The illusion of luxury and prestige

I am always excited by airports. They are full of people heading off to exotic places. Travelling, for me, is a great luxury which is reinforced by the atmosphere in the terminals. Images of beautiful people stare sultrily from posters enticing us to buy perfume, jewellery, and clothing. They come from the world’s biggest prestige or luxury brands: Armani, Versace, Hermes, Gucci, Chanel, Moet & Chandon, Rolex (I would prefer a Brietling watch, shown), BMW, Audi, Cartier. People are in the mood to shop. There are mountains of shiny glimmering goods to buy at the duty-free outlets.

Are luxury brands better?

There is no doubt that the luxury brands are better quality than many of the mass-market brands. But it is not the main reason we buy them. We also pay a premium price for the brands because of the feeling of success and sense of worth that they give us. A lot of this brand desire is illusory. It is the result of clever marketing and brand management. They convince us that owning the goods will enhance our status or sense of self-worth.

Is prestige an illusion?

The illusion of prestige is reflected in the history of the word itself. The adjective, prestigious, has been in English since the 1540s, and first meant practising illusion or magic or being deceptive. It came from Latin praestigious, meaning full of tricks. It is thought to have two parents, praestigiae meaning juggler’s tricks and praestringere meaning to blind, blindfold, or dazzle or to tie up.

Prestige, therefore, is a word that evolved from something that was a trick, something that dazzled but was really only an illusion. For hundreds of years prestige had a negative meaning: it was an illusion of success, of well-being, of success. However, about a hundred years ago, perhaps as mass consumerism started to take hold (and now has evolved into the phenomenon of conspicuous consumption), prestige shifted to its current meaning of providing influence, distinction or enhanced reputation. Prestige gives a person or object cachet, status or increased value.

Luxury is extravagance

Where the word prestige has had a history of deceit and illusion, luxury is even worse. It was initially, in 14th Middle English, a word used for sexual intercourse and for lasciviousness and sinful self-indulgence. It had come via Old French from Latin luxuria meaning excess and extravagance. However, by the 17th century, luxury had lost most of its negative meaning and taken on much of the modern sense of indulgence in and enjoyment of rich, comfortable, and sumptuous living. A luxury is something that is considered an indulgence rather than a necessity although, there can still be a lingering hint of excessiveness.

Prestige and luxury are not that fine

The meanings of words can be much more subtle than we think and prestige and luxury are wonderful examples of this. We use them to talk about the finer things in life but embedded in their meanings is the rememembrance that prestige and luxury are excessive and illusionary.