The Shift of “Luxury”
Luxury fashion has undergone a socioeconomic shift that calls for a conscious redefinition, said Louvre curator Pamela Golbin, according to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). Golbin, whose office is over fashion and textiles, and whose job includes choosing items to add to the museum’s collection, believes the label of “luxury” carries contextual ideas that are misleading.
Luxury, the Wall Street Journal explains, used to be a key social signifier of class. In France, home of the Louvre, haute couture, and many notions of fashion, Louis XIV enforced sumptuary laws in the 1600’s. Sumptuary laws were legal clothing limitations, which prescribed certain elements of fashion for certain classes, prohibiting lower classes from dressing in a way that appeared above their station. This made dress a direct visual representation of social standing, a continual reminder and enforcer of class divisions.
Before, Golbin told WSJ, breaking clothing laws carried consequences like jail time. But now anyone with money can freely purchase luxury products, and the legal, formal class implications are gone. Class may be represented in the ways people dress, but it has no legal weight.
Even people who are not in the typical income bracket of customers can own brand name fashion, too. In a world where credit cards are easily available, someone without wealth can purchase designer brands instantly, or simply save up the money to buy a piece. Most of Western society is legally classless already, and the visual social divide is disappearing as well. Often just looking at someone’s outfit isn’t enough to determine for certain whether they’re rich or poor.
Golbin observed that luxury fashion looks engender cheaper copies. For example, when Queen Elizabeth reigned England, her heavy use of pearls inspired manufactured copies on clothing for those less wealthy. Luxury is exclusive by nature, but the rest of fashion follows and imitates it. Even during the 17th century imitation items had a market to those whose sartorial ambitions reached beyond their class.
What the industry really needs, according to Golbin, is a redefinition of high-end fashion that doesn’t imply wealth and royalty, a new understanding of luxury for the 21st century.