What do Facebook friends, long fingernails, oversized desks, toilets and expensive watches have in common? All of them are – or were – eagerly displayed signs of (supposed) high social status, symbols of recognition & power & superiority. In short: status symbols with coolness factor, more or less…
He had promised himself not to be afraid. It was a good intention, but one that proved unrealistic the second the door in front of him opened – the door to the Lion’s Den. In front of him lay a path, that seemed to stretch endlessly into the distance, straight through the wood-panelled room. Bookcases filled with overwhelming knowledge stood to his left, while to the right there was a modern marble sculpture whose sheer size he found uncanny and which baffled him. Next to it was a gaudy and overloaded display cabinet. And at the far end of the room, there HE sat – as if enthroned – behind a colossal desk that rested like a battleship before him, a symbol of power. HE puffed his cigar and not once even raised his eyes, whereas the eyes of the company’s founder in the oil painting hanging behind him bore straight through this unwelcome supplicant, this nuisance in human form, this undeserving no-name.
OK – admittedly, things are no longer as apocalyptic. Nevertheless, representation and intimidation were the unmistakable pillars upon which the boss’s office of the 19th and early 20th centuries rested. It was here that the company’s success as well as the power and autonomy of the imperturbable capitalist were made manifest. Even if reason seemed to control and regulate every aspect of life (or maybe precisely because of this), the power centres of a great number of companies were symbolically charged, taking on a practically mythological character.
The criteria used in designing these spaces were derived from the businessman’s self-interpretation – and didn’t always produce a stylish overall concept. A purposeful display of seriousness, the demonstrative presentation of success, and showing off power were customary for that age. Up until the 1930s, many boardrooms looked for inspiration to the typical study in an English country home, with its sense of exclusivity and club atmosphere.
The penchant for (obvious) symbolism began to wane in the 20th century. Functionality gained importance and forms became more modest, but a personal touch was still (within certain limits) desired. Flashy showing off was already long out of date in the 1980s. This does not mean, however, that boss’s offices were by then completely free of symbols and symbolism. Power was no longer the most important aspect to be prominently displayed. Instead, specific characteristics of the boss (or the company) were to be communicated via the space – self-presentation remained very much an important function. From then on, a seemingly coincidental profusion of international magazines and other publications offered evidence of a certain savoir vivre, in which the most modern communications technology stood and still stands for openness, efficiency and lively interaction, and where the moderately but intentionally "untidy" desk represents flexibility, the ability to multi-task and having the perfect overview. But still: nothing too flashy. Everything ought to embody a certain understatement in its appearance that says: I don’t need to draw attention to myself. I am what I am – unique.
And what do things look like outside of the office walls? Luxury vehicles and sports cars no longer really serve as status symbols – at least according to the conventional wisdom relayed by the media over the past several years. Only a handful of brands still earn points when it comes to image. Whether this is true is something we all have to decide for ourselves. Most likely it is a matter of perspective, as is so often the case. Or to put it slightly differently: who are you trying to outclass? If everyone is driving an Audi, then you’d better get a Porsche or Tesla. In some competitive city areas, securing a company parking space right in front of the door is enough to make an impression.
It’s the same when it comes to other prestigious objects – one person’s private jet is another’s iPhone (OK, that might be a bit far fetched…). Bespoke suits and shoes with leather soles may be as vital to giving the impression of (real?) social status as important-sounding titles and professional designations or even preferred leisure activities. A degree from an elite university, VIPs among one’s personal acquaintances or simply the number of friends one has on Facebook can be indications of one’s social standing.
Increasingly time itself is becoming a status symbol. Many believe that a 12-hour work day earns respect since it is an indication that this person is "important". Others may swear by the ability to flaunt the freedom to schedule their own time and the luxury of being able to take a free day or holiday whenever they want.
And then, of course, there is the "dress code". If we want to consciously demonstrate our (purported) status, then the choices range from "Rolex" to "understated".
The first, it seems, still can’t be eradicated as the brand to show you have that certain in-crowd attitude. Add to that a few other sure bets such as luxurious holidays, VIP friends, the number of one’s "subordinates" and the latest tech gadgets.
The latter, on the other hand, glorifies a distancing attitude: you have a certain status, but this need not be put on public display. You remain elegantly "incognito". Most interesting from a psychological viewpoint are those branded products that are used in a more subtle manner, so that only those who are really in the know – the insiders, that is – can recognise them… You know what I mean?
Status symbols and their uses are subject to the flow of time, which is hardly surprising. Do you remember way back when in sports history when a football coach would appear on the side-lines in a tracksuit instead of an YSL scarf?
On the other hand, status symbols need not always be expensive. It is true that they reflect the social value system, and much of this (not just) today revolves around wealth and power. But one need only look at the example provided by hippies or punks – even they had (and have) their status symbols, with which they demonstrate their position inside and outside of social hierarchies.
Interestingly enough, there are overlaps between various cultures. One example is the sword: The katana was a status symbol for Japanese samurai, and the Indian khanda is still prized even today among members of the Kshatriya – warrior – caste. Another example is headgear: crowns were/are present in a variety of forms in numerous cultures, such as in ancient Egypt. The nemes headcloth and the two-feather crown, for example, were also important insignia. Elaborate hairstyles and wigs equally served as status symbols. And when you watch royal ceremonies on the television today you certainly can’t ignore the topic of head coverings.
In many places, animals are a further means by which one may infer the status of their owners. In Arabic-speaking lands, for example, exceptional falcons serve as status symbols, and among the Massai, status is conferred by the number of cattle. Perhaps the modern cult of the car is an offshoot of these anthropological roots?
This is not just a topic in modern industrial societies. The transition from "work" as a status symbol to status symbols showing that you are not working is clearly evident in numerous cultures. In Ming dynasty China, long nails served as a status symbol – for women of the nobility, in this case. With these, they signalled that they did not need to engage in manual labour. Even today, many men (this time) in rural areas in the southern hemisphere and in the East will grow the nail on their little finger to a length of several centimetres for precisely this same reason.
Symbolism may also be a function of the colour of one’s skin. Whereas (still) in Europe, a suntanned complexion is a symbol of the ability to enjoy one’s leisure time, a particularly light complexion is seen in Asia as a sign that the individual has no need to engage in labour (especially difficult labour outdoors). Thus one can sometimes come across Chinese women on beaches who are nearly completely swathed in clothes, even wearing ski-masks, so as to preserve their light colour.Cosmetic whitening products, laser treatments and dubious cosmetic surgeries are absolutely "in".
And let’s not forget architecture, of course! Sometimes there are elements here and there around the world that you wouldn’t immediately recognise as status symbols. In Johannesburg or San José, for example, even the less well-off may "decorate" their houses or huts with barbed wire – not to prevent burglars, but to be able to feel as though they belong to a wealthier section of society.
And in numerous so-called developing countries, in which conditions of hygiene are particularly poor, even toilets serve as status symbols. Curious at first, but on second thought, it is completely understandable…