Is luxury immoral?
I work in the fashion industry, helping to forge a fantasy which I am not paid enough to emulate.
It’s 2011 and we’re poring over the latest issue of British Vogue while the rest of the class run up and down the netball courts across the field. Hiding from our gym teachers to read magazines under the pretense that we were running laps on the lower field has become a semi-regular occurrence.
I’m flicking through an editorial and stop at a photo of Lara Stone in a shearling Gucci coat. She looks effortlessly cool, I think. Hands plunged into pockets. Looking at the camera like she would rather be anywhere else. “I loooove that coat,” I say. My friend’s finger makes its way to the bottom corner of the page. She squints, “£5,000?! Imagine spending that much on a coat!” she gasps in admiration and disgust.
We spend our weekends in shopping centers, browsing the Topshop sales to see if our pocket money will stretch far enough to buy something. We can’t comprehend having enough money to casually drop five grand on a coat. It seems pretty silly to spend that much on clothes and not something more useful. Though the fantasy pervades my teenage consciousness, nonetheless.
It isn’t only the pages of Vogue that inspire these feelings. This is the era of MTV’s My Super Sweet Sixteen, where teenagers get diamond necklaces and Ferrari’s before they are even old enough to buy a drink in a bar. Perfume billboards proclaim that wearing their scent is like staying at the Ritz. Fashion blogging proto-influencers build success off the back of their expensive wardrobes. I feel disgusted, fascinated and inspired, often all at once.
Even the Ancient Greeks were caught up in the debate over whether luxury was immoral or aspirational. They tried to stamp it out but that proved to be impossible. Meanwhile, on her way to becoming a despised symbol of luxury excess, Marie Antoinette was a style icon, admired even while she was hated.
For as long as luxury has existed, we have been striving and despising it in equal measure.
“You feel as if you must buy it, in fact, or else you won’t be in the moment. You will be left behind,” is what LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault told author Dana Thomas in her 2007 book “Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster.”Fashion sells itself on the illusion of exclusivity, leaching off our primal fears of not belonging. No one wants to be left behind. Everyone wants to be part of the moment, part of the fantasy. And people kill themselves for that fantasy, getting into debt, endless self-comparison, extreme dieting. We know it’s not worth it, but we keep doing it anyway.
Still, it’s not like we’re entirely under the thumb of fashion trends and advertisements.
We all like to think we’re intelligent enough to outsmart it all. Ha! You can’t get me this time. I’ve transcended to a higher consciousness. This stuff is meaningless to me. This mindset helped to propel the popularity of minimalism a few years ago, for instance. But that doesn’t stop the occasional stab of desire or the potential damage that stab can cause.
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When I go on Twitter the day after the Met Gala, everyone is frustrated that hardly any celebs followed the theme. Everyone says that if they were invited to the Met they would dress much better. Look at these stupid celebs with their inadequate knowledge of fashion history–the gilded age doesn’t mean gold, duh. This happens every year, but we keep on watching. Twitter is a cacophony of worst dressed commentary and news that abortion could soon be illegal in many US states.
You could argue that luxury fashion is escapism. Fuck it, the world is bleak, but at least you can guarantee Bella Hadid will still look hot on that red carpet. Sometimes it feels like we need a constant to cling onto. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown tired of debating whether fashion is art or not and whether that makes it exempt from certain criticisms. Most people I speak to find the conversation irrelevant. I don’t know if they have grown tired of it, too, or whether there are just fewer major designers who could be considered artists.
Whether fashion is trying to be art or not, it continues to reveal the tension between fantasy and inclusivity. As brands scramble to tick diversity boxes, it can often feel like one step forwards then two steps back. There’s a push and pull between wanting to look and dress a certain way, and questioning the morality of promoting a singular look and the idolisation of wealth.
Yet I sometimes think the inner conflict between desire and disgust is what fascinates me most about luxury fashion. Without this nuance and confusion, I would essentially be out of a job. I like talking about fashion and music and art and culture. I like those rambling drunk conversations that don’t really reach a conclusion. The kind of conversations I have at the pub with other leftists who work in fashion. We are all cogs in the luxury machine, helping create fantasies which we are not paid enough to be a part of. We’re aware of our hypocrisy, but creating the dream sometimes feels like magic. Because that’s what stayed with me more than anything else from those days of reading Vogue in gym class; the idea that life could be more than what it was in that moment.
If the Ancient Greeks couldn’t come up with a definitive response to luxury then how the hell are we meant to? So maybe we don’t have to. Maybe it’s OK to feel confused and conflicted and even a bit hypocritical, because, despite it all, our fascination with luxury persists even as we love to hate and hate to love it.