SEN­SO­RIAL ECON­OMY OF LUX­URY

Neue Luxury - - Front Page - By Peter Mc­neil

We live in a very an­o­dyne world and frankly it’s bland. Ec­cen­tric­ity is not well re­garded. Women no longer walk pet black pigs in Hyde Park with their trot­ters gilded—as some did be­fore the First World War—or dye their doves rain­bow colours, as did Lord Ger­ald Bern­ers at his coun­try home. Whilst many his­to­ries of lux­ury have re­volved around the­o­ries or brands, it’s im­por­tant to un­cover the cul­tur­ally en­gaged. The his­tory of a chang­ing con­cept can only be traced by ex­am­in­ing what peo­ple at the time con­sid­ered to be lux­u­ri­ous. Ar­chi­tec­ture, fur­ni­ture and fur­nish­ing, cloth­ing and ac­ces­sories, gems and jew­els, fur and pre­cious silks are all props in what we might de­fine— para­phras­ing the the­o­rist Ar­jun Ap­padu­rai’s (1986)—‘the so­cial life of a con­cept’. Next to a list of ob­jects is also a list of peo­ple en­gaged in con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion, col­lect­ing or sim­ply ‘liv­ing the life’ of lux­ury. These in­clude, among the many, Re­nais­sance courtiers, 18th cen­tury fash­ion­ables, Amer­i­can heiresses, jet-set play­boys, de­cayed no­ble­men, glam­orous Hol­ly­wood stars and rich plu­to­crats. In this sense lux­ury is si­mul­ta­ne­ously a his­tory of things and a man­i­fes­ta­tion of the peo­ple who owned and en­joyed said things.

A ma­jor ex­pe­ri­en­tial el­e­ment of lux­ury has al­ways been the trad­ing, cre­ation and con­sump­tion of food. Ro­man moral­ists and lead­ers were soon com­plain­ing that spe­cial pheas­ants were be­ing farmed and eaten as a lux­ury. As a re­sult, a se­ries of sump­tu­ary laws were cre­ated not only to con­trol the amount and type of food con­sumed at ban­quets, but the num­ber of char­i­ots one could own, along­side the vol­ume of gold jew­ellery the women owned. Law­mak­ers felt that such dis­plays of lux­ury were at­tempts to buy favours and votes. Such a love of sybaritic glut­tony passed di­rectly into the mind­set of the Mid­dle Ages. With ban­quets con­tin­u­ing into that apogée of lux­ury, the late Vic­to­rian and Ed­war­dian pe­riod. Food was of­ten im­ported out of sea­son and at vast ex­pense, only to be dressed to re­sem­ble some­thing else en­tirely. In one in­stance, a sim­ple baked fish was cre­ated from thou­sands of tiny fish tongues. The Re­nais­sance, too, cel­e­brated food, mak­ing sugar sculp­tures a par­tic­u­lar spe­cial­ity. Fig­ures, lakes, cas­tles and trees would be crafted from sugar, all of which was to be eaten or dis­solved af­ter an event. Such cre­ations mor­phed into the porce­lain works that so fas­ci­nated 18th cen­tury Euro­peans with nymphs, hunters, shop­keep­ers and al­le­gories of the four con­ti­nents—while ap­pear­ing kitsch to mod­ern day sen­si­bil­i­ties— were to be­come the great lux­ury ap­point­ments of a fine house.

Lux­ury was ob­vi­ously not con­fined to Europe, with no one cre­at­ing more of a burn­ing de­sire for the per­ceived ex­otic deca­dence in the Mid­dle Ages than Marco Polo. Of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est were the Chi­nese silks he ob­served at the court of Kubla Khan at the time, which were re­ported to be worn by the thou­sands of cour­te­sans in the court. Later it was the con­tents of the trea­suries of the In­dian princes, in­clud­ing rough-cut ‘spinel’ gem­stones, gold and ivory thrones and trap­pings for ele­phants, that be­came the stuff of leg­end, and once the Euro­peans ar­rived, of plun­der. Many of these pre­cious lux­u­ries were later adapted to Euro­pean tastes, be­com­ing, for ex­am­ple, the ba­sis of the tutti frutti neck­laces of multi-coloured gem­stones cre­ated by Cartier for women such as Elsie de Wolfe and Daisy Fel­lowes in the 1930s.

The Belle Époque was cer­tainly one of the most lux­ury lov­ing eras in his­tory. Per­sonal tax­a­tion for the elite in North Amer­ica and Eng­land was neg­li­gi­ble, labour was cheap and a new gen­er­a­tion of in­dus­tri­al­ists were able to burn money al­most as fast as they made it. The ‘Dol­lar Princesses’ —daugh­ters of rich Amer­i­can busi­ness­men—were mar­ried into mainly English, French, Ger­man and Ital­ian aris­toc­racy. These mar­riages were able to in­ject £40 mil­lion to the Euro­pean economies by 1904.

