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Oct 16, 2010

Fashion, Affluence, and Aspiration

Friends, be honest: when you dress up, do you aspire to look affluent? Do you (ever) take your fashion cues from the rich and famous?

We're constantly bombarded -- in magazines, movies, on television, even blogs -- with images of wealth, "luxury" designer brands, and status symbols.  It's more pervasive than ever before because the media is more present in most of our lives than ever before, certainly here in the United States.

One of the biggest surprises I've had looking through old (pre Nineties) issues of Vogue -- or any fashion magazine for that matter -- is the near absence of luxury brand advertisements.  It's not like Chanel, Louis Vuitton, or Givenchy didn't exist, but they weren't global brands and they didn't advertise heavily.  The rich (presumably) knew about them and knew where to find them; they were truly exclusive.

Is it any wonder that when we dress up, we tend to aspire to the "luxury" looks we see so often?

We may be wearing the Payless knockoff, but we're still evoking wealth and high class.  It's not the shoe itself -- or is it?

One of the things I like about many of the style blogs is that the looks people put together often have very little to do with conspicuous display of wealth or status brands.  I see people who may put a lot of effort (and money) into their clothes, but it doesn't feel like ostentation but rather creativity.

In classic Hollywood movies, many made during the Great Depression, you could certainly find representations of luxury, but it was fantasy, not advertising.  Nobody left a Marlene Dietrich film in search of a really great monkey fur coat, right?

Often the rich were parodied: the snobby millionaire and hoity-toity matron were something to laugh at.

No more: today they're our style icons with their own "fashion" brands.

Granted, there were plenty of movies like "Stella Dallas" that instructed us that the rich have a class and breeding that one can aspire to, but never truly attain.  Sorry, Stella!

But we also knew that no matter how glamorous or well-dressed, most of our favorite stars came from hardscrabble backgrounds and had clawed their way to the top.

But back to status.

I got the shock of my life when I started going to a private school in the Seventh grade.  This was back in the Seventies and there weren't as many popular status brands as there are today, but still I got the message from day one that if I wanted to fit in, I was going to have to get a Lacoste shirt, Adidas sneakers, and a down jacket (not polyester fiberfill!).  That was my perception anyway.

Thirty years later, I sometimes still feel like a bit of a fraud, cranberry corduroys notwithstanding...

..and have intrusive thoughts of revenge!

In conclusion, friends, what's your take on all this?

When you dress up, do you take your cues from how the rich dress, either in your community, as depicted in magazine or TV, or because you're rich yourself?

When you were growing up was there a big class divide with people on one side dressing very differently than people on the other?  Which side were you on and how did it affect you style-wise?

Does it make sense that we'd want to look affluent?  After all, the rich can afford the best clothes, styling, etc?  Or do money and style have nothing to do with each other?

Jump in!


  1. I don't think money and style are synonymous. Many people with money are 'knuckleheads' and many people without money are not. I think style is self expression based upon your self assurance and your lifestyle. Fashion magazines are in the business to "sell" products, not create a style. If you follow them and subscribe to their message in all those glossy advertisements - you would be out shopping for the latest great 'it' bag, again and again and again! We would all become 'shopaholics'. Not a good way to live.

  2. Even the not so rich can afford the finer things now, at least until they max out their credit cards!

    I wonder if the desire to look rich is more about how happy you are with yourself. I have a family member that buys anything and everything to make her look like she's well off and she has to be the most miserable person I know! Come to think of it the "rich" don't seem so happy either, they're in and out of relationships (or jail) and a good number of them are addicts of some kind. So what good is "style" when you're living in a dark pit? I love a great leather bag but in the end it's only good for holding stuff, it's not going to change your life.

  3. I do think that what I think of as "celebrity style" influences everything at almost every level. But the people that wear this sort of clothing often look like cartoon characters to me. On looking truly affluent, wouldn't you need to pore over Town & Country, rather than Vogue?

    I live in a pretty affluent area, and I find that I am influenced to dress more carefully day to day. Honestly, I don't do the old-fashioned dress up very often. (Didn't we already have this discussion?) But I am conscious that certain things tell others about my relative affluence, and I try to project a smidge of this.

    I don't however sweat this overmuch. I can't possibly look rich. I am not rich. Nor am I young. As Popeye said, "I yam what I yam." With choosing how you present yourself, it is always best to be true to yourself. This includes income level.

  4. We're the same age so we grew up in (roughly) the same style era although mega miles apart in completely different fashion cultures. Interesting to have similar recollections.

