Needing the Unnecessary

The democratization of luxury


If you want to understand material culture at the beginning of the 21st century, you must understand the overwhelming importance of unnecessary material. If you are looking for the one unambiguous result of modern capitalism, of the industrial revolution, and of marketing, here it is. In the way we live now, you are not what you make. You are what you consume. And most of what you consume is totally unnecessary yet remarkably well made.

The most interesting of those superfluous objects belong in a socially constructed and ever-shifting class called luxury. Consuming those objects, objects as rich in meaning as they are low in utility, causes lots of happiness and distress. As well they should. For one can make the argument that until all necessities are had by all members of a community, no one should have luxury. More complex still is that, since the 1980s, the bulk consumers of luxury have not been the wealthy but the middle class, your next-door neighbors and their kids. And this is happening not just in the West but in many parts of the world.

When I was growing up in the middle class of the 1950s, luxury objects were lightly tainted with shame. You had to be a little cautious if you drove a Cadillac, wore a Rolex, or lived in a house with more than two columns out front. The rich could drip with diamonds, but you should stay dry. Movie stars could drive convertibles; you should keep your top up. If you've got it, don't flaunt it. Remember, the people surrounding you had lived through the Depression, a time that forever lit the bright lines between have-to-have, don't-need-to-have, and have-in-order-to-show-off.

The best definition of this old-style off-limits luxury came to me from my dad. I was just a kid, and it was my first trip to a cafeteria: Morrison's Cafeteria in Pompano Beach, Florida, February 1955. When I got to the desserts, I removed the main course from my tray and loaded up on cake and JELL-O. My dad told me to put all the desserts back but one. I said that wasn't fair. To me the whole idea of cafeteria was to have as much as you want of what you want. My dad said no, that was not the idea of cafeteria. The idea of cafeteria is that you can have just one of many choices.


Look around American culture, and you will see how wrong he was. Almost every set of consumables has a dessert at the top. And you can have as much of it as you can get on your tray or as much of it as your credit card will allow. This is true not just for expensive products like town cars and McMansions but for everyday objects. In bottled water, for instance, there is Evian, advertised as if it were a liquor. In coffee, there's Starbucks; in ice cream, Häagen-Dazs; in sneakers, Nike; in whiskey, Johnnie Walker Blue; in credit cards, American Express Centurian; in wine, Chateau Margaux; in cigars, Arturo Fuente Hemingway; and, well, you know the rest.

Name the category, no matter how mundane, and you'll find a premium or, better yet, a super-premium brand at the top. And having more than you can conceivably use of such objects is not met with opprobrium but with genial acceptance. This pattern persists regardless of class: The average number of branded sneakers for adolescent males? It's 4.8 pairs. And regardless of culture:

A favorite consumer product in China? Chanel lipstick dispensers sans lipstick.

Basil Englis and Michael Solomon, professors of marketing in the School of Business at Rutgers University, have studied the effects of brand consumption, particularly how college students cluster around top-brand knowledge. They drew guinea pigs from undergraduate business majors at their institution and presented them with 40 cards, each containing a description of a different cluster of consumers.

The professors sifted the clusters to make four groups—lifestyles, if you will—representative of undergraduate society. They were Young Suburbia, Money & Brains, Smalltown Downtown, and Middle America. Then Englis and Solomon gathered images of objects from four product categories (automobiles, magazines/newspapers, toiletries, and alcoholic beverages) that fit into each group. The students were asked to put the various images together into coherent groups; they were also to state their current proximity to, or desire to be part of, each group in the future.

As might be expected, the Money & Brains cluster was the most popular aspirational niche. What Englis and Solomon did not expect was how specific and knowledgeable the students were about the possessions that they did not have but knew that members of that cluster needed.

When asked what brand of automobile they would drive, here's what they said: BMWs (53.6 percent), Mercedes (50.7), Cadillacs (30.4), Volvos (23.2), Porsches (21.7), Acuras (17.4), and Jaguars (15.9). They knew what they wanted to read: travel magazines (21.7 percent), Vogue (21.7), BusinessWeek (20.3), Fortune (17.9), and GQ (15.9). Again, this is not what they did read but what they took to be the reading material of the de-sired group. What they were actually reading (or so they said) were Forbes, Barron's, The New Yorker, and Gourmet. No mention of Rolling Stone, Playboy, Spin, or Maxim for this group. They certainly knew what to drink: Heineken beer (33.3 percent), expensive wines (26.1), scotch (18.8), champagne (17.4), and Beck's beer (15). They also knew what to sprinkle on their bodies: Polo (27.5 percent), Obsession (15.9), and Drakkar (15.9).

