said, was power. The rich asserted their dominance by showing how much money they could burn on things they didn’t need. While radical at the time, Veblen’s observation seems obvious now.

Numerous "Gilded Ages"

In the intervening decades, conspicuous consumption became deeply embedded in the texture of American capitalism, and it seems that each decade has identified a new host of status symbols.

The 1980s and 1990s

America's more recent Gilded Age of the 1980s and most of the 1990s, was all about flaunting excess, as echoed in the movie Wall Street and television series such as Dallas and Dynasty. Back then one was perceived to be rich with an income of around $100,000 but, by 1989, American millionaires had become quite common. 

The "Power Scarf"

As more women entered American business and finance, their clothes and accessories became status symbols. In the 1980s and '90s, the sea of men on Wall Street was dotted occasionally with women sporting their own power suits, but with that ubiquitous flash of color—the imperative silk square of the designer "power scarf," which at the time ran for about $200 apiece.

Your Gym As a Status Symbol

Acquiring insanely expensive commodities isn’t the only way that modern elites project power. More recently, another form of the status symbol has emerged. In today's Gilded Age, identifying oneself as a member of the upper class doesn’t just require conspicuous consumption. It requires conspicuous production.

If conspicuous consumption involves the worship of luxury, conspicuous production involves the worship of labor. It isn’t about how much you spend. It’s about how hard you work—which includes, by the way, how hard you work out at the gym.