Consumption and Significance: Everyday Life in a Brand-New Second-Hand Bow Tie


Robert Grafton Small (1993) ,"Consumption and Significance: Everyday Life in a Brand-New Second-Hand Bow Tie", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, eds. W. Fred Van Raaij and Gary J. Bamossy, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 518-521.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1993      Pages 518-521


Robert Grafton Small, University of St. Andrews, U.K.

When my grandfather died and the time came to divide up his estate, we found two bow ties amongst his personal effects. One, worn every day until his final illness, was in tatters and ripe just for throwing away, but the other was still in its original wrapper, the colours unfaded and the fabric intact. For all sorts of reasons, some spoken, some felt, the rest not clear even now, it seemed fitting that I should take the brand-new bow tie and likewise dispose of the tatters though I'd never owned such a strip of silk before and could not manage their knots.

Since then, however, I have made a point of learning and whilst this red and blue ribbon is bound to be my first, it is no longer my only bow tie, for nowadays I buy them on my own account. I think of my grandfather, all the same, whenever his choice is round my neck and I must look in the mirror to make good the knot. Admittedly, given the circumstances, and the nature of memento mori, this process of accommodation is hardly unusual. Mauss, for one, has demonstrated how kula and potlatch, both moral and contractual systems of gift-giving, can not only mediate between a single society and the rest of nature, wherein we and death are clearly related forms (1974:14), but also add shape to whatever social structure is maintained (1974:37) around us. Equally to the point is Bourdieu's (1990:80) warning that for all their ritual obligations of giving, receiving and repaying, these forms of exchange ought never to be considered in merely mechanical terms.

Instead, he urges, we should think of the games we ourselves play in social life and the use that is made of tact, skill and savoir-faire as languages of practical sense, where hermeneutic errors are paid for instantly. Gonzalez-Crussi (1987: 105-106) comes to a similar conclusion in an implicitly parabolic telling of the attempt to discredit Confucius by feeding him the flesh of another philosopher, a trick which is soon undone when Confucius refuses the banquet, claiming his host has no reason to honour him in this fashion.

The question remains, though, of how I might repay a specific debt to my grandfather assuming, of course, that both means and obligation can be said to exist in a culture like our own, which is based on industrial production and mass consumption. The outer reaches of this, concerning the way we use goods individually and collectively to shape every aspect of our physical, spiritual and intellectual survival, have been developed in considerable detail. Michel de Certeau has insisted on goods as means of thought as well as ends in themselves (1984: xix-xxi), while Douglas and Isherwood (1980:68) have shown trade, even in consumer societies, to be 'shaking hands in a material way', hence a vital part of our common capacity for relating to the world and each other.

Dormer (1990:89) tells at some length how, for example, the wide-spread use of labour-saving devices in domestic circumstances has not, in fact, led to any great saving in the time spent on housekeeping but rather to the further confinement of women in a social order where they are often left relatively ill-equipped to do anything else. That we are discussing their commitment in largely symbolic and not actual terms is apparent from Dormer's further acknowledgement (1990:91) of the many such women who make full time housework an arena in which to display their skills, their independence and their creativity, though the machines they use are often less robust than might otherwise be the case. Dormer then contends that the designers in question, who are for the most part men, have encouraged the development of these feeble tools because their own notions of 'femininity' have vitiated any appreciation they might have of the work actually done by women in structuring our unspoken yet widespread understandings of domesticity.

Without denying the vital role of 'cleanliness' in defining social order (Douglas, 1984), and similarly the importance of gender itself as a product of the industrial household, there are two further elements in Dormer's critique with less general but more immediate relevance to an understanding of the red and blue bow tie. The first involves common or everyday standards of 'sufficient work', which have been described elsewhere as great sources of acrimony (Sahlins, 1974:51-52; Kinsley, 1992), because, amongst consumer economies, any difference carries the implicit slur of idleness and inefficiency. These standards were also responsible for my brother being employed abroad when our grandfather died, so I had to serve in his absence as well as that of our only cousin who left home as a teenager and has never been seen since.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the second parallel concerns those coincidences of family pressure, communal expectation and individual notions of duty that help to make up the agreed patterns of meaning and usage surrounding each of the objects in question, the ribbon and the labour-saving devices, as well as their wider significance. All of which is well and good, up to a point. It is nevertheless a fact that while these understandings of domesticity may offer a medium for ritual exchanges like marriage and the negotiation of family structure, in our society at least, labour-saving devices are understood as such whereas bow ties, albeit of Italian silk, are not commonly recognised as ways of dealing with the dead. Yet given what we know of our own recent history (Lyotard, 1984:xxiv) (Featherstone, 1991:112), is it because of, or despite, the decay in formalised religion and funerals as recognised rites of passage (Van Gennep, 1977: 146) that an everyday secular object as ordinary as a red and blue ribbon should come to be used in this manner?