What the professors found was not just that birds of a feather had started to flock together, but that these young birds already knew what flock to shy away from. They were not ashamed of smoking, for instance, but of smoking the wrong brand. Their prime avoidance group corresponded to the Smalltown Downtown cluster.

The Money & Brainers knew a lot about the Smalltowners. They knew about favored pickup trucks, Chevys (23.2 percent) and Fords (18.8). They knew that this group reads People (30.4), Sports Illustrated (26.1), TV Guide (24.6), Wrestling (21.7), fishing magazines (20.3), and The National Enquirer (18.8). They assumed that Smalltowners preferred Budweiser (59.4), followed by Miller (24.6) and Coors (18.8). Essentially, the Money & Brainers had learned not just what to buy but what to avoid (or at least what to say to avoid).

Such shared knowledge is the basis of culture. This insight was, after all, the rationale behind a liberal arts education. John Henry Newman and Matthew Arnold argued for state-supported education in the 19th century precisely because cultural literacy meant social cohesion. No one argued that it was important to know algebraic functions or Latin etymologies or what constitutes a sonnet because such knowledge allows us to solve important social problems. We learn such matters because it is the basis of how to speak to each other, how we develop a bond of shared history and commonality. This is the secular religion of the liberal arts and sciences, what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls cultural capital.

In our postmodern world we have, it seems, exchanged knowledge of history and science (a knowledge of production) for knowledge of products and how such products interlock to form coherent social patterns (a knowledge of consumption). Buy this and don't buy that has replaced make/learn this, don't make/learn that. After all, in the way we live now, everyone is a consumer, but not everyone is a worker. As Marcel Duchamp, sly observer of the changing scene, said, "Living is more a question of what one spends than what one makes." Thus a new denomination of cultural capital.

A shift in currency has clear ramifications. A producer culture focuses on the independent self of the worker: self-help, self-discipline, self-respect, self-control, self-reliance, self-interest. Responsibility is situated in the individual: Can she get work? A consumer culture, however, focuses on community: Fit in, don't stand out. Be cool. The standard of judgment becomes the ability to interact effectively with others, to win their affection and admiration—to merge with others of the same lifestyle. Can he consume the right brands?

Inventing Pashmina

The powerful desire to associate with recognized objects of little intrinsic but high positional value is at the heart of Luxe Americana. It is what Martha Stewart is doing down at Kmart introducing her Silver Label goods. Of her many endorsed products, one is of special interest: her line of matelassé coverlets and shams—really, just bedcovers. They are available in yellow, white, and multicolored stripes and come in silk, linen, crushed velvet, Egyptian cotton, cotton sateens, and even cashmere. Remember three things: This is Kmart, a bedspread is something you buy not to show off to others but to please yourself, and cashmere is supposed to be something really special.

So here is the Cashmere Company hawking something it calls pashmina. The word is a linguistic trick. Cashmere is goat hair from Kashmir, an area between India and Pakistan, whereas pashmina is simply the Persian word for the same goat in the same area. In other words, it's the same stuff. But that's not what is interesting. It is that pashmina has been introduced precisely because places like Kmart have too much cashmere. So what we have is a top-of-the-line product topped because too many people were in the checkout line.

But then again, what of Michael Graves?designed toasters for Target, Ralph Lauren house paint, and Ernest Hemingway and Cole Porter brand furniture at Ethan Allen Furniture stores? This tectonic shift in consumption is why the designer Lynette Jennings, host of the Discovery Channel's Lynette Jennings Design and HouseSmart, is peddling doorknobs at Home Depot.

If you want to see how varied the consumers of the new luxuries are, just take a tour of your local Costco or Sam's Club parking lot. Observe the shiny new imported sedans and SUVs alongside aging subcompacts. Or spend an hour watching what is being sold on the Home Shopping Network, a televised flea market for impulse buyers. The system now has 23,000 incoming phone lines capable of handling up to 20,000 calls a minute. Home Shopping no longer sells just cubic zirconium rings. Not when the real money is in designer handbags.

In the older culture, my dad's culture, the limited production capacity of the economy sharply reduced aspirations to material comfort. In the modern world, my culture, much greater material satisfactions lie within the reach of even those of modest means. Thus a producer culture becomes a consumer culture, a hoarding culture becomes a surplus culture, a work culture becomes a therapeutic culture. Because what you buy becomes more important than what you make, luxury is not a goal; for many it is a necessity.

