Social and anti-social status contests
When you think about it, there cannot be anti-social status contests -- the whole point of one is that there's some kind of public arena where performers are being judged by spectators. It requires a minimum level of commitment to public life on the part of performers and spectators.
So during cocooning times, we should re-interpret what look like status-seeking contests as something else. They're not about competing out in the open before judges, but rather about carving out their own micro-niche where only they and very few others are the colonists. Once too many people arrive, they scurry off to some other micro-niche. It's running away from the would-be competition, refusing to be judged along with them on some dimension. Maybe we should call it niche-hopping or something; the point is, it's not a contest, let alone one about status.
An example of a status-seeking contest is wearing clothes that are more and more expensive, where higher status is accorded to the more expensive clothes. A status contest always leads to more and more exaggerated traits, just like over evolutionary time the peacock's tails get longer and longer. Pretty soon, those involved in the contest are dropping big bucks even for minor pieces of their look.
We expect to see these status contests mostly during an out-and-about period, which more or less maps onto a rising-crime period. I think this is what people are referring to when they label the Roaring Twenties and the Go-Go Eighties as materialistic. They couldn't have been less concerned with the material world, focused as they were on the spiritual, supernatural, cultish, and apocalyptic. However, there was incredibly stiff competition over who could look the most elegant or stylish, who could spend more money on their new car.
As the performers in these contests showed more and more exaggerated behavior, the kind of fever pitch got remembered as a slavish devotion to material things as a source of meaning in life. However, buying those ever more expensive things was not to find a source of meaning in one's private life, but to out-do the competition in a public contest. (Finding meaning in life from consumer products belonged instead to the mid-century and the past 20 years, both falling-crime and cocooning periods.)
Athletics are another obvious case. You have to meet the competition in public and be judged. There was a cult of the athlete from roughly 1900 through the early '30s, and then again from the '60s through the '80s. During the mid-century and the past 20 years, being a jock has not been cool -- let alone being one who was ambitious. Just as the contestants for who could wear the most glamorous clothing became slandered as materialistic, the athlete who lived to beat the competition became remembered as a bloodthirsty barbarian type.
And obviously pursuing athletic competition has nothing to do with materialism. Along with dressing stylishly, athletics was just another case of people being more eager to compete in public. Jazz music from the Jazz Age (before it went underground and became unlikeable), and guitar solos from the Rock 'n' Roll Age, are further examples still. It wasn't materialism but a drive to compete in public for status.
What, then, are the niche-hopping cases like? Those are all pretty fresh in our memory, so I won't go into any depth. But the whole bullshit about, "I like a band that only a dozen people know about," or "I had to go backpacking in Tajikistan because Uzbekistan is just getting too damn crowded with touristy frat bro's in Ed Hardy shirts," or anything else from the realm of SWPL-dom. It's not about who is the biggest, most dedicated fan of the band, which is a possible contest. The moment that enough people knew about them for such a contest to be feasible, they'll leave that micro-niche and carve out another. I think that's why the so-called world travelers always have such a superficial knowledge of where they've been -- it's not about proving you're the most knowledgeable or experienced or devoted to some foreign place or people (all possible contests). Instead it's about hiding in a place that few others are going to.
I'm no longer convinced that these are really contests, e.g. over who knows the most obscure bands, who's been to the most obscure location, etc. These people don't like talking much to each other -- they just want to enjoy their little micro-niche and be left alone, not regularly congregate in an arena and duke it out over who is the most esoteric. Sure, when they are forced into a social interaction, they do seize the moment to preen about their obscure tastes as though it were a contest. But that's a pretty rare chance they get, unlike the stylish girl who goes out to parties every night, or the jock who competes every day after school, or the guitar player who has a gig at least once a week.
Moreover, niche-hopping does not result in more and more exaggerated traits like the peacock's tail, the 4-hour / $1000 look, or the virtuosic guitar solo. If their esoteric tastes kept spiraling out of control, why are they still so tightly within the confines of contemporary Western culture, or foreign places so highly connected to it? Why aren't they studying obscure dead languages from halfway across the world? Or getting into 13th-century Mongolian throat singing? -- y'know, not that modern crap that you posers already know about. Why not appropriate the myriad food cultures of sub-Saharan Africa?
I don't see any steady move toward greater and greater obscurity. Rather, they want to stay within more or less known-about traditions, but just carve out a micro-niche within them, where they can cocoon away from the other people who are into the broad tradition -- let them carve out their own micro-niche. I'll listen to shitty indie band A, and you listen to shitty indie band B, neither encroaching on the other's territory. If it were about obscurity, I'd jump ship altogether and listen to Medieval Chinese opera or something. This way we can both be part of a group that listens to indie music, but that doesn't have a strong sense of community identity, every fan being cocooned away around their own band's scene.
I don't have too many concrete examples from the mid-century, but it was more this way back then too. I do know that that's how they viewed domestic architecture and interior design. They were almost paralyzed with a neurosis about being one of the regimented mob. Individuality, meaning distinctiveness, was the most important thing to them in how their house looked. And it wasn't just like, let's have our own look to make a memorable impression on our guests. It came more from an antipathy toward the crowd that they belonged to, but didn't want to be seen as belonging to.
For example, the first glance at two neighboring ranch modern houses might look almost identical, but one would be the same design with the "front" spun around to where the "back" was on the other, or there would be minuscule differences in the size and placement of windows on the front. Nothing truly distinctive, kind of like how people have different skins for their identical Macbooks and iPhones.
Obviously the state of their technology didn't allow them to be as niche-hopping mad as we are today, but certainly compared to the previous Jazz Age and the Rock and New Wave Age afterward, they were more in the "I know something you don't know" direction. And again, not in a competitive way, but more to feel like they had their own little private sanctuary from the monotony of the mob's tastes, just the way that the yoga-and-yoghurt people must feel today.
Anyway, you get the idea. I realize that it's fun to make the SWPL types out to be hypocrites who engage in status-seeking contests of their own. And of course sometimes they actually do, like when they compare vocabulary size, GRE scores, level of difficulty for the colleges they got into, and so on. But that's still rare. Most of their seeming contests are really forms of cocooning through niche-hopping, not striding into an arena of competition and proving to the spectators and judges how high they can score on some characteristic. They aren't even contests over obscurity.
Status contests fit in with a more socially engaged culture, so we don't see them when everyone is withdrawing into their own little worlds. When people mill around more with each other, it's not hard to tell what the contests are, given how evolution has constrained what we accord status to. They're all variations on what Fitzgerald called the two stories -- "the charms of women and the bravery of men."