In October 2017, Italian youths in Milan, dissatisfied with the unemployment rate, expressed themselves by vandalizing three symbols of capitalism and consumer focus: the chamber of commerce, a McDonalds, and a Zara store. While one might legitimately wonder what is to be achieved with an unemployment protest in which places of employment are destroyed, there is a certain validity to the characterization of these three places as bastions of capitalism. What the destructive youths missed was the beauty of McDonalds and Zara.
In the case of Zara, the company has brought affordable fashion to the masses, and now every young woman can dress like a princess. Even clothes selling out, which is what occurred when the Duchess of Cambridge wore a Zara coat to a public engagement, is beautiful because it is a sign of exactly how accessible the clothing of royalty now is, thanks to capitalist endeavor. Are there people for whom the coat’s $169.00 price tag is unaffordable? Yes, of course. But it is still very affordable when one considers that aplain white gown for a member of Henry VIII’s court cost £31 8s – approximately $12,400 today – at a time when an average servant made only $800 in today’s money annually.
The Tudor price level is still unaffordable to most people today, yet the modern royal coat sold out. What changed? The finances changed. Now, no one needs to spend fifteen year’s wages to look like royalty. And the people who have made the narrowing of the gap possible are those who have brought fast fashion to the masses, not from altruism, but because there is a demand and someone filled it. Consequently, as royals dress like the masses, and the masses can dress like royals, the social gap is closing.
The closing gap is not a new phenomenon. 1500s Spain enacted sumptuary laws designed to reinforce the social hierarchy and prevent social climbing; no matter his wealth, a merchant could not wear the same clothes as the poorest of princes. Now, we have not only abolished such laws, we recognize the primacy of the customer’s desire concerning purchases.
In the book Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, journalist Dana Thomas chronicled how the world of haute couture turned to capitalism to save itself following the Second World War. Realizing that their old clientele had fallen financially during the War, the couture houses began to court the new rising entrepreneurs. Responding to the realization that the post-War generation held little affinity for pre-War couture products, the houses turned out items to suit the new tastes. Starting in the 1980s, many houses began to mass produce some of their items in an effort to meet demand. According to Thomas, this decision was a travesty as it brought “consumerism” to a formally noble profession. Yet this view ignores the beauty of the employment provided to the low-skilled workers in Asia, who could not compete otherwise with the highly-trained European craftsmen, and increased accessibility as mass production lowered prices and meant that by the 1980s, high fashion was affordable to the previously excluded middle-classes.
Anyone may purchase a rucksack from Prada and sunglasses from Louis Vuitton with no legal restrictions. One should purchase, though. International incidents because three young men had to have designer sunglasses right now and decided to shoplift are embarrassing for all parties. But even the snatching episode is revealing. The sunglasses were on display at a shopping mall, ready for immediate purchase. While a mall may not have the same atmosphere as a private appointment at a boutique on the Champs-Élysées, the very presence of an outlet indicates that social gaps have closed. Average Joe consumer can now walk into a mall and come out with an item produced by a company formally only patronized by the type of people who travelled first class on the Titanic (popular legend says that Louis Vuitton suitcases were among the sturdier pieces of flotsam and jetsam post-sinking). The rich and powerful no longer control what is available to the consumer, who may now carry the same bag as the Queen of England.
Even fast food is indicative of the narrowing gap. Perhaps more so. Fast food chains provide a service once enjoyed only by the wealthy: a cook who prepares your food and then presents it to you and all you have to do is pay, either wages or the meal price. McDonalds is a staple for travelers, early and late workers, and exhausted working mothers. Yet in the 1990s, Princess Diana took her two young sons to McDonalds as a treat. It is the reverse of the social order anti-capitalists would have one believe. Foodstuff held in contempt by paternalistic socialists is a special occasion meal for royalty!
Gone are the days when Catherine of Aragon had to special order lettuce from Holland, making it food exclusively for the royal family. Now everyone eats lettuce and eats it on the same McDonalds sandwiches. (It’s not as though the Tudor royal lettuce would have been in any better shape after crossing the Channel pre-refrigeration than the sad little leaf on the McChicken from the neighborhood McDonalds.) The modern person now eats as well as, if not better than, King Henry VIII. We can even buy pre-washed bags of lettuce at the supermarket and without a qualm toss any piece deemed too old or limp into the garbage. Would lettuce have become as commonplace as it now if we still had to import every head from the Netherlands? Absolutely not.
Why is this vegetable so common now? Entrepreneurs, recognizing that there was a market for food eaten by royalty, discovered a way to grow it in what, at the time, was an inhospitable climate, becoming an example of growing food to meet any demand. Eventually, we achieved hot houses and therefore oranges and bananas in winter. As recently as the early 20th century those foods were seasonal treats only for the wealthy. Now anyone can casually walk into the grocery and expect to find several varieties of oranges and bunches of bananas in varying stages of ripeness. Even in food, social gaps are closing.
The narrowing of the gaps does not suit the conventional narrative. It is not in the interest of the poverty profiteers, those progressives who foment socio-cultural unrest, for people to focus on what they have; rather, it benefits the organizers of discontent for people to fixate on what they do not possess. Hence, we now have well-clothed protestors with full stomachs angrily denouncing the evil empires of corporatism.
But is simple possession even a valid measurement now? Oxfam, a charitable consortium dedicated to reducing global poverty, is now so desperate for poor people that billionaire President Donald Trump, who owns his own plane, is a poor man according to the metrics used in their latest (2017) assessment. If the President is poor, then the average Zara-wearing, McDonalds-eating New Yorker is absolutely mired in poverty, even as he or she dresses like royalty and literally dines like the President. Under Oxfam’s logic, we are now faced with a conundrum: Are the common people now rich, or are the rich people poor? At least we know we have equality, thanks to capitalism.
Mary Lucia Darst is an intern at the Austrian Economics Center. She graduated from Columbia University with an MA in History and Literature. In addition to working as a writer and researcher, she is an active classical musician.
The AEC’s fundamental goal is to promote a free, responsible and prosperous society. Through education and improving public understanding of key economic questions, the AEC promotes the idea of a free market economy and the ideal of a free society.