Friday, August 19, 2005

And you give yourself away...

A sweet friend recently sent me a book, The Essence of Style by Joan DeJean, which details the rise of the fashion industry. The author, a French professor who specializes in the life and times of Louis XIV, asserts that the Sun King was almost solely responsible for originating concepts like elegance, style, marketing and brand recognition. He went about establishing France as the center of fashion and the luxury-goods trade by personal example, and he was effective because he made himself, his royal person, available to the public in an unprecedented way. It was Louis XIV who invited courtiers to his morning bathing and dressing routine - la toilette - turning a hitherto private ritual into an opportunity for voyeurism.

As the most powerful figure in society, Louis' personal tastes were of course influential; watching him bathe, perfume, powder, press and primp was the 17th century version of an infomercial. Of course his choices would be imitated by all who desired to align themselves with him, whether to seek favor or to influence others in turn. Louis made sure to promote only French goods, featuring domestic products throughout the decor of Versailles as well as on his personal dressing table. His was no dilettante interest in personal adornment; he aimed to secure France's position in the world economy, and he did so shrewdly and ably using the tools at his disposal.

Which brings me to a more modern context. i frequent a message board whose members are interested in fragrance; discussion there most often revolves around new releases, and lately i've noticed how many of those are "celebrity" releases. Why would anyone think that rappers, pop singers, actresses and athletes know a thing about fragrance? Ah, but they don't have to - their attractiveness, their image, is enough to make people, unsatisfied with their mundane lives, shell out for some vicarious glamour.

What is sad about this phenomenon is who we are choosing to emulate these days. Would an Eau de Albert Schweitzer sell as much as "Boston Rob" Mariano's Foreman? Jane Goodall Curious sounds more appealing to me than anything Britney Spears might interested in. We give celebrities their power; are they worthy? Cultural anthropologist Rene Girard calls this phenomenon mimetic desire - he posits that we don't even know what we want until we see what others have. Louis XIV understood this process intuitively and used it well in the service of strengthening his country's economy. To what end is it being played out today? The more we are exposed to marketing, the more we make comparisons, leading to almost constant dissatisfaction. Are we even aware of how we are being manipulated?

How do we learn to want what we have?
How much of ourselves do we regain in the process?

9 Comments:

Blogger mireille said...

thank you for your kind comment ... I may be spare but you inspire interest ... off to find the book. And celebrity? I don't get it now. Maybe it's a function of age? As one becomes more solidified (calcified?)in one's own style, mimicking others' is less attractive, or even understandable. xoxo

7:40 PM  
Blogger Bela said...

Yes, dissatisfaction, contentment, giving, taking... it must be something in the air.

Great, thought-provoking post! It had to be a Frenchman, hadn't it? LOL!

9:07 PM  
Blogger katiedid said...

Great post D.

I too find the celebrity fragrance thing confusing... now, if the juice is good (Cumming) that is one thing, but all too frequently the juice for these is only a bland watering thing designed to not offend rather than to appeal. I think part of the success also lie in the fact that these celebrities get behind a product that doesn't "stink." It's not a good perfume, but by god they don't STINK.

9:19 PM  
Blogger red-queen said...

Ah, Katie - i wanted to comment on the fact that out of the perfumistas' Top 10 lists, only one celebrity frag (your 'Cumming') made the cut - that's one out of 130 picks. That may indicate just how mediocre most of them are - you're right, they may not actually *stink*, but they're nothing memorable, let alone immortal!

(i'm still not entirely sure you didn't put it on the list just to be contrary - not that i in any way doubt your taste, but you *are* often quite contrary, aren't you? C'mon, 'fess up - is it really that good? :>)

10:09 PM  
Blogger Tan Lucy Pez said...

Interesting post. Actually I would never think to buy a fragrance because of the person's name that was attached. Nor clothes.

I do try the Paul Newman food products, but NOT because of any reason other than I know it helps a charity.

6:58 PM  
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7:53 PM  
Blogger katiedid said...

It really is that good, but then, it really speaks to me personally as someone who's lived in the Pacific Northwest for quite awhile now. Really, the wet earth note is very strong, and I can easily see how some folks are taken aback by it.

I wasn't being contrariwise at all, I promise. "...if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be: but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic."

:)

10:08 AM  

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