men, bags and the city - Association for Consumer Research

Ralf Weinberger, University of Innsbruck, Austria
Andrea Hemetsberger, University of Innsbruck, Austria
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This article studies male’s overt consumption of non-traditional gender aesthetics.
Phenomenological interviews revealed that consumers use these items to build a unique aesthetic
gender identity. Consumers apply strategies of differentiation and contrasting to safeguard their
aesthetic individuality and set themselves apart from communal forms of consumption.
Since the emergence of the metrosexual, males and their consumption activities have been
increasingly studied. Researchers found that advertising communication, peer related legitimate
consumption, transitional lifetimes or male narcissism (Schroeder and Zwick, 2004, Rinallo
2007, Ourahmoune and Nyeck, 2008) fuelled male’s appearance and beauty interest. This article
studies why males overtly consume non-traditional gender aesthetic products such as male
handbags. Previous findings show that males experience stigmatizations and enact avoidance
behaviors when they consume such non-traditional gender aesthetic items (Ourahmoune and
Nyeck, 2008; Kimmel and Tissier-Desbordes, 1999). However, empirical evidence shows an
increase in non-traditional gender aesthetic consumption behavior, particularly in urban areas. In
this article we study and theorize on meanings of non-traditional gender aesthetic consumption in
consumer’s lives and on their impact on consumers’ aesthetic identity projects.
Literature on aesthetics highlights that aesthetics is dependent upon people’s perception,
interpretation and meaning creation of beauty (Welsch, 1997). Featherstone (2004) holds that
currently an aestheticization trend captures society, which is why people are immersed in the
consumption of expressive products which render them more beautiful. Particularly the urban
middle classes are most active followers of this aestheticization trend and the consumption of
clothes, body alterations, and arts. Venkatesh and Meamber (2008) conceived consumers as
aesthetic subjects and maintain that aesthetics are central for people’s identity constructions. Firat
and Venkatesh (1995) claim that the consumption of aesthetic products primarily serves the
purpose of differentiating themselves from others.
Consumer’s identity can be understood as a sense of who they are (Thompson and Haytko, 1997).
Consumer’s identity is conceived to be structured in narratives made of the individual’s personal
history, but also of social and cultural influences (Thompson and Hirschman, 1995). Consumer
articles not only enable people to further create or alter their sense of identity but are also applied
to set an individual apart from certain groups. (Arnould and Thompson, 2005; Muniz and
O’Guinn, 2001).
Since consumers decide upon the aesthetic nature of products offered by the market and use these
aesthetic articles to make sense of their identities, we aim to understand why and how consumers
use non-traditional gender aesthetic items to create their self understandings.
In our empirical research, male handbag users were either approached online or on the streets in
urban areas. Diary entries (Alaszewski, 2006), observations and phenomenological interviews
(Thompson et al, 1989) provided data, which were analyzed using a hermeneuticphenomenological technique (Thompson et al., 1989).
Our findings highlight that consumers of non-traditional gender aesthetics have a personal history
with such items. Informants not only consumed cosmetics, fashion articles, necklaces, or skirts
since their adulthood but started early, in their childhood or teenage years. The metrosexual
broadcast or advertisings were mostly not the main catalyst of such consumptions styles. Due to
their long history with non-traditional gender aesthetics, we assume that consumers perceive the
consumption of handbags and other similar items as a part of their individual self understanding.
In contrast to previous findings (e.g. Ourahmoune and Nyeck, 2008), avoidance behaviors due to
fear of stigmatizations, could neither be found in hetero, nor in homosexual participants. Even in
cases where social sanctions were experienced, these did not lead to a termination of the usage of
non-traditional gender aesthetics. Rather informants continued in their bold display of non
traditional gender aesthetics.
Meanings of non traditional gender aesthetic items change over the course of lifetime and help
consumers to manage important life themes or life phases. During the coming out phase of gays
non-traditional gender aesthetic items help consumers to negotiate a gay identity. Similarly, nontraditional gender aesthetic articles can fulfill social-political purposes. Non-traditional gender
aesthetic items also aid consumers to construct individual gender understandings, which
incorporate both feminine and masculine aspects. Non-traditional gender aesthetic items are also
used as signs of an urban lifestyle and identity.
Informants also showed a particularly high need for individuality and participate in the creation
of an own individual and therefore authentic, aesthetic identity project. Authenticity and
individuality are achieved when none or very few other people consume similar aesthetic items.
Respondents reported a particularly strong desire to show their otherness from their surrounding
environment. Hereby contrasting needs also extend to other areas such as food, partners, or
friends. When aesthetic similarity is experienced this renders previous aesthetic items ugly.
