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The Commune of the Court: Uniting Socialites in Style

Studio of Court Painter Martin van Meytens: Maria Theresa awarding the Order of St Stephen, oil painting, 18th century; Courtesy of Bundesmobilienverwaltung

The enclaves of royal courts were epicenters of the luxury world. Initially serving as advisory bodies to absolutist monarchs, courts evolved into hubs of political power, cultural advancement, and artistic innovation. Every prominent aristocrat, scholar, and creative sought out courtier status, enticed by the prestige of the title and the lavish lifestyle it entailed. Starting out as functional institutions, courts flourished into communities uniting socialites in style. 

With a king’s political authority determined by the sumptuosity of his court, the pageantry of court life leaned upon luxury to exude a sense of grandeur.  The estates that housed courts were monumental in size and ornate in design, reflecting the king’s godly authority as the head of his court and empire.  Mannerist, Baroque, and Rococo art radiated from the palace walls, pronounced in emotion, extravagance, and detail. The days of courtiers were vibrant and varied, colored by multi-course feasts, concerts, masques, and athletic excursions.  Elaborate dress codes and standards of etiquette gave court life an air of elegance and sophistication, further elevating the formality of the institution. Luxury permeated every corner of the court scene, serving courtiers opulence and ostentation.  The pleasurable, lavish nature of court life was enticing to all yet strictly reserved for society’s most prominent elites. Communities of virtuosic socialites emerged from the allures of a premier luxury lifestyle, giving courts reputations as the exclusive, esteemed inner-circles of kings. 

A painting by Dirck Hals and Dirck van Delen shows elegant company in a Renaissance hall; Courtesy of Imagno/Getty Images

Luxury’s vital role in preserving courts' appeal and prestige was unintentionally self-serving, helping usher forth a cultural shift in on luxury.  During the Dark Ages, the notion of a luxury lifestyle was brutally condemned, with sumptuary laws enacted to prohibit indulgence in the sinful practice.  Yet the early modern era shined a gleaming light on this old way of thinking, showcasing luxury as a reflection of the beauties of life.   This antithetical outlook was propelled to new heights by kings desiring to cultivate an opulent court culture.  With their political images and authority being direct reflections of their courts’ reputations, kings sought out the finest goods to display in their collections and services to produce one-of-a-kind experiences. Floods of funds poured into luxury industries, stimulating substantial growth within each sector of the luxury world. Kings’ commissions became the most lucrative, desirable opportunities amongst businesses, prompting creatives to adamantly seek out the patronage of kings. Royal courts necessitated an expansion in the number of commissions issued by kings, making them paramount clients for luxury services. Beginning as a mutually-beneficial relationship, the ties between the court scene and luxury world evolved into an mutually-sustaining interdependence that enabled both parties to maintain social prominence.

Yet kings did not merely empower luxury industries to expand. They defined the way luxury was seen by the world. Court commissions developed around the personal predilections of kings, who had resolute visions for their courts.  The most prominent professionals within each luxury were entrusted with these commissions, being masters of their craft and trailblazers within their field. Spending the majority of their careers serving the kings, these creatives formulated renown reputations and launched industry-shattering movements by creating works that adhered to kings’ distinctive tastes and demands. Being lauded and idolized figures, the king’s patrons set the standards of top-tier luxury.  Using these creatives as their channels, kings inserted their distinctive tastes into the definition of luxury, directing innovation within the luxury world for centuries to come. 

Photograph of Château de Versailles, France; Courtesy of Michal Osmenda via Flickr

A prime example of this is the construction of the Palace of Versailles. The splendor of the palace is uncanny, adorned with the finest art in France. Constructed during the age of the Divine Right of Kings, Louis XIV saw this estate as an opportunity to display his godlike-status and unrivaled power. Enamored with the rationality of classical art and the ornamentation of the baroque style, Louis XIV commissioned custom pieces merging his favorite elements of each of the art movements.  In doing so, he paved the way for the birth of French Classicism, a style of art rooted in order, ornamentation, and intelligibility, and perfectionism. Catalyzing an artistic movement helped Louis XIV launch France into its Golden Age, as through the propulsion of his artistic vision, he set the highest standard of luxury art in the country’s history. 

With kings steering the trajectory of luxury, there was no place for the voices of the common man.  At this point in history, luxury consumption was an aristocratic activity, with the rest of society being preoccupied with securing the household necessities. Requiring paying customers to sustain themselves, businesses devoted their operations to meeting the needs of the elites, leaving the rest of the society to serve as passive admirers of the finished products.  With the desires, ways of thinking, and lifestyles of the aristocracy factored into the production process, luxury stood as a reflection of the values and perspectives of society’s elite rather than of the whole of society. 

Photographers point their cameras at a model walking down the Burberry runway; Courtesy of Tim Ireland/Associated Press

Yet times have changed, and the sway of the elites is no longer what it once was. Courts are now institutions of the past, with the rise of democratization forcing these entities into extinction.  Modernization and urbanization impacted salaries and standards of living across the globe, enabling a robust middle class to emerge.  Nowadays, a larger fraction of society can afford to embrace a life of luxury, expanding and diversifying these industries’ clienteles.  The birth of social media and developments in advertising supplied luxury industries with the power to reach every individual in the world and profit from his or her engagement with content.  With new customer segments and revenue streams to take into consideration, luxury industries are now listening to the needs of the common man, unable to thrive without their input.  Power over the luxury world is no longer concentrated in the enclaves of the elites.  Having a larger audience to appease, the definition of luxury must serve the needs of society and power in the modern age. 

Luxury holds a new role in today’s world than it did in the times of the kings court. While luxury still stands to be exclusive to purchase, it is no longer exclusive to access. Extreme wealth is no longer needed to engage with luxury - interest is the only requirement. With the click of a button granting access to the luxury world, a vast international community of luxury enthusiasts has arisen out of the elitist inner-circles of the past.  During a time when the world is more polarized than ever, luxury is an instrument of unity. Through the democratization of luxury, a new commune has emerged, bringing people together to rejoice in the beauty luxury bestows onto the world. 

By: Sophie Tazerouni


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