In the early days of ancient Rome, the toga was the national garment, worn by men, women, and children alike, across social classes. Its universality made it difficult to make any statements like "I'm hip, young, and fashionable" or "I'm a deal-making, power-brokering machine." But by the second century BC, the toga had become strictly a status symbol for men conducting official business. Laws were established explicitly stating who could or could not wear certain togas or use certain dyes. Women were banned from wearing togas entirely, except for prostitutes, who were forced to wear them as manifest stigma. And no one — aside from kings and, later, emperors — were allowed to wear a completely purple toga, the ultimate symbol of power.
It may seem arbitrary to take a simple everyday item and suddenly imbue it with a powerful symbolism, but in our modern culture of branding and conspicuous consumption, just about every product on our shelves can be construed as some metaphor for personal identity.
In 2007, I was in Bangkok for a study about what women wanted out of mobile phones. We strolled with them through Bangkok's endless sea of humidity and whizzing motorbikes. At one point we found ourselves wandering through a pop-up street market filled with hawkers selling everything from produce to sunglasses. We came across one particular stall that stood out, and not because it was selling anything particularly eye-catching. In fact, all it had was a blanket and a makeshift display rack featuring cheap cardboard cards bearing cartoonish images of toothy grins and false orthodontic braces, selling for a mere 39 baht (or about $1.30).
The stall seemed to get a decent amount of foot traffic, exclusively from adolescent girls. I can't say whether they viewed the braces as a gag or took them seriously, but while fake braces won't straighten anyone's teeth, they can give the impression that those teeth might someday become straightened. More importantly, they insinuate that the wearer (or more likely her family) has the financial means to afford such luxuries as orthodontics.
If braces can be considered a status symbol, does that mean that anything can be one? There are plenty of other examples of unlikely status symbols. In a study of low socioeconomic status Hispanic adolescents in the United States, researchers found that weapon carrying could increase one's popularity and social standing. In Iran, where the Islamist regime has instituted a ban on dog ownership, dogs are considered positive symbols of rebellious fortitude among secularists who oppose the government. In the United Arab Emirates, car license plates, especially single digit ones, have become hot items: in February 2008, the number "1" plate sold at auction for $14.3 million.
Much like the paradox of the toga in ancient Rome, some objects can connote high status in one culture and low status in another. A suntan on someone who lives in London or New York is a sign to others that that person can afford a tropical vacation, or at least a trip to the tanning salon. On the other hand, a tan in China or Thailand is a mark of peasants who toil in the fields. Thus on the shelves of pharmacies in Bangkok you'll find dozens of skin products with whitening ingredients; in the United States, expensive moisturisers are tinted. Does this mean that the people who use these products are all that different from one another?
Shakespeare wrote that men and women are merely players who play many parts in life — only the world is not *a* stage, but rather millions of stages, with billions or perhaps trillions of props and costumes. The parts we play, the dialogues we speak, and the gestures we make are only as convincing as their juxtaposition with the scenery on the stages we tread. But the right props and costumes can make us look, and even feel, at home anywhere.
Excerpt from my first book Hidden in Plain Sight, that explores the opportunities that come from seeing the world through fresh eyes.