The history of luxury is the history of civilization and human society. It tells the story of the rise of human wealth, appreciation toward extraordinary and collective indulgence.
The first remnants of luxury as a social phenomenon leave traces in palaeolithic period. In this era of first human societies (2.5 million years ago to 10.000 B.C.) luxury was exclusively perceived as a collective spiritual concept. It had a rather nonmaterialistic and spiritual form. This is the origin of character of Luxury as something not ordinary, but godlike, unusual, and special. The first societies practiced luxury through certain ceremonies and ceremonial exchange such as collective invocation of deities, prayers and singing.
However, with the rise of first civilizations including Mayas, Aztecs, Mesopotamians and early Chinese, the concept of luxury gains its materialistic form. Thanks to the invention and use of writing we know a lot about these societies, their life dynamics and interpretation of luxury. Early civilizations showed their power and wealth through owning massive palaces, sculptures, ornaments, gold, precious jewellery, and clothes. Early civilization lived according to the belief that afterlife exists and that it should be continued in the same style as the one before. Hence, wealthy people that wanted to continue their lavish lifestyle in afterlife, put jewellery, horses, ships, weapons, and similar luxurious objects inside the graves. Thanks to this cultural phenomenon, luxury was closely connected to afterlife and funeral.
Ancient Egypt has one of the most spectacular luxurious cultures which was built on a hierarchical and stable society with detailed rules for living. Egyptian luxury included great pomp and luxury during life and luxury during the afterlife, too. Luxury during life was expressed with lavish houses, use of gold, clothes, and use of perfumes which only Pharaoh, his wife, aristocrats, and High Priest could use. Egyptians practiced luxury devotedly, so they even invented glass to protect perfumes. The mummification process and afterlife included more luxury than in life because old Egyptians believed that they would live forever with objects they are buried with. The richest Egyptians even mummified their cats, which they adored and respected as home pets. Extravagance could be seen in ornamented walls, carriages, clothes, food, gold, jewellery, coffin, furniture, and all other items put into tombs.
The era of the Antic world, including Ancient Greece and ancient Rome, gave rise to a new perception of luxury as vicious and harmful to the general society given that it causes bad habits. Apparently, luxury and luxurious lifestyle were perceived by many as something vicious and dangerous for a development of a good character, excellence, and courage in Man (Virtus). In Ancient Rome the dispute between luxury advocates and luxury critics escalated significantly. One part of the society supported austere and virtue-oriented Republic of Rome, whilst others advocated the idea of grand, sophisticated, and abundant in elegance Republic and society. The dispute even led to a civil war.
Luxury in Medieval times was reserved for royal families, nobility, and the Church. Nobility practiced luxury by using rare materials from the East for their clothing, enjoying leisure activities which included hunting and entertainment by the court. Furthermore, food made by professional cooks who used rare spices was also considered a luxury, too. The Church played a significant role in Luxury consumption by using lavish and gold materials for ornamenting the objects and priests closed. This way the Church showed its power and dominance. The Renaissance period lasted from 15 to the 16th century and truly represented an era of knowledge, art, education, and cultural revival. Opulent people invested in art, hence art in this period is equated with luxury. When a rich man (Patron) commissioned an artist to make a painting, sculpture, building, or another piece of art, it symbolized the patron’s erudition, enlightenment, taste, and wealth. The most known erudite artist in Renaissance were Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Caravaggio, Titian etc.The Baroque period was a time of extravagance, exaggeration, drama, abundance, and exuberance in sculpture, painting, music, architecture, literature, fashion, and lifestyle. Luxury was shown generously often and everywhere. It was a symbol of life, power, and potency. The most luxurious city was Paris which was the headquarters of silk, diamonds, and paint setting trends all over Europe.
Enlightenment was a cultural movement in Europe during the late 17th and 18th century, which celebrated ideas of science, nature, God, humanity, and reason. The ultimate aims of the Enlightenment were freedom, happiness, and knowledge. The Age of Enlightenment brought the French and American revolutions and the fall of the French monarchy, which significantly impacted luxury on an economic and philosophical level. Philosophers and economists praised the free-market economy and many of them applauded luxury, considering that the pursuit of luxurious commodities benefits the individual, the society, and the overall economy. The loudest advocate of Luxury as an Economical Benefactor was David Hume, who explained his ideas in his essay ‘Of Luxury’. However, Hume made a difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ luxury, referring to ‘refinement of arts’ as good and ‘vicious luxury’ as bad. He opted a balance between the two and believed that there can be virtuous, moral, and right-minded society consuming luxury.
General democratization at the beginning of the 20th century made luxury accessible to all since huge number of individuals had financial means to afford luxury thanks to industrialization and the rise in living standards. Female emancipation during the late 19th and 20th centuries contributed to the democratization of luxury as well. However, luxury had still been reserved for the small elite since most people lived in underdeveloped economies. According to Kapferer and Bastien, there are three drivers of luxury in the 20th century. These are increased purchase power, democratization, and globalization. During the 20th-century people gained more purchase power and means, luxury, therefore, became accessible to greater circles of society and consequently, new markets were open. These 20th-century phenomenon are the basis for the 21st-century luxury scene. Paris was still the capital of luxury and upper style, but also the capital of knowledge and free public opinion. The very end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century was a birth time of fashion brands and houses such as Christian Dior, Chanel, Balenciaga, Hermes, Loewe, Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Lanvin and Prada. All of them brought unprecedented new ideas of fashion, luxury, and women’s bodies. For example, Gabriele Chanel advocated simple luxury with her independent and powerful image of a woman. Jeanne Lanvin and Christian Dior, on contrary, advocated feminine and elegant women. Yves Saint Laurent introduced women Tuxedo, and Louis Vuitton became a synonym for travel luggage and bags. These designers developed into very influential brands. The 20th century was a century of change and new philosophies. After World War One and World War Two, people started having different perceptions of the value of life and embraced hedonism. Likewise, women started working, being independent, and fighting for their rights. Since fashion had become more accessible to a wider number of people, a gap had appeared between haute couture and very cheap clothes. That is why Pret-a-porter appeared and made luxury accessible even more. Furthermore, luxury brands included entry-luxury products such as perfumes and accessories which contributed to luxury democratization. In the last decades of the 20th century, luxury started to operate on the globalized level, acquiring new markets.