- In many cases, accessory selection reflects upon the traits and the intentions of the wearer.
- Conspicuous consumption refers to purchasing expensive items to signal wealth and status.
- Compensatory consumption may be a result of physical dissatisfaction.
In some ways, we are what we wear. From cufflinks to cowboy boots, turtlenecks to miniskirts, our clothes showcase at least some of our traits, qualities, priorities, and preferences. Jewelry adds another layer of self-expression because the way we accessorize is often uniquely personalized, especially if we have less flexibility in our attire due to our profession, position, or status in life.
Many people would admit that jewelry choice reflects personal preference and personality. The revealing nature of ornamentation is validated both empirically and anecdotally.
Boasting by Bling, or Showcasing Pearls of Wisdom?
If you compliment someone on a big cross necklace they are wearing, they won’t necessarily exclaim, “Praise the Lord!” To them, it might just be jewelry. Remember Madonna’s oversized gaudy cross necklaces in the 1980s? My church friends, on the other hand, would be delighted at the acknowledgment of their expression of faith. Sure enough, there is a variety of reasons people select the adornments they do.
We all know people who wear “loud” jewelry and have personalities to match, while others practice “no frills” fashion, believing less is more. A strand of pearls doesn’t necessarily imply wisdom but may signal conservative beliefs or an attempt to portray professionalism. A class ring gives a different impression than a diamond pinkie ring, although they might both be the same size. Many people wear expensive watches because they believe they are treated better than when they strap on their Swatch from the 1980s.
Research indicates that, in many cases, as such examples indicate, accessory selection reflects upon the traits and the intentions of the wearer.
Consumption: Conspicuous or Compensatory
Yan Wang et al. (2022) explored purchasing and display behavior in a piece linking socioeconomic status and conspicuous consumption, which they define as “the purchase, and exhibit of expensive and luxury items to signal wealth and status to others.”1 They note that conspicuous consumption is not limited to people of high status but may also serve as a method of compensating for feeling lower in terms of position on a social hierarchy. In their research, they found that people with a low amount of subjective socioeconomic status were more likely to engage in conspicuous consumption, especially if they also perceived they had a low amount of social mobility.
Didem Kurt (2021) examined the link between obesity and compensatory consumption when shopping for jewelry.2 He found that individuals with higher body mass were willing to pay more for jewelry, a result he found was mediated by personal dissatisfaction with one’s weight. He noted that these findings can help us understand the consumption behavior of individuals who belong to a stigmatized group.
There is a variety of other reasons people wear the jewelry they do. From sentimental to personal style, not everything we adorn ourselves with is an attempt to portray false wealth or draw attention from physical traits.
Context counts as well, as we usually tailor our accessories to the occasion. We are more likely to notice and remember a gaudy bauble when it is part of an otherwise demure ensemble or strikingly inappropriate for the setting. But if we want to avoid the urge to judge a book by its cover, remember that jewelry can also be a conversation starter, designed to build rapport and common ground, allowing people to get to know each other on a level that is more serious than superficial.
1. Wang, Yan, Bingjie Liu, Shuyuan Lin, Lin Liu, Yufei Wu, and Lijuan Cui. 2022. “The Effects of Subjective Socioeconomic Status on Conspicuous Consumption.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 52 (7): 522–31. doi:10.1111/jasp.12876.
2. Kurt, Didem. 2021. “Obesity and Compensatory Consumption: Evidence from Jewelry Shopping.” Psychology & Marketing, September. doi:10.1002/mar.21578.