SENSORIAL ECONOMY OF LUXURY
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.