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Brazil’s history of luxury

Research study reveals the importance of consumption in the development of Brazil

reproduction from the book "Lembranças de São Paulo"/gerodetti and cornejoMappin Stores: center of consumption of products imported for the coffee elitereproduction from the book "Lembranças de São Paulo"/gerodetti and cornejo

“Ordinary people love luxury; intellectuals love poverty”: these words, uttered by Joãozinho Trinta, still ring true, but some members of the academic community do not agree with the second part of the sentence. Economist Milena Fernandes de Oliveira, from Unicamp, wrote her doctorate thesis on Consumo e cultura material, São Paulo “Belle Époque” (1890-1915). Her doctorate program advisor was Fernando Novais. The thesis focuses on the importance of studying luxury and how the consumption of luxury is a powerful instrument to interpret the characteristics of the so-called “peripheral capitalism,” such as Brazilian capitalism, by discovering unexpected roots that help understand the country’s late industrialization and how its modernization came about. “Consumption in a society that had just overthrown an Empire and abolished slavery has a clear and well-defined function, which is to disregard a colonial past that everyone wants to forget at any cost. Of course the process would not be for everybody,” Milena explains. “The modernity desired by the coffee plantation elite was less interested in social inclusion as a protection from capitalist savagery, than in a modernity that would create a civilized nation to erase, once and for all, any vestiges of the colonial past.” To differentiate itself, this elite chose imported luxury. “These patterns of consumption were more sophisticated than the national industry was able to produce; thus the influence of consumption on industry is much stronger than the influence of industry on consumption, which restricts industrialization,” she adds. In other words, intellectuals need to continue taking poverty into consideration, without disregarding luxury, if they want to understand Brazil and its bottlenecks today.

The period chosen by Milena – from 1890 to 1915 – is fundamental, because it highlights the peak of the capitalistic accumulation of the coffee-driven economy, which created a private industry, and because it was the period during which Brazilian society witnessed the enormous transformations highlighting the birth of its modernity. This modernity gained an enormous thrust from the 1920’s onward. “Based on a study of consumption, I wanted to understand the specific contradictions of how capitalism was shaped in Brazil. The development of coffee plantations, the proclamation of the Republic, the institution of free labor – all of these created a new  configuration of the classes. On one side were the children of the elite and on the other were the immigrants who became rich through trade,” she explains. “Other conflicts arose as a result of this new hierarchy; these conflicts demanded new behavior from classes that would legitimize their acquired positions and the due distancing from the ‘inferior’ classes on the social scale.”

Thus, consumption is instrumental to the legitimizing of social status, centered on imports, to the detriment of everything that is locally made. “The external sector takes on a strong position as the source of novelties and the differentiation/generalization of the dynamics of consumption take on new forms. The movements of the coffee elite dictate the rhythm of the acquisition of novelties, but the novelties cannot be produced internally because of the poor technical skills of the productive base.” The import industry, going against the capitalist logic of the cities, becomes the source of the consumption of luxury items, a synonym of the modernity within the context of the advent of capitalism in Brazil, and provides access to the latest fashions from overseas. “The unrestricted access to imported products provokes a gap, fundamental in the peripheral context, between capitalist consumption and capitalist production. Two elements live side by side in the same society: the element of capitalism and the element of traditional society.”

reproduction from the book "Lembranças de São Paulo"/gerodetti and cornejoWorkers at the Destilação Italiana plant, by Luiz Trevisan, 1900reproduction from the book "Lembranças de São Paulo"/gerodetti and cornejo

During that period, São Paulo, which later on would be the origin of industrial concentration, was an example of how the new national capitalism had its own characteristics which are still visible in the present. The city, says the historian, went through major urban renovations, influenced by the urbanism of Haussmann, and executed by Ramos de Azevedo. São Paulo was also transformed as a consequence of the promotion of coffee as the leading Brazilian export, which led the state to become a major commercial and financial center. This transformation included the expansion of the railway network and access to the port city of Santos. Coffee was exported from Santos and the imported luxury items arrived in Santos. All these factors generated a commercial revolution in the so-called commercial triangle, formed by Direita, 15 de Novembro and São Bento streets, where all the shops selling imported goods and the shops selling Brazilian-made products were located. Hence, consumption defined which social class a person belonged to. “The arrival of waves of immigrants in São Paulo results in a unique study of the city at that time. The immigrants did not come only to work on the coffee plantations in the western part of the state. Many of them settled down in the capital city to work as shopkeepers and businessmen. This social transformation was crucial to guide consumption, as the competition between the traditional elite and the rising elite was manifested through the acquisition of assets, and not only through intangible privileges such as a traditional family surname. The legitimacy of the achievement of new levels was guided by consumption, in a typically capitalistic movement.”

