Living It Up

Living It Up: Our Love Affair with Luxury

James B. Twitchell
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 448
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/twit12496
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  • Book Info
    Living It Up
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50056-2
    Subjects: Sociology, Marketing & Advertising, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xviii)

    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...

  5. 1. Over the Top Americans in the Lap of Luxury
    (pp. 1-40)

    If you want to understand material culture at the beginning of the twenty-first 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 outside of that which is found in a few aisles in the grocery and hardware stores, most of what you consume is totally unnecessary yet remarkably well made.

    The most interesting of those superfluous objects belong in...

  6. 2. The Social Construction of Luxury A Taxonomy of Taste
    (pp. 41-80)

    Voltaire has never been more modern. For he saw in the eighteenth century what we are still either unwilling to confront or are overly eager to admit, namely, the social construction of taste. Such a paradox! If we dislike what is being produced, we refer to it as the ineluctable result of hegemony, the browbeating of consumers by producers, the infantalizing of our natural desires by the crafty manipulators of fad and fashion.

    But if we do like it, we say it’s socially constructed, which exchanges the sense of oppression for the allure of cooperation. In the academy today no...

  7. 3. Let’s Go Shopping The Streets of Material Dreams
    (pp. 81-122)

    At the end of the nineteenth century Sister Carrie passes a department store window. Theodore Dreiser describes what she sees. A century later her not-so-fictional granddaughter passes through the mall, sees the same scene, pulls out her charge card, makes the transactions, gathers up her booty, tosses it into her leased SUV, and goes home to her condo inside the gated community.

    To pass the time on the way home between cell phone calls, she reads bumper stickers celebrating her recent act. “Shop ’til you drop,” “People who say money can’t buy happiness don’t know where to shop,” “When the...

  8. 4. Where Opuluxe Is Made and Who Makes It LVMH and Condé Nast
    (pp. 123-152)

    Charles Revson didn’t quite get the trifecta. What you make in the factory and what you sell in the store depends, to a considerable extent, on what you can first create in the mind of your consumer. Making meaning for otherwise interchangeable products has been one of the most important developments of the modern world. Without it the industrial revolution would have sputtered out of control.

    In a sense there is no such thing as a luxury automobile, a luxury purse, or a luxury lipstick. Rather, there is the concept of the luxury car, purse, or lipstick. Luxury is a...

  9. 5. How Luxury Becomes Necessity The Work of Advertising
    (pp. 153-174)

    I know what you’re thinking. You are thinking that this may be an interesting subject but that it really doesn’t pertain to you. You are certainly not buying this stuff. You don’t like luxury, let alone love it. You are not duped by advertising. You can be perfectly happy without most things. In fact, all you need is a few good books, a few interesting ideas, a few friends, a few good conversations, a few sunsets, and you are content. You have those core values that politicians love to invoke. Well, me too. It’s all the other people that I’m...

  10. 6. From Shirts to Tulips A Musing on Luxury
    (pp. 175-214)

    If I had to pick the defining moment of modern American commercial culture, this is it. The scene is over in a second, but it holds a century of modernity. It’s the industrial revolution in an eyewink. Jay Gatsby, a mysterious man whose most important creation is himself, is showing what he’s got, what he’s made of, what he is. He is doing this in order to make the woman of his dreams, Daisy Buchanan, into the woman of his life. Daisy is his image of perfection, a southern belle, what World War I was fought for, what machines spin...

  11. 7. Viva Las Vegas! A Strip of Luxury
    (pp. 215-238)

    Sooner or later I knew I would have to go to Las Vegas. If luxury is a social construction, then this is the place to see it being built, one slab of Italian terra-cotta on one tube of neon on one ersatz Greek statue on one chromium light beam. I came with some fear and trepidation, for I had seen all the movies and read all the books. This is the place of the Fear all right. You can’t play it safe any longer. After all, look how Vegas boiled the prose of Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson.

    But I...

  12. 8. Still Learning from Las Vegas How Luxury Is Turning Religious
    (pp. 239-268)

    Back in my room at the Luxor I tried to figure out what it was that I had seen at the Bellagio and the Venetian and what, if anything, it all had to do with the current flood of luxury for the masses. Clearly, whatever this glittering stuff was, it was attracting hoards of people. They wanted to be near it, to see themselves in it, and would spend time and money to have at it.

    Such an irony that glitz, on the surface at least, is made up of two of the first technoluxe products of the modern world:...

  13. Conclusion A (Mild) Defense of Luxury
    (pp. 269-288)

    Who but fools, toadies, and hacks have ever come to the defense of modern American luxury? No one, not even bulk consumers of the stuff, will ever really defend it. And why should they? The very idea that what we have defines who we are is repulsive to many of us. The irrationality of overvaluing certain rocks, fabrics, logos, textures, wines, bottles, appliances, nameplates, tassels, zip codes, T-shirts, monograms, hotel rooms, purses, and the like is insulting to our intellect. At one level this kind of luxury is indefensible. The “good life” seems so blatantly unnecessary, even evil, especially when...

  14. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 289-298)
  15. Index
    (pp. 299-310)