“You’re wondering what they’re wearing and they’re making money off of your attention.” How have the fashion aesthetics of the rich contributed to wealth inequality?
First, We Eat With Our Eyes: The Aesthetics of the Rich
It’s 2007 and the McBling era is at its height. We have Paris Hilton wearing the Louis Vuitton Murakami bag with her hot pink Motorola Razr phone, Juicy Couture velour hoodie, and a skirt the size of a belt. She’s the poster girl for Beverly Hills’ glamour and extravagance. On the other side of the country, there are New York businessmen heading out of their Park Avenue apartments into their waiting town cars. But before they dip into the backseat, they can be seen in their luxurious suits, diamond cuff links, Rolex submariner, and Burberry trench draped over their arms. While these paint contrasting images of success, the common thread is opulence and excess. The wealth these figures exude can be seen from miles away. Ironically, by the end of the next year in the winter of 2008, these images will be archaic, tacky, and nauseating displays of affluence. The new picture of wealth will be nearly indistinguishable from “regular” people who walk the streets.
Historically, aesthetics have been a defining characteristic of the wealthy. Through the years of the French aristocracy before the Revolution, the Gilded Age, the Victorian era, and the Trumpian-style excess of the 1980s, high levels of opulence were signatures of the über-rich. Their homes would be decorated with handmade materials crafted by skilled artisans and imported from all over the world. Their clothes would be custom-made and they would have a new outfit for every day of the week. But when you look at the filthy rich of days past and compare them to today’s wealthy, it becomes glaringly obvious that something changed. Overtly excess displays of wealth are no longer commonplace.
After the 2008 recession, there was a dramatic shift in the presentation of the wealthy. While the New York businessmen and Paris Hiltons of the world still existed, they had dramatic adjustments to make in order to protect their public image and — most importantly — their wealth. This can be attributed to a number of factors: (1) people were very angry with the rich, (2) the way people gained their wealth had changed, (3) the justifications for wealth were shifting, and (4) the responses of the working and middle classes. All of these factors resulted in a new class of wealthy people that looked much different from the wealthy people of history.
The 2008 recession was inarguably the result of wealthy people playing with and profiting off the wages of the working and middle classes, many of whom lost their jobs, homes, savings, and retirement funds. Occupy Wall Street was one of the biggest manifestations of anger people had towards the rich — many of whom either did not suffer the consequences or directly profited from the recession. There was a wave of anger among the working and middle classes against the wealthy. Of course, the rich would not give up their wealth to appease the angered masses. Instead, they learned to adapt — becoming more covert about how they presented themselves.
Whether through organic or artificial means, there is a constant cultural fixation on people with money. There are countless forms of media centered around the rich, from phenomena like MTV Cribs to the annual Forbes billionaire list, and to the constant interviews and articles questioning how certain wealthy people became wealthy. When certain members of the rich began to visibly change their aesthetics, the public and the media took notice.
Enter the billionaire “tech bro,” a wealthy (usually young) man who has some multi-million or billion-dollar tech company. He’s at the top of the Forbes 500. Think Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Bill Gates of Microsoft, Steve Jobs of Apple, and Jeff Bezos of Amazon. When these men became cultural icons from the late 90s to mid-2000s, people had to attribute their fast accumulation of riches to something. It became a sweeping trend to justify their massive fortunes with some super-human level of productivity that was in part due to their clothing. While much of America had felt scorned by the rich, the intelligent, “hard-working” class of wealthy people were not targets of hatred, but rather beacons of inspiration. Pillars of light.
Steve Jobs was well-known for wearing his classic black turtleneck, blue jeans, and New Balance sneakers. He was said to have worn this outfit every day because it limited choice fatigue and allowed him to use his brain power on more important things like inventing the iPhone. For some reason, this clicked for many people. Suddenly, there was a new way to justify his wealth: “Steve Jobs is a genius! He works incredibly hard and is incredibly productive, so it totally makes sense that he’s rich.”
When Mark Zuckerberg became known for nearly identical outfits every day in order to “prevent decision fatigue,” the media was struck again by how yet another genius billionaire was saving brain power by not thinking about his wardrobe. With this, came an explosion of articles titled “Why successful people wear the same outfit every day” or “Billionaire tips: Limit the time you spend thinking about arbitrary things like clothing.” After a while, the articles began to read more like “the reason you’re poor is that you care about clothing,” as if the half-hour the average person spends on an outfit for the day is keeping them from their next billion.
