Living It Up: Our Love Affair with Luxury

Living It Up: Our Love Affair with Luxury

Living It Up: Our Love Affair with Luxury

Living It Up: Our Love Affair with Luxury


Economic downturns and terrorist attacks notwithstanding, America's love affair with luxury continues unabated. Over the last several years, luxury spending in the United States has been growing four times faster than overall spending. It has been characterized by political leaders as vital to the health of the American economy as a whole, even as an act of patriotism. Accordingly, indices of consumer confidence and purchasing seem unaffected by recession. This necessary consumption of unnecessary items and services is going on at all but the lowest layers of society: J.C. Penney now offers day spa treatments; Kmart sells cashmere bedspreads. So many products are claiming luxury status today that the credibility of the category itself is strained: for example, the name "pashmina" had to be invented to top mere cashmere. We see luxury everywhere: in storefronts, advertisements, even in the workings of our imaginations. But what is it? How is it manufactured on the factory floor and in the minds of consumers? Who cares about it and who buys it? And how concerned should we be that luxuries are commanding a larger and larger percentage of both our disposable income and our aspirations? Trolling the upscale malls of America, making his way toward the Mecca of Las Vegas, James B. Twitchell comes to some remarkable conclusions. The democratization of luxury, he contends, has been the single most important marketing phenomenon of our times. In the pages of Living It Up, Twitchell commits the academic heresy of paying respect to popular luxury consumption as a force that has united the country and the globe in a way that no war, movement, or ideology ever has. What's more, he claims, the shopping experience for Americans today has its roots in the spiritual, the religious, and the transcendent. Deft and subtle writing, audacious ideas, and a fine sense of humor inform this entertaining and insightful book.


At length I recollected the thoughtless saying of a great prince who, on being informed that the country had no bread, replied, “Let them eat cake.”

—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions

Well, okay, so Marie Antoinette never said, “Let them eat cake.” When Rousseau wrote these words, Marie was just eleven years old and living in Austria. But we know the words, and we like having her say them. She was a luxury junkie whose out-of-control spending grated on the poor and unfortunate French people. Americans especially like the story that, when she was told by an official that the people were angry because they had no bread, she responded, “Qu'ils mangent de la brioche.” We fought a revolution to separate ourselves from exactly that kind of upper-crust insensitivity. She got her just deserts.

Now, however, two hundred years later, cake has become one of our favorite foods, part of the fifth food group: totally unnecessary luxury. And the great American revolution that is sweeping the world markets is how to get more and more of exactly those things that Marie also enjoyed. This is a revolution not of necessities but of wants. In fact, getting to cake has become one of the central unifying concerns of people around the globe.

I was thinking of Marie recently because I was invited to New York City to consult with an advertising agency. The agency folks were assembling a video presentation on how well they understood how to sell luxury prod-

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