Conspicuous Consumption: Audience Relationships with Capitol Fashion in The Hunger Games

Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games has taken the world by storm. According to an NPR poll, the trilogy is a teen favorite, second only to the incomparable Harry Potter series. Throughout the Hunger Games film series, fashion styles of the Capitol’s residents reflect the social and economic inequality in its dystopian society. It is interesting to take a look at the media representations of this fashion and the power that it exudes – the film serving as entertainment for audiences and also doubling as a surprisingly striking reflection of our society today.

Capitol escort Effie Trinket, left, stands in contrast to Katniss Everdeen, citizen and tribute of District 12.

Played by actress Elizabeth Banks, Effie Trinket makes her first appearance in film The Hunger Games, where she stands on a podium at the District 12 reaping, a mouthpiece for the Capitol and a cheeky vision of plum purple glamour against a sea of white shirts and disheartened faces. Through Effie’s character, we see for the first time an example of media representations of Capitol fashion, which can be described as overdramatic, outlandish, and flamboyant. American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen writes that, “evidence of wealth serve[s] to impress one’s importance on others” (24). He also coined the term “conspicuous consumption,” or spending money on luxury goods in order to show off wealth. As an individual from the Capitol, the film’s depiction of Effie and her hyperbolic fashion choices casts this excessive consumption as purely negative. Arguably, the aesthetics of her character can be applied to real-world power imbalances between haves and have-nots, of the wealthy and the now-called “99%.”

The majority of the general American public would likely identify itself as ‘middle-class.’ In doing so, we as viewers of the film find Effie and these depictions of Capitol fashion, images of over-excess and exuberant wealth, very distasteful. In today’s day and age, where political discussions center around helping the middle-class, establishing universal healthcare, and coping with rising tuition costs, we identify with the depictions of citizens from District 12 in their disgust of the rich. This disparity is especially relevant because the film was released not long after the housing bubble burst, government bailouts were given to Wall Street, and the Occupy Wall Street movement began. Sociologist Georg Simmel speaks to class differentiations indicated through an individual’s fashion choices, writing that, “fashion… is a product of class distinction” (544). He believes that fashion is a continuous cycle because the poor always look to the rich in an attempt to imitate them, and once a style has been emulated, the wealthy will change it to ensure they remain distinct from the people in social classes below them, thus creating fashion. Although I do not believe that fashion stems only from the wealthy, this idea of fashion used as a tool for distinction can be applied to images of Capitol fashion in The Hunger Games, as it represents disparity in the film.

A close-up look of Effie Trinket’s Capitol fashion.

Banks’ character not only represents the oppressive Capitol in the feature film but also someone that the audience finds laughable – completely out of touch and extravagant, fashion seemingly adorned without a purpose other than to differentiate herself from the masses. The film creates images where Capitol fashion consists of bold colors, flashy accessories, and an almost grotesque excess of material, all of which is used to create a sense of difference. The average American is not within the social spheres of the 1%, but this film forcefully extends that social sphere upon its audiences, forcing us to view the excess of wealth that the characters represent. The film’s depictions of conspicuous consumption cleverly draw on the existing dissent of Americans with the power and wealth of the rich, leading us as audiences to easily identify with and support Katniss Everdeen in her struggle to overthrow the Capitol.

On a lighter note, Simmel also speaks to some of the bizarre or overly obnoxious fashion choices of the societal elite, telling us that, “it would seem as though fashion were desirous of exhibiting its power by getting us to adopt the most atrocious things for its sake alone” (544). These ‘atrocious’ fashion items and outfits reveal a sense of power, as it is indicative of the monetary or cultural capital that an individual must possess in order to have access to, obtain, and purposefully adorn such an impractical or hideous piece. Pierre Bourdieu defines cultural capital as something that builds up over time and can be exchanged in society for monetary or social gain. As the audience can see in the scene from the reaping, Effie’s nails are painted and covered with an excess of glitter, her dress a host to a hyperbolic number of ruffles, face caked with white powder, wig and flower headpiece overly theatrical, and it almost looks as if she is being choked in the District 12 heat by her neck accessory.

Other examples of the outrageous and flamboyant outfits of Capitol fashion.