Luxury Creep

Michael J. Apter, a psychologist at Northwestern University, has studied why we do things and, by extension, why we buy things. In The Experience of Motivation: The Theory of Psychological Reversals, he divides general orientations into telic (arousal reducing) and paratelic (arousal seeking). A telic motivation starts with isolating a need and then feeling anxious about resolving it. The experience ends, if successful, with a feeling of relaxation. If the ending does not satisfy the need (postdecision dissonance), the anxiety continues, and the process is repeated until it abates. A paratelic tendency, however, begins in a state of well-being that edges over into boredom. The person seeks excitement and judges the act by the experience. Does it resolve boredom? Not to put too fine a point on it, but consuming luxury for many Americans has gone from telic to paratelic, from product to process, from problem resolution to emotion seeking, from object to experience.

The one characteristic of modern luxe is its profound oxymoronic nature: If everyone can have it, is it still luxury? If you want to see the difference that a generation makes in downshifting luxury, just look at how top-of-the-line domestic automobiles are advertised. Compare Cadillac in the early part of the 20th century with Lincoln at the end of the century, and you'll get the idea.

Cadillac's pitch in a 1915 advertisement was that luxury comes at a price and that price includes humility, even mild mortification. You buy this car and you take responsibility for sharing excellence. The true price of luxury is not cheap. In fact, you will be reviled, assailed, and envied. This car is a laurel. Be careful how you wear it. The real headline is not just "The Penalty of Leadership," it is "The Penalty of Luxury."

By contrast, Lincoln's current pitch is pure indulgence: Buy this object and let your lust for comfort run wild. Lincoln is "what a luxury object should be." And after all you've been through, you deserve it. If not to own, then to lease.

Needless to say, as the 20th century faded into oblivion, Cadillac, which had a history of "owning" the luxury category, lost its vaunted place as the best-selling domestic luxury car to Lincoln. The Lincoln division of the Ford Motor Car Company has a single-word advertising motto: "Luxury."

Perhaps the best example of what I call luxury creep, in which a down-market product comes uptown solely on the basis of advertising, is the Buick Century. Buick has had a history of being a car for strivers who have not quite made it. Just look back on Buick advertising in the '60s, and you can see the company's typical reticence. In 1965 Buick advertising carried the tag line, "Wouldn't you really rather have a Buick?," which survived through the 1980s. In 1980 the company added a second theme: "The great American road belongs to Buick." Then in 1986 the McCann-Erickson ad agency positioned Buicks as "premium American motorcars."

Now Buick does have a luxury car, the Park Avenue. But the Century is an underling, now positioned as "a luxury car for everyone." Never mind that the tag line is an oxymoron. The problem is more fundamental. This car is just a standard Buick, which is just a jazzed-up Chevy, which is just a dumbed-down Cadillac, which is just an Oldsmobile, which is just like tons of Fords and Chryslers, as well as most Japanese midrange cars. The only luxury about it is the pretension of saying this is luxurious.

Punk Luxe?

In the last few years I have spent hours flipping through a new genre of magazine—The Robb Report, Millionaire, Indulgence, Flaunt, Luxe, Icon, Self: The Best of Everything, Ornament: The Art of Personal Adornment—as well as standard glossy pulp from Condé Nast like GQ, Vogue, Vanity Fair, and, most recently, Lucky. I have trolled Rodeo Drive, Worth Avenue, and upper Madison Avenue and traveled to Las Vegas, where I stood agog for hours in the Bellagio and Venetian hotels.

I admit from the start that you could argue that this is not real luxury but a kind of ersatz variety, punk luxe, and maybe you would be correct. My father would have argued that real luxury is characterized not by shine but by patina, that its allure comes from inborn aesthetics, not from glitzy advertising, that it is passed from generation to generation and cannot be bought at the mall, and, most of all, that its consumption is private, not conspicuous. His words for modern luxury would have included gauche, vulgar, nouveau, tasteless, and, most interestingly, offensive.

In fact, maybe the rich have only two genuine luxury items left: time and philanthropy. The rest of us are having a go at all their stuff, albeit for a knockoff to be held only a short time. I can't afford a casita on Bermuda, but my timeshare can get it for me at least for a week. I can't own a limo, but I can rent one. If I can't fly on the Concorde, I can upgrade to first class with the miles I "earn" by using my American Express card. I can lease a Lexus.

