From crowns and lace to bubble bath necklaces – the morphing meaning of luxury

Body 1, Re-materialisation of Systems, El Ultimo Grito, 2014. © Photos by POI

From a cursory glance at the magazine racks at your local newsagent, it might appear that we have become almost obsessed with luxury. Glossy magazines sport covers dripping with deluxe clothing and goods, expensive cars, fancy apartments. Newspapers like such as the UK’s Financial Times and Telegraph have regular features and even a website dedicated to luxury, where it is associated with a breadth of different products and services from art, travel, design, fashion, lifestyle and even technology.

In June the Financial Times will host a Business of Luxury Summit, emphasising the significant role luxury plays within the world economy. Over the past decade the effects of globalisation and the rapid growth of emerging nations has brought further opportunities for luxury brands as new markets open up to them. There is now a host of new consumers for luxury goods, and so a corresponding increase in interpretations of its meaning.

So what better time to stage an exhibition interrogating the luxurious? Enter the V&A’s new show What is Luxury?

Ecclesiastical crown, c. 1750. © The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum London

What is luxury?

Derived from the Latin word luxe, luxury implies indulgence, expensiveness and exclusivity, most usually associated with products beyond life’s necessities. Historically, music and art was reserved for the elite and wealthy classes and were therefore seen as luxury items. Today, however, music is rarely seen as a luxury as it’s accessible to all in some shape or form. Items and experiences considered luxurious are constantly changing.

Luxury used to be denoted by quality. When the French luxury brand Hermès was founded in 1837 its accessories were crafted by skilled artisans using the highest quality materials. These products were made in small batches, indicative of their exclusivity and inaccessibility.

Combs, Hair Highway, 2014. © Studio Swine

But meanings have changed. The example of fashion particularly shows how luxury has evolved to become less exclusive and more accessible. Now often signalled by ostentatious visibility of logos, luxury has entered the realms of mass production, something that the fashion writer Dana Thomas has termed “the democratisation of luxury”.

This creates some confusion over the true meaning of the word, which is diluted in a multitude of different interpretations and cultural contexts. Today, luxury is a commonly applied adjective used to describe everything from food to fashion, technology, hotels, housing … the list goes on.

And if the past and present versions of luxury differ so, how might it be imagined in the future? Given the rise of the digital, it’s likely that in the future luxury will move away from materiality. Perhaps luxury will start to celebrate privacy, quiet and anonymity.

Necklace, Bubble Bath, Nora Fok 2001. Photo: Heini Schneebeli Courtesy of the Crafts Council

Bubble baths and space watches

Our current understanding of luxury is based primarily on a consumer perspective. The V&A’s exhibition challenges us to shift away from this point of view. Despite the museum’s extensive collection of luxurious artifacts, the curators have chosen to take a less traditional stance on their choice of exhibits.

There are historic examples from their collection, such as a liturgical vestment made of raised needle lace from 1670-1695, but these sit alongside more contemporary pieces of luxury on loan, such as Nora Fok’s Bubble Bath necklace (2001). Placing these more unusual historic artifacts aside more contemporary interpretations of luxury is intended to challenge the visitor’s traditional notions of luxury.

The Second Space Traveller Watch, George Daniels, 1983. © Jasper Gough, Sotheby's

One of the featured objects is the Space Travellers’ Watch, created by George Daniels, c. 1982. Handcrafted from raw materials and without the use of automatic tools, Daniel’s design was inspired by the Moon Landing in 1969. Daniel describes this watch as all one would need for a package tour to Mars. So luxury is presented not just by quality of materials, but significantly also the story behind its creation. The significance of an object’s production in terms of the time and skill invested in its making brings a different, personal meaning to the value of luxury.

Rather than providing a definitive answer to what luxury is, the exhibition presents ideas around the concept, leaving its visitors to ponder their own experiences and renewed feelings towards the term. Whether luxury can truly be defined anymore is uncertain, but by examining the craft and materials of its production the V&A’s presents luxury as an experience. In doing so, it attempts to take the term back to the origins of its meaning.

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