Historical and Contemporary Issues in Luxury


During the Second French Empire, new changes were encountered in the leading cities across the country such as Paris. Most of these cities became centers for commerce, the arts and even fashion. Before the period, fashion was seen as a preserve for the nobility. However, Napoleon’s era led to new changes whereby more craftsmen and artists began to produce luxury goods for more people. New ideas emerged to redefine the manner in which people interacted and purchased a wide range of luxury goods. However, historians have been divided over the influence of various social transformations on different social functions such as consumerism, luxury, and class relations (Flaubert 1996). That being the case, the purpose of this critical essay is to analyze if (and how) the emergence of department stores during the second empire in France transformed social relations, meanings of luxury, and consumerism. The emerging issues in the field will also be presented to guide future researchers to explore how consumerism influenced social relations in the Second French Empire.

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Background Information

The Second French Empire is one of the widely analyzed periods in history since it emerged after one of the greatest upheavals known to mankind. The new era transformed the practices and lifestyles that had defined France before the infamous French Revolution. During this period, the bourgeoisie society developed new attributes that would eventually redefine the manner in which merchants and craftsmen lived together in many cities across the world. The wave of industrialisation experienced in Paris led to the proliferation of luxury goods. Such products were observed to target different members of the society (Hazareesingh 2015). Women were also included in the labor force. Many scholars and historians have been focusing on the manner in which different social classes lived side by side during the period. Consequently, the emerging social relations transformed the image of the nation.

Emergence of Department Stores

The first department store in Paris was known as Le Bon Marche and appeared in the year 1838. During the period, the modern store was observed to sell a wide range of products such as umbrellas, mattresses, ribbons and assorted consumer products (Flaubert 1996). In order to make the marketing process simpler, one of the coroners named Aristide Boucicaut designed an ingenuous approach to maximize sales. The new plan was characterized by fixed pricing, refunds and inclusion of a wide range of consumer goods. The concept of advertising gained a new meaning because of the roles played by such novelty shops. This department store created room for more shops across the country. The stores were redesigned in such a way that more customers could walk in and select their favourable products. The price of each product or item was displayed (Pinkley 2016). This made the shopping process much faster and simpler. The concept of promotion emerged during the time whereby customers were awarded depending on their expenditures. Price deductions were also considered by different stores.

The department store concept is believed to be a historic achievement that redefined the bourgeoisie society for the better. The department store was a new symbol of unity in Paris. This was something new in France. This was the case because the first empire was characterised by deeply-rooted class divisions. With the customers being allowed to visit their favorite shops and department stores, it would be easier to purchase different products. As more craftsmen came into the city, a wide range of products and goods would be made available to the targeted customers (Zola 2014). This is a clear indication that such stores transformed the manner in which people shopped and interacted with each other. The new marketing approach led to the proliferation of department stores.

In 1861, another store named Carrefour-Drouot was opened to market diverse products such as the crinoline, stain, lace and decorations. This would be followed by a modern store that was established in 1867. The name of the store was Bon Marche. This kind of development explains why the presence of department stores in the second empire brought different classes together. Every member of the bourgeoisie society was free to visit such department stores and shops. The abandonment of the old aristocracy led to a new order exemplified by different social classes living together.

Influence on Consumer Behaviour and Social Relations

Hazareesingh (2015) acknowledges that commercial premises and buildings were redesigned in such a way that they served the consumer efficiently. The emergence of new procedures and marketing practices empowered every customer to purchase whatever he or she wanted. The traditional marketing practices (such as door-to-door) became obsolete since they did not promote the idea of liberalism. The owners of the stores devised new strategies to train their salespeople. This move made it easier for them to offer timely advice to the customers (Beckert 2015). The use of enticements for adults and chidlren became a common practice. Tea rooms were used to attract more people and advance the idea of recreation. These innovations were designed to support and make every shopping experience memorable. As a result, the department store became an outstanding symbol of consumer society.

As places of consumption, department stores were capable of meeting the needs of different customers depending on their respective social classes. The wave of liberalism encouraged more people to live harmoniously and promote the best practices or lifestyles. The stores played a critical role towards bringing social classes together. This is the reason why many scholars acknowledge that such department stores pronounced loudly some of the achievements and rewards associated with the French Revolution.

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Consequently, department stores became new signs of unity in the bourgeoisie society. This new role of the department stores made it possible for more people to interact, exchange ideas and identify the most appropriate ideas that could support their lives. The department store became a symbol of fashion and modernism. This was the case because members of every social class could purchase whatever they wanted. The store therefore marked a new beginning whereby the old had disappeared with the concept of aristocracy (Zola 1993). This notion would eventually be emulated and copied by many civilisations across the world.