    I remember wanting to have the in-style outfit for first day of high school - to be accepted on first impressions which didn't work so I gave up on that idea and went back to being a brain although one that was fascinated by clothing.

    My parents wouldn't buy what was really in and when I started paying for my own clothing, I couldn't afford it. Even back then, as I am now, I was attracted to details, simple lines, and quality fabrics with accessories. It's an expensive attraction.

    The label is typically irrelevant. What attracts me is the actual garment especially if it's unique and not mainstream. I pay attention when I see a woman who carries herself with confidence and is wearing a garment that flatters her shape and/or has some aspect of individuality to it whether it's her composition or the actual style itself.

    Returning to sewing, that's my goal. To create unique and flattering garments with simple lines, details, and some essence of individuality whether it's the actual garment or how I put the outfit together or how I accessorize it. Some days that's a lot more work than others BUT...

    ... it's typically cheaper than buying those garments as I've become REALLY good at finding great deals.

  5. As a landscape designer I find that it is rare to find money and style or even good taste, going hand in hand. I was at a party with some interior designers and I was waxing rapturous about having finally found a client who not only had money, but taste. The interior designer laughed and agreed that it was a rare occurrence. All the money in the world doesn't get you style. Street fashion is where many designers got for inspiration and conspicuous labels are generally absent. Except maybe for handbags. That seems to be the it item these days.

  6. Interesting about your private-school experience. Elaine and I were musing this past summer that it seemed like the brands were more important to the middle-class kids than the "upper class kids" when we were in school---at the upper-class schools we went to (mind you in very different parts of the continent, and mine certainly was not private... private school is not a "thing" where I grew up, you'd only send your kid to a private school if you were wacky religious or if your kid was in major trouble)no one really cared about the brands---they were there, but there was no particular cachet. Not to say there wasn't snobbery, including fashion snobbery, but it was look-centric not brand-centric. I got grief because the cuffs on my jeans weren't folded to the right width, not because the jeans themselves weren't Buffaloes). At my husband's comparatively hardscrabble school, on the other hand, kids put a huge emphasis on the brands and labels.

    Personally, I don't give a crap about brand unless that brand has a particular look (or fit) that appeals to me; I grew up on thrift-store clothes, and have always been more interested in the look rather than the brand. I don't mind spending the extra money for quality---but I'm increasingly unconvinced that you can find quality anywhere in modern apparel ;).

    Though, Peter, I think your readership may have a slightly biased view on this topic... would we be sewing if we were hung up on brand?

  7. I'm rarely impressed by run-of-the-mill fancy pants clothes--- but as a young teen I was head-over-heels for rock star style from the 60's and 70's, and those were certainly wealthy people.

    If you're into that sort of thing, you should see Linda McCartney's book "Sixties." Fabulous portraits of beautiful people in amazing clothes. Swoon!

  8. Even at Catholic school with our uniforms, I felt like I wasn't cool because my navy pants were poly doubleknit rather than corduroy (preferably Levis). It was very important that you wore a uniform skirt, not a jumper, with knee high tube socks with three stripes at the top, and Treetorns or Nikes with the blue swoosh. It wasn't until 7th grade when family friends gave me a motherlode of corduroy hand me downs (a virtual Levis rainbow) that I truly felt like I fit in. The ski jacket I got for Christmas helped too. (An amazing find from Sears Surplus store).

    In high school that changed a lot, and I wore t-shirts and vintage whenever I could. But now as a mom I know that many thrift for status and logo clothes too. My favorite brand to find is still vintage Montgomery Wards or Sears though...

  9. I can relate to your private school experience. I remember arriving at college and watching the rich girls compare their Ralph Lauren Polo shirt collections. (They would agree to share so as not to repeat the same shirt during a semester.) And having a roommate who went shopping every week instead of doing laundry. (You should have seen that laundry pile in December!) As for me, I had to buy 2-stripe Adidas knock-offs because I couldn't afford that third stripe.

    Over the years, I've learned that money has something to do with style-- but not nearly as much as I'd been brought up to think.

    Like everything else, building a style takes experimentation and a willingness to fail. You have to learn how and where to shop (and that includes fabrics and patterns as well as ready-made clothes). You have to be willing to lose money on some things that don't work out.

    Nowadays, instead of bargain-hunting (which never worked for me), I save my money and buy things that will last. I've learned that I can keep my wardrobe simple and spend a little more on accessories. I've learned that fabric matters a lot, and fit is everything. So yes, that does take some money, but it's not unattainable. More than anything, it requires patience.