The pace of this movement was quickened by the move of the coffee plantation elite from the rural region to the capital city, from 1890 onwards. This resulted in urban modernization, which led to the installation of electricity, the redefinition of the urban space in search of new forms of distinction, thus expanding commercial possibilities. São Paulo began to attract national and foreign investments. “The concentration of the elite in the capital city of São Paulo turned the city into an exceptional stage for  theatricals of manners and appearances. It is possible to observe the growing importance and enhancement of the ‘abstract and the symbolic, not only in the personal representation of the people in this group but also in the way they invested in the city’s physical, functional and architectural structuring,” says Maria Claudia Bonadio, who has a doctorate degree in history and is a professor in the master’s program in Fashion, Culture and Art and in the bachelor’s program in Fashion Design at Centro Universitário Senac-SP university. She is the author of Moda e sociabilidade: mulheres e consumo na São Paulo dos anos 1920 (Editora Senac, 206 pages, R$ 55). According to Maria Claudia, the inflow of significant amounts of money revolutionized the importance of public spaces, which in turn intensified consumption as a form of insertion into specific social classes. “Public life  intensified, driving the city’s inhabitants to become increasingly concerned about appearing in public.” The Teatro Municipal theater and concert hall, a monumental construction, bigger and more ostentatious than the Theater in the nation’s capital city, is an example of this so-called public work which , however, was reserved for the enjoyment of the elite. The movement affected women directly, who were given an additional task: shopping. “This task results from the elite’s relocation to urban centers, which caused family groups to lose their productive functions and become units of consumption. While the plantations had been relatively self-sufficient, supported by contingents of slaves and employees, urban families depended on consumer goods and services supplied by the market.”

A woman as an agent of consumption brings her closer to the public space. A woman going shopping alone was no longer viewed as being improper. Claudia points out that this ‘task’ soon became part of women’s leisure and individuality. “At that moment, being seen in public was a privileged declaration of space for the traditional elite, and was necessary to distinguish this elite from the emerging immigrant elite.”

reproduction from the book "Lembranças de São Paulo"/gerodetti and cornejoTeatro Municipal theater and concert hall on the evening of its inauguration on September 12, 1911reproduction from the book "Lembranças de São Paulo"/gerodetti and cornejo

The rural coffee elite arriving in the urban environment was responsible for this transition to modernity. This elite distinguished itself from the other social classes through its buying power and through its “life style,” evidenced by the use of consumer goods as “symbolic capital.” The basic condition in the relationship between consumption and industry in the periphery was the elite’s total abandonment of former patterns, substituted by the consumption of foreign products, ranging from architectural forms to food, to confer the necessary status. “At the same time as traces of the past are suppressed in some points of the city, the vestiges of colonial times continue to reproduce themselves at exponential speed in the neighborhoods of the rising working class,” says Milena. The result, she adds, is a city that modernizes itself and reproduces a nationality that, in a certain way, is the opposite of  modern nationality, because there is no creation of inclusive levels as a way of making up for permanent exclusion generated by  rising capitalism. “Spaces differentiate and separate not only work and leisure, trade and home, but also the rich and the poor.” The first aristocratic residential neighborhoods arose around 1880. They were located on the best lands in the capital city. At first, they moved to the north of the central massif, towards the Tietê River. Later on, these neighborhoods moved to the lower side, above the lowlands. This is the site of the neighborhoods of Santa Ifigênia and Campos Elísios, the latter a reference to the avenue in Paris. Many families belonging to the Brazilian elite lived in these neighborhoods. The country estates were located on the other side and, as time went by, the lands of these estates were turned into such neighborhoods as Liberdade, Consolação and Vila Mariana.