In a sense luxury objects don't exist anymore as they used to be-cause "real" luxury used to be for the "happy few," and in the world of the jubilant Dow there is no more "happy few." The world that we live in, as John Seabrook recently argued in Nobrow: The Marketing of Culture and the Culture of Marketing, and as David Brooks explored in Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, no longer easily fits into intellectual classes. It now fits into consumption communities. So, for instance, we don't talk about high class, upper middle class, and middle class. Instead we talk about boomers, yuppies, Generation X, echo-boomers, nobrows, bobos (short for bourgeois bohemians), and the rest, who show what they are buying for themselves, not what they do for a living. And that's why each of these groups has its own luxury markers—positional goods, in marketing jargon—to be bought, not made.

High Brow to Nobrow

In a way, the new luxury is the ineluctable result of a market economy and a democratic political system. As journalist Thomas Beer wrote, "Money does not rule democracy. Money is democracy." Back in the late 1940s Russell Lynes, editor of Harper's, concocted a taxonomy of taste: high-brow, upper middle-brow, lower middle-brow, and low-brow. His system, as gleefully celebrated in the April 11, 1949, issue of Life magazine, was scandalous when published, the topic of much cocktail party concern.

Lynes knew even then that Americans were no longer divided by "wealth, birth, or political eminence" but by consumption. These material distinctions were further explored in the 1980s in Paul Fussell's Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. Tongue almost in cheek, Fussell even proposed a new class, what he called "category X people," to be based not on material consumption but on a shared taste for the better life. Fussell got the phenomenon of the "massification" of the upper class correct, and he certainly understood how the democratizing of luxury was a mixed blessing, but he missed the materiality of this confluence. Instead of superfluous stuff being pushed aside, it became even more central. You had to buy your way out, one Volvo, one glass of merlot, one bow tie, one Sub-Zero refrigerator, one granite countertop at a time.

From time to time in Western history there is vociferous antipathy toward high-end consumption. From Plato to the early Christians to the Renaissance, luxury was thought to effeminize and weaken. But this was hardly a pressing problem, because just getting to the necessities of life was a full-time job for most.

With increasing affluence this view shifted. Luxury became dangerous not because of de-basement but because it was a sign of overreaching, of getting out of place. An interesting transformation shows how fluid this category can be. In the Renaissance, luxury objects became those things thought worthy of being painted. Such objects were called objets d'art. Now, of course, the luxury object is the painting itself. But you can see that even before the industrial revolution there was a growing desire to show stuff off, to use the material world as marker of social dominance, to strut, to flaunt.

By the 18th century, social critics like Bernard Mandeville and economists like Adam Smith were beginning to suggest that, for improving the weal of humanity, the promise of consuming luxury might be a better carrot than the stick of shame. Yet there was still deep resentment for consuming out of your class, beyond your means.

This suspicion about consuming beyond your class continued well into the 19th century. In fact, ancient sumptuary laws, explaining exactly what objects were forbidden by church and state, were read from the Anglican pulpit until the 1860s. Reading these laws took two hours of church time to complete, and the laws kept people in their places, if only to have to listen to them.

Clerics, clearly supported by the aristocracy, were not alone in stiff-arming luxury. With the onset of industrial surpluses, secular pundits like Henry David Thoreau railed against what they took to be the excesses of mass production. "Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts, of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind," he pointed out in Walden.

By the fin de siècle this view of high-end consumption had so exploded that Thorstein Veblen unloosed the first modern sustained attack on luxury in his thoroughly entertaining Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). Coining all manner of nifty concepts like conspicuous consumption, invidious comparison, bandwagon effect, symbolic pantomime, vicarious leisure, and parodic display, Veblen had at the excesses of robber-baron shopping.

The Leisure Classic

In fact, one might say that Veblen enjoyed it rather too much and succeeded only too well. When he formulated his theory of the leisure class at the turn of the century, ostentation in dress was at its full plumage, not least because new money was desperate to prove that it had made it to high society. Veblen's argument was so simple that it cut like Occam's razor. It has proved so powerful that it has achieved the status of unquestioned truism.

Here is Veblen's argument: As wealth spreads, what drives consumers' behavior is increasingly neither subsistence nor comfort but the attainment of "the esteem and envy of fellow men." Because male wage earners are too circumspect to indulge themselves, they deposit consumption on surrogates, on loved ones. Vicarious ostentation—the way that plainly dressed Victorian men encouraged their wives and daughters to wear complicated trappings of wealth—is how this unfolds. Ditto their servants, horses, and even house pets.

