I hadn’t really experienced true decadence until I stepped into the fashion industry. For a girl who was brought up frugally, living above a Chinese takeaway, just having my first glass of free champagne made me feel giddy. Then the decadence grew. Being flown to New York by Gucci to go to a party at the UN hosted by Madonna. Witnessing a giant iceberg – shipped especially from Scandinavia – as the set of a Chanel show inside the Paris Grand Palais. Gorging on a bacchanalian feast laid out at Alber Elbaz’s ten-year anniversary show at Lanvin. All experiences that send your mind hovering above your body while you constantly ask yourself, “Is this all for real?”
How would I define decadence? An extreme break from normality. And reality. And conformity. The fascinating idea that a person can do exactly as they please, unconstrained by economics or social convention. It’s why the socialite Marchesa Luisa Casati, who wore live snakes as jewellery in the 1920s, was so scrutinised. And why Lady Gaga’s outrageous outfit exploits are relentlessly discussed today. But decadence is a whole lot more than just dressing up to the nines and throwing money around. It’s about the willingness to completely lose yourself and go over the edge. And there’s a dark side to decadence. The word itself can literally mean decay or decline. The embodiment of decadent living were the so-called Bright Young Things of the Twenties, satirised by Evelyn Waugh in his novel Vile Bodies. They danced, drank and dabbled with the “naughty salt” at lavish costume parties, burning brightly before being extinguished. The same hedonistic pattern repeated itself in the heady underground club scenes in Seventies New York and Eighties London. In the Nineties, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, who both came from humble beginnings, would go on to create some of the most decadent fashion shows ever witnessed. With Lee McQueen’s tragic suicide and Galliano’s dramatic fall from grace, you wonder whether we’ll bear witness to that level of fashion excess ever again.
When the credit crunch suddenly hit the world in 2008, it became almost embarrassing to have extreme wealth on show. We congratulated ourselves on clever bargain hunting when we picked up cheap high-street buys. The glory years of the It bags toted in the early Noughties seemed unbearably naff. Decadence had already been a lofty concept for most people and, in this period of austerity, it became almost ridiculous. So our definition of the word shifted. Little luxuries, like a new Tom Ford lipstick or an occasional cup of artisanal flat white coffee, have been elevated. In fashion, Phoebe Philo at Céline is responsible for bringing minimalism back to the forefront. We realised decadence doesn’t have to be about exaggerated silhouettes and overt decoration, but can exist in beautiful fabrics, clean lines and subtle details.
This year, party season will once again see the high street flooded with velvet, sequins, rich fabrics and embellishment. But perhaps it’s time to turn the idea of dressing up on its head. The freedom to step out in whatever you want and eschew the party-dressing stereotype is in itself a fabulous decadence. A modern lifestyle shift has also meant we’ve done away with the need to make the distinction between eveningwear and daywear. Dresses with trainers, jeans with heels and sweatshirts with embellished skirts have become standard ways of incorporating a touch of decadence in our day-to-day outfits. As sportswear and streetwear continue their ascendancy, we’ve seen that casual doesn’t necessarily mean sloppy. Look at the way Chanel and Dior raised the bar on the sporty trainer, making them luxurious and, yes, decadent.
Decadence isn’t a crazy, committed lifestyle choice any more, nor an exaggerated cliché revolving around hedonistic parties and expensive clothes. Nowadays, we construct our own moments of indulgence within our day-to-day routines. So, as the 21st century demands that we’re “switched on” most of the time, just spending the day enjoying TV box sets and ignoring emails feels supremely decadent. I’d describe a cheeky half-an-hour kip in the afternoon before getting to work on a writing assignment as indulgent. OK, so we’re not swinging from chandeliers, dressing up like exotic geishas or swigging Bollinger by the bottle, but we can all find ways of feeling like we’ve treated ourselves. And you know what – why not?
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From champagne baths to personal body guards here's what decadence means to these celebrites...
“Decadence is over the top, like the Palace of Versailles. I wore a Balmain dress to my bachelorette dinner in Paris that had tapestry on it and beautiful beading. It felt super-luxurious and decadent to wear.”
“Didn’t Kate Moss and Johnny Depp have a bath filled with champagne? That’s pretty decadent. I’ve never done anything like that, but maybe that’s what 2015 will be about – having the most decadent experience of my life!”
Dita Von Teese
"When I’m doing a burlesque show and I fling off a Swarovski-covered costume that costs a small fortune, that always feels very decadent.”
“It’s the simple pleasures, like food, but over-the-top food like oysters, caviar and champagne.”
Portia Freeman (Model)
“Decadence to me is having time at home when my partner Pete [Denton, of The Kooks] isn’t on tour, I’ve finished a stretch of modelling and we have our son Dylan with us in a family cocoon in London. We can turn off our phones and just be.”
Jim Chapman (YouTuber)
“Cookies. I’ve been on a real health kick recently and I’m really craving sugar. I had a cookie on my cheat day and it was incredible. Now I just want cookies all the time.”
“When I want to celebrate and feel decadent, I have lobster spaghetti. I go to my favourite restaurant in London, Cecconi’s in Mayfair, for their version with a glass of red wine.”
“To me, the word ‘decadence’ is synonymous with the Seventies. That was a time when everyone was going for it in music and fashion, listening to Led Zeppelin and
doing crazy stuff.”
“Indulging in life’s luxuries, like pâté, private jets and a surplus of Chanel bags, along with a full staff –two ladies-in-waiting, a bodyguard and a private medical consultant – to pamper your every need.”
“Decadence is about having a fun evening: dinner with friends, getting all dressed up, being able to wear all your nice jewellery and having a really beautiful look.”
Sali Hughes (writer)
“To me, decadence is sitting on the sofa in new pyjamas, drinking wine and watching black-and-white films, with an enormous cheeseboard on my lap.”
“We all need to live life to the fullest and surround ourselves with life’s pleasures. For me to be surrounded by love is a decadence that is priceless.”
Chelsea Leyland (DJ)
“It’s a big slab of dark chocolate and a glass of red wine in bed.”
Sara Pascoe (Comedian)
“Spend longer enjoying things. Swill your Ribena like it’s vintage wine, savour your falafel like a pig-sourced truffle and ride the Circle line sprawled across the seats as if upon a chaise longue.”
“I’m not crazy about the word decadence. I’m too positive for decadence. I admire people who let themselves go, who are victims of decadence. I am not.”
Aisling Bea (Comedian)
“To me, decadence is a #NoFilter night on my couch in my most elastic clothes, watching The Great British Bake Off with a shedload of Sudocrem on my face, scoffing the wondrous tail end of a Cornetto.”
Lucy Mangan (Writer)
“Decadence is indulging in whatever is extravagant for you. I lead a pinched, medieval-peasantish life, so the scale starts for me with a second cup of coffee
and jam on my toast.”
“Decadence is a good night’s sleep and not having to set the alarm.”
Stephen Jones (Milliner)
“I may have a twisted view but, for me, decadence seems normal!”
Aarta Marques (Designer, Marques’Almeida)
“Long jeans that drag along the floor.”
“A lie in. What I’d do for a lie in! And if I’m able to read more than eight pages of a book without losing concentration, in a really nice environment, that’s decadence for me.”