Respondents engage in various strategies to avoid aesthetic similarity.
For consumers, non-traditional gender aesthetic items are means to successfully deal with
important life projects, such as the negotiation and creation of a gay or urban identity. Further, in
contrast to the current focus on communal forms of consumption, these findings highlight the
need to readdress individual forms of consumption. Of particular interest is consumer’s quest for
aesthetic individuality. Consumers engage in strategies like differentiating consumption, contrast
creation or individualization in order to protect themselves against aesthetic copies or similarities.
We also assume that consumers make use of society’s stigmatizations and other consumer’s
avoidance behaviors to safeguard their aesthetic individuality. Stigmatization is one of the central
motivators for using non traditional gender aesthetic, since it facilitates differentiation. We
further perceived in the context of this study that the snowball sampling did not work, that
participants did not participate in internet male handbag communities and that a consciousness of
kind (Muniz and O’Guinn, 2001) did not exist. Based on these findings we conclude that
consumers of non-traditional gender aesthetic objects do not necessarily join consumer or brand
communities (Muniz and O’Guinn, 2001) but are rather consumers seeking individuality and
uniqueness. They deliberately deviate from any form of communal consumption, emphasizing
otherness but not in any conspicuous manner. Although our findings show that non-traditional
gender consumption is not an attempt to provoke or alter social habitus, consumers still show
their otherness through non-traditional gender objects. As soon as those objects are prone to
becoming mainstream, non-traditionalism is in danger and the search for new non-traditional
consumption starts anew so as not to endanger consumers’ aesthetic individuality.
Men, Bags and the City – Male’s adoption of non-traditional gender aesthetics
“Look, this guy carries a handbag…” Whereas several years ago such a whisper would have led
to surprised glances at the guy with the handbag, men carrying handbags in cities are not that
much of a surprise anymore. Rather, when taking a walk through cities one can see an increasing
number of men carrying handbags in their hands, in the crook of their arms or draped over one
shoulder. Uninformed observers may ask themselves “Aren’t handbags for women? ..... Have
guys become the new gals?”
In recent years males have been increasingly in researchers’ foci, since males started to
participate in what we denominate here as non-traditional gender aesthetic consumption. We
define non-traditional gender aesthetic consumption as forms of aesthetic consumption which
break with long held aesthetic conceptions of a certain gender in Western societies. Since the
advent of the metrosexual trend (Simpson, 2002), different studies researched such male
consumption practices intended for the stylistic and aesthetic display. Changes on the macrosocial, social and individual level, caused a reshaping of male identities (Schroeder and Zwick,
2004; Simpson, 2002; Patterson and Elliott, 2002; Nyeck et al, 2002).
Schroeder and Zwick (2004) and Patterson and Elliott (2002) argue that advertising
portrayals of men led to a renegotiation of male identities in society. Bakewell et al. (2006)
regard women’s emancipation and the gay liberation movement as impacting factors on the
increasing aesthetic discourse among men. Subcultural communities and peer groups also set
boundaries of male’s legitimate consumption of grooming products (Rinallo, 2007; Nyeck et al,
2002). An increased male narcissism (Sturrock and Pioch, 1998, Ourahmoune and Nyeck., 2008),
rebellions against societal conventions (Nyeck et al., 2002) or transitional lifetimes (Ourahmoune
and Nyeck, 2008) were found to be influencing factors on males’ embellishing consumptions.
However, particularly heterosexual males still fear stigmatization and engage in avoidance
behavior (Ourahmoune and Nyeck, 2008, Kimmel and Tissier-Desbordes, 1999). Non-traditional
gender aesthetic items go beyond male narcissism, beauty rituals, and new male aesthetics as
norms of gendered consumption seem to be relevant here as well. Furthermore, fear of
stigmatization and avoidance behavior runs counter overt displays of non-traditional gender
objects as fashion items and aesthetic statements of male consumers. We draw on Nietzsche
(1969), Featherstone (2004) and Venkatesh and Meamber’s (2008) assertion that, by consuming
in a non-traditional manner, consumers are creating their lives and selves as aesthetic identity
We aim to research and theorize about deeper seated individual meanings of nontraditional gender aesthetic consumption for consumers’ identity projects as well as consumers’
patterns of aesthetic consumption. We start with a literature review on aesthetic consumption and
identity construction. Following the empirical data we elaborate the relevance and meanings of
non-traditional gender aesthetic consumption for consumers. In the discussion section we work
out deviations from present knowledge in the literature and present strategies consumer undertake
to manage aesthetic identity projects.
