CALL IT DIVERSION OR DISEASE, THE LURE OF EXCESS IS AS IRRESISTIBLE AS EVER.
Byline: Jessica Kerwin
The question is classic: Can you have too much of a good thing? At its most joyous, fashion has always answered that query with an unfaltering “No!”
Consider Christian Dior’s full-skirted revolution, Paco Rabane’s space cadets, Lilly Pulitzer’s electric Palm Beach florals, Nolan Miller’s sequined Eighties moment, Lacroix’s poufed-out bravado, Dolce & Gabbana’s revved-up sex kittens, John Galliano’s haute hobos or this season’s fascination with Jacqueline Susann. Off the runway, of course, these looks pose a certain danger. In the wrong hands, opulent can go the way of dowdy fast, while certain trends like logomania ride the crest of the industry’s infatuation with excess, but leave plenty of fashion victims in their wake.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, early definitions of excess suggest not the daffy indulgence that the word sometimes implies today, or even a national budget surplus, but illegal maneuvers, prodigal waste, intemperance, indecency, immorality and rebellion. But then, the word decadence stems from decay. And the word luxury itself connotes something only slightly more acceptable: abundance and sumptuous enjoyment.
Americans have always loved rebels and rebellion alike — from the Boston Tea Party to John Wayne to Courtney Love — and have had a special regard for rebels of the prodigal sort. Elvis scandalously and excessively wiggled his hips, suited up in a spangled jumpsuit, then rode off in a Cadillac DeVille painted with real gold dust emulsion and done up with real gold fittings inside. Puffy and Lil’ Kim have scored points on the social circuit for their outrageous extravagance. And loony millionaires have always been a fascination, from Scrooge McDuck, Donald’s rich uncle who would dive into and backstroke through his piles of dough, to Howard Hughes, who was excessive in everything, including personal hygiene.
Sure, there are those who go over the line and get themselves into trouble: gluttonous Augustus Gloop, who drowned in a river of fudge at Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory, or Violet Beauregard, who chewed gum ’til she turned blue — not to mention the Marquis de Sade. But the extreme serves another group quite well, as a counterpoint to all that’s in good taste. Would Jackie O, C.Z. Guest or Gwyneth have made the same impact without such foils as Ivana Trump, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Liz Taylor and Imelda Marcos?
Beyond national amusement, however, the infamous Marcos shoe collection brings one of the more serious issues of conspicuous consumption to the fore. Psychiatrist Donald Black, an expert in obsessive-compulsive disorders at the University of Iowa College of Medicine, treats compulsive shoppers with Luvox and other serotonin boosters, to reduce their impulsiveness.
“A lot of my patients are fashion conscious, but some just like to buy things,” Black says. “They have low levels of self-esteem, and although they might feel empowered through buying, they have buyer’s remorse afterward, and their self-esteem falls further.”
“The economy has boomed over the past few years,” he continues, “and in some people, that might fuel compulsive consumption. But it’s a myth that this disorder affects only wealthy people. It can occur at any income level, and quite of few of my patients have ruined marriages and been through bankruptcies.”
While a compulsive-shopping disorder might seem like a relatively modern ailment, the temptations of luxury have been leading people astray for a long time. According to Saint-Simon, the protosociologist, after Louis XIV announced at the turn of the 18th century that he hoped the marriage of his grandson would be an especially magnificent one, local shopkeepers could barely supply courtiers with enough gold and silver. “The shops of merchants sold out in a very few days,” Saint-Simon notes. “Things came to such a pass that the King regretted that he had allowed all this and said that he had not realized that there were husbands so foolish as to ruin themselves on account of the dress of their women.”
That folly continues to thrive, according to Robert Frank, a professor of economics at Cornell University’s Johnson School of Management and author of “Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess.”
“Based on practical considerations and not on any kind of moral judgments, what’s at issue in spending is that people are trying to make a statement of some sort,” Frank explains. “If you’re looking for a job, you want to be fashionably dressed. You want to make a good first impression. In that setting, it’s not what you spend in any absolute terms, but how what you wear compares to what other people wear, that matters.”
Frank maintains that if, instead of spending $1,000 on a custom-tailored suit, everyone spent half as much, then they could all put the rest of the cash in savings or to what Frank would consider better use. If only one person cuts back, however, that person would risk not being hired, he says.
