Luxury has proven a slippery concept. What we mean when we apply the term today has morphed from when it first entered our lexicon. Indeed, to trace its etymology is to emphasize its fluidity. Its contemporary roots can be found in the Latin word for ‘luxus’ – meaning excess.
By the time of Elizabethan Britain, luxury had come to refer to ‘lechery’, though eventually becoming associated with sumptuousness and opulence, whilst in France, the linguistic adaptation to luxe informed the labels we have come to apply to it – of wealth and indulgence.
Many evolutions later, we can exhume a common worldview from these various ancient interpretations. Look inside and there exists a set of core tenets that underpin everything we have come to understand about luxury, helping us make sense of its development.
It goes that to buy into luxury is to buy into a belief in having the very best without compromise. Nothing else will suffice, for anything else steps down into more common territory. If you choose a car, for instance, it must be the best car there is – in absolute terms. This is zero-sum: it is impossible to consider a moderate luxury. Luxury, then, is born of a philosophy of extremes. A philosophy, however, needs guiding principles, against which to assess whether something passes the threshold test, or is called out as an imposter at the party.
To explain, let us take a hypothetical object. To qualify as luxury, our object must not be easy to find, our object must lend us a certain exclusive status, and our object must be made of the best materials possible, whether found on the ocean’s deepest carpet or clawing for the clouds on the highest peak.
The assault on luxury began in earnest when these systems of mass consumption tied in with systems of mass production, meaning luxury objects could be more easily replicated at every turn and churned out cheaply, and artistically, en masse.
An object made with this recipe has the rarity, prestige, and quality needed. Through this definition, luxury’s mystery is unraveled. The secret is scarcity. Amongst us all, there is a knowing acceptance, whether we like it or not, that luxury simply cannot be accessible to everyone – for that is the magic that adds noughts to numbers.
For a long time, such object ownership was luxury’s defining entry point. It was a distinctly material experience, where the emphasis was placed on ‘having.’ At a time when there was limited distribution of wealth and the cost of accessing requisite materials was prohibitive, these objects remained a preserve of the elite. However, the rise of conspicuous consumption in the twentieth century is the story of luxury’s dilution. To paraphrase the founding theorist, Thorstein Veblen, more people suddenly had more money and they wanted to own more and better stuff in order to show off. In a thoroughly post-industrial twist, anyone could now buy distinction.
The assault on luxury began in earnest when these systems of mass consumption tied in with systems of mass production, meaning luxury objects could be more easily replicated at every turn and churned out cheaply, and artistically, en masse. Either by coughing up, or by sidestepping the real artefacts, hard-working people with rising incomes could now afford a legitimate Louis Vuitton or a backroom Burberry.
Such replicability wiped out the rarity, prestige and quality these items once held. Around the same time, shrewd marketers latched onto luxury’s commercial attraction, applying the term to everyday mass market items as mundane as toilet paper and toothpaste. Luxury, clearly, needed to change direction.
The rise of conspicuous consumption in the twentieth century is the story of luxury’s dilution.
To identify its second modern incarnation, we must seek out a commodity made rarer by this increased prosperity. As white-collar life composed a rhythm faster than ever before, time emerged as the new scarcity. Factors from rapid urbanization to always-on technology have burdened the new globally affluent, making it ever harder for them to make or find time. As a society, we have become obsessed with speed, pursuing efficiencies in every aspect of life – indeed, we continue to reward alacrity – with everything from peer recognition to career promotion. The crux of the issue is thus: when we run at the speed we are encouraged to go, our ability to seek and achieve the very best is weakened – we overlook, we neglect, we are impatient.
The result has been to put a premium on the demonstration of time, where the luxury is the freedom to ‘do’ something meaningful with it. This reflects the well-documented cultural shift from acquisition to activation, from object to experience. It is not that the economic middle cannot afford to go places and do things, it is that they cannot afford the time to do so. Time to most people remains, very much, money.
This construct of luxury as ‘doing’, when filled with the life-enhancing or socially conscious, passes the means test of luxury. It is rare (look what I can do, and you cannot), it is prestigious (look where I am, and where you are not) and it is about quality (self-actualization.)
Our instinctive desire, as social animals, as soon as we have more than others is to want them to know that we do.
Against this backdrop, luxury’s allure remains strong, albeit different. Our visual culture became defined less by logos but rather by where people are and what they are doing – cultural markers, for want of a better term. For those of us on the outside peeking in, we aspire to access a similar lifestyle. Our Instagram feed often reads like a series of postcards sent from opportunities unlived.
However, it begs the question – is this true luxury? Once conceived, this new luxury image requires constant updating and maintenance: a person cannot keep wearing a tweet in the same way they can a Tiffany. Our instinctive desire, as social animals, as soon as we have more than others is to want them to know that we do. Indeed, this mad dash to keep on keeping up leads to what researchers call ‘hurry sickness’ – where the introspective parts of our brain are getting out of shape. As if overeating, we are limiting our reflective puff. In doing so, a new twist has been written into luxury’s narrative.
Still related to ‘time’, this evolution places greater emphasis on the ‘slow.’ ‘Slow luxury’ is an antidote to the modern compulsion to ‘do’, not ‘be – challenging our collective allergy to idleness. Rooted in the industrious assumption that nothingness is a waste of time, we have convinced ourselves that any spare moment is best spent tackling monstrous lists and unpleasant tasks. It is the ‘activity begets progress’ fallacy.
The sharp truth is that, despite all this humdrum and busyness, we don’t always achieve anything extra – and rather than constantly exposing ourselves to, and consuming, more and more thoughts and ideas that we pay less and less attention to, ‘slow luxury’ instead places priority on the process of understanding and reflection – the ultimate product of which is a kind of mental serenity. In doing so, productive time is reframed.
Far from misspent, taking time to contemplate, to naturally meditate, has proven socio-psychological benefits, most notably in a person’s emotional development – inspiration in the face of the familiar, calmness in the face of anxiety and empathy in the face of the unknown. Indeed, this kind of ‘slow luxury’ provides a much-needed sedative, helping to return a person to a more natural frame of mind in a distinctly unnatural existence.
One might argue that obtaining such a humanist state in today’s aggressively tech-driven world might well be the product only the few can afford, giving them a feeling that is priceless. And that’s luxury in its truest sense.
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