Don’t Die

Jenny Diski

  • Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre by Dana Thomas
    Allen Lane, 375 pp, £20.00, September 2007, ISBN 978 0 7139 9823 8

There’s a science-fiction short story, I can’t remember by whom, which has a New York journalist on a hiking tour, lost in the Appalachians. He comes across a ramshackle house lived in by a family of hillbillies and they give him a bed for the night. In the morning at breakfast he notices that one of the girls has her headscarf tied in a manner he’s never seen before – it’s strange but very elegant. One by one he discovers that all the other members of the family are wearing an article of clothing in an unknown way, or have run up a frock or made a sweater or decorated their dungarees to look startlingly different. When he asks about it, they each tell him they just sort of thought they would, no big deal, gotta milk the cow, chop some wood, see ya. He stays a while and it emerges that he has discovered in this one family the actual source of fashion, the single place from which all new trends spring and stream out to couturiers, glossy magazines and eventually the city streets. No one, not even the family themselves, had any idea that was how it worked.

Sadly, the desire for a particular style or item of fashion is not set in motion by banjo-picking mountain folk. In fact, style is not a personal choice at all. Roman and medieval sumptuary laws made the nature of luxury fashion perfectly clear: it maintained the social distinctions. Luxury was exclusivity. Cost wasn’t really the point, though if it was rare, it would consequently be expensive. The fact that the sumptuary laws were enacted suggests that price alone was not enough to keep the wrong people from getting hold of what it was not their place to have. What mattered was that only we (or they) wore or ate certain things, and as a result we (or they) knew at a glance who they (or we) were. If the hillbillies really were innovating astonishing new styles, no one would want them. ‘It is a fact,’ Montaigne said, ‘that when we had hardly been a year wearing broadcloth at court in mourning for King Henry II, silks had already sunk so low in everyone’s opinion that if you saw anyone dressed in them you immediately set them down as a bourgeois.’ Though the copywriters would like to have us believe that one instinctively knows when something is right, in fact one needs to keep a close eye on what us and them are buying this year to be certain of whether it’s right or terribly wrong. Luxury fashion in this sense is the very opposite of stylish. Luxury is not having ‘an eye’ but, as Tom Ford, formerly of YSL and Gucci, explains: ‘It’s like you’ve gotta have it or you’ll die.’

Sumptuary laws belong to a different age. Democracy demands that luxury is something everyone can have – well, let’s not be silly, capitalism demands it and whispers in our ear that it is our democratic right to have it. Democracy as it has come to be redefined means that everyone is a customer with the entitlements that a cash purchase or access to credit brings. You should have anything you want and, if you can’t, you can have a bit of it, just a little of what you fancy. ‘Everyone,’ Karl Lagerfeld says, ‘can afford a luxury handbag.’ Or, as Miuccia Prada translates: ‘It’s so easy to make money. The bag is the miracle of the company.’ ‘Everybody – everybody – is talking about handbags with the intensity of cardinals appointing a new pope,’ an English journalist wrote during London Fashion Week in 2006. (Of course, the ‘everybody’ both Lagerfeld and the journalist are talking about doesn’t embrace those whom democracy hasn’t included in the right to eat sufficiently or be housed or receive medical treatment, but you know what they mean.) Luxury can and must be anyone’s now, and ‘everyone’ wants it or they’ll die.

In order to accommodate this novel notion of deluxe, Dana Thomas, in her startling and richly informative book, draws a line between luxury and ‘the luxury industry’:

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