Aesthetics is often perceived as an ambiguous concept of meanings of the beautiful, which can
either relate to experiences, sensory characteristics, the arts, or consumption activities (Venkatesh
and Meamber, 2008). In this article we understand aesthetics as consumer’s interpretation,
evaluation and meaning production, which define the beauty of consumption items. We use
Nietzsche’s contribution as a theoretical introduction into aesthetic theory. Nietzsche’s nihilism,
the denial of objectivity and persistent truth, renders aesthetics into the sphere of the individual
and its interpretations and meaning creations. Nietzsche claims that people are active producers
of their (aesthetic) worlds and realities (Welsch, 1997). Aesthetics is understood as being formed
by people’s individual perception, understanding and interpretation of the world.
Postmodernism resumes this notion of the subjectivity in aesthetics. Aesthetics and
Postmodernism are particularly closely tied together, since Postmodernism is inter alia born out
of fundamental aesthetic changes, such as the collapse of the boundaries between art and
everyday life, between high art and the mass/popular culture or an overall promiscuity of styles
(Featherstone, 2004). A postmodern approach to aesthetics deems that aesthetics is mixed and
strongly interrelated with aspects of the everyday lives, where facets of the political and social
life, popular arts or everyday aesthetic issues, such as environmentalism, fashion, and lifestyles,
are constituted by aesthetics. A Postmodern aesthetic understanding also implies a plurality of
styles and diverse aesthetic notions that exist next to each other, without claiming that a particular
style is more important or meaningful (Welsch, 1997).
Featherstone (2004) argues that the consumer culture contributes heavily to an ongoing
aestheticization quest of people. People constantly consume and strive for new styles and tastes in
order to construct different lifestyles. Consumers aspire aesthetically constructed lifestyles, since
aesthetics is the only principle, which still holds in a world where norms and conceptions are in
flux. Since modern conventions of “right and wrong” behaviors or styles macerated, people need
to individually make sense of what they consider as beautiful and aesthetic (Featherstone, 2004,
Welsch, 1997, Firat and Venkatesh, 1995). This aestheticization trend is particularly lived out in
urban areas by a young middle class, who is usually more active in the stylization of their lives.
The urban context provides people with a style plurality from which they can individually make
use of. Aestheticization manifests itself in accumulations of expressive goods such as clothing,
furniture, in bodily alterations, and other aesthetic projects, which help people demonstrate their
individuality and aesthetic differentiation (Featherstone, 2004; Firat and Venkatesh, 1995;
Veryzer, 1995).
Venkatesh and Meamber (2008) argue that consumers are constantly seeking aesthetics in
their everyday consumption, highlighting the centrality of aesthetics for people’s lives. Venkatesh
and Meamber (2008) further contend that aesthetics in people’s lives and in consumption
practices impact not only on people’s taste formations, but also on their emotions and feelings,
which are central for people’s identity formation. Based on these findings, Venkatesh and
Meamber (2008) conceive consumers as aesthetic subjects, who use meanings of various
aesthetics in their identity creations (Thompson and Hirschmann, 1995, Venkatesh and Meamber,
2006). Non-traditional gender aesthetics add to identity creations, which is not limited to the
adoption of styles, or to idiosyncratic consumption styles but derives much of its meaning from
‘gendered’ consumption. Gender aesthetics are playfully mixed and matched so as to define one’s
gender identity on the continuum between femininity and masculinity.
Thompson and Haytko (1997) define identity as a sense of the consumer of who s/he is, which is
constantly (re)defined, negotiated and created. In contrast to the postmodern identity conception
(Firat and Venkatesh, 1995) or the empty self concept (Cushmann, 1990), we assume that
consumers actively construct identity narratives in which personal histories and conceptions of
the social and cultural environment are interwoven. Consumers refer to market offerings by
negotiating meanings and symbols via which they further develop their identity narratives.
Nevertheless, consumers try to forge a coherent, if diversified identity narrative (Arnould and
Thompson, 2005; Schau and Gilly, 2003; Thompson and Hirschmann, 1995).
Consumption patterns and objects provide people with means to create not only desired,
utopian identities, but also to foster the development of consumer’s individual identity narratives
(Kozinets, 2001). In the case of transitional life episodes, for instance, consumption objects, such
as loved objects also help people to give meaning to these episodes or/and to stay “true” to their
own identity. Similarly, certain consumption objects stand for specific personal meanings to
which people refer to and by which they construct their subjective individual identity narratives
(Ahuvia, 2005). Consumption objects also serve the purpose of socializing and categorization
(Holt, 1995). Furthermore, recent research has shown that consumption is also deeply interlinked
with individual’s self-understanding of their gender identity.