Along those lines, Frank proposes a tax on the amount of money each person spends every year, to encourage saving. “Then, it might not be so painful,” he says, “since everyone would have the same incentive to cut back.”
Could such a tax curtail a tradition like that of keeping up with the Joneses, who have reigned since the Sun King? It’s hard to imagine the big spenders of Hollywood falling for such a ploy.
“It’s just crazy in Los Angeles,” says style icon Lisa Eisner. “People in Los Angeles never have enough. There’s the G3 and then there’s the G4. There’s always something. You only have two houses and not four. You only have a Cessna and not a jet. A boat, a plane, four houses — in L.A., it’s never enough.”
Of course, the allure of luxury hasn’t been lost on many marketing agents. Some of them call it the “departure purchase” and others the Diderot Effect. In 1772, Denis Diderot, the French writer whom many consider the father of the Enlightenment, penned “Regrets on Parting With My Old Dressing Gown.” The essay describes the tumultuous events that came to pass after a friend gave him a new scarlet dressing gown to replace his heavy old black one. In this new robe, Diderot felt absolutely regal. He couldn’t be bothered by the “insouciance of the valet,” and his spirits soared like someone in love. The new look grew on the scholar; but much to his dismay, everything in his study started to seem a bit shabby by comparison.
Before he knew what had hit him, Diderot exchanged his straw chair for a Moroccan armchair, a simple wooden table for a new desk and the plank that served as a bookshelf for an ornate armoire. And it didn’t stop there. He bought a mirror to hang over the mantle and a statuette of a crouching Venus, before realizing that, once fashion’s pendulum swung, he’d have to start over again. Luvox, anyone?
Diderot wasn’t the only Frenchman spinning marketing lore in those days. Around the time that Diderot was lamenting the anxieties of luxury, the Marquis de Lessert was wandering through the French Alps and found himself in the garden of Monsieur Cachat. Now, Cachat had very fine water in his garden, which he offered to the marquis. It was so fine, in fact, that it helped the marquis pass a kidney stone, or so the story goes. When he returned home, the marquis spoke glowingly of these experiences at Evian, and the word spread.
“People went to take the waters,” says Michael Neuwirth, Evian’s corporate communications director, “and the kind of people who could afford to do this could afford to take time off from their everyday lives to travel to remote locations.” In the 1860s, the French government gave Monsieur Cachat permission to bottle the water; with the introduction of railroads, Evian became better known.
When drinking bottled water became fashionable in the U.S. in the mid-Eighties — due, some say, to the fitness boom — this lingering glow of leisure and luxury stuck. To a kid growing up in the Midwest, Perrier seemed like something one had to be 21 to drink, something mysterious and chic. One episode of “Miami Vice” drove the idea home in a particularly overblown fashion: a girl in a bikini lounging poolside throws her T-shirt into a glass bowl, then pours two bottles of iced Perrier water over it before putting it on to cool down. Call it product placement in the Era of Excess.
But were the Eighties really as excessive as they’ve been built up to be? Not when you compare that “Miami Vice” moment with more recent reports that Jerry Seinfeld and Jessica Sklar plan to have an Evian shower installed in their new Hamptons palace.
“We’re in the bottled-water business and not in the home-plumbing business,” says Neuwirth. “With that said, we’re very flattered to hear that somebody would hold the natural purity of our product in such high esteem.”
According to Kant, no one can make universal assumptions about aesthetics or taste, so if you think an Evian shower is tacky, well, as my grandmother would say, “to each his own.” Hume, on the other hand, refuted Kant’s theories. According to Blackwell’s “Companion to Aesthetics,” Hume argued that judgments of taste can be made objectively. By his lights, “good taste is that which, over time and across cultures, coincides with the taste of the most competent judges.” One could safely say, for example, that the Grand Canal in Venice is more beautiful than the Manchester Ship Canal.
But there’s a modern angle that Hume couldn’t have imagined at the time. Even though it boasts a scale model of the Doge’s Palace, a 315-foot Campanile bell tower, a mini Lake Como, singing gondoliers and fake Tintorettos painted on its ceiling, one wonders what Hume would make of the 3,036-room Venetian Resort in Las Vegas. Meet me in Manchester.