Fat-sorrow is not the sigh you heave after squinting at the scale. That is fat-angst, a feeling I alternately try to befriend or banish. Fat-sorrow springs from a different sort of abundance. Defined as “sorrow alleviated by riches,” it comes from an old Spanish adage, “Fat sorrow is better than lean sorrow.” Which we know as “better to be rich than poor.” Which translates, in our image-driven world, into “better to look rich, act rich, seem rich.”
Weirdly, that is more possible than you would think. At least in patches. You may not have the lifestyle, the ease, or the hired help, but you can have a Gucci purse and carry it conspicuously. Like a tawny housecat, you can ink on a few black spots and pretend you are a leopard.
And so we do.
Millennials, the marketers report, are the new anchor of the luxury market. What? The generation cheated of parental inheritance and saddled with student loans? The ones who, after years of working, cannot even afford to buy a house?
Exactly so. They cannot afford a house, so they stay at home with their parents and use the disposable income to buy three-digit bags instead. (The same logic has people buying lottery tickets because they cannot afford to pay their utility bill.) Half of all luxury purchases are made by people between their mid-twenties and their early forties.
This comes as a blow. I was so proud of Millennials for wanting experiences instead of stuff. Their shift of emphasis seemed revelatory. I grew up scared to buy concert tickets because they were so pricey, yet willing to save up for “good” clothes that, my mother assured me, would “last forever.” Those pieces have been looking back at me from their hangers for thirty years now, and I am so bored with them, I hope for some irreparable stain or rip. Trends shift faster and faster to hold our attention, and in doing so, they shorten its span.
Not only are Millennials the market anchor, but Gen Z make a full 20 percent of all luxury purchases. That means they command almost as large a share of the market as everyone from their mid-forties to their nineties. By 2035, Gen Z is “set to account for 40 percent of the global personal luxury goods market.”
Granted, they want their purchases to be ethical and sustainable. But the luxury definition of ethical and sustainable is not minimalism, re-use, or making do. It is buying something you are told is ethical and sustainable.
At their age, my goal was to be living in my own place, and my luxury was new hardback books. (I also walked three miles to school in the snow.) Nobody was on TikTok showing me how to buy “the cheapest thing at Chanel.” The allure of that Le Recourbe Cils De Chanel eyelash curler, which looks an awful lot like a $4 one? First, the “luxury packaging”: a sturdy box stamped with that timeless logo. If you buy mascara too, you get “a fresh red Chanel pouch,” faux velvet, that you will save even though you will never figure out another use for it. But wait, that is not the only inducement. You also receive tiny sample tubes of skincare products that will glide on and make you feel pampered precisely three times, before the cock crows and it dawns on you that the full size costs a week of groceries. Nonetheless, that eyelash curler has given you exactly what you wanted: an ephemeral “moment of luxury that costs less than $50.”
I try to imagine a peddler approaching a woman in the still-wild West, offering her a tiny tube of some magical potion. She, too, might buy—but that potion would have to make a different promise, ease her nerves or soothe her baby’s rash. Promised a “moment of luxury” instead, she would snort and shoo him on his way.
We, on the other hand, have been carefully taught to see extravagances as needs. Commercials urge us to indulge ourselves. Friends enthuse about knockoffs that are nearly indistinguishable from some golden brand-name It.
Told that zara.com had an almost perfect replica of the $300 Baccarat Rouge eau de parfum for $35, I dabbed on the real thing and inhaled my own wrist for hours, transported. The next day, I ordered its ersatz substitute. As soon as it arrived, I doused myself in it, and for the first eight minutes, I smelled almost as nice as I had with Baccarat Rouge. Then, fast as a genie re-entering his bottle, the miracle vanished, and all I could smell was my own skin.
Lured by the knockoff, I now want the real thing.
Luxurious tastes and products used to be in-group knowledge, tacit for a certain class and alien to the rest of us, who admired the result from afar. For once, though, greed facilitated democracy. Companies realized that by broadening their advertising and their target market, they could trade exclusivity for aspirational cachet. Luxury was redefined not as birthright but as empowerment. And now everybody wants a piece of it.
That sounds like a fairly sudden, contemporary shift, but the slippage began long ago. “It is really melancholy to see how this fever of extravagance rages,” Lydia Child wrote in 1830, “and how it is sapping the strength of our happy country.” A country that was made for promises, for limitlessness, for the expectation of constant growth and the illusion of classlessness. Still, reality kept appetite in check: certain pleasures were only to be had by the rich. Luxury matched its dictionary definition: “the state of great comfort and extravagant living.”
Now, guided by social media, ads, fashion magazines, and influencers, we grab at the tiniest extravagance. Blow twenty bucks on Chanel’s cheapest luxury, and you will receive Le Coton: 100 pieces of cotton to smear off your makeup. Of course, you will have to throw those fine-spun squares away afterward. This is not the purchase pattern of serene, old-style luxury, which was intrigued by art and antiques with heart-stopping prices that would remain in The Family for generations. This is the new luxury: fleeting, deliberately temporary, and barely satisfying crumbs, designed to make you want—no, need—more and more.
Epicurus warned of this sort of desire, describing it as a limitless craving for what is both “unnatural and unnecessary.” Philosopher Emily Austin, author of Living for Pleasure: An Epicurean Guide to Life, gives it a new label: “corrosive desire.” It is, in other words, insatiable, and the very opposite of comfort.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.