Fischer and Arnould (1994) define gender identity as the extent to which people think of
themselves as masculine or feminine. Connell (2002) conceives gender as a project, where
personal and society’s gender understandings are negotiated. Patterson and Elliott (2002) assume
that males are currently reevaluating their gender identity understandings since advertising
increasingly promotes the groomed, slim and sexy male, attributes which were formerly regarded
as feminine. Nyeck et al. (2002) found that the extent of consuming non-traditional gender
aesthetics also depends upon the different gender identity understandings of gays and straights.
Males consume these items either to blend into their reference or peer groups, thus adhering to
the reference groups’ gender understandings or to rebel against gendered conventions and norms
of society. In a similar vein, Rinallo (2007) concludes that peer groups of males set boundaries of
legitimate male consumption behaviors. Ourahmoune and Nyeck (2008) found that males
participate in clandestine consumption to overcome stigmatizations and social sanction due to
their deviation from their peer’s or society’s gender conception. Male’s gender identity
understandings are in flux, which is why males have become more involved in their aesthetic
appearance. However, males still use non-traditional gender aesthetic items primarily to hide
bodily imperfections or to act out their narcissistic needs (Ourahmoune and Nyeck, 2008; Nyeck
et al, 2002). These findings run counter empirical observations of overt, public display of
traditionally feminine items, such as handbags, which are neither hidden, nor just serve to
compensate imperfections or narcissistic needs. It is the aim of our study to address this specific
form of non-traditional gender aesthetics consumption and its role in male’s identity narratives.
Our empirical study followed a two step process. First, male handbag wearers were observed and
approached online, or personally approached on the streets in urban areas. Our purposive sample
followed the principles of snowball sampling (Patton, 1991). However, snowball sampling turned
out problematic as handbag users rarely knew other handbag consumers. Hence, we adapted our
methodology accordingly and followed the technique of criterion sampling (Patton, 1991) which
focused a male handbag usage and did not address other characteristics such as e.g. sexual
orientations. People, who agreed to participate in our study were asked to write a diary over a
period of 2.5 to 3 weeks in which they were asked to write freely about their usage of handbags
(Alaszewski, 2006). In addition, informants were asked to take pictures of items of which they
particularly liked for their design. In total, 14 participants took part in our study. All of them live
in urban areas in Central Europe, with ages ranging from 25 to 42.
Interview 1: Daniel, teacher, 29
Interview 8: Patrick, designer, 30
Interview 2: Marcus, company owner, 28
Interview 9: Simon, editor, 31
Interview 3: Steve, student, 25
Interview 10: Marc, student, 25
Interview 4 : Robert, student, 27
Interview 11: Oliver, make up artist, 24
Interview 5: Peter, hairdresser, 29
Interview 12: Richard, social worker, 27
Interview 6: Thomas, employee, 28
Interview 13: Nico, self employed, 35
Interview 7: Michael, employee, 42
Interview 14: Lukas, student/ marketer, 28
Table 1: sample characteristics
In a second step we conducted phenomenological interviews (Thompson et al, 1989) with
the participants at their homes or in their offices if participants did not feel comfortable being
interviewed at home. Informant’s home and office styles were also observed. We chose
phenomenological interviews to learn about the participants’ experiences with non-traditional
gender aesthetics and to reveal the deeper meanings of non-traditional gender aesthetics
consumption. The interviews started with broad general questions about consumers’ lives and
then focused on their experiences with aesthetics and non-traditional gender aesthetics. Secondly,
we asked for other experiences with other non-traditional gender aesthetics to reveal the overall
importance of non-traditional gender aesthetic consumption to their lives. Subsequently, our
questions focused on perceived societal changes and on a self estimation of masculine and
feminine traits. We asked about other people’s reactions to the participant’s usage of nontraditional gender aesthetic consumption to reveal stigmatization experiences and behaviors.
Additionally, a set of questions aimed at the identification of situations when appearance and
style are particularly important to the informants. Diaries were not only used to identify important
usage situations of handbags but also stimulated stories and narrations about experiences with
non-traditional gender aesthetics and about the informant’s general aesthetic preferences. Photoelicitation (Heisley and Levy, 1991) also helped with eliciting relevant stories of non-traditional
gender aesthetic consumption.
