Saturday, February 26, 2011

Saturday Throwback: Recession Chic, Party Planning, and Me

Every Saturday, we post a piece from our archives. This article, from one of Jaime's bi-weekly columns, comes from December 2008. It seemed like good timing, with the Oscars and all. (P.S. Go Toy Story!)

A few days ago, Gawker posted on how the headline “Party Like It’s 1929” needs to be retired. They easily found six examples from recent months, arguing – convincingly! – that the phrase has gone from clever to entirely overdone.

But maybe worse than that played-out headline is the played-out and downright troubling trend of “recession chic," a.k.a. richer folks playing poor, seemingly getting a kick out of making fiscal sacrifices. Because to the seriously cash-strapped, this can sometimes feel like a slap in the face .

In yesterday’s megalinks, Kris pointed out the latest offender, a New York Times Style Section piece chronicling a chi chi party planner’s quest to throw a shindig on a shoestring, for a mere $30 a head (which, naturally, was titled, “We’re Going to Party Like It’s 1929”).

$30 being my shoestring weekly budget, but I digress.

The problem is the idea that a $240 dinner party is a way of coping with the recession, as opposed to a luxury. And when you look at the writing of the piece, there’s some serious exotification going on. We see the chic party planner slumming it at K-Mart, or mingling with the unwashed hordes at a 99-cent store: “Politely nudging through the clogged aisles of the deep-discount emporium, the dapper Mr. Monn reminded me of a late-model Bentley stuck in rush hour on the B.Q.E.” Meaning that the other discount shoppers are what, exhaust-belching trucks and used cars?

There’s this novelty to “playing recession,” the Ooh, look how austere I’m being, but that wears off. Yes, the economic troubles are affecting everyone, and lifestyle change hurts no matter how it hits, but aside from ending up with an awfully condescending approach to cheap living, this article highlights a really trivial way to cut corners. And there are lots of people cutting a lot more deeply, way past 99-cent store Christmas ornaments and office paper snowflakes.

At Jezebel, they get things right:
I'm sure that Williams meant well, but the point is this: for many people across the country, a trip to the dollar store or Kmart isn't some amazing sociological experiment: it's everyday life. And to continue to publish crap like this shows, once again, that the Times, while reporting unemployment rates and layoffs on the front page, still doesn't quite get the plight of the average American when it comes to trends and styles. I suppose this simply speaks to a target demographic, which is understandable, but every "recession chic" article that goes up just reinforces the divide between those who feel that a $238.40 party is a steal and those who have to live on $238.40 on a weekly basis.
On a related note: this December, almost a year and a half at a new apartment, I’m getting my place in shape and inviting folks to my apartment. It’s not a dinner party, as chronicled in The Times, but aside from inviting guests to bring a bottle of booze, I’m on the look-out for ways to make a home inviting and a party fun, without going (even farther) into debt in the process.

Way #1 I’d diverge from the Times plan is not spending $80 on decorations. Way #2 might be shopping somewhere a little cheaper than grocery-delivery service Fresh Direct. Way #3 might be saving money (and my guests’ health) by baking my own cake, so that my main course wouldn’t have to be baked potatoes. The Prime Directive of frugal eating is, I believe, MAKE IT FROM SCRATCH, and yet, as an alternative to the hip, pricey, and honestly not-too-delish Magnolia Bakery cupcakes, the party guru... buys an angel food cake at Food Emporium? For $5? And that’s before the store-bought icing and coconut flakes...

Okay, I’d do just about everything differently, except for the dim lighting. (The brilliant folks at The Kitchn have come up with an alternative plan that stays super-cheap but drastically ratchets up the food.) But, maybe my priorities are in a different place. Maybe I would rather decorate with a string of Christmas lights and spend effort rather than cash to make good food. My disagreements with how the budget was allocated are not the heart of the problem.

But The New York Times is a newspaper, and it’s telling us that this is the way people are dealing with the recession... what do you think?

(Photo courtesy of A Different Voice.)

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Annie said...

I especially like your point about making things from scratch. For a simple cake, I usually have most of the ingredients in my cabinet already. No extra cost!

I'd also add that, at least for my friends and me, the point of a party is to get together and have fun. Who needs $80 decorations when you're enjoying each other?

ejm said...

Pretty much describes my reaction to my governor's decision to reduce his salary to $1. He's a retired venture capitalist who spent $6 million of his own money to become governor of Michigan.

There's nothing wrong with being rich. However, I find calling his reduced salary a "shared sacrifice" insulting.

Jen said...

Hilariously, I'm planning a dinner party for 4 for tonight and was aghast when I spent $40 at the grocery store--probably $30 of it going to this particular dinner. $30 a head? Hoo hee hahahaha. I couldn't do that in good conscience for a non-particular event (ie, not a wedding), even if I had a pile of cash to roll around in.

But I did buy cookies from a local bakery to save me some time--and a baguette, since they were on sale for $1. But I'll be making white bean dip and artichoke/mushroom risotto, complete with homemade chicken stock--made from a chicken that was on sale.

Missy K said...

Spot on, as usual. I think it is the tone of these sorts of articles that offends me the most-- the oh-my-aren't I clever, stooping to these plebeian measures tone.

Best point? The gap between the front page economic news and the style section.

And the irony? Folks like us, who have to do this frugal thing as a way of life, are much more clever with our dollars.

Sassy Molassy said...

This reminds me of all those "Dress Great for Less" articles in which they show how a $100 pair of pants looks as good as a $500 pair of pants. I rarely spend $100 on a whole outfit.

Marcia said...

Pretty ridiculous. I think that if the wealthy really *can't* afford the $240/head party and have the $30/head party instead, great.

But if they *can* afford the $240/head party, and they just feel bad about being so extravagant...I mean, come one. I personally am ALL FOR them throwing their big parties. It keeps the little people like us employed...people who rent equipment, caterers, bartenders, servers, groundspeople, cleaning people. I'd rather they spend their money on something that redistributes some cash, instead of spending money on stuff.