Numerous classical sociologists have analysed luxury consumption, mostly as a case study to begin to understand deepening modernisation, industrialisation and new forms of normative socialisation. These authors were active in the Gilded Age (1850s-1900s), a period of rapid technological advance and wealth inequality. It was within this era that the turn towards the individual saw luxury goods lose their stigma of being associated with immorality and vice. In this time, many items previously seen as rare luxuries reserved for the upper class became newly available to all classes e.g. certain foods, fabrics. Cheaper versions of luxury goods also emerged in the late nineteenth century, appearing in the new department stores. The Hollywood film star emerged, embodying glamour and luxury. These changes, alongside new forms of persuasive advertising, placed high social importance on the luxury lifestyle (Featherstone 2014, p.28). These relatively sudden developments combined to legitimize consumerism more or less as we know it today.
Significantly, sociologists of the time mostly saw luxury as modernity and capitalism writ large. Although not associated with luxury as much as authors such as Thorstein Veblen; Georg Simmel and Max Weber also addressed the social underpinnings of luxury about the same time Veblen published his work on the luxury lifestyles of the nouveau riche (Daloz 2008, pp. 27-29). In his 1892 study, Emile Durkheim contended that luxury consumption could be seen as anomic behaviour – an action intended to distance oneself from social collectivism, community and social connections. For Durkheim, the overall health of society suffered if moderation through mass consumption were to be exceeded. He was concerned that the luxury consumer was held above the social collective – essentially freed from rules, obligations and social ties (Falasca-Zamponi 2011, p.39). The functionalist sociological approach sees democratised luxury as disruptive of normative consumption and behaviour – thus, an undesirable social activity if every individual were to participate. Subsequently, Durkheim saw luxury as being only for the elite – not for the masses. This proposition is similar to some thoughts that classical economist Adam Smith and Charles Darwin separately wrote about some years before: in the case of socially signalling elevated status, if everyone were to do so, it would inevitably become overly costly and lose its message of prestige (Frank 2010 ).
Werner Sombart, a lesser known sociologist who influenced Max Weber, was the first to explicitly address luxury in one of his critical treatises on capitalism – titled Luxury and Capitalism (1967 ). In this monograph, Sombart approaches the hedonistic forms of consumption such as fashion and luxury. In this work, he argued that luxury was key to understanding capitalism – that the desire for hedonistic goods and a prestigious leisure lifestyle was the driving factor behind the ‘spirit’ of capitalism. In addition to this, he didn’t consider luxury to be solely bourgeois – rather, a force that energised capitalism, mostly driven by the demand of women and the multiplication and diffusion of feminised commodities ‘to charm men’ and of ‘sensuous pleasure’ for the woman herself.
Although inspired by some of Sombart’s writing on capitalism, nonetheless, Weber disagreed on this point; he contended that a normative Protestant ethic of industry and thrift allowed an upper class to accumulate wealth that fed into industry and consumer markets such as luxury, thus seeing the growth in production and circulation of such goods that ignited all capitalist exchanges. For Weber, luxury was for the upper classes and was not alone sufficient to drive capitalism itself as it was not seen as wholly moral or desirable for the masses. The ‘spirit’ of capitalism was underpinned by frugality, hard work and development of one’s wealth for enterprise, rather than hedonistic consumption (Levy Peck 2005, pp.357-358). Like Durkheim, Weber was concerned that the availability of luxury through mass consumption would have a disruptive effect on the working class and society as a whole. Weber, and later, Norbert Elias, looked at what they termed ‘court luxury’, as an “aristocratic economy of ostentation” associated with the necessitation of luxury as a political tool of social dominance. That is, royalty and nobility reflected their power through ornamentation and discriminating symbols (Delon 2013, pp.784-786). In this context, luxury worked to actively affirm unequal social hierarchies such as monarchy and the structures of nobility. As we can see, within this highly specified logic of distinction, there is little room for mass consumption of luxury.
Writing about luxury also at the beginning of the twentieth century, Georg Simmel considered how modernity had enabled this mode of consumerism, once only a possibility for nobility, to become an item of fashion for most individuals in cities. He observed that social dynamics and the divergent tendencies of the capitalist system (e.g. wages, open consumption markets) allowed lower social strata to access fashion and to openly participate in a system that had once been exclusionary (Sassatelli 2007, p.28). Simmel (1904) tended to view fashion as a form of social relations – an ‘objectification of the mind’ and a means for the individual to express themselves in impersonal cityscapes. Fashion could be imitated by others and especially in the city; it was a means to attempt personal uniqueness in a crowd. It satisfied the modern individual emergent need for differentiation – it was a stamp of exceptionality. However – in explicit reference to luxury, Simmel notes that the upper strata was careful to abandon any commodities taken up by “those of the lower” (1904, p.133). This reflexive mode of distinction dominates fashion, even luxury: once groups deemed ‘undesirable’ by the elite classes begin to appropriate luxury symbols, they are hastily rejected and relegated to lessened status (Daloz 2008, Goffman 1951).
To conclude this post, mass luxury consumption emerged between the 1890s and 1900s, around the same time the first sociologists were penning their ground-breaking work. From the thoughts above, we can see that, at the time, luxury was an effect of deepening modernity. It was observed as a materialisation of the greater wealth of the people, but for sociologists such as Durkheim and Weber, it posed a symbolic threat to the social order. Simmel and Sombart undertake what would be considered a more contemporary viewpoint and consider the development of the consumer. As noted by Simmel, and later by Erving Goffman, luxury objects only remain luxurious if it is scarce and/or only possessed by upper strata. Thus, in a current time where the Gucci symbol is as common as the McDonald’s golden arches, the superrich respond by conspicuously displaying new heights of luxury such as $US600 million 590 foot superyachts and champagne worth $US1.8 million. In my four years writing about luxury, I have observed a rapid ratcheting-up at the extreme end of the luxury spectrum. I theorise that this has more to do with the superrich competing with other members of their peer group rather than concerns about an encroaching middle class and their masstige goods. As the current political economic system is unlikely to be meaningfully challenged and the superrich continue to accrue unimaginable wealth, this trend will likely continue.
Daloz, Jean-Pascal 2008, “Elite Distinction: Grand Theory and Comparative Perspectives” in Sasaki, Masamichi, Elites: New Comparative Perspectives, New York, Brill, pp.25-66
Featherstone, M 2014, “The rich and the super-rich: Mobility, Consumption and Luxury Lifestyles” in Consumer Culture, Modernity and Identity, Nina Mathur (Ed), New Delhi, Sage Publications, pp. 3 – 45
Frank, Robert H 2010 , Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess, New York, The Free Press
Falasca-Zamponi, Simonetta 2011, Waste and Consumption: Capitalism, the Environment and the Life of Things, New York, Routledge
Goffman, Erving 1951, “Symbols of class status”, The British Journal of Sociology, Vol.2, No.4, December, pp.294-304
Levy-Peck, Linda 2005, Consuming Splendour: Society and Culture in Seventeenth Century England, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
Sassatelli, Roberta 2007, Consumer Culture: History, Theory and Politics, London, Sage Publications
Simmel, G 1904, “Fashion”, International Quarterly, No.10, pp.130-155
Sombart, Werner 1967, Luxury and Capitalism, Trans. WR Dittmar, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press