Interviews lasted between 1h 30 min and 2h 45 min and accounted to a total of a bit less
than 30 hours of information. The interviews were transcribed and accounted to 290 single
spaced pages of interview transcription. A hermeneutic-phenomenological analysis according to
the principles of phenomenological analysis by Thompson et al. (1989) was conducted. An
idiographic analysis documented the individual life stories and meaning of non-traditional gender
aesthetics. Integrative analysis revealed similarities and differences and allowed us to formulate
themes, and relate them to processes of identity construction and differentiation through aesthetic
Defining individual gender identity through non-traditional gender aesthetics
The findings revealed that the male handbag usage is not a singular, restricted activity, but it joins
the ranks of a personal history of activities related to non-traditional gender aesthetic
consumption. Male handbag consumption and usage is merely a continuation of such
consumption activities and starts as a search for an aesthetic gender identity.
“In the past it was more colorful, more flashy, also items from the women’s
collection. Well, my favorite designer in the 1990’s was Helmut Lang. I changed
between a woman’s trousers with a sash … and also the tops were all for women
when I went out”
“[…] or make up, I also used make up back then and that kind of stuff […] even as a
child and I always wore handbags. Male bags, those real …men bags, like the
Freitag ones, I never wore them.”
These verbatims demonstrate that consumers used non-traditional gender aesthetics already in
their youth and teenage years when these items were not at all advertised in the media
(Schroeder and Zwick, 2004). We assume that a history with non-traditional gender aesthetics
facilitates an easier adoption of other or further non-traditional gender aesthetic consumption
activities in their later lives. Gendered forms of consumption usually follow a certain path until
they become part of an individual’s self understanding. The meaning of non-traditional gender
aesthetics consumption is not homogenous and changes over the course of lifetime. Some
meanings may become dominant for the individual consumer during a specific phase of life.
Other meanings may add to the overall pattern of consuming non-traditional gender aesthetics as
a part of their aesthetic life project.
Coming out phase
While Ourahmoune et al. (2008), Rinallo (2007) or Nyeck et al. (2002) highlight the distinction
between a heterosexual and homosexual involvement, usage, and personal history with nontraditional gender aesthetics, our findings contradicted these results. Both, heterosexual and
homosexual males were equally involved in non-traditional gender aesthetic consumptions, yet
the purpose of these consumption activities is different between gay and straight males. Gay
informants heavily use non-traditional gender aesthetics for their coming out.
B: sparkling, colorful skirts for males… very, very much so, yes; and deliberately
taking them to the countryside to go out. Yes, yes,
A: for what purpose?
B: To show that this here is a gay guy.
B: […] then it happened very quickly - my coming out phase. Flashy, wrap around
skirts, I was bleached blond […] I also wore handbags then, well such nylon ones.
A: What did you want to express here?
B: that I was gay.... apparently…
During this coming out phase non-traditional gender aesthetics help gay males not only to
demonstrate their sexual orientation, but also assisted them to define themselves as gay and to
negotiate a gay identity during a time when gayness is a central topic for them. As the next
respondent demonstrates, these non-traditional gender aesthetics can also fulfill a social-political
purpose during the coming out phase. Using non-traditional gender aesthetics is a public statement
to the public that being gay is not a problem, and normal.
“[…] I am different, I am gay, I am that obviously gay; look, you can all notice that I
am gay, because I don’t have a problem with that. I publically demonstrate that I
don’t have a problem with it. That everyone, the world may know it.”
During the coming out phase respondents also reported that non-traditional gender aesthetics are
extensively consumed and applied as the gay scene offers a liminal zone for such activities and
aesthetics. When this coming out phase is over, the extent of the usage of non-traditional gender
aesthetics often decreases. Hence, we assume that non-traditional gender aesthetics for gay males
is also a coping strategy with these turbulent times of defining one’s own sexual orientation on the
one hand, and dealing with publicity on the other hand.
Urban change and freedom
Some respondents mentioned that they were more heavily involved in this form of consumption
when they either moved to a city (Ourahmoune and Nyeck, 2008) or started to spend most of their
time there. Here, the contrast between the city and countryside, where the respondents felt
constrained in their possibilities, becomes apparent.
A: You mentioned that you wanted to move to a bigger city, why was that?
B: I don’t know, I am just like that. A lot of people say “Listen Alex, you just belong
to a big city”. In the village I was always the odd duck, and therefore I thought that I
needed to go to a big city […] well and I was being looked at in an odd way.
Particularly when you are not coming from a big city, where there are different
people like you. And that is why I am feeling quite comfortable here.