Such an appreciation would certainly seem possible, even after allowing for the sensitivities involved in any debate over 'matter out of place' and the purity of social order (Douglas, 1984:40). Indeed, Bodanis claims (1986:196) that although the modern bathtub is a symbol of domestic propriety and cleanliness nowadays, it was originally developed as a punishment for the inmates of lunatic asylums early in the nineteenth century and only became acceptable a generation later, after the spread of easy water heating and the writing of instruction manuals for would-be bathers.

More significantly, however, this commonplace creation and recreation of goods and meaning is remarkably amenable to a semiotic analysis which begins with Saussure's attempts to explain 'langue', the social system of language, by reference to the arbitrary nature of linguistic signs and their constitution through difference. The idea that there is no necessary connection between 'parole', individual speech, and the object being described can be shown by the way in which any number of languages may develop words for a given item and yet no single one can be said to be more appropriate to the object than any of the others. So there is no binding reason why 'bow tie' should be attached to a ribbon, or to a neck either, ties being also a matter of upbringing. Similarly, the mere plurality of these social systems is enough to justify the assertion. The individual speaker is, of necessity, bound by the constraints of whatever 'langue' his or her 'parole' belongs to. Saussure believes that each single word or phrase becomes established, through contrast or differentiation, but within the limits set by the social system of language.

In a version of his best-known example (Giddens, 1982:12), Saussure states that the 'same' Geneva-to-Paris train leaves Geneva every day at 8.25pm., even if from one day to another the engine, coaches and personnel are different. What gives the train its identity is the way in which it is distinguished from other trains: its time of departure, its route and so on. He then declares that the same is true of both written and spoken terms, for words gain their meaning from the difference or oppositions that separate them and not from their intrinsic content. To this degree, the train may be recognised as itself because it is going nowhere else: it is differentiated by its destination.

There is, even so, the difficulty which Giddens (1982:16) makes apparent. The identity of the 'Geneva-to-Paris train' cannot be established without reference to the context in which the phrase is used and this context is not the system of differences themselves, as Saussure would have it, but the outcome of their use in practice. As Giddens goes on to prove, Saussure has, in effect, assumed the point of view of a traveller or a time-tabling official. Whilst such an individual might identify the train by its route and departure time, as he has, the 'train' could equally well consist of quite distinct engines and rolling stock whenever it was put together, a possibility which would lead, say, a railway engineer or a train spotter to see the 'same' train as any number of recognisably individual locomotives and carriages.

Because of this and Cicourel's (1973:111) insistence that the generation of a precise meaning depends upon circumstances which are always changing, there is a case for arguing that commonsense understandings of speech must necessarily be subjected to a continuous process of reconsideration and refinement. Thus, if the 'Geneva-to-Paris train' were accorded the cachet of, say, the Orient Express, the important point might be not the rolling-stock but who was booked into which compartment. However, as Wolfe (1977:178) reminds us in a caveat which has repercussions for any investigation solely dependent upon 'parole', those who were on the train for the sake of being there would be unlikely to admit it.

He explains that even people who lend themselves to the fashion pages are not going to be caught talking about fashion in terms of being fashionable. They speak instead of ease, comfort, convenience, practicality, simplicity and occasionally, fun and gaiety for others to share. This being the case, there would appear to be more to the communication of a precise meaning than the continual renegotiation which is prompted by changing circumstances. There would also seem to be more to commonsense understanding than the appreciation of whatever plausible readings might be offered by the 'Geneva-to-Paris train'. Hence, no doubt, Giddens's (1982:42) assertion that these processes of demarcation, and, of course, any subsequent semiotic analyses, are themselves dependent upon everyday assumptions for the resolution of ambiguity.

