In a recent Times Live article, Jackie May longs for the days before mass production ruined luxury goods by making it accessible to the middle class. Here’s an extract:
In a world of mass production, globalisation and conspicuous consumption, where access to a Louis Vuitton or a Prada handbag is no longer restricted to the super-rich, there is a nostalgia for what used to be defined as luxury.
[…] It’s a nostalgia for when consumption was less conspicuous and less prevalent, and excess not so wretched and hedonistic.
When was this pre-conspicuous era? She suggests the 19th century as the answer, a time when artisans created finely made wares for royalty and aristocrats. The only ones keeping this tradition alive now are the modern-day artisans who create “authentic” goods with their hands, independently fighting consumerism.
But hold on, wasn’t the term “conspicuous consumption” coined in the 19th century? Wasn’t it in that era of precious utensils and golden watches that Thorstein Veblen pointed out that the wealthy enjoyed these socially visible goods due to their price and scarcity? These days, gold and silver doesn’t cut it though. Even designer bags ain’t what they used to be. It doesn’t have the same meaning it once did, says May in the article, ever since “global corporations [sold it] to the middle market”. Is it possible, just maybe, that what’s been lost is not quality or tradition but the feeling of exclusivity?
It looks like the real annoyance here is that a luxury good like a Prada handbag no longer gives the owner the sense of distinction that it once did. It’s not that different from music snobs that complain when their favourite band goes mainstream.
So how’s a status-seeking individual supposed to get their exclusivity-fix these days? By buying handmade goods that are inevitably rare because they’re produced in small batches. So handmade axes, craft beer and artisanal bagels are now in.
If you’re into that “authentic” stuff, have a ball, but don’t pretend that it’s the antithesis of consumerism and status seeking. The search for authentic artisanal goods is an extension of conspicuous consumption, not its cure.