An examination of the nature of decoration and adornment.
In an age when people are told aesthetics are a mere marketing tool, former Reason editor Postrel (The Future and Its Enemies, 1998) argues that style is part of our consciousness itself: “The issue is not what style is used but rather that style is used, consciously and conscientiously, even in areas where function used to stand alone.” But if, as she argues, aesthetics is more widespread than it used to be, transcending economic boundaries, why is this so? Examining the subject of clothing, Postrel notes that in the late 1920s, a typical woman would have owned nine dresses—outfits that would have to be worn through all seasons, for work and for leisure. She contrasts this with a conversation overheard in her local Target, where a mother informed her preteen daughter that she couldn’t have another top since she already owned at least 30. Rising incomes and falling production costs don’t explain the whole story, she posits. Social and cultural shifts of the late-20th century have also put more emphasis on aesthetics—but that raises a question. How can something that’s been deemed innate gain cultural importance? The question is never fully answered, but the author takes us on an entertaining romp through the aesthetics of cars (in the ’50s and ’60s, car buyers focused on looks, while the gasoline shortages of the 1970s gave fuel efficiency more importance) and toilet bowl brushes (it’s possible to buy a $400 crystal and gold brush). She covers the popularity of Starbucks, the cycle of children’s names (“Sarah” and “Jessica” have eclipsed “Susan” and “Kimberly”), the role of hair, and more. Postrel concludes that as new styles and technologies develop, at some point the primacy of aesthetics will fade, and a new “age” will come to pass.
Engaging, even while some of the author’s ideas fail to coalesce.