The city liberates and provides freedom to act out one’s own identity and to consume products,
such as non-traditional gender aesthetics, which would render the individual as the odd one out on
the countryside. However, respondents also used non-traditional gender aesthetics to symbolize
their transition from the rural area to the city and to establish a stark contrast to the rural social
environment. Non-traditional gender aesthetics are used as a strong sign of a genuine urban
lifestyle identity.
“For a country bumpkin, XXXX was a metropolis par excellence. Then it was also to
show your friends from the countryside “look I have been to the city and I have
become really city-like”, because I wear glittering clothes….”
Individual gender understanding
The responses concerning the gender understandings of the respondents supported the notions that
male identity conceptions are currently changing drastically (Ourahmoune and Nyeck, 2008,
Schroeder and Zwick, 2005). On a continuum contrasting of what the individual respondent
connects with masculinity on the one hand and femininity on the other hand, informants rated
themselves as being somewhere in between the masculine – feminine continuum. In describing
themselves, respondents also referred to attributes which they used to describe femininity.
“Yes, well, probably something in between a bit. Yes, because, since I am not
embodying what I consider as masculine, yes, well I am rather ... a bit androgynous.”
“Puh, I would say somewhere in between these two. Well in between these two, I
don’t hope that I am appearing too feminine, but I also don’t feel the need to appear
too masculine.…”
These findings also highlight that the respondents, gay and straight, do not have a problem to
incorporate feminine traits into their self understanding. Heterosexual and homosexual males do
equally not try to neglect them and spoke freely about aspects of their identity which could be
rated as feminine. Male’s gender identity understandings are not set in opposition to feminine
attributes but rather combine attributes of both genders into their aesthetic identity.
In contrast to the results by Kimmel and Tissier-Desbordes, (2000), Ourahmoune and Nyeck
(2008) or Rinallo (2007) that non-traditional gender consumption behaviors are stigmatized and
that males, in particular heterosexual males, enact avoidance behaviors due to fears of social
sanctions such as ridicule, our study rather supports the opposite. Informants are quite bold in their
public display of non-traditional gender aesthetics and did not fear social sanctions or
stigmatization. Several informants, heterosexual as well as homosexual, already experienced some
forms of sanctions such as name calling or ridicule, but instead of avoiding carrying nontraditional gender aesthetic items, they vehemently defend their individual identity project.
B: “why are you running about with a bag like a fairy?”
A: Who said that?
B: These were close acquaintances.
A: And what did you think when you heard that?
B: Bite me! [laughs]
A: So would you abstain from using the bag?
B: No. No. No. No. When I need it, then I need it. I am not here to ... satisfy any
aesthetic or social requirements of other people.
Not only did the informants not refrain from using non-traditional gender aesthetic objects when
they experienced social sanctions but some also reported that they actively fight against such
ridicule. Although the participants were sampled in urban areas of different population size (from
130.000 inhabitants to 1.3 million), larger urban areas are not different in that regard.
Nevertheless, respondents reported that such social sanctions are quite rare.
Stigmatizations and social sanctions do occur, however our study did not support previous
findings of avoidance behavior and fear of stigmatization. Also heterosexual’s fear of being
judged as gay (Ourahmoune and Nyeck, 2008) was not supported, which gives rise to the
assumption that non-traditional gender aesthetics consumption is rather a deliberate, bold
statement of one’s uniqueness and individuality as a male consumer.
Constructing aesthetic individuality
Uniqueness and Otherness
Non-traditional gender aesthetics facilitate differentiation from others and from mainstream
consumption. Respondents report a particularly strong desire to demonstrate their otherness within
their surrounding social environment. Non-traditional gender aesthetics provide the means to
construct a unique individuality even at the odds of being totally out of fashion, or far ahead of any
fashion trends.
“I even have more extreme ones[watches], the one is pink with turquoise and has in
the centre a diamond, which is rotating, such a… everyone would think that I am
nuts. No one would wear anything like that.”
“The lacquered shoes, the bags, be it the normal shoulder bag or the handbag,
doesn’t matter, because no one in my environment wears any bags like that. Ahm
sunglasses, huge Dior sunglasses, Ray Ban, whatever, ahm jewellery, …everything
that the XXX newspaper is spreading as styling tips, that is, yes, well, that is for
people who do not want to draw attention, these are people who are satisfied with
what society tells them to do. I am different.”
Apart from the creation of aesthetic boundaries from the surrounding environment (Featherstone,
2004), individuals thereby also negotiate their individual need for attention or blending in. Using
non-traditional gender aesthetics does not only facilitate differentiation, but due to this purposeful
public display individuals draw attention to themselves as aesthetic subjects. Yet throughout the
interviews it became obvious that non-traditional gender aesthetics are not geared at provoking
others. Rather, respondents emphasize their aspiration to differentiate themselves from the masses.
