How Dyson’s cordless stick became a status symbol, a trophy of domesticity and a generational must-have.
When you imagine a life of luxury, what comes to mind? A mansion filled with walk-in closets the size of bedrooms? Garages housing sleek vehicles with German and Italian names?
Whatever it is, it’s probably not a cordless Dyson vacuum cleaner, mounted in a 550-square-foot studio decorated with nothing but a bed frame.
“I don’t know what I would do without my Dyson,” said Donna Chen, 26, a software engineer who lives under these exact conditions with her boyfriend in Brooklyn. “If I had to choose between saving my bed, my boyfriend or my Dyson in a fire, I’d choose my Dyson V15. Twice.”
While Dyson’s cord-free stick vacuum has been around since 2010, it has only recently become a product that young adults are willing to pay about hundreds, if not thousands of dollars for, a compact (slim) and lightweight (about 2 to 4kg) “yassified” version of the bulky, cumbersome traditional vacuum cleaner.
Does that make the vacuum cleaner a status symbol?
In fact, at various times in the United States, the vacuum has served as an expensive item of aspiration and a signal of domestic success — once the housewife’s crowning jewel.
To many Gen Z-ers and young millennials, for whom traditional markers of stability like homeownership and early retirement seem largely out of reach, a Dyson cordless vacuum provides a more attainable kind of security.
“If you can’t get a mortgage or a house, you can get a Dyson,” said Caroline Solomon, 35, a cleaning expert who goes by @neat.caroline on TikTok. “It’s one signifier of savviness — a steppingstone toward something bigger.”
When Chen first started living alone, she said, her parents promised to buy her a Dyson — which ranked above requests for other similarly priced housewarming gifts like a furniture set or Wüsthof knives.
She continued: “I love my Dyson, and I am not ashamed.”
‘Almost weirdly sexy’
New status symbols — Le Creusets, KitchenAids, even full-body MRI scans — are continually anointed in headlines. But what distinguishes the Dyson as the latest must-have household accessory is not so much what it is as how it is kept. Whereas vacuum cleaners of the past (and their tangled, serpentine cords) were relegated to the closet, out of sight until the next time they were pulled out, cordless sticks have to be charged and near an outlet. In other words, the Dyson is not something to hide — it’s a silver trophy on display.
Andrew Nguyen, 26, a graduate student in Philadelphia, described his Dyson as “almost weirdly sexy.” Liz Weech, 25, a software engineer in Brooklyn, said she loved her former roommate’s device so much that she bought her own and convinced her boyfriend to purchase one, too. Daniel Taroy, 31, a social media director, owns two Dysons, which he and his boyfriend both “actively use” in their home in New York City.
But customers and social media influencers say other brands — Shark, Miele, Tineco, Bissell — are sometimes cheaper and can function just the same, if not better.
Frederick Hissenkaemper, 27, prefers his Miele over the Dyson he inherited from a housemate. “Moving the Dyson around is no fun,” said Hissenkaemper, a marketing manager in Los Angeles. “It’s rather stocky, and the suction isn’t even strong enough to get all the dust.”
Whether Dyson is better than its competitors is beside the point, said John McCarthy, 24, an aerospace engineer in Los Angeles who wrote a college admissions essay about the Dyson. “It’s like the iPhone versus Android debate,” he said. “Have you ever met one of those people that have an Android and won’t shut up about how bad iPhones are?”
Dyson is so ubiquitous in large part because of its marketing, said Scott MacMillan, a 27-year-old mechanical engineer who is the vice president of the Vacuum Cleaner Collectors Club, which hosts an annual convention for vacuum enthusiasts. “I have every Dyson ad seared into my memory,” he said.
The advertisements often feature the company’s founder, James Dyson, and cite his early career in industrial design, but it’s their use of esoteric terms for the vacuum’s features — cyclonic technology, piezoelectric sensor, polycarbonate material — that has especially enticed consumers.
“That technological approach is what refocused a Dyson vacuum cleaner as a technological item rather than something mundane like a coaster,” MacMillan said.
Dysons typically come in royal purple and safety-vest orange: gaudy with a touch of camp, glistening like a Telfar bag.
Eliza McLamb, 22, gave in to Dyson-mania after moving into a studio with her two cats and bidding adieu to a two-bedroom apartment with her roommate (and her roommate’s Dyson). “There was litter everywhere all the time,” said McLamb, a musician and podcaster in Los Angeles. “And I needed the big guns.”
Dyson’s great innovation was going bagless, upending the vacuum market of the time. Those origins may tap into something else with today’s young adults: their environmental values.
After McLamb learned about Dyson’s history, she thought that its price point was slightly more justified. “It made me feel better about my purchase, because it’s also more sustainable than buying replacement dust bags,” she said.
The vacuums are not completely virtuous, as MacMillan pointed out, because of Dyson’s use of lithium-ion batteries and its two-year warranty for cordless vacuums (corded vacuums have a five-year warranty). The policy suggests “a little lack of faith in the product,” he said.
But the Dyson vacuum cleaner can be made greener by shopping secondhand. While some people bought theirs new and others inherited old models, many found refurbished and used ones at discounts. (Search “Dyson” on Facebook Marketplace, and you will probably find dozens of listings for cordless vacuum cleaners at up to 50 per cent off the retail price.) Gen Z-ers are “more comfortable buying something already used,” Solomon, the cleaning consultant, said.
‘A relationship saver’
Household work — the labour of maintaining a home, caring for children, cooking meals, laundering and folding clothes — has always disproportionately fallen on women. But vacuuming, particularly with a hand-held device accompanied by multiple attachments and settings, seems to blur the gender lines, said Solomon, who also organizes couples’ homes.
“Men happen to like vacuuming, insofar as cleaning duties go,” she said.
In September, Chen, the engineer, moved in with her boyfriend, who declined to be interviewed for this article. For her, the Dyson has become something of “a relationship saver,” she said. “It has actually enabled me and my boyfriend to really sit down, talk about our boundaries and delegate our chores more evenly, because it’s one of the things he’s willing to do, happily and often.”
Tadashi Adamson, 25, said his Dyson V8 had been “life-changing in a mundane way.” Adamson, an artist and designer, lives with his girlfriend in New York. While chores are “evenly split” between the two, he said, the vacuum “just takes any kind of friction out of cleaning, because it’s already such a difficult thing to do.”
Dyson capitalises on the “gamification” of domestic appliances, said MacMillan, who revealed that about 90 per cent of the Vacuum Cleaner Collectors Club’s members are men. Dyson’s characteristic clear dust bin and bagless technology allow users to see how much they’ve cleaned in real time. (And for a few more Benjamins, newer models come equipped with a fluorescent green light and a Tamagotchi-size LCD screen.)
“It’s instant gratification,” MacMillan said. “It’s kind of gimmicky, but if you can make vacuuming fun, people will do it more often.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Wilson Wong
Photographs by: Tonje Thilesen
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