“Other high-end neighborhoods appear at the end of the 19th century, such as Higienópolis, inhabited by the aristocrats whose fortunes came from the coffee business. Later on, these inhabitants moved upwards to the higher and healthier lands of the plateau and  Paulista Avenue,” Milena explains.

The elitist Paulista Avenue, however, became the clear dividing line between the wealth stemming from the coffee business and the wealth stemming from industry. The downfall of the coffee business transferred the wealth to the hands of those involved in industry and trade, most of which were in the hands of the immigrants. Paulista Avenue becomes the residential neighborhood of these new millionaires arising from the new phase of São Paulo State’s economy. The architecture of this neighborhood makes this very clear. Finally, the ‘bairros-jardins’ (garden neighborhoods) were created around 1910. These neighborhoods, with names such as Jardim Paulista, Jardim Europa and Jardim América, are located down the hill lying next to the lowlands of the Pinheiros River, and have European features that are totally unrelated to the urban models of the past. “In the meantime, the working class neighborhoods move to the unsanitary lowlands near the Tietê and Tamanduateí Rivers. These neighborhoods, such as Mooca, Brás, Pari, Ipiranga, Barra Funda, among others, are full of tenements and row houses. The working class neighborhoods provoked a deep gash in the postcard-like European image that São Paulo wanted to build for itself.”

reproduction from the book "Lembranças de São Paulo"/gerodetti and cornejoMansion owned by dona Veridiana, located in the neighborhood of Higienópolis, in 1902reproduction from the book "Lembranças de São Paulo"/gerodetti and cornejo

One way to avoid this uncomfortable scenario was to dive into imported products, especially the French ones. After all, as Gobineau said, Brazilians madly desired to live in Paris. “The colonial elite’s preference for French goods was even more intense during the time of the Empire and the Republic. In addition to polished leather, potatoes in bags, automobiles, crates of cognac, bars of butter, paper to roll cigarettes, cologne and other products, the sale of French products was also facilitated by the fashion designers, who were always French,” says economist Lincoln Secco, a professor of contemporary history at USP’s College of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences. “These products from France, which competed with those from England and later on from Germany, were commercialized through a network that comprised retailers and the consulate. Brazil was one of the favorite targets for the exporting of French-made products to the Americas. French consular agents based in São Paulo sent reports and letters to the Ministry of Foreign Relations. These agents comprised a network of information on the imediments and opportunities of doing business in the city. France extended its cultural tentacles and thus increased the flow of trade of the products it manufactured,” says economic historian Vanessa dos Santos Bivar in her doctorate thesis Vivre à St. Paul: os imigrantes franceses na São Paulo oitocentista, submitted at USP, under the advice of Eni Siqueira Samara. The French influence, however, was not only concentrated on the elite. “The middle classes, free low-income men and women, and former slaves had their own way of interacting with France. In a credit-based economy, depending on the kind of relationship one had with retailers, the product became more tangible and not all French products were of great value, which demystifies the idea that French business ventures and French culture were restricted to the elite.” This is why the importing of French products increased from 1870 onwards, reaching its peak in 1890, when the province of São Paulo was the biggest coffee exporter in Brazil. “Status acquires bourgeoisie features, yet remains aristocratic in its essence, an attitude inherited from the colonial period that remained during the transition to capitalism,” Milena points out.

