Decadence: the alternative luxuries in a schoolgirl’s repertoire

Photo by Ian Holloway

I woke up a few mornings ago and lay listless in bed, watching the minutes in which I could have picked out my fabulous outfit tick by. I was lacking inspiration to move, to dress, to commence activity. And then I had a revelation: that luxuriating, apathetic, aged feeling in my bones was a style, and I knew a million ways to realize it. I could be late to class, I could even lie in bed all day and miss class; I could trail around campus in my robe, I could gorge myself on bread and dairy products or passively deny anything but watery broth. Lying in bed wasn’t an absence or a lack, but an excess of, shall we call it, luxury, or decadence.

This particular moment of decadence, and all the potential it held for other moments, is a choice for me as a particular type of privileged individual — I have the privilege of choosing extremity in my eating habits or dressing habits or work habits, because those choices aren’t thrust upon me. In fact, this is a mild example of the privileged realm of what we generally consider decadent: that which is unnecessary, inaccessible and ultimately absurd.

When we think of decadence, it’s fair to say that we often think of the fabulously frothy, ornate objects of beauty that we covet from afar because they are too damn expensive — those objects might be state of the art speakers, or a jacket off the Lanvin runway, or strings and strings of precious jewels. What is appealing about all of those beautiful objects is the fact that they are extreme in their preciousness — both in terms of the value we attribute to them and in terms of the value the market attributes to them. What makes them decadent, I think, is simply the idea of extremity embedded in them and the discrepancy between their real unnecessary-ness and our desire to posses them. To purchase such a thing would be outrageous; it would be beyond the pale, it would be truly shocking. And what’s more fun than that?

But the fact I contemplated as I lay in bed was the actual accessibility of decadence to me, in the scenarios I was imagining, and perhaps to everyone, in a broader sense, when reconceptualized as possibly present in everyday objects and, especially, actions. The fun of purchasing an expensive, decadent object is in the feelings it elicits. Actions executed with a particular attitude of reckless nonchalance serve to elicit the same feelings.

I can’t really say I advocate skipping class to gaze at your ceiling or gorging yourself on cheese as cheap alternatives to the thrill of that Miu Miu bag, or even that those are decadent actions accessible to anyone. But what does intrigue me here is the convoluted logic that often drives our desires for possession when it comes to curating style.

No single object, no matter how perfect it is for your look or your self-conception as an aesthetic being, is the only way to achieve the feeling or effect you are searching for. Money, put simply, is not the answer. Of course it’s easy to achieve those things with a wad of cash, because possession of the desired object does provide a quick and easy fix for the logics driving that desire (even if it remains an impermanent fix). But when we pause to examine the actual goal of the object — why it speaks to your look, to your image, to your tangled strands of desire — there are often alternative ways of satisfying it. I don’t mean a cheaper speaker with decent Amazon reviews instead of your coveted soundsystem, a knockoff purse from Canal street instead of the Pucci original, or a pair of Adidas instead of Gucci sneakers (although all of these things have potential to satisfy certain practical as well as aesthetic needs). I mean a slow talk in a coffee shop with the cute barista, a drop of essential oil beneath your nose, or a slice of sugary cake. These are little treats that feel luxurious, if not outright decadent; they might feel stolen or secret or delicately precious, rebellious or risky or thrilling. They belong to you because you decide, consciously and perhaps spontaneously, to take them for yourself. They are about you.

And there you have it: no matter how you satisfy your desire or what exactly that desire is, your response to it is about your own needs and pleasure. Who doesn’t need a little bit of that in this great old palace of learning? Someone’s watching us from the panopticon in Kberg, they say; we might as well give them something to watch.

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