Books: The Man in the Blue Denim Pants

SHOWING OFF IN AMERICA: FROM CONSPICUOUS CONSUMPTION TO PARODY DISPLAY by John Brooks; 296 pages; Little, Brown; $12.95

As every ex-schoolboy has probably forgotten, Thorstein Veblen coined the phrase "conspicuous consumption" after examining the untaxed sachems of the Gilded Age, their mansions, yachts, gargantuan dinner parties and cyclopean stickpins. In The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) Veblen did not hide his disdain for such display. He belonged to an era of sociology before it married computer science, bred statistics and headed for the neutral horizons of market research.

The sociologist as moralist peaked...

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