However, the threat to the coffee elite did not come from the recently freed mass of slaves; the real threat came from the wave of immigrants from Europe who amassed impressive wealth in a short period of time. The city started to experience an uncomfortable social mobility, which included differentiation mechanisms other than blood or family ties. “The capitalist city, even though it was still a peripheral city with huge, socially excluded regions, expands the possibility of contact among the different social classes, making other mechanisms necessary for the creation and reproduction of differences,” the economist explains. Culture was one of these forms. “The development of capitalism led to the possibility of buying art in the form of paintings, books, musical performances, that were considered as luxury items from the symbolic point of view and not because of their physical scarcity. To enjoy these art forms, it was crucial to have good taste; individuals were brought up to have good taste, and thus the difference between – well brought-up people with refined tastes” and the ordinary people who had the means but not the upbringing to appreciate art  was created.” According to the researcher, the social gap between the traditional elite and the emerging elite in terms of architecture was insignificant, as both elites expressed their power by building sumptuous mansions that enhanced luxury and denied deprivation. However, clothes and culture showed the incongruence between work ethics with distinct foundations: one work ethic enhanced work and social deprivation and another work ethic demeaned work yet praised mental work. The admiration for “abstract ideas,” as Sérgio Buarque de Holanda said, corresponds to the modern form of the ethics of leisure inherited from colonial times. The leisure of the elite takes this differentiation to its highest level, because the social capital for admiring a work of art is not the direct result of economic progress.” Hence, public expenditure was focused on temples for the consumption of culture, such as theaters, opera houses, fine restaurants and others, places where the “carcamanos” (Italian immigrants) supposedly would not know how to behave themselves, and would merely “mimic” the elites inefficiently. Consumption in itself was not sufficient to make the differences clear; therefore, it would be up to culture to do this definitively.

“The mere ownership of assets did not guarantee social status. A group was distinguished and defined by ‘a social stratification honor’ expressed by the ‘lifestyle’ and by the search for privileges, such as the right to dedicate oneself to certain arts for ‘dilettantism.’ The coffee elite developed symbolic relations that were transformed into signs of distinction,” Claudia points out. Oddly enough, as can be verified today, falsification was an additional element that obliged the elite to invent new forms of differentiating itself other than just through the consumption of luxury. But in those times, these alternative forms ultimately determined the direction of industrial development. “The national industry was unable to supply all the demand for imported products and was very restricted, not only because it lacked capital, and always had to depend on the agro-exporting industry, but also because, in the absence of such capital, industry restricted itself to the production of hair combs, hats, textiles, most of which imitated foreign standards, the sources of status,” Milena explains. The industrial complex becomes increasingly fragmented and its integration is almost impossible, as only the concentration of income, unfeasible then, would be able to bring it together. “Imitation and falsification, ways of compensating for this situation, are the result of the national industry’s lethargy and its incapacity to generalize standards.

Such excusable processes promoted a generalization of consumption patterns throughout the country and provided the ascending social classes with the ideal solution for the lack of resources and the desire for status.” In the researcher’s opinion, this is one more example of how present behavior in the shaping of Brazilian capitalism still guides consumption habits and the reconstruction of hierarchies, as attested to by the research study conducted by economist Karen Perrotta for her doctorate thesis A preferência da marca no processo de decisão de compra do segmento de baixa renda, submitted to FEA-USP, the advisor of which was Geraldo Toledo. “Women with families living on up to five minimum salaries a month choose a brand when they go shopping, taking into account the ‘value’ that the product represents to them. This woman buys a high-end brand of chocolate for her child; however, she buys an inferior brand of chocolate to bake a cake. Showing the neighbor a high-end laundry soap brand can mean social ascendance. There is a clear option for the brand, to the detriment of the price,” the researcher analyzes.

This past influences the present. “It is impossible to explain the development of the capitalistic dynamics and our modernity merely through “external conditions;” our capitalistic dynamics are the result of a specific project of the nation. In this sense, consumption, along with urban transformation, was one of the core elements of peripheral modernity. The merger of a specific national project brought by the new classes and parts of the classes stemming from the social transformation in the late 19th century, the way they express their power through consumption, and, finally, how this power relates to the incipient productive base, form the basis of a very special kind of capitalism,” says Milena. Although the products that fueled class differentiation came from abroad, the internal dynamics of the class conflict guided their use. “The consumption of imported goods is not restricted to the simple passive acceptance of the imperialist supply; the internal arrangement between classes guided not only consumption but also its relationship with industry.” The anticipation of consumption in relation to production is one of the many explanations for the underdevelopment and the continuity of dependence. “Peripheral capitalistic modernization, the pace of which is very quick, provides continuity to exclusion. The functions of inclusion, when left to the dictates of the market, reinforce the spurious tendencies of diffusion and the continuity of dependence.” Milena adds. Therefore, it cannot be denied that ordinary people like luxury, even though luxury can actually mean poverty.