American capitalism has quickly taken this fashion from the films, as evident through CoverGirl’s “Capitol Beauty” collection, a line inspired by the very Capitol fashion audiences find over-the-top. Interesting to note, however, is that this line has either been discontinued because of poor sales or its limited edition nature; research conducted provides no answers as to why the line was short-lived. But an important question still holds true – why would CoverGirl create such a line, inspired by Capitol fashion in the film, a representation of the snobbery and conspicuous consumption of the upper echelons?

One of CoverGirl’s Capitol fashion-inspired looks – representative of District 1 – Luxury.

I stumbled upon an anonymously written entertainment article, which argues that we “love to live vicariously” through characters in film, whether we are inclined to love or hate them, and that we make these purchases because we can then be, “reminded of all of the feelings that a favorite film made us feel.” It is implicit that the author believes that despite having feelings of anger or disdain for negative images, such as representations of disparity, we as audiences want to prolong the movie-going experience, through whatever channels possible, including purchasing merchandise and products inspired by feature films.

It could simply be because, as Veblen would say, purchasing accessories inspired by a popular book and film series is an indication of being complicit in the fashion cycle, and by extension, a participation in conspicuous waste. We could also look at what Bourdieu has written about the idea of cultural capital – perhaps the purchasing of a product line inspired by the fashion in The Hunger Games would be indicative that an individual has the cultural capital to consume based on the current fascination in popular culture. These theories are assumptions made about consumers and their relationship with popular culture artifacts.

Perhaps this phenomenon can be explained through critical theory of fandoms – fans in particular communities may use consumption in a way that transcends the implications of the film’s representations of social disparities in order to indicate their knowledge of and access to products of the media phenomena at hand. If this were the case, the ideas of Mary E. Roach and Joanne B. Eicher would be relevant, as it could be argued that the consumption and adornment of these cosmetics could be used to indicate a social role (as an avid fan) or recreation, since individuals would need to have time to spend in order to consume the media, have knowledge of the products and their release, and have the monetary capital to go and purchase the “Capitol Beauty” collection. Regardless, there are many questions that can be asked as to the motivations behind the consumption of these products.

The Hunger Games series is loved by many, perhaps not because of audience identification with female heroine, Katniss Everdeen, but because the films reveal a scarily realistic reflection of the social, economic, and political struggle between the rich and poor in our current society. Its depiction of ostentatious Capitol fashion as a tool to create distinction between classes and perpetuate power imbalances is potent and impactful, a powerful statement of the condition of society today.

Written by William Chiu


Works Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Habitus and the Space of Life-Styles.” Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1984. 191-209. Print.

Eicher, Joanne B. “The Language of Personal Adornment.” Fashion Theory: A Reader. By Mary E. Roach. London: Routledge, 2007. 109-21. Print.

Simmel, Georg. “Fashion.” The American Journal of Sociology 62.6 (1957): 541-58. Print.

Veblen, Thorstein. “Conspicuous Leisure.” The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Dover Publications, 1899. 23-70. Print.

“Why We Like Official Movie Merchandise to Escape.” EscapePodinfo. N.p., 29 Apr. 2014. Web. 11 Mar. 2015. <http://escapepod.info/official-movie-merchandise-lure/&gt;.

Images

COVERGIRL GETS INSPIRED BY THE HUNGER GAMES FOR “CAPITOL BEAUTY” COLLECTION. Digital image. Fashion Gone Rogue. N.p., 28 Oct. 2013. Web. 06 Mar. 2015. <http://www.fashiongonerogue.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/covergirl-hunger-games1.jpg&gt;.

Digital image. PixShark.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Mar. 2015. <https://fashpow2015.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/b22f1-katniss-effie-reaping.jpg&gt;.

Hunger Games Capitol City Fashion. Digital image. Becuo. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Mar. 2015. <http://lovestyletransform.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/hunger-games-costumes-capitol-city-fashion.jpg&gt;.

Web, Goldenspider. Digital image. Effie Trinket’s Reaping Outfit. Pinterest, n.d. Web. 09 Mar. 2015. <https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/e3/3b/ee/e33bee9c5cc9d06e4ae3d0b7c58248b1.jpg&gt;.

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