In retrospect, Veblen was too successful, too neat, too sharp. Veblen thought that the purpose of acquisition was public consumption of esteem, status anxiety resolved by material display. Not much more. Wealth, he argued, confers honor; it suggests prowess and achievement. But wealth would have no social meaning were it simply consumed or possessed. "In order to gain and to hold the esteem of men," he wrote, "it is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power. The wealth or power must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence."

Thus the absolute centrality of conspicuous consumption. In what Veblen called "barbarian culture," trophies such as property or slaves were signs of successful aggression. In modern societies luxury is a sign of status and class. It's what we have for harems. But only certain sorts of goods work this magic. There is no rational system. The only constant is that consumers seek the luxurious object for two reasons: to show that they are members of the classes above and to distinguish themselves from those below. Veblen calls the first motive "pecuniary emulation"; the second, "invidious comparison."

From this comes the economic irrationality of the Veblen effect, namely, that the value of a luxury object is in direct proportion to its cost. Raise the price of certain luxe objects and you increase their value. The Veblen effect is why a T-shirt sold at Sears costs less than the same T-shirt at the Gap, which costs less than the same T-shirt at Hugo Boss, and so forth. Could you sell Evian water if it were priced below a generic? What about Ben & Jerry's ice cream? The Robb Report? A Lexus? An Ivy League education? It is not enough for me to know what I paid for opuluxe. You have to know.

Today these products, which are no more (and maybe less) useful than their functional equivalents, are sometimes called "positional goods," goods that are valued not despite their expense but because of it. Indeed, Veblen argued that since the reasons for buying such goods are "pecuniary emulation" and "invidious comparison," their utility rises as their prices go up. With insights like this, Veblen proved himself to be too strong a critic to dismiss. You don't need to have read a word he wrote to know him. He set the tone of modern criticism.

Economic Moralism

The second modern attack on luxury came in the 1950s with John Kenneth Galbraith's The Affluent Society and, to a lesser degree, the popularizing work of Vance Packard in The Hidden Persuaders, The Status Seekers, and The Pyramid Climbers. Veblenism is all over these books. Galbraith had read Veblen, if not wisely, then too well. In fact, he had edited Theory of the Leisure Class with all kinds of approving nods and winks. Packard and his snappy titles went along for the ride. To these critics high-end consumption is against our "better nature"; we are duped into consuming by advertisers; consumers are dolts who should be doing other things; luxury is consumption run amok.

The usual suspects for Galbraith had changed from the captains of industry to the Joneses across the street. Keeping up with them was every bit as dangerous as it had been for a Carnegie to keep up with a Vanderbilt, a Morgan with a Gould. Perhaps even more dangerous because these Joneses now are so numerous. And, as opposed to the robber barons who were outfitting family members, this new solipsistic breed of showoff was outfitting himself.

Veblen's descendants are still at it. Following in the footsteps of Galbraith have been two moralists passing as economists: Juliet Schor, a professor now at Boston College, who has published The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don't Need, and Robert Frank, a professor at Cornell, who contributed Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess. Just read the subtitles.

The modern attack usually centers around a specific object as an exemplum. While Galbraith disliked Cadillac tail fins, Schor disdains granite countertops in the kitchen, and Frank holds up expensive watches as symptomatic of bad habits. On the surface they have such good points: How do those fins help the car move, are those stone countertops better than Formica, does a Lucian Picard keep better time than a Timex?

But here's the problem. The 1958 Cadillac has been featured in the Museum of Modern Art's retrospective show celebrating industrial design as art, and if you now want to buy one in mint condition, you'll pay about 20 times the purchase price. The granite countertop really makes more sense as a cutting surface than as a slab to lay down over the dead body of Uncle Louie, and—who knows?—it might even be passed from generation to generation, while the sensible Formica is carted out to the dump. And had Frank invested in Lucian Picard watches at the beginning of the bull market, he would have made more on his watch investment than on the S&P 500. Drats! That this stuff could have increased in value tells us how slippery these slopes can be.

No matter. Critics of consumption love to point out that people with these things are no happier than people without them. Ergo, why buy extra stuff? But people who can't buy unnecessary opuluxe are definitely unhappier for not being let into the cycle; buying this notational stuff and having such stuff are different experiences; consumers move in definite stages, from adolescence, where consumption is central, to middle age, where it ceases to be so important, to old age, where having things is positively a hindrance. Religious fanatics invariably rank highest on happiness scales, irrespective of culture or religion. Let's give happiness a rest. Consumption of the new luxury is about far more interesting sensations.