Individuals sort of participate in a tightrope walk between catching attention and blending into
contexts such as events, job environment or leisure time activities. They also indicated that they
did not have a history of provocation, oftentimes not even during puberty or teenage years.
“I am a person who needs a tremendous lot of attention. Ahm … probably that’s also
one of the reasons why I am dressed like this and buying those things. Not to boost
my ego, but to … simply…I am against this group thinking, this collective thinking.
Ahm I am rather, I was born as an individual and I don’t need to be like everyone
else. That means that I also don’t need to please everyone.”
Non-traditional gender aesthetics help people create their self as non conformist. Respondents
repeatedly judge the mainstream as negative from which they want to distance themselves.
Perceived narrow-mindedness, constrained thinking or collectivism were noted characteristics of
their environment from which the individuals want to (aesthetically) distance themselves. Hence,
respondents in most cases were the only ones in their environment to carry handbags and only few
knew other males who used handbags. Informants also did not participate in handbag consumer
communities. None of the informants would be active or know about handbag communities as this
would run counter to their deep inner aspiration to be unique; different; interesting.
Self branding
In a similar vein, people use non-traditional gender aesthetics for the purpose of “self branding”.
They purposefully display their handbags and /or extravagant outfits to portray themselves as
unique and to generate a lasting impression. Self branding with non-traditional gender aesthetics
means to ease the identification and recognition of people at social events, or in business
situations. This form of self branding was particularly widespread among individuals who run
their own (fashion) business.
“Yes, there are always looks and laughter that he has his bag with him that’s an
identifying feature […] yes, people know you because you always have the bag with
you […]”
A: How is that...?
“Actually that’s pleasant, positive. And it supports the brand. Hm… the ego”
“I also wear one from my collection in the evening when I go out, then I wear the
clutch I have my business cards, the cigarettes, the money and the cell phone and that
is often the first topic when I am talking. With the rich women, when they ask me
where I got that great bag from then I say “from my own collection” and you strike
up a conversation like that.”
Here, non-traditional gender aesthetics are used in a business context for self branding and for
branding the business. Hence, non-traditional gender aesthetics are part of the fashion system, and
are used to demonstrate uniqueness and innovativeness.
“You get attention in certain circles and you develop an own brand and it is
prototypical for someone that he always appears like that, that’s important […]”,
In this context the personal identity project coalesces with the company purpose and serves to
build a strong (self and corporate) brand identity. Individuals purposefully select the appropriate
handbag and outfit to draw attention to their specific business idea.
Individuals create their own aesthetic identity by consuming aesthetically unique or exceptional
items. When a certain style, which they liked at the onset, is taken over by several people, the
same style can become unaesthetic to them.
“The funny thing is that there are products that are beautiful in my opinion and
which I like, but when a lot of people wear them, they become ugly.
“I would say indeed that I would not wear something that a lot of people are
wearing. If there are one or two then it is okay […]”
Consumers actively search for styled products, such as clothes which few other people consume.
This quest for consumer individuality is not restricted to fashion but is also to be found in other
areas of aesthetic consumption, such as food or hairstyles. It can even pervade a consumer’s whole
consumption behavior, where items are actively avoided as soon as other people possess them.
A: when did you start to search for your very own style?
“it started... it has actually always been like that that I always wanted the items that
others did not have.”
This aesthetic life projects are not restricted to consumption in a narrow sense. For certain
consumers this aesthetic striving is central to their lives and extends into other life areas, such as
their choice of partners or friends.
“I have to admit that the particular look - being particular, also applies to my
girlfriends. [A: yes?] Well I don’t like normal girlfriends; they are too boring for me.
They need to be special in a way. I had completely different types. But they always
draw attention. They always stand out.”
Another way to achieve one’s aesthetic goals is not by avoiding consuming mass aesthetics but by
avoiding items that are in fashion. Instead of using purchased fashion items, they are stowed away
until it is out of fashion and other people do not use or wear it. Individuality becomes the dogma
of consumption, even at the expense of not being able to use new fashion items and being totally
out of fashion.