Two considerations emerge from all this. First, the possibilities that have been derived from Saussure's original example are in no way denied by his view of the 'Geneva-to-Paris train'. They are simply the outcome of other viewpoints and other emphases. The second aspect of note concerns the nature and meaning of these alternative interpretations. They are significant in every sense of the word because they are clearly created by, and therefore the product of, different backgrounds and experiences being brought to bear on a given set of circumstances.

In principle, and as a matter of everyday practice, I see these interpretations as artefacts; if the 'Geneva-to-Paris train' is commonly understood as part of an arbitrary system of symbols and meaning, then those who manipulate these symbols and their meanings must depend upon some element of skill and deliberation in making sense of their world. This argument has one other feature which is valuable in terms of the debate as it stands and vital to the further untying of my grandfather's bow tie.

I have already suggested that in a consumer society, as in any other, goods or artefacts are used as a sense-making device (Grafton-Small, 1987) and as landmarks around which the world is 'made' symbolically (Sperber, 1975). Eco (1979:21) goes beyond this. He has identified three cultural phenomena - the production and employment of objects used for transforming the relationship between people and nature, kinship relations as the primary nucleus of institutionalised social relations, and the economic exchange of goods - as everyday means of communication which are clearly understood as such and used accordingly by each and every competent member of any form of society, industrial or otherwise.

Given Eco's assertions and the not unreasonable assumption that the traveller and the timetabling official have families, hence kinship relations, to support, the 'Geneva-to-Paris train' may be seen as a splendid example of the way in which meaning is created by individual interpretations of goods and their significance, yet only made explicit, accessible and coherent by semiotic analyses which are more complex and, in formal terms, more thorough than anything any of the individual participants is likely to undertake. Nevertheless, as has been shown elsewhere (Grafton-Small and Linstead, 1985, 1986; Linstead, 1986), commonsense understanding is undeniably grounded in a combination of individual experience and a ready appreciation of the various contingencies inherent in any ambiguous situation. Accordingly, you would expect both the traveller and the timetabling official to assume the primacy of whatever meaning they might manufacture from their own circumstances and the 'Geneva-to-Paris train' whilst tacitly admitting at least the possibility, if not the truth, of each other's point of view.

The implications of this are enormous. Obviously, if the train and its significance will bear any number of incomplete, even contradictory, interpretations, then absolute understanding is rare if not unattainable. In the same way, there are no longer grounds for any easy or straightforward division between meaning which emerges from commercial exchange, like the purchase of a train ticket, and meaning which emerges under other circumstances. Furthermore, and with a particular bow tie in mind, it is now senseless to suppose that each party to an exchange will necessarily draw the same inferences from any combination of goods and circumstances, however simple they may be.

Thus, for instance, we can appreciate how my grandfather's red and blue ribbon may have appeared to be brand-new when I first wore it, though in commercial terms it is, and was, second-hand. This unprecedented addition to my 'vocabulary of dress' (Lurie, 1976) might also have been somewhat less of a surprise for those who knew me well enough at the time to have seen me displaying ties of a more conventional type rather than admit to no ties whatsoever. Symbolically, though, the risk involved in such a change of appearance was doubly significant for whilst I might choose to wear it in remembrance of my grandfather, the tie itself would appear to other people as a meaningful but ambiguous alteration in my 'extended self' (Grafton-Small, 1989), that is, the social identity we negotiate with each other. So, simply by sporting the red and blue ribbon, I would be jeopardising both my grandfather's memory and my standing amongst my friends and acquaintances if I were felt to have made an inefficient or incompetent purchase. There was, too, the prospect of being thought incongruous or unfashionable by people I did not know yet as Hebdige (1988:31) makes plain, even those who possess little else can at least claim their own bodies and exercise power over themselves where no other means exists.

The element of choice is notably important, not only as a cornerstone of any society built like our own, on mass consumption, (Prus, 1989:21-22), but also as a proof that for all our industrial achievement, we still use 'the logic of totemic classifications' (Poole, 1973:50) to describe our social groupings and construct our world by 'bricolage' (LTvi-Strauss, 1976:17). That is to say, we must always make do with a finite set of tools and materials, including concepts, which is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions. As an individual 'bricoleur', then, (LTvi-Strauss, 1976:21) I am bound to speak with and through the medium of these various artefacts, deriving my poetry, even, by giving an account of my life and personality through the choices I make between the limited possibilities available to me.

