Around luxury and ostentation

Shikanosuke Yagaki, Still life, 1930–9


Luxury must be inaccessible in the figurative and proper sense of the term

Would “ostentation” be an adequate term to understand the world of luxury? The question is suggestive, in a way it is part of our common sense, we say that many people have an “ostentatious”, “snobbish” behavior when consuming expensive and sophisticated objects. The link between ostentation and luxury would thus be something natural.

The notion of “conspicuous consumption”, elaborated by Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929), is certainly the main reference for the debate. in your book The leisure class theory (1899), he draws a distinction between conspicuous consumption and “pecuniary emulation”; his intention is to demarcate the differences between social classes. There would be an elite that would be content to show off a luxurious life, and others, members of the lower classes, who through emulation (imitation) would seek to approach the upper strata. While some would claim their status by the selective consumption of specific items, others would seek in “imitation” a way to reach a position of prestige that is denied them.

Veblen's theses have been discussed by numerous authors, but it is not my intention to resume this debate. I want to work on a specific aspect of the notion of conspicuous consumption: visibility. I draw attention to the notion itself: the word conspicuous exists in English, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, but not in French (in this language, the idea was translated by ostentatious consumption). In Spanish, although the word exists, the concept has also been translated as ostensible consumption, which reinforces his approach to the idea of ​​ostentation.

Conspicuous is what “stands out”, “is clearly visible”, “attracts attention”; hence its association with “illustrious”, “noble”, “remarkable” things. For Veblen, this type of behavior refers to the display of wealth in order to manifest the status and the prestige of those who enjoy it. This presupposes a public dimension (of exhibition) in which individuals “measure” themselves to each other, being able to orient their conduct towards maximizing or minimizing their class expectations. For this, consumption must necessarily be visible: by exposing itself “in plain sight”, it is realized as an affirmation of superiority; visibility is the materialization of its existence (the verb ostentar derives from the Latin flaunt, which means “to show”).

Ostentation, luxury, visibility. I go a little further into the heart of my argument. It is not difficult to see that the classical modernity of the XNUMXth century brings with it the emergence of a public sphere, this is the moment when public opinion emerges. However, the emergence of this specific space is not restricted to the political dimension, it has a broader meaning; it is the very notion of space that changes with modernity. The advent of public transport in cities, the invention of the train and the automobile (which boost travel), have an immediate implication on the movement of people, goods and objects within this public place.

The condition of being visible becomes generalized. That is why photography is seen as a kind of starting point of this modernity, it is the harbinger of an era in which, through a technical mechanism, the image mediates the presence of the original in its absence. This dimension of ubiquity will increase over the centuries with the development of cinema, television, internet. In the space of world-modernity, the visibility of luxury objects now occupies a prominent position. Within this framework, driven by the global market and the expansion of this transnational spatiality, the conspicuous dimension of luxury, in principle, would have been reinforced.

However, it is possible to doubt this common sense. Its truth does not contain the solidity that it appears. I return, therefore, to some questions that I developed in the universe of luxury. First of all, I clarify what I understand by universe: it is a territory within which a way of being and living in the world lives, it is made up of individuals, institutions, practices and objects. A Prada bag or a bottle of Dior perfume doesn't just exist in itself; they acquire meaning when articulated to other objects (Lalique crystals), other institutions (Hermès, Louis Vuitton), other practices (going to palace hotels, traveling on yachts). It is the set of these discrete elements that configures a universe.

Consider the map of the market for personal goods (dresses, accessories, handbags) sold in luxury boutiques. In global terms, it is possible to discern some regions of the world in which it is concentrated: Europe, America, Asia. Within this broad space, there is a concentration by country: United States, China, France, Italy, etc. And within countries, what at first sight is homogeneous breaks down into cities: Paris concentrates 76% of the market; London, 83%; Moscow, 94%. But, as we approach these cities, we realize that luxury stores are not located anywhere, being installed in the upscale neighborhoods of the urban fabric; and within them they occupy a few blocks or even a few streets (Bond Street in London; Rue Saint Honoré in Paris; Magic Quadrangle in Milan). The space of luxury goods is formed by discontinuous points that are far from each other, but which are articulated by the same code. Put another way: it is simultaneously global and hyper-constrained.

Therefore, it cannot exist without borders, it must be made clear that luxury things are “exceptional”, “unique”, “perfect”, qualities that differentiate them from “ordinary”, “ordinary”. The superiority of luxury objects and practices must be highlighted and separated from what is around them (the infinite objects of the consumer society). This cultivates two fundamental virtues: rarity and inaccessibility. Companies use the strategy of producing the controlled scarcity of objects to maintain a prudent distance from the banality of things. In this way, an eventual confusion between the rare and the ordinary, domains that must be kept separate, is avoided. For example, limited series of certain products, such as perfume The Instant by Guerlain: available in 750 copies, bottle polished by hand and cap wrapped in fine gold. Luxury must be inaccessible in the figurative and proper sense of the term.

* Renato Ortiz He is a professor at the Department of Sociology at Unicamp. Author, among other books, of the universe of luxury (Avenue).

Originally published in the magazine Pernambuco Supplement.


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