Implications on the Bourgeoisie Society

The Middle Class

The bourgeoisie society was exemplified by new ideals that would reshape different attributes in Napoleon’s empire. The new empire was observed to support the needs of more people. The middle class found it easier to focus on specific goals such as better lifestyles and economic opportunities (Pinkley 2016). The second empire provided new opportunities for members of the middle class to become part of the consumer society. This was the case because such individuals were able to purchase a wide range of products such as bed linen and mirrors (Flaubert 1996).

The middle class was keen to consider new changes in clothing. Members of the society were able to purchase clothes and focus on the best practices to improve their standards of living (Miller 1994). The economic and social changes experienced in the empire catalysed a new consumer society throughout the 19th century (Flaubert 1996). The expansion of railway transport, establishment of modern industries and mechanisation in different textile companies supported the needs of more members of the middle class (Miller 1994). These changes made it easier for more people to acquire various goods such as clothes and luxury products.

Members of the society were pleased with the existing social changes. Such transformations made it easier for more people to access quality education than ever before. More craftsmen were able to come up with affordable products for different members of the society (Miller 1994). The modernisation of transportation and manufacturing processes led to more mass produced services and goods in France (Hazareesingh 2015). This development was also observed to result in reduced labor costs (Beckert 2015).

Marketing and Consumerism

These changes contributed a lot to the new meaning of consumerism in the Second French Empire. Different manufacturers were able to design goods that would meet the diverse needs of the people. This was the case because the market was subdivided into diverse groups based on the people’s religious values and cultural practices. These members of the middle class were able to benefit from the changes that defined different cities across France. Keaveney (2013) indicates that the democratisation of the concept of luxury made it easier for more individuals to focus on their personal lives and goals.

The emerging model of consumption would be characterised by mass entertainment. Every department store would have a café and cinema (Zola 1993). Such additions were critical towards attracting more customers from different social classes. The use of parks and advertising strategies made it easier for more people to purchase most of the products marketed in different department stores (Miller 1994). Additionally, the rate at which goods were being produced improved, thereby supporting the needs of the targeted customers.

These changes in consumerism resulted in new experiences and practices that met the needs of the middle class. For instance, the idea of consumption was used to united members of the public. This was achieved by ensuring that every department or novelty store offered the best experience to the shopper. The concept of visual spectacle was taken seriously in such department stores (Keaveney 2013). Bon Marche was one of the stores that reshaped the identities and notions of the middle class. According to many scholars, the store redefined the meaning of being a bourgeois in the Second France Empire (Keaveney 2013). This was something associated with the desire for quality clothes, healthy living environments and superior furnishings.

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Another meaning linked to consumerism was that of advertising. The aim of advertising during the period was to inform and convince members of the middle class about the major products and goods that could meet their diverse needs. Department stores went a step further to develop units for women. Such units portrayed a different image of the modern woman in 19th century France (Pinkley 2016). New ideals such as sexuality and morality emerged during the time. It was the right time for the middle class to wear clothes that made them respectable and attractive. These attributes led to the birth of modern marketing.

The middle class was observed to benefit from the new meanings given to consumerism during the period. Different social classes were able to purchase a wide range of mass produced goods. This was promoted by different developments such as industrialisation, improved transportation and mechanisation (Miller 1994).

Contemporary Issues in Luxury

Evidence indicates that more people in the bourgeoisie society purchased different goods that were unavailable to them before the second empire (Flaubert 1996). However, some scholars have argued that the wave of consumerism in the empire led to new changes that redefined the history of the country (Zola, 2014). Consumerism was observed to promote various facets that continue to influence modern consumers in different parts of the world. The concept of individualism was observed to take a new shape in the country. The new meaning given to consumerism affected the nature of luxury items. This was the case because most of the mass produced goods could not compete with handmade luxury items (Miller 1994).

Different historians have also argued that consumerism in the Second French Empire affected the superiority and position of artisan workshops in the bourgeoisie society. This was the case because most of the marketing concepts propagated by different department stores were extremely exploitative. The question of luxury and consumption appeared to take two paths during the period (Zola 1993). The ideals of Napoleon Bonaparte made it possible for more people to access different products, services and goods in the new empire. Every person was empowered through continuous provision of social services and quality education. More people were also allowed to take up various economic activities and jobs. These developments made it possible for members of different classes to undertake different activities and eventually improve their lifestyles (Zola 2014). As a result, the people were able to acquire luxury goods that were only available to the rich before the French Revolution.

