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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Hermes and Domestic Downsizing: In the News

In lieu of opening my retirement plan statements, I’ve been reading The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times on-line these days. There have been several recent articles about downsizing domestic help. So Ms Real-Estate Broker must let her housekeeper go; Ms Botox-Addict chooses a session with her dermatologist over her daughter’s beloved nanny. (Note 1: why do all these articles feature women letting domestic help go? Many are married. Where are the men letting the help go?)

I suppose we are meant to exult in the misery of these people, who must make difficult choices. Indeed, many news stories invite us to bash the wealthy these days. This was certainly the common response to the recent New York Times Magazine article in which wife #5 (or 3, 4, or 6) of a money-man recounted her experience with hiring a surrogate to carry their baby. The article was accompanied by a now notorious set of photos: pregnant surrogate on her scruffy porch; author in elegant dress holding baby with “baby nurse” and elegant Hamptons home in background. Evidently the author was shocked by the mostly negative reactions to her essay.

But we are also reminded that in one sense (sort of), the ridiculous trickle-down economics theory worked (maybe). Because then the stories focus on the laid-off nannies, housekeepers, and so forth and we hear of the true misery that the economic downturn has caused them and their families.

So where does Hermes fit into this? Well, as I was reading one of these stories, I glanced at an ad, and my eye was caught by the depiction of falling snow. (Note 2: my area just had its third snow in 20 years! You could hear the children screaming in ecstasy.)

It was an ad for Hermes. Hermes, for those who don’t know, is the uber-luxury French brand known for the Kelly and Birkin handbags, which are so desirable that there is a waiting list for the privilege of spending many thousands of dollars. I clicked on the ad. There I saw that the iconic silk scarf I covet is now $375.00. Last time I looked it was $325.00. I guess Hermes is not having a 75% off sale this year.

Even though I am a middle-class teacher, I have had some dealings with Hermes. To wit: I have found 5 Hermes ties at thrift stores. I have also found a Hermes scarf, which I am 105% sure is fake. The ties are authentic, however. So one of my “goals” is to find a real Hermes scarf at a thrift store. (My family knows that if they bought me a real one, I would kill them.)

****I wrote this shortly after clicking on the ad. I was interested in the incongruous juxtaposition of stories about downsizing household help (i.e. people) and ads for luxury goods. But I couldn’t see what the point of this was. So I asked my husband to figure out what the point was. To my surprise (though I should have known), he sees my own implication in what I’m writing about here, as will be evident in his conclusions below.

Mr. DFS sez: I’m not entirely sure that there is one single point; I think that many dark secrets can be teased out of a Rorschach essay of this sort.. However, what I see in this particular blot(g) is that perhaps our schadenfreude--our fascination with and even pleasure in stories about the travails of the wealthy--reflects our own repressed desire for that worthless and showy life, or our discomfort with desires that we don’t really want to acknowledge. While we revile the wealthy 5th wife and her quest for a surrogate, we also, in the privacy of our own homes, click on the ad for Hermes, and dream of the $400 scarf. But the reality is that we actually get the scarf, if at all, in the thrift store. So there is some truth to the trickle-down theory: we get second-hand fantasies (of indulgence and revenge), and second-hand ties. And that’s what not only saves our souls, but keeps us fiscally sound. [If you think this explanation is over the top, let me know your interpretation.]

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