    As for sewing, it's more of a hobby for me. I don't rely on my sewing skills to build my wardrobe. Been there, done that, and it just wasn't much fun for me.


  10. I was raised before labeling started. Mom sewed most of our clothes as most mothers did. Although her suits were custom made by a tailor. Since I was sewing and designing my own clothes from an early age, my clothes were always up to date (sometimes too cutting edge but, hey, I was a teenager!) with the fashion magazines. I loved the creativity and attention that this caused. But I also loved getting what I sarcastically called a "store bought" outfit.

    When my kids were young teens was when labeling started and I disliked it then as much as I do now. (Why should we pay top dollar to be a walking advertisement? Seems like they should be paying us!) Although by then I was a divorced mom with two teenagers and money was tight. Being able to afford those jeans with the "just right" name on the butt was difficult. So, maybe I am biased.

    I still like to use various designers, not celebrities, as inspiration. Creativity and solving the construction details is what I thrive on. Wealth and celebrity do not enter my mind. Okay, maybe wealth, or my lack of it, when I shop for fabric.

  11. I grew up a military brat, and we were always on the outs from the townspeople. Either our clothes were wrong (we were dirt poor) or our language or accents were on the outs with them. I spent a few years living in France when I was a kid in the fifties, and found the women's style to be what I try to emulate now. They had one or two good wool dresses in a classic style, and they wore a smock like garment over them for housework to keep it clean. I have my own version that I find very comfortable and useful in my climate.

  12. I have been too overweight all of my life to even consider aspiring to the so-called "rich" clothes or labels that I see in a magazine or on tv. Even if I were "rich" - and associate professors at my university are guaranteed not to be - being overweight and dumpy cancels it all out in our society. So I invent outfits that I like, sew one-of-a-kind pieces that I love, and consider myself a work of art. I hit the heights of luxury last year when I had a pair of hot pink and black cowgirl boots made to order.

    But my stepsons are trapped in label-hell, and spent hours and hours in blazing hot weather tramping around Paris looking for a particular type of Japanese streetwear, e.g. hoodies that cost 85 euros.

    I am simply too old and too stylish to take a serious look at aspirational clothes!

  13. Guess I was lucky in highschool after all. There was a small clique of girls who dressed alike, but that was about it. I grew up in a mostly British & European area, so the emphasis was more on buying quality and keeping it rather than following trends. I started sewing at 12 as I grew 6" all at once, was too tall/skinny/leggy for teen clothes and women's wear was far too sophisticated back then. Mostly I sewed whatever was on sale or in the remnant bin at first, graduating to better fabrics and Paris knockoffs or mod British clothes. My biggest expense was good leather bags & shoes, and gloves as I could make just about everything else. I grew up poor, so nothing was ever a throw-away. My closet has never been stuffed full, but, as long as I sewed, I always had a flexible, dependable wardrobe of good quality clothes. And, yes, it was the look, not the brand I wanted. I never used those labels Vogue used to stick in the designer patterns.

    Clothes with prominent labels are a blight on fashion. I hate made in China clothes as the quality is usually awful and a lot just don't fit the European frame, but that's where most of the 'designer' clothes with labels come from, most of which are junk. What I find distressing is teens being mugged for their designer clothes and shoes, and parents having to put up with tantrums and stretch their budgets to the max because kids feel they need the 'right' clothes with the 'right' labels to fit in. I'm all for a basic school uniform look (not the $$$ you-must-buy-here uniform) to kill off some of this nonsense.

  14. I think a lot of this is very time period based. My mom had this very strong sense of how children should be dressed - but again, this was in the 50s and 60s, when you still very much had styles segregated into 'child', 'pre-teen', 'teen' or 'junior' (and junior petites as well), and then missy sizing. And the styles were really really different. There was no mistaking 6 year old girls from 10 year old girls and 10 year olds dressed differently from junior high girls and the senior high girls dressed differently in the 9th grade than the girls in the 12th grade. There really was this very strong sense of different styles for different stages of maturity. Although I recall very strongly that my mom felt it was stupid to dress us when I was little in big puffy dresses and patent leather shoes (which was the style at that time in the US; she'd just come from the UK, where that sort of dress was saved for party wear), I only became really aware of how differently we dressed (and my mom made a lot of my clothes for school, which I liked; my sister hated not having the same bought Garland sweaters and Villager skirts and dresses that her friends did, but she was almost 6' tall from the time she was 12 years old, so finding junior clothing that would fit her was basically impossible; my mom did her best to copy the styles but of course, to a teenager, this was not the same. For teens, 'aspiration' really has to do with 'matching', 'fitting in', rather than looking rich necessarily, I think. Now, because the uniform is generally not what would be considered upscale in any case (jeans are jeans - despite the price differentials), branding becomes very important, as the labels are the surrogates for wealth as people know that xxx brand jeans cost $150 a pair, whereas yyy brand jeans come from Target and cost $30 a pair.
    Our community is not what I'd consider an affluent community, but for those who do make money, their 'flash' is in the toys: more expensive cars, going on trips and talking about it and so on.

