Luxury in Fashion

Sartorial affluence comes from the various kinds of surplus produced by society.

Dress (robe à la française) (c. 1765)The Kyoto Costume Institute

What is "luxury"?

Luxury has captivated the minds of people of all nations throughout history. At the same time, however, humanity has also adopted a somewhat critical attitude towards luxury. Luxury signifies a form of affluence originating in the various kinds of surplus produced by society. That is why fashion, the fundamental purpose of which is to decorate, has maintained a close relationship with luxury through the ages.

Men’s suit (Jacket, Waistcoat, Breeches) (First half of 18th Century)The Kyoto Costume Institute

Gold and Silver

Clothing made from lavish, heavily decorated fabrics woven with gold and silver thread has represented luxury in many different cultures through the ages, due to the magnificence and costliness of such fabrics, while the shine emitted by these fabrics was compared to that of the sun and moon.

Dress (robe à la française) (First half of 18th Century)The Kyoto Costume Institute

Fabric woven with gold thread dates back to the period before the birth of Christ, with references to gold threaded textiles in the Old Testament. People in positions of authority have since continued to wear gold and silver threaded fabric either in the form of court costumes or religious ceremonial robes, while women wore dresses made from these fabrics on special occasions.

Gold always glitters and never fades, and this quality, together with the rarity of this metal, made it an effective means of conveying the power, wealth, or charismatic spirituality of the wearer.

Dress (Mantua) (1740-50s)The Kyoto Costume Institute

Court costumes

Lavish court culture reached its peak during the 18th Century, and during this time the costumes worn by men and women represented the ultimate in luxury, tasteful elegance, and sophistication. As clothing was designed to flaunt one's privileged status and impeccable taste, the silhouette was designed to both enhance the presence and the elegance of the wearer.

Coat, Waistcoat, Breeches (Mid. 18th century)The Kyoto Costume Institute

Costly silk fabrics were generously used, and manufacturers in towns such as Lyon in France, and Spitalfields in England, vied to produce the finest silk fabrics, resulting in significant growth for the silk textile industry.

Dress (robe à la française) (c. 1780)The Kyoto Costume Institute

Although the decoration was toned down during the 18th Century, skirts flared out to create an almost horizontal silhouette, while hairstyles were the largest and highest seen in history. In addition, battleships, carriages, and baskets of fruit created by the hairdresser were then placed on top of the hair. This excessiveness is a clear sign that the days of aristocratic society were nearing their end.

Wedding Dress (c. 1882)The Kyoto Costume Institute


The intention behind the clothing that women of the upper classes wore on festive and special occasions, such as court rituals, banquets and weddings, was to flaunt one's status and wealth, and to convey a sense of majesty. The train is one such element that contributed to this look. Indeed, the length of the train was a reflection of the status of the wearer.

Court Dress (c.1820)The Kyoto Costume Institute

The style of women’s court wear in Western Europe had remained essentially the same since the coronation of Napoleon in 1804. The court train, which conveys an impression of extravagance and authority, became a standard style in courts all over Europe.

Dress (c. 1720)The Kyoto Costume Institute

Handwork of artisans

Lavish textiles woven with beautifully colored thread, and elegant and delicate embroidery and lace have continued to fascinate us through the ages. Creating a single such garment necessitated the elaborate and painstaking work of dozens of nameless artisans.

Evening Dress (c. 1850)The Kyoto Costume Institute

Beetle-wing embroidery

This elegant dress is made of mull with applications of jewel beetle elytra. 1942 of these glistering forewings, with its color oscillating from green to purple, can be found on the dress, 1548 on the shawl.

India was colonized by the British Empire during the mid-18th century, and from the latter half of the 19th century onwards a vast variety of products using jewel beetle embroidery was being exported to the western European markets.

Dress (c. 1908)The Kyoto Costume Institute

Irish crocheted lace

Lace developed from around the 15th and 16th Centuries, and until lace production was mechanized in the 19th Century, it was highly prized for its exquisite and highly skilled handwork. Lace is made with linen thread using the needlepoint lace and bobbin lace techniques. Until the 18th Century, lace was only used in small but conspicuous sections of clothing such as the collar or cuffs.

This is a crocheted dress featuring Irish crochet lace, which was inspired by needlepoint lace from Spain and Venice and first produced in the 1850s in the convents of Southern Ireland. This style of lace dress became fashionable in Europe in 1905 and remained popular for the decade that followed.

Dinner Dress (c. 1892) by Charles-Frederick WorthThe Kyoto Costume Institute

Haute couture

Charles Frederick Worth (1825-1895), an Englishman by origins, went on to establish his own maison in Paris in 1858. He set up the basis of the fashion system that would later be known as "haute couture" through initiatives such as showing his new designs on living women, developing clients who were fashion leaders in society, and implementing skillful advertising strategies. All of these ideas contributed to establishing Paris as the fashion capital of the late 19th Century.

Evening Cape (1938) by Elsa SchiaparelliThe Kyoto Costume Institute

Fashion and Art

Artists such as Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau became involved in fashion during the 1930s. An evening cape designed by Elsa Schiaparelli featured a drawing, inspired by Greek mythology, by Christian Bérard. The image was finished in lavish embroidery by the Lesage embroidery atelier that specialized in haute couture embroidery. The heroic image of Apollo featuring gold and silver beading and sequins is further enhanced by the rich, black velvet background.

Evening Dress (1955) by Christian DiorThe Kyoto Costume Institute

Embroidery on evening dresses reached its zenith, both in terms of quality, quantity, and extravagance, during the 1950s, the pinnacle of haute couture. Christian Dior's evening dresses, in particular, were hugely popular amongst upper class women the world over.

Dress (Spring/Summer 1967) by Yves Saint LaurentThe Kyoto Costume Institute

This dress is elaborately embroidered with 20 types of beads including sea shells, wooden beads, and animal-teeth-shaped beads. We can see here the very cream of handworks, from the highly advanced and precise techniques of the embroidery studios. In the 1960s, the haute couture created innovative designs, while observing its tradition.

Party Costume [Left] Party Costume [Right] (1914 [Left] 1913 [Right]) by Paul Poiret [Left] Paul Poiret [Right]The Kyoto Costume Institute

For a single party

At the beginning of the 20th Century, Paul Poiret, the designer who defined the direction of modern fashion, held a series of lavish banquets and balls that were the talk of Paris. Particularly famous was the masked ball titled "1002 Nights."

Orientalism was all the rage at the time, influenced in part by performances in Paris by the Ballet Russes. 300 guests were invited to this ball, held in 1911, with everyone wearing Persian costumes, including Poiret, who was dressed as a sultan, adding further color and movement to the festivities.

Dress, Coat (c. 1965) by Roy Lichtenstein (Textile), Lee Rudd SimpsonThe Kyoto Costume Institute

Wearing art

Pop Art emerged in the United States during the 1960s, in which a wide range of familiar images from daily life was incorporated into art, effectively linking mass culture and the arts.

It is a one-off garment worn by a friend of the artist at the opening of his solo show. In other words, it is a moving work of art created to be viewed. This was the moment when art became incorporated into the everyday activity of wearing clothing.

Dress (Spring/Summer 1997) by Karl LagerfeldThe Kyoto Costume Institute

The time involved in creating a single garment is just as valuable as the design of, and the material that goes into, that garment. It is also questioning the tendency today to only prioritize efficiency and convenience. Whether one is an artisan, a designer, or a member of the public, anything that is created by a time-consuming handcrafted process arguably represents an important aspect of luxury through the ages.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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