Whereas Veblen contended that male aggression caused the crazed consumption of deluxe items at the end of his century, these modern critics are more au courant in putting forth their etiology. They medicalize consumption, in large part because the bulk consumers of luxe are now young women. The diagnosis, although they would never use this precise term, is addiction. We are addicted to luxury. That's what causes the fever. That's why we yearn for what we don't want. Diagnosis from the National Public Radio crowd: not just Sudden Wealth Syndrome but the dreaded "affluenza."

Over the Top

I must say that I found most of the luxury objects that I've looked at, from Patek Philippe watches to Porsche Turbos to the men's room of the Bellagio Hotel, to be a little over the top. But I am not so oblivious to the world around me that I can't appreciate how important the new luxury has become. And I can't overlook how high-end consumption promises to do exactly what critics of the stuff have always yearned for, namely, to bring us together, often traumatically. Yes, indeed, the transgenerational poor are excluded, as the bottom fifth of our population has not budged an inch in the luxe explosion. Yet more people than ever are entering the much-vaunted global village because of consumption, not despite it.

In fact, one could argue, as Dinesh D'Souza, Virginia Postrel, and W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm have recently done, that the aspiration of the poor to get at these unnecessary goods has done more than any social program to motivate some of the disenchanted to become enfranchised. While one may be distressed at seeing a dish antenna atop a ramshackle house or a Caddie out front, the yearning to have superfluous badges of affluence may promise a more lasting peace around the world than any religion or political system has ever delivered. I don't mean to overlook the complexities here.

This is not a universal phenomenon, as the al Qaeda have wickedly demonstrated. Some of the world's poor are most certainly not becoming better off in absolute or relative terms. I only want to say that, given a choice between being mugged for your sneakers or having your ethnic or religious heritage cleansed, the lust for sneakers may prove a more lasting way to improve the general lot of humanity.

Let's face it. In the world that I grew up in, your religion, your family name, the color of your skin, your language skills, your gender, where you went to school, your accent, and your marriage partner were doing the work that luxury consumption does now. My dad went to Exeter, Williams, and Harvard Med, and he never drove anything fancier than a Plymouth. He never had to. Today I wouldn't go to a doctor who drove a Plymouth. I would figure that if she doesn't drive a Lexus, she is having trouble with her practice.

So I admit the ugly truth. After spending the last few years trying to understand the pull of the material world, I am far more sympathetic to its blandishments and far more forgiving of its excesses. The democratization of luxury has been the single most important marketing phenomenon of modern times. And it has profound political implications. It may not be as bad as some lifestyle scolds make it out to be. In its own way it is a fair, albeit often wasteful, system, not just of objects but of meaning. Don't get me wrong: It's not that I came to mock and stayed to pray, but I do feel that getting and spending has some actual worth. Nobody checks the number of vowels in your name, or the color of your skin, or whether you know the difference between like and as when you are buying your Prada parka—that's got to mean something.

Although luxury has become a mallet with which one pounds the taste of others, this misses some essential points. One is that humans are consumers by nature. We are tool users because we like to use what tool using can produce. In other words, tools are not the ends but the means. So too materialism does not crowd out spiritualism; spiritualism is more likely a substitute when objects are scarce. When we have few things, we make the next world luxurious. When we have plenty, we enchant the objects around us.

Second, consumers are rational. They are often fully aware that they are more interested in consuming aura than objects, sizzle than steak, meaning than material. In fact, if you ask them—as academic critics are usually loath to do—they are quite candid in explaining that the Nike swoosh, the Polo pony, the Guess? label, the DKNY logo are what they are after. They are not duped by advertising, packaging, branding, fashion, and merchandising. They actively seek and enjoy the status that surrounds the object, especially when they are young.

Third, we need to question the standard argument that consumption of opuluxe almost always leads to disappointment. Admittedly, the circular route from desire to purchase to disappointment to renewed de-sire is never-ending, but we may follow it because the other route—from melancholy to angst—is worse. In other words, in a world emptied of inherited values, consuming what looks to be overpriced fripperies may be preferable to consuming nothing.

Finally, we need to rethink the separation between production and consumption, for they are more alike than separate and occur not at different times and places but simultaneously. Instead of wanting less luxury, we might find that just the opposite—the paradoxical luxury for all—is a suitable goal of communal aspiration. After all, luxury before all else is a social construction, and understanding its social ramifications may pave the way for a new appreciation of what has become a characteristic contradiction of our time, the necessary consumption of the unnecessary.