The only thing I cannot live without… is luxury, an old landlady of mine was fond of proclaiming, proud of her little oxymoron. For luxury, to most of us, is exactly what we can live without. Luxury suggests fripperies and flamboyance and unnecessary comfort. I think about her smug quote when I think about the occasional media attempts to identify items of affordable luxury, and remember her drunkenly staggering down the stairs to take out the garbage in her complicated designer outfits and couture heels, all dressed up and nowhere to go except back to the nicotine-stained walls of her once-palatial apartment…nowhere to go except down.
To me, that is not luxury, affordable or otherwise: the fact that the inexorable grip of despair is lined with velvet (or monkey fur, as I understood one of her coats to be in) is no saving grace. I wish all of us can realize someday that luxury is not things. But what is it? My working definition of luxury, expressed long ago as “to do well that which does not need to be done at all,” may be changing. If luxury can have any positive connotation, and not simply be a branding term for garbage books and money-grubbing luxury conglomerates, it is elusive. Perhaps most broadly, luxury is what we cannot have right now: at some points in our lives, money, security or time. Currently, my principal idea of luxury is peace of mind – the ability to take things for granted without having to second-guess every element of them.
No, luxury is not things, although for many of us, including your correspondent, the experience of ordering, the long period of waiting, and the final receipt of something long-dreamed-of can be a luxury. We can find luxury in experiencing what in some way makes our lives better – easier, more brilliant or more comforting.
I don’t equate affordable luxury with recommending fetish objects whose price tags are in three figures instead of four or five figures, as the fashion magazines and their commercial heirs, the bloggerblaggers, like to do. Nor do I think luxury can be learned, forcing knowledge or received wisdom on yourself to acquire something that might garner the respect of your e-friends, as I learned in the deflationary aftermath of getting, say, cordovan shoes or a fresco cloth suit, items whose wonders had to be learned, rather than directly experienced. And knowledge, too much knowledge, can lead to the overanalysis that bedevils all fetishists, and the occasional realization that a pleasure you took for granted is not what you thought it was.
While I won’t go as far as Tyler Brûlé’s old wallpaper* magazine did long ago and laud the wonders of a simple cold glass of water, I can recognize that there is something elemental in the recognition of true luxury, something that can hit over and over again like the repeated uniqueness of the intensity of the flavor of a piece of fruit or a good cup of coffee. That experience, and the time and ability to appreciate it on an uncomplicated, visceral level, is luxury to me.
After the preceding series of negatives, what are some affordable luxuries? The most basic and perhaps trite answer is time with loved ones, to remember why you love them, or why they drive you up the wall. More to the point of this blog, though, if an experience like a massage (not the Isle kind) is too indulgent, try a good wet shave from a barber, for anything from $15 to more than $50, to get a shave closer than anything you can do on your own, by someone who’s better qualified to handle a straight razor (unless you’re, like, an enforcer for the Union Corse or something). On your own, of course, there’s a pleasantness to shaving with a traditional shaving cream, which in my experience is gentler on the skin than the modern creams and gels I’ve used.
Even if you carefully pretreat and wash them in the prescribed manner, have someone else iron your linen handkerchieves, which feel cool to the touch, sit crisply in the pocket and can actually serve to mop your brow on a hot day. Lastly, sized socks re another suggestion. They’re pretty rare most places outside A Suitable Webstore, but why shouldn’t socks be precisely sized when shoes are? You can certainly do without them, but it’s a mitzvah to avoid the frustration of sock heels that ride up the back of your leg, or sock that are so snug your toes pop them – a small and dispensable mercy to have something that simply fits you and your life.