“Right, it will become old and shabby and then in ten years no one will wear such a
thing, but it is classic enough to look okay and in ten years I can wear it. No one will
wear a thing like that and then it will just be fine”
One way of understanding the desire for individuality is that respondents feel an intrusion into
their private sphere when other people are similarly dressed or have similar aesthetic
“When there is a point where you are converging, and clothes are one example of
that, then you need to deal with this person and this may cause, well not anxieties,
because nothing is happening, but ah... well.. it’s a strange feeling”
Similar to the striving for uniqueness and otherness, contrasting serves the need for
individuality. Contrasting, though, goes beyond just using non-traditional gender items,
and is psychologically distinct. Whereas uniqueness supports the extended self, contrasting
helps delineating individual identity from collective identity and sameness.
Non-traditional gender aesthetic consumers also had recurring aesthetic styles in their
consumption behaviors. Thus we assume that consumers have certain aesthetic styles
according to which they, inter alia, choose products and base their consumption decisions
on. However, this does not mean that consumers have only one specific style but they
deliberately choose different ones, which they can use to contrast their aesthetic style with
others. In an aesthetic context, respondents evaluate authenticity based on mass
consumption of items (=unauthentic) or on individually used, unique products. Aesthetic
authenticity can be achieved when very few or no other people possess the same items, or
are unable to copy a particular aesthetic style mix. Whereas Beverland (2005) contends
that authenticity is socially constructed, our findings rather indicate that non-traditional
gender aesthetics serve the purpose of highly individualized aesthetic authentication.
The findings of our study contribute to theory in at least two important ways. First, they show that
consumers use non-traditional gender aesthetic items to deal with important life projects, such as
the negotiations of gay, of urban and of gendered self understandings and to create a unique and
authentic self. Our study highlights that rather consumer’s gender identity than their sexual
orientation influences non traditional gender aesthetic consumption. Second, by contrasting
consumption behavior and styles with those of others and emphasizing otherness, respondents also
contrast the current emphasis of communal forms of consumption in consumer research. Instead,
they highlight the necessity to redress the balance between highly individual and highly communal
forms of consumption.
Our findings address motivations and strategies to achieve individuality by participating in
individual aesthetic identity projects. Consumers of non-traditional gender aesthetics demonstrate
a particularly high need to deviate from common, mass consumption. Similar to Nietzsche’s
(1969) and Featherstone’s (2004) notion of the individual aesthetic self, individuality is expressed
by a constant quest for uniqueness and otherness and the creation of an authentic, inasmuch
individual, aesthetic identity. For this purpose consumers pursue different strategies to
aesthetically escape commoditization. One strategy refers to the creation of distinct consumption
activities by public display of non-traditional gender aesthetic items. Contrary to prior findings
(e.g. Ourahmoune and Nyeck, 2008, Kimmel and Tissier-Desbordes, 1999) stigmatization is not
an issue, as being different is the prime motivator for non-traditional gender aesthetics.
A further strategy is the creation of aesthetic contrasts. People create contrasts in their
personal, individual styles so as to emphasize otherness. Furthermore, contrasts are created
through the application of diverse styles to facilitate an aesthetic break from the ordinary. A third
strategy relates to the individualization of consumer objects. Consumers either remove parts,
redesign or olden consumer articles to distinguish themselves from the masses. Contrasting is also
used to negotiate consumers’ individual place in society. Rather than provoking and standing out
at any rate, they try to style themselves appropriately (e.g. not in tutu for opera) to contexts and
occasions. However, within this context dependent aesthetic range, aesthetic individuality is
emphasized through non-traditional gender aesthetics. By contrasting context-dependent with nontraditional consumption, individuals sharply distinguish themselves from others.
Three different indicators also support our assumption that non-traditional gender
aesthetics are a highly individual rather than communal form of consumption. First, snowball
sampling technique could not be successfully applied to recruit interview partners and respondents
frequently mentioned the individuality of their aesthetic behavior. Second, to our knowledge
participants did not participate in internet communities of male handbag wearers. Third, a lacking
of a consciousness of kind (Muniz and O’Guinn, 2001) became obvious in respondents narratives.
Male handbag users rather emphasized their uniqueness and striving to set themselves apart from
the masses. Based on these indicators, we may conclude that non-traditional gender aesthetics are
a genuinely individual life project which runs counter communal forms of consumption in brand
communities (Muniz and O’Guinn, 2001). When items, which consumers judge as expressive for
their individual aesthetic identity, are copied or become fashionable, their aesthetic identities are
endangered. Consumers, again, seek to contrast communal forms of mass aesthetics by seeking for
the non-traditional. Interestingly, non-traditional gender aesthetics does not oppose social norms or
communal forms of consumption in a resistive manner but rather seeks to authenticate a unique
and distinct aesthetic gender identity.
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