And so it begins: as the cocktail party circuit has buzzed with the novelty of "cutting back" and "shopping their closets" and "haute frugality," the seething has started. And now it's becoming audible: "doesn't 'thrifty chic' make you want to vomit?" rails Alex Renton in today's Guardian. "Is there anything more grubbily ironic than the rich getting pleasure out of not shopping?" Well, "grubby irony" aside, we say the fun-and-games approach to a recession can't last — and that's a very good thing.
Renton's vitriol, not surprisingly, is reserved for those people not actually adversely affected by the economic downturn. "Thrift is of course the latest middle-class indulgence; where once we spent on goats to Africa, this year we're spending nothing. Why? How many people are actually poorer this Christmas?"
Well, stateside, quite a few of us. But the point is well-taken: those most ostentatiously hoisting the thrift flag are not always those for whom it is necessity. Renton is angry that these folks aren't supporting the economy; I find this somewhat disingenuous, as I'd be very surprised to find that most of these folks against whom he rails — that is, those not economically affected — are really denying themselves in a significant way — even if their public consumption is curtailed. But what's not curtailed? The platitudes. It grows wearing to see the well-compensated Today show hosts furrowing their brows daily over coupon clipping and Martha Stewart droning conscientiously about the cost-benefits of homemade gifts. And where socialites' naive utterances about the economy were briefly entertaining in a Petit Trianon-sort of way, the mounting body count renders this sort of philosophizing very trying indeed. Mused model/heiress Margherita Missoni to The Observer, "I find it a bit ridiculous actually, almost like it's the cool hot topic to talk about at fancy parties is the economy, which seems very decadent.'" The zeal of thrift is such that it feels less, "we're all in this together" than that it's a passing trend in which those who have the luxury will quickly lose interest - something we've anticipated for a while.
It seems inevitable that, as in those Halcyon days of the French court, My Man Godfrey and the seething unrest of the 1970s, anger is inevitable. There has been something distasteful about this full-scale embrace of novelty economizing not merely for the usual 'let-them-eat-cake' platitudes, but because in some ways it seems to deny the gravity of the situation. Look! Everyone seems to say. There's nothing we haven't seen before! There's nothing we can't handle! This part here is like the 1930s and this bit there is like the 1970s and we're smarter and more post-modern than people ever have been before and your individual problems are being taken care of - see this segment on clothing swaps?!
Not only does this roll-up-your-sleeves-let's-put-on-a-show! mentality in some wise trivialize the very grave realities of those being literally dispossessed; it also paternalistically strips the country's upheaval of some of its power for change, for reflection, for achievement. For all the panic many of us are experiencing for the first time, there are things to challenge us, things to push against. Whether this has the power to spur any artistic or philosophical achievement (or just thin the ranks of the Peaches Geldof-style slash/slash generation) is an open question; there may be nothing but a small-scale bout of decadent nihilism. The only thing that's certain is that this resolutely cheerful managing of tragedy as a game can't keep up: some of us don't have the luxury and those who do will tire of it. And for every penny "thrifty chic" might help one to save, it's surely going to breed a lot of resentment.