Responding to "The Lure of Luxury"

Boston Review , November 02, 2015

This is one of several essays by different authors responding to an article titled "The Lure of Luxury," by psychologist Paul Bloom.

In April 2013 a nineteen-year-old engineering student named Trayon Christian bought a $350 Ferragamo belt at Barney’s, using his debit card and money from his work-study job. Shortly after leaving the store, Christian was stopped by undercover detectives, accused of fraud, hand-cuffed, and held for two hours at a police station before being cleared and released. According to a lawsuit he later filed, the cops demanded to know “how a young black man such as himself could afford to purchase such an expensive belt.”

Stripped of the racism, the question isn’t much different from the one beloved by social scientists. Why do people buy things they “don’t really need”? Why would anyone, much less a cash-strapped college student, pay $350 for a belt?

Paul Bloom provides three possible reasons: status signaling, aesthetic pleasure, and a good’s history. These explanations do not, however, exhaust the potential motivations. Despite Bloom’s flattering citation of my book The Substance of Style, they do not even exhaust the motivations provided in my own work.

The Substance of Style is as concerned with social meaning as it is with sensory pleasure. Its analysis emphasizes how we use the look and feel of goods to signal our identities as individuals and groups. This signaling isn’t Veblen-style status competition. Rather, it communicates personality and social affiliation: who we are as individuals and with whom we belong, standing out and fitting in.

In the case of luxuries, the signals may derive from a good’s provenance, but more often they simply reflect the associations that have grown up around a particular style. Hence James Twitchell, who describes how other people revel in the sheer beauty of Armani clothes, admits to feeling acutely uncomfortable in the store’s “Italianate” environment, with its techno music and black-clad “ethnic” salespeople. By contrast, when surrounded by the equally pricey “English faux luxe” of Ralph Lauren’s Manhattan shop, the old-fashioned WASP felt entirely at home.

Nor does a good’s history count for much if its appearance signals the wrong identity. Only the most eccentric Silicon Valley mogul would show up at the Bay Area Maker Faire wearing a Savile Row suit or carrying a Bottega Veneta handbag, however impressive the skills of their makers.

Beyond signals of identity, luxury goods can also provide what anthropologist Grant McCracken calls bridges to “displaced meaning,” a concept I employ and elaborate upon in my more recent book, The Power of Glamour (2013). Take that Ferragamo belt. Christian bought it because he’d seen rapper Juelz Santana wearing the same model. He imagined in Santana something of who he wanted to be and the life he wanted to have. The belt offered a bridge to that ideal.

This kind of intangible value is different from a good’s history or “its deeper nature,” as Bloom puts it. Santana never touched, much less wore, the object Christian purchased. The belt only looked like Santana’s. It was worth $350 to Christian not because of its provenance but because of his imagination. Its special value arose from glamour, with its tantalizing promises of escape and transformation and its hints of a different, better life. After his run-in with the cops, that value vanished, and Christian returned the belt for a refund.

By highlighting the value of history, Bloom makes a useful contribution to the understanding of luxury and to the anti-anti-luxury cause. His choice to emphasize history rather than meaning suggests the rationalist’s yearning for objectivity. These golf clubs belonged to JFK; your baby wore those shoes; Rolex made this watch; Vermeer painted this masterpiece (or didn’t). We can prove these things are special. “What really matters—what is important to think about as you make your way through the world,” he writes, “isn’t what things look like but what they really are.”

But luxury is too slippery and subjective to be so easily encompassed and explained. A good’s history is valuable, after all, only when someone cares about what that history means. The defense of luxury is ultimately not a defense of stuff, even verifiably special stuff. It is a defense of identity, culture, and imagination—of the symbols of who we are and who we dream we might become.