Consequently, if my grandfather's bow tie is not understood as the symbol I would want it to be, I am obliged to make good the deficiency or else forget the whole affair. Should I choose the former, there is, of course, the additional constraint that as with the 'Geneva-to-Paris' train, and no matter how hard or skilfully I try, there will always be someone who sees the ribbon in ways I never thought possible. What I can do, though, to limit any 'semiotic slippage' is to make the bow tie the core of a 'persuasive account' (Grafton-Small and Linstead, 1990a:393), a process which integrates a number of previously mentioned themes.

The major outcome of this effort, in both concrete and symbolic terms, is another generation of artefact, embodied in the tale I relate to you about the acquisition and wearing of a certain red and blue ribbon. By stressing the contrast between his old bow tie and its successor, I might suggest the suddenness of my grandfather's decline as well as emphasising his faith in a future of which he would be part, even at the age of 89. Using 'the logic of totemic classifications', my every wearing of the new bow would then be a reassertion of that confidence on behalf of the family that he helped to make possible, and of which he was so long a member. Equally, and for similar reasons, I would be less inclined to wonder why there were only two ties, any intimations of sympathy over octogenarian poverty and the meanness of pensions in Britain being more than offset by his widow's fury at the amounts of money hidden from her during their life together and only revealed by his death.

My grandmother felt cheated on at least two fronts. She and her husband had lived unnecessarily hard lives, since his retirement in particular, because my grandfather would insist that they manage solely on their income from the State and that none but himself have access to, let alone control of, the household expenses. More distressingly, where my grandmother was concerned, her natural generosity and her pleasure in giving were both frustrated to a huge degree and for this, she never really forgave him, especially as the estate in question had been willed to those she would have liked to have the money anyway, though when they needed it rather than when they were established within society by their own efforts. Grandma, too, is dead now and the rest of the family need no reminding, bow tie or otherwise, so I won't labour the point.

In mitigation, and with my own inheritance as much in mind as my grandmother's unwanted legacy, I ought to acknowledge my grandfather's second career, lecturing part-time at Birmingham School of Art. After his retirement as Head of Commercial Art for B.S.A., the gun-makers and motorcycle manufacturers, with whom he spent fifty-two years and for whom he designed the world famous 'Winged-B' logo, the company went bankrupt, costing him his pension and obliging his return to work. Here there is a clear parallel between the end of grandfather's working life and the beginning of mine, just as the last of his bow ties signals the first of my collection. According to the rest of the family, and echoing Leach (1970:96), there are physical traits in common as well; his younger daughter, my mother, and I are said to share his eye for line and colour. The tendency to alopecia is mine alone and as uncontested as my choice of the red and blue ribbon.

A similar deliberation extends to those things that do not need saying (Grafton-Small and Linstead, 1990b:308), the taken-for-granted aspects of any culture which are assumed or implicit in everyday exchanges and would only be remarkable in their absence. With an audience appropriate to the account, meaning one steeped in the consumption of industrial culture, there is no purpose to be served by explaining what a bow tie is, though there are subtle differences of style and status between bows that tie and those which are ready-made, just as there ought to be no doubt about the way marriage and property rights have changed since my grandparent's wedding. So, in discharging my various emotional and familial debts to the dead, and in recognition of my upbringing, I have tried to evoke a certain understanding of the ribbon as a symbol of loss and affection, whilst including little or no mention of either quality. Yet if my efforts are successful, the bow tie and its ownership will, I hope, be appreciated in these very terms.

None of which is to argue that the red and blue ribbon is an unattached signifier, capable of meaning anything to anyone, given a sufficiently persuasive supporting script. For all that the meaning we draw from any given combination of words and objects is necessarily incomplete and inconsistent, this 'semiotic slippage' is as much restricted by the history of our own understanding (Sahlins, 1981:67) as it is driven by the pains of our everchanging relationship with the physical world (Rorty, 1989:40) and our need to remake the future out of what we imagine the past has left us. Baudrillard (1990:70) is surely right to say that we seduce ourselves by the possibilities we create in these tiny gaps between artefact and interpretation but no matter how well I tell the story or how rich your understanding, my grandfather is still dead and his bow tie remains just a strip of silk.


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Robert Grafton Small, University of St. Andrews, U.K.


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1 | 1993

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