As indicated earlier, more people in the country were empowered to pursue their goals. The rise of department stores made it possible for individuals to access different goods. This development is what catalysed the democratisation of luxury (Keaveney 2013). People could purchase the most appropriate clothes, decorations and furnishings that could meet their demands. The marketing strategies employed by different novelty stores made it possible for different people to lead quality lives. This was the case because they could purchase whatever they wanted. The important thing was for them to engage in different economic activities.

The democratisation of luxury was catalysed by the social and economic changes experienced in Paris during the time. The improvements in production, transportation and manufacturing made it easier for companies to design and deliver quality products to more people. Such goods would also be cheaper compared to the ones produced by craftsmen (Zola 2014). Consequently, the process would make it easier for more people in the country to purchase different luxury products. Self-image emerged as something critical for many people in the empire.

Luxury was embedded in the minds of many people during the era. They had become aware of their desires and interests due to the marketing initiatives implemented by department stores. This development led to individualistic equality whereby people were keen to purchase whatever could satisfy their demands. The pursuit of personal needs and gains redefined the meaning of luxury (Jones 2014). Freedom was given a new meaning as more individuals used their financial strength to purchase different luxury goods capable of supporting their new living standards.

Emerging Issues and Recommendations

Hazareesingh (2015) believes strongly that the ideology of consumption in the Second French Empire was played a critical role towards affecting the true meaning of luxury. Most of the luxury products and goods available before the period were observed to be expensive and unaffordable (Jones 2014). This scenario explains why majority of the people in the society could not afford them. This used to be the case because production was mainly done by skilled craftsmen operating in Paris (Miller 1994).

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Evidence indicates that the mechanisation of the production process led to new goods whose quality could not match the ones designed by craftsmen (Jones 2014). The increasing number of craftsmen was also associated with inferior products. Although many people could purchase good clothes and decorations, the outstanding fact was that the real meaning of luxury had become obsolete in the empire (Beckert 2015). The rise of department shops and stores made it easier for the middle class to live harmoniously and remain united. This kind of democratization, according to different historians, would become the best model for supporting the growth and industrialisation of many societies across the globe.

Unfortunately, past studies have failed to explain clearly how the new wave of consumerism influenced the concept of luxury during the period. According to some people, the idea revolved around the ability to acquire new products that could not be afforded before (Pinkley 2016). Others acknowledge that the new era destroyed the true foundation and meaning of luxury (Hazareesingh 2015). This occurred due to the nature of production that led to substandard products. The new period encouraged more people to pursue diverse economic goals without considering the true value of fashion. On the other hand, some experts still acknowledge the fact that the meaning of fashion was demystified by the growth and proliferation of different department stores (Hazareesingh 2015). In a nutshell, it would be appropriate for future scholars to dig deeper in an attempt to understand how the rise of department stores influenced the wave of consumerism and the perceptions of luxury in the Second French Empire.


This discussion has indicated clearly that luxury was something critical to many people in the Second French Empire. On one side, the idea of luxury gained a new meaning whereby people could purchase whatever they wanted and fulfill their needs. Members of the middle class were able to transform their lifestyles during the period. Department stores made luxury goods available to every member of the society (Jones 2014). This development explains why such department stores were symbols of unity and consumption. On the other side, the concept of mass production affected the quality of such goods (Pinkley 2016). This means that they could not be considered to be luxury goods since they were available to more people than ever before. However, the above analysis has indicated that the issue of luxury the in bourgeoisie society has been interpreted differently by many scholars and historians. This gap can be pursued by researchers in order to understand the historical issues in luxury much better.

Reference List

Beckert, S 2015, Empire of cotton: a global history, Random House, New York, NY.

Flaubert, G 1996, Madame Bauvary, Revue de Paris, Paris.

Hazareesingh, S 2015, How the French think: an affectionate portrait of an intellectual people, Basic Books, New York, NY.

Jones, C 2014, Sculptors and design reform in France, 1848 to 1895, Ashgate Publishing, Burlington, VT.

Keaveney, A 2013, Sulla: the last republican, Routledge, New York, NY.

Miller, M 1994, The Bon Marche: bourgeois culture and the department store, 1869-1920, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Pinkley, D 2016, The decisive years in France, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Zola, E 1993, Au Bonheur des dames, Charpentier, Paris.

Zola, E 2014, Nana, Charpentier, Paris.

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