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.
As the author of works on advertising, materialism and modern culture, University of Florida professor Twitchell should have been the most immune to acquisitive desire while doing research in posh Rodeo Drive and Madison Avenue stores. That he was momentarily struck with passion by a Ralph Lauren tie not only demonstrates his humanity, but also underlines one of his theses: no one is above a bit of luxury lust. The reason for this, he says, is, "We understand each other not by sharing religion, politics, or ideas. We share branded things. We speak the Esperanto of advertising, luxe populi." These are sentiments voiced by many who study consumer culture, but Twitchell addresses conspicuous consumption in a new way, free of the superior tone often adopted by his academic peers. He embarks on a course of fieldwork that is both absurdist and charming, as he chats up Fendi salespeople and stands slack-jawed in the lobby of the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas. With the research done, but the tie unbought, he comes away with insights about the American quest for luxury products and provides a history of such yearning: "The balderdash of cloistered academics aside, human beings did not suddenly become materialistic. We have always been desirous of things." Many of those things, in the recent past and definitely in the present, have been imbued with an aura of opulence and indulgence, Twitchell posits, leading to a kind of emotional satisfaction through shopping, especially for items outside one's budget. With its intelligence and wit, Twitchell's exploration of consumerism belongs in every shopping bag.