We use it as a prefix before car, perfume and hotel. It was once rare, but now, we are told, it can be part of our every day. It is the ultimate brand. We all aspire to it: yet, do any of us know what luxury actually is?
“It turns out that this is a question that luxury brands ask themselves on a daily basis,” says Jana Scholze, one of the curators of the 2015 What is luxury? exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum: “they are as puzzled by this question as anyone else”.
Luxury is hard to define because it is relative. Whereas for one person, luxury may be a cup full of clean drinking water, for someone else it is a designer handbag. It is a concept that evolves over time, too: the sports car is sold to pay for private school fees; the fur coat that once distinguished its owner is retired to the back of a wardrobe in disgrace; and the fifties sideboard that your parents put out in a skip is now the “shabby chic” centrepiece to a hipster home.
Luxury is, thus, intrinsically subjective, fleeting, and rarefied. “If you try to mass produce it, you end up with products, not luxuries,” explains Scholze. It is not for everyone, it is for the few. It is that object or that experience that we are aspire to, but which remains beyond our reach. The act of possessing it takes away its sheen so that it is no longer a luxury, but something mundane. It is what we yearn for but do not have.
The sense we have of luxury being something that other people possess is a tradition that can be traced back to the Ancient world, when for Greeks and Romans luxury was something that came from the ultimate in elsewhere: the East. Traders from Persia brought with them silks, spices and strange animals that both were coveted and aroused suspicion.
If the idea of luxury is an ancient one, how do the Rolls Royces and Eames chairs that we consider to be luxuries today compare to what came before?
Silk is a modern luxury that can be traced back for millennia. It has its origins as early as 3500-2000 BC during the Longshan period of Ancient China and its discovery is shrouded in mystery. The most popular legend has it that Leizu, or Lady Hsi Ling Shih, the wife of the Yellow Emperor, discovered the silk worm when sitting underneath a mulberry tree whose leaves were full of holes. As she sat there, a silk worm’s cocoon fell into her tea and, when she reached to fish it out, a delicate thread spooled loose. Leizu had the idea of spinning the thread to make silk, and this was the start of a secret that China managed to keep to itself for over two millennia.
Ostrich eggs and feathers were luxury items for the Ancient Egyptians, and hunting the giant birds was a royal sport, designed to allow the King to demonstrate his control over nature. The remains of an ostrich-feather fan were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, leading to speculation that he met his end whilst indulging in this sport.
The Ancient Greeks
Academic, and writer and presenter of television documentary Guilty Pleasures: Luxury in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds, Dr Michael Scott explains that, in Ancient Athens, the fish market was a good barometer for luxury consumption. People’s purchases there were governed by a “fish list”, which enumerated the fish, such as sprats, that it was acceptable to eat as a good democrat. Going off-list, with a delicacy such as eel, conger-eel or sea perch, signalled that you had lavish tastes and were perhaps not, therefore, a man of the people.
If it seems odd to judge someone’s politics by means of their choice of fish, the foodstuff retains its luxury associations in many cultures today. North Korea’s former leader, Kim Jong-Il, is reported to have indulged in sashimi sliced from live fish served writhing on a platter. Russia has been so successful in marketing wild sturgeon roe, or caviar, that it has become a byword for indulgence in multiple languages; and lobster and oysters are served up as aphrodisiacs in expensive restaurants the world over.
The Ancient Romans
The ultimate status symbol in Ancient Rome was a set of robes died Tyrian purple. This colour, named for Tyre, its place of origin, was made from the secretion of a particular sort of sea snail called a Murex. It took 10,000 snails to produce just 28 millilitres of dye, putting it well beyond the means of most ordinary people. This was how the Romans wanted it. In Republican Rome only the wealthiest men, the equites, were allowed to wear it, but in Imperial Rome it was restricted to just the Emperor, as a symbol of his power.
Spices were a key luxury in both Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. They arrived from the Far East via Arab intermediaries, who told impressive tales of the difficulties involved in their harvesting. In the fifth century BC, Herodotus, the “Father of History”, swallowed an account of the gathering of cassia, a form of cinnamon, which involved people wearing full body suits made from oxen hides covering all but their eyes to protect them from the vicious winged beasts who attacked them as they worked. By the first century BC, Pliny the Elder was less credulous, observing that “these old tales were invented by the Arabs to raise the price of their goods”. The ancestor of the dodgy antique dealer, perhaps?
It is tempting to think of fake designer goods as a modern phenomenon. Faking it has a long history, however, and was a thriving art in Medieval England, where knives were carried in leather scabbards, stamped with the heraldic crest of the owner, if the owner was fortunate enough to have one. Not wanting to miss out, those who didn’t have a crest soon began producing scabbards emblazoned with entirely made-up crests. “Some of the imitations were really very second-rate,” explains Dr Scott: “these were medieval cheap knock-offs”.