In the essay On the Greatness of Richard Wagner, [Thomas] Mann explains that Wagner was incapable of working without “palpable expressions of an extravagance of taste” which included, “wadded silk dressing-gowns” and “lace-trimmed satin bed-covers embroidered with garlands of roses.” Buttressed by these things, Mann writes, Wagner “sits down mornings to the grueling job, by dint of them he achieves the ‘atmosphere of luxury and art’ necessary to the creation of primitive Nordic heroes and exalted natural symbolism.” Is this a tacit admission on Mann’s part that the artist cannot create until first he is properly dressed?
Mann described the clothing of his fictional characters so impeccably not out of empty volupté, but because he knew the world he described was going extinct. His craftsmanship is an homage to another kind of craftsmanship. The disappearance of handmade clothes and furniture as a result of mass manufacture, and the erosion of the material culture of old Europe had in William Morris its utopian denialist, in Thomas Carlyle its Jeremiah, and in Mann its quiet, bourgeois eulogist.
Mann was willing to fight for discernment in clothing, food, manners, and furniture, all of which he grouped together in the phrase bourgeois competence in a June 1926 speech given on the occasion of the 700 year anniversary of his home city, Lübeck. “Bourgeois competence” as Mann deploys it signals a sort of spacious capacity for the leisurely, deliberate prosecution of one’s affairs in a world where appreciation for the arts is central…. It is presented as a positive spiritual value (the speech itself is entitled “Lübeck as a spiritual way of life.”)