  15. Ah, the Lacoste shirt! My dad had a rainbow of these from the late seventies on. He liked to wear them with the super-short OP (Ocean Pacific) corduroy shorts that became popular in the early 80's. He liked to match them with his Reebok's and he usually wore the women's "Princess" variety because they had better colors. It was disturbing as hell. (He was straight, but made wearing ladies' clothes his own peculiar hobby.)

    I do remember needing a pair of Guess jeans when I started high school as well as a couple of other branded items. When I was at Hofstra, you didn't wear a sweatshirt unless it was a Champion sweatshirt. I gave in to a lot of these trends when I was young because it was about fitting in and feeling secure with my status.

    Now, I'm much older and much less label conscience. The only label I'm snobby about now is MINE - meaning the clothing I create, because I know it looks good and my kids are proud to wear it as am I (and even my husband when I make him the occasional garment).

  16. I grew up in a farming community in northern Indiana. No one ever said anything about what anyone wore. However, it was the mid 70s though, so raggy jeans were the normal thing to wear. I do remember some guy making a crack about me being rich when I wore a coat (that I had made) with fake fur on it. I remember laughing to myself about it since the coat cost me $12 to make. Rich indeed!

  17. There has been a divide due to fashion brands, and I was always on the lower side of that trend. My parents REFUSED to buy me clothing like that and I made due.

    Now that I'm on my own, I find it funny how little I pay attention to trends. Sometimes a piece or two will look good on me and I'll add it to my 'style'. I follow more of the 'classic' look. I like how nice sweaters, shirts, etc. look on me. But a typical day is jeans (jean shorts) and a solid colored t-shirt, sweater or jacket if it's cold, my ancient messenger bag, and I'm off.

    I really like the classic, clean look (BR often has stuff in this category) because the pieces are in for years, and you can find inexpensive RTW that works. It's appropriate for nearly any outing too. A lot of times it doesn't give off a vibe of wealth, just sophistication, and I'm all about that.

  18. I read in Dressing The Man (I think) that Clark Gable polished his own shoes and was quite methodical about the frequency and his method of doing so. That has nothing to do with any of this, but I am tossing it in since you have a pic of him.

  19. Money and style don't go hand in hand across the board. Style has little to do with money, but money can buy style if you are wealthy enough to hire someone to dress you. It annoys me no end when we are told how much "style" movie stars have. Their style all looks alike to me to begin with, and someone else dressed them, to boot. Some "wealthy" people are eccentric and go about in gardening clothes everywhere. However, this is not exclusive to the wealthy--some people just appear not to care. I am more interested in quality than brand. If the brand is a good quality and I can afford it AND I love it, I buy it. One of my pet peeves is those d---ed designer it bags or whatever they are called. Please!
    Interesting that you mentioned labels were not prevalent in magazines before the 90's--I have been a fashion mag junkie since I was 15, read them all, but did not notice this. One more way for people to be snobby, in my opinion. I'm sure that's why designers put their labels on the outside of clothes. And could someone please tell me how a naked Julianne Moore with a bird helps sell that atrocious bag they stuck in the pic?

  20. I started out sewing for myself (& a sister) in grade school- always hated the clothes the cliquey girls wore and was determined not to be part of that club & then started getting complements. Out of school @15 and to the city where drooling after limited edition Maude Frizon & Peter Fox shoes I became aware of design. It was less the label, but once you saw the quality and care taken in the construction and choice of materials - not to mention fit, you remembered the name. Now the label is about the only thing and too much of what people are buying (or lusting after) can only be described as faux luxury. How can something be "luxury" when it is advertised ad nauseam and almost universally available? (yes, at a price, but any idea how much of it is made in China?) ...obviously money can't buy taste, but it does provide access to quality (& style). Still, insecurity is everywhere in fashion it's encouraged by all the faux luxury advertisements & brainwashing the magazines, blogs etc. aimed squarely at the (often) younger, unimaginative, but aspirational devotees who are convinced of the power of the label over the power of the person. Hopefully, They will figure it out.