This in­jec­tion of wealth not only cre­ated de­mand for the in­te­rior dwellings of ec­cen­tric col­lec­tors, but in turn de­sire for what be­came known in the an­tiques trade as the de­mand for Fine French fur­ni­ture. Wealthy col­lec­tors such as banker Mayer Am­schel de Roth­schild, be­gan to col­lect French fur­ni­ture vo­ra­ciously for the Joseph Pax­ton de­signed Ment­more Tow­ers. Tastes that did not just ex­tend to the French, but in­cluded ob­jects made from am­ber, ivory, rock crys­tal and enam­els from the Re­nais­sance, the finest Ger­man Baroque cabi­net-mak­ing; arms and ar­mour; and 17th cen­tury ta­bles —cas­kets from Augs­burg and An­twerp. Arte­facts from the pre­vi­ous cen­tury were now to be ap­pre­ci­ated more than ever, with many col­lec­tions flow­ing from the Old World to­wards the United States, fill­ing the man­sions cre­ated by fig­ures such as Henry Clay Frick, the Have­mey­ers, Henry E Hunt­ing­ton and Mar­jorie Mer­ri­weather Post—the Gen­eral Foods heiress.

Amer­i­can women were now ex­plor­ing the depths of dec­o­ra­tion along with the so­cial net­work­ing that came with such aus­pi­cious wealth. Dresses by Charles Fred­er­ick Worth; feather, gold and di­a­mond fans by the great French fan mak­ers; fab­u­lous plat­inum mounted jew­ellery were un­der­pinned by an army of help to man­age all the ne­ces­si­ties. Fancy dress balls, liv­ing tableaux vi­vants, house par­ties and the sea­sons so­cial events, cre­ated a ca­dence that fu­elled the lux­ury trades. The rooms where the great amorous aris­to­crat Ber­tie (Ed­ward VII, Prince of Wales) made love, were sprayed with var­i­ous per­fumes be­fore he ar­rived. His wife, Queen Alexan­dra, had three to four hun­dred vases changed daily at Marl­bor­ough House. The amount of money spent on florists has never been equalled, and a ver­i­ta­ble ‘or­chidelir­ium’, gripped the world. This fas­ci­na­tion lasted well into the 1950s, when it was de rigueur to present an opera diva or prom queen with a very ex­pen­sive or­chid cor­sage.

All of this con­sump­tion re­quired a cer­tain amount of knowl­edge, gained by close re­la­tion­ships with dec­o­ra­tors, deal­ers and other ad­vis­ers. His­tor­ti­cally there was much more blur­ring of roles be­tween mu­seum cu­ra­tors, his­to­ri­ans, deal­ers, dec­o­ra­tors and wealthy pa­trons. The very chic Jayne Wrights­man used the ser­vices of both eru­dite dec­o­ra­tors such as Stéphane Boudin of Jansen, but more sig­nif­i­cantly, of the great art his­to­rian FJB Wat­son to ad­vise on pur­chases. Many of these works now fill whole gal­leries at the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of New York. That great sybarite of style—the Duchess of Wind­sor—used the ser­vices of Ge­orges Ge­of­frey, who worked as a dealer and dec­o­ra­tor. The set de­signer and il­lus­tra­tor Oliver Mes­sell de­signed any­thing from a Royal Box at Covent Gar­den, to vil­las on the fash­ion­able isle of Mus­tique. All of these fig­ures fol­lowed in the path­way of Elsie de Wolfe, who served as dec­o­ra­tor, party giver, clotheshorse and ad­viser, and one of the first women to gain mil­lion­aire sta­tus by ad­vis­ing the Fricks on French fur­ni­ture ac­qui­si­tion. The reclu­sive and in­cred­i­bly wealthy Paul ‘Bunny’ Mel­lon, had her gar­den clothes de­signed by Givenchy. Givenchy’s spare but lux­u­ri­ous ae­se­thetic, with pale blues, straw and linen for the coun­try­side un­doubt­edly in­flu­enced her style. Ev­ery­time we buy a lit­tle topi­ary tree or pot of herbs from a florist, we pay homage to Bunny Mel­lon’s di­rec­tional lux­ury and at­ti­tude to­wards a joy­ful en­gage­ment with na­ture.

Through­out the 20th cen­tury, lux­ury flour­ished on a set of bi­na­ries os­cil­lat­ing be­tween re­veal­ing and con­ceal­ing wealth, be­tween knowl­edge and eru­di­tion and vul­gar­ity and crass­ness and, most of all, be­tween opu­lence and the dis­crete. With their guarded res­i­dences and later pri­vate se­cu­rity, pri­vacy be­came an end in it­self, and was as­sid­u­ously cul­ti­vated by the likes of Greta Garbo, Jackie Kennedy Onas­sis and ‘Bunny’ Mel­lon. In the me­dia sat­u­rated world of the 20th cen­tury, lux­ury has suc­cumbed to pub­lic scru­tiny where it is vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to keep away from the lense or re­flec­tion of the colum­nist. The lux­ury of the few came to be the as­pi­ra­tion of the many through Hol­ly­wood films, the pages of fash­ion and life­style magazines and the ubiq­ui­tous re­ports on the lives of the rich and fa­mous. How­ever, for the lucky few, it was only fol­low­ing their death, when the auc­tion houses re­vealed the con­tents of their ev­ery­day, that the vi­car­i­ous on­looker re­ally un­der­stood what lux­ury in the 21st cen­tury would re­sem­ble.

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