Thorstein Veblen, an American sociologist wrote an 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class in which he developed and defined the term conspicuous consumption. Veblen was referring to the nouveau riche, who went out of their way to make large expenditures in order to purchase their way into a social position that would be respected by upper class families.
This type of conspicuous consumption was certainly not a new device in 1899. In fact throughout the industrial revolution and slightly prior to it, families who had made money often attempted to jump to a higher class standing by making excessive and unnecessary purchases. Dickens in Our Mutual Friend develops the Veneerings, a family of unknown origin with everything “bran new.”
"Mr. and Mrs. Veneering were bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new. All their furniture was new, all their friends were new, all their servants were new, their plate was new, their carriage was new, their harness was new, their horses were new…"
One goal of conspicuous consumption was marriage into the upper classes. In fact marriages were often arranged between the respectable old rich and new rich in order to refinance members of the upper classes, who were frequently less than solvent.
The close of the Civil War in the US, generally meant in the Deep South, that conspicuous consumption was the hallmark of carpetbaggers. People clung to their new poverty, as much as they had clung to their wealth and to slavery prior to the war. As well, in the Depression, this type of consumption was seen as rude. It was thumbing one’s nose at all that were near starving.
The 1950s in the US saw conspicuous consumption as the process of “keeping up with the Joneses.” If a neighbor had a new car, then one should get a new car oneself so as to maintain a certain status. It didn’t matter if one needed a new car. In fact the hallmark of this phenomenon is to buy things one doesn’t need.
Economists and sociologists often cite the 1980s as a time of extreme consumption. The yuppie emerged as the primary agent of conspicuous consumption in the US. Yuppies didn’t need to purchase BMWs or Mercedes’ cars for example; they did so in order to show off their wealth.
In conspicuous consumption, one object is to serve wealth. Wealth and its display become the litmus test of the status of a person. In some circles, consumption is almost required in order to maintain the good opinion of others.