The human love affair with luxury is one of desire, jealousy, sensuality, and scorn. It’s passionate, complex, and intense. But at times, the joy of luxury is tinged with guilt and disgust; now and then, the heady fragrance of pleasure belies a whiff of obscenity.

Luxury – from Latin Luxus (“excess”) – entered Middle English from Old French. At that time, the word denoted lust and debauchery. It wasn’t until the mid-17th century that luxury took on the more dignified sense that it has today.

Luxury is a token of privilege, at once bewitching and uncomfortable. Luxury is a shape shifter, adapting its form to fit with changes in culture and social mindset.

The face of luxury is changing now, right in front of our eyes.

Sumptuary Laws

In Ancient Greece, the Spartans imposed sumptuary laws to enforce social equality and military excellence. The Romans used sumptuary laws to maintain social hierarchy and to prevent individuals from rising beyond their station.

Medieval England wasn’t a hotbed of gratuity, either. The first sumptuary laws in England appeared in 1281 (to curb outrageous consumption of meats and fine dishes), followed by a series of Laws of Apparel, detailing exactly what a person of any given place in society was permitted to wear. For example: No knight under the estate of a lord, esquire, or gentleman, nor any other person, shall wear any shoes or boots having spikes or points which exceed the length of two inches, under the forfeiture of forty pence (English sumptuary law of 1336).

Religion played a huge part in manipulating English society. The Church, an enthusiastic consumer of luxury, preached the virtue of temperance and the sin of indulgence; in fact, five of the Seven Deadly Sins – greed, envy, sloth, gluttony, and pride – are associated (detrimentally) with luxury. Through fear, people were kept in their place: It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. (New Testament, Mark 10:25)

Conspicuous Consumption

In his 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, sociologist Thorstein Veblen examined the nature of luxury and its economic impact. To describe consumer behaviour that’s driven by a desire to demonstrate wealth, Veblen coined the phrases conspicuous consumptionand conspicuous leisure.

Buy a cheap watch, and you’ll tell the time. Buy a Rolex or a Vacheron Constantin, and you’ll tell the world you’re wealthy.

In Veblen’s day, pale, indoor skin said, I can afford to be idle (hence the fashion for white face powder). In the 1970s and ’80s, when package holidays were all the rage, bronzed skin said, I’m very interesting, because I’ve been abroad (… and we have the fake tan).

Luxury is about aspiring to exclusivity.

The Luxury Evolution

In 2018, a report was published by hospitality giant, Marriott International Inc, and Skift Inc, a media company that provides research and marketing services for the travel industry. The report was the result of extensive research into the modern idea of luxury.

More than two thirds of UK respondents agreed with the following statements:

  • Luxury goods and services are about differentiating myself from others.
  • I see value in goods and services that enable me to learn something new.
  • I hold a strong emotional connection to the places that I have visited on holiday.
  • I look for travel experiences that give me a new perspective on the world.

In the 21st century, value is calculated on more than wealth.

Today, luxury is about experience, insight, and the opportunity for self-improvement. Whether that luxury is in the form of meditation, physical exertion, or academia, it represents social standing – equivalent to the clothes of the upper classes in times gone by.

Cultural and environmental awareness are the basis for the modern value system. Education, unique experiences, and self-actualisation are the currency.

The irony lies in the fact that most of this stuff doesn’t come cheap.