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Luxury in Crisis

In the run up to Christmas this year with sales galore and Black Friday on the horizon, The Times magazine Times published an article that has stayed in my head for the past month. Published on Thursday the 15th of December and titled ‘Yes, I live with my parents – but I still buy designer handbags’, it presents the perspectives of two under-30s who choose not to move into their own housing and instead spend ‘rent money’ on luxury goods. Among the high fashion named brands are Prada and Vivienne Westwood, with some items costing thousands of pounds. The £200 Ganni cardigan seems thrifty in comparison with the £1,200 Moncler coat and £2,300 Celine bag. Gowns, cashmere, jewellery – living at home has never sounded so expensive.

Despite how it initially looks, I can’t condemn either of the writers. What on the surface appears to be fiscal irresponsibility and the prioritisation of luxury over practicality, soon develops a far more tragic undercurrent; these young adults spend their hard-earned money on designer clothing and accessories because regardless of whether they purchase luxuries or live frugally, they are nevertheless unable to afford to move out of their childhood home. No amount of scrimping and saving will be able to grant them a path towards independence in the way that it did for their parents’ generation – so why not indulge? After all, the writers – whose names have been changed in the article – defend their choice to “shop sustainably, buying from brands that are pricier but guarantee that their pieces are ethically made”, and purchase “long-term sustainable, timeless pieces” instead of cheaply-made and rapidly discarded fast fashion items. Without rent or household bills to pay, it’s an attractive, even admirable option. 

The article describes expensive clothing as a “perk” of living at home, justifying that “in this climate you can’t let the perks pass you by.” But is that all it is? The writers both brought up environmental responsibility so I feel obligated to widen the conversation a little and wonder whether it is a financial privilege to have so much disposable income, despite the sad situation that has allowed it, or a sad sign of the times that symbols of success can only be purchased because actual housing security is so far out of reach. There is a much larger conversation to be had about the ethics of designer clothing and accessories in comparison to more affordable yet less durable options, but that is not the reason that this article has stayed with me into the new Hilary term. Instead, I am fascinated by how at odds the Times article appears to be with the views of the (Facebook-using) Oxford student body.

I present Exhibit A, Oxfess #19006 (published on Tuesday 13th of December 2022): “To those girls who wear £300/£400 fashion items around Oxford, read the room. The constant flow of Y2K Coach bags, D&G clothes, Burberry scarves, Vivienne necklaces etc shows a lack of understanding that most of us have to work for our money especially in this economy. Oh, and don’t justify with the ‘it’s a special piece’ or the ‘I earned it from my summer job/internship’ – you could only afford it because the rest of your life is fully funded for you by mummy/daddy. Please, please, wake up to most peoples’ reality as we struggle this Christmas.” Although the comments section (at the time of writing) remains overwhelming hostile towards this view – with responses such as “So long as these individuals do not mention their expensive items, I see no bad behaviour”, “DRIP IS NOW ILLEGAL”, and simply “What a stupid, stupid take.” – it seems that the Oxfess-following student body generally seems to agree with the original poster that it is irresponsible and insulting to flaunt designer goods in this current economic climate. Of the 72 reactions on the Facebook post, 48 are likes, 21 are laughing emojis, and the rest are shocked (3), crying (1), or angry (1). The consensus seems clear: in this economy, overt displays of wealth are inexcusable.

Of course, the circumstances are far from identical between the writers of the Times article and those referred to in the Oxfess post. At Oxford, there is only a very slim possibility of avoiding battels. Living at home is rarely an option considering that colleges commonly insist on first-year students using campus accommodation and very few students have family in Oxford. Everyone pays tuition fees and battels. To be able to purchase high-cost luxury goods on top of that implies a high level of financial privilege. It simply isn’t fair and I’m not surprised that so many people are angered by the overt display of expendable cash during a period of such economic inequality.

However, I wonder whether this will remain the attitude as we enter the same situation as the writers of the Time article. When confronted with an impenetrable housing market, will the same students who condemned buyers of luxury goods manage to retain their principles? It’s a difficult thing to abstain from glamour when there is little else to be happy about. Maybe the inconsiderate flaunting of luxury goods will slowly start to make sense. Or maybe it was never anyone’s responsibility to hide their wealth for the sake of others’ comfort in the first place. Honestly, I’m still making my mind up about it all. What I know for certain is that, even facing graduation this year with an English degree and a recession on the horizon, I don’t think I’m ready to give up on any hope of someday finding my own housing and instead resort to splashing out on designer items. But I still find it hard to judge those who do. Although I know it’s a slightly ridiculous comparison, I can’t stop myself from reading the words “If we are forgoing our independence, we may as well look good while doing it” and picturing the Titanic’s orchestra playing on even as it sank. The future looks bleak – but that’s no reason not to make the present a little less unbearable.

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