  21. From what I've ever seen of American TV, even back in the 80s, growing up in regional Australia was a very different experience. Firstly, all children wear school uniforms in Australia. These uniforms are issued by the school of uniform shops and therefore children are free from clothing-related peer pressure at school. This, I think, is a good thing. It means that there is no class distinctions within the school grounds.

    This peer pressure may have influenced shoe decisions but still what was available was very limited. You would not have been teased or ostracised for not having 'cool' shoes however you may have been self-conscious at times, that you didn't have them.

    There was also very little retail choice outside the capital cities. Most towns (less than 100,000 people) would have had a budget department store and a handful of independent outlets. I remember a lot of children wearing home made clothes.

    I think also, climate can play a strong hand in this discussion. I live in the tropics. When you live in a hot, balmy climate, comfort prevails - shorts & singlets, summer dresses and thongs are very much the norm. Let's face it, even if you were brand conscious there's still a limit (apart from crazy high-end lux gear) to how much these things cost. I know I for one, and all my friends, do not aspire to look lux. In fact, if you did so, people would instantly assume you were a tourist (which you most probably would be).

    I guess 30 years on, things have changed and teenagers are aware of brand. However, I still don't think there's an aspiration to look 'rich'. Groovy, cool, fun & funky, arty, sporty etc but not 'rich'. I'm sure there is a section of society living in the larger capital cities (Melbourne and Sydney) that do so. But I suspect it is the exception rather than the norm.

  22. Peter, that shot of Jim Backus made my day! I find the "in your face" aspect of modern luxury brands to be really off-putting. I'll take a vintage Chanel bag over a new one any old day for just that reason. Another thing that has disappeared is well made and moderately priced goods in the middle range between lux and mass market. The choice is either Alexander McQueen at Target or Alexander McQueen at Barney's with nothing in between. Another example: I loved Isabel Toledo's Payless collection but my feet can't tolerate cheap vinyl shoes. This whole thing about designers doing collections for discount chains is SO patronizing and snobby! I hate it.

  23. That's a really interesting observation about the luxury brands not advertising much until recent years. Is it because these brands have realised that a large part of their market with the disposable cash is twenty-somethings who are not yet lumbered with mortgage, kids etc? And totally of the 'me me me' generation. Oops am I sounding old?
    I had a similar 'private school' experience to you Peter, but in Australia, between ages 12 - 17 (1980s). You have really encapsulated a lot of things I thought and felt then and think now. I think sewing is a great way to avoid the whole brand thing altogether. Also I can now appreciate why someone might pay more for something truly, really well designed and made, not just a brand name. Perhaps a Chanel suit is really worth the money? (But not my style, thank goodness.) But a brand name on a t-shirt? Yuk.

  24. I think branding for most people I know has become much less important as we've got older; especially with production in low-wage countries resulting in fewer quality differences between cheap brands and more expensive brands.

  25. Great observations. I was in the super-luxe clothing store Jeffrey the other day. You would not believe the poor quality of some of the clothes. Exclusive designer mens shirts costing hundreds made of stiff, cheap-looking fabric and wonky sleeve plackets (I won't name names).


  26. I used to live in fear of free dress days at school, mostly because I was terrified of wearing something horribly wrong (known as "daggy" in the local parlance). Thank goodness for school uniforms! They mean everyone looks just as horrible as everyone else!

    Now that I don't have to wear a uniform, I honestly don't take my inspiration from expensive brands or anything like that. I actually have somewhat of a prejudice against them. I dislike having brand names on anything, for instance. Usually, I tend to take my inspiration from eras or from something retro-styled. Whether or not it looks expensive is irrelevant.

  27. Late to the party, but I'll jump in anyway...

    I grew up in a rural area where style aspiration simply did not exist. Nobody had much money, everybody knew it and clothes truly didn't matter. When my family's business started to prosper, our clothing didn't change. Now, my mother can afford whatever clothing she wants but it would be so out of place in her world that it would make her uncomfortable to wear it. I'm generalizing here, but I think really small town folks in fly-over states are typically not concerned about fashion, much less slaves to aspirational fashion.

    I think a small, close-knit community de-emphasizes fashion as communication because there are so few instances of making a first impression. Everyone already knows you (often from birth!), and knows lots of things about you and your family. Carrying an expensive handbag is never going to outweigh the cumulative effect of knowing someone for twenty years. If you really know someone, you don't need fashion for visual cues about affluence and class.

  28. Welcome, Katie!

    Great points, Jenny. Thanks for sharing your perspective.


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