It’s astonishing how quickly the public got swept up in the aesthetics of the new class of millionaires and billionaires. It’s unclear whether or not this is primarily due to the media’s influence or the short attention span of the American public. What we do know is that this new class and presentation of wealth had become a fixation. The result was a shifting of anger from the men in suits to an inward audit of success. Pointing blame toward the poor for their conditions is a long-standing trend in American history. Americans are told to aspire towards the wealthy and covet their secrets of “success.” But by now, shouldn’t we know that playing by the rules of the rich will never result in mass success? Success, by that definition, is very limited. When the dominant image of success becomes too common, something has to change. Being elite depends on exclusivity. True success is exclusive.
For the longest time, Americans were told to “dress for success.” Before the mono-outfit tech-bro billionaire era, success looked like pressed and well-tailored clothing such as suits and dresses. The normal working or middle-class American would probably be berated for showing up to their corporate job in a t-shirt and jeans outside of “casual Fridays.” This is because — during that time — the billionaires to admire were the successful CEOs with buildings in New York’s financial district, massive hotel chain owners, or real estate moguls. They wore couture, silk Armani suits to work with gleaming leather shoes, and diamond cufflinks. If you wanted to be like them, you had to emulate their look.
The very obvious fact is that your appearance affects your public perception. It is the societal expectation and personal responsibility of people to fine-tune their appearance in accordance with how they want to be treated. The poor want to be treated with the dignity and respect of the wealthy. The wealthy want the perceived “imperceptibility” and “freedom from responsibility” of the working and middle classes. The problem with this is that the poor dressing to emulate rich aesthetics of dress has no palpably negative impact on the rich. However, the rich desiring to be perceived as working or middle class has significant and measurable harm to the poor.
Historically, in order to distance themselves from blame and to protect their status from being questioned, the rich would deflect blame onto the poor, finding any aspect of their behavior to critique. Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan notably created the caricature of the “welfare queen” to direct public outrage against limited resources from government officials and the wealthy to poor, working-class Black people — specifically Black mothers. However, when directly creating and disseminating harmful narratives about the poor is not viable, manipulating their appearance and co-opting working and middle-class aesthetics can be.
While the aesthetics of the wealthy have simplified, they definitely have not decreased in value. In reality, they’re still wearing expensive brands that simply “look” affordable. This is known as “quiet luxury” or “coded luxury.” Coded luxury does away with the overtly obvious labels and whispers its value to you. Only the ones who know, know. Many wealthy people use it as a way of communicating to other wealthy people that they’re rich in a language the working and middle classes are not privileged enough to understand. For example, Mark Zuckerberg is known for his signature t-shirt and jeans ensemble. It’s a look that’s seen as very casual, down-to-earth, and even approachable. However, these shirts are custom-ordered Bruno Cucinelli shirts that allegedly cost between $300 and $400 per shirt. Bruno Cucinelli is one of the designers who specialize in high-quality clothing with a luxury status hidden behind simple garments. Other quiet or coded luxury designers include Loro Piana, Bottega Veneta (though this brand is becoming considerably less quiet), and The Row. The statement “new money shouts while old money whispers” is something that certain classes of wealthy people take seriously. Even those with new money like Zuckerberg and other big-tech CEOs chose to follow the ways of the old money and whisper their wealth even as it’s being shouted on the covers of TIME and Forbes.
But what does this mean for the middle and working classes? Wealthy people adopting clothing aesthetics that resemble those of the working class is harmful on multiple fronts. In recent years, thrift store prices have increased. Places like Goodwill are no longer an affordable option for those who cannot afford first-hand clothing. Thrifting is now also seen as environmentally-conscious, whereas before, poorer people were seen as unclean for wearing second-hand clothing. Work-wear brands like Carhartt and Dickies are now considered trendy and even “designer.” Items are often highly sought after making them less accessible for blue-collar workers who need these clothes for their jobs. Hanes and Champion t-shirts and hoodies have also increased their prices. While the factors for the price increase do include inflation and higher production costs, their newfound popularity is also to blame. The rich will always be able to afford whichever aesthetics they fancy. The real issue is that the working and middle classes already struggle to afford the aesthetics they need in their daily lives. When the rich co-opt these aesthetics, they price out members of the working and middle classes. So after several decades of being told to buy clothes they can’t afford to increase their chances at success, people without wealth are now unable to afford the clothing that was once deemed “low-class” and “undesirable.”
While there were multiple tools in the wealthy’s arsenals, their aesthetics were one of the most subtle ones. It is not the extravagance of the clothing that makes their hoarding of money incorrigible. It is not the simplicity of the clothing that makes their wealth justifiable. Wealth inequality is a moral issue, not a superficial or aesthetic one. No matter how you dress it up or dress it down, the hoarding of wealth is unethical. Clothing aesthetics are a distraction from the main issue of wealth inequality. It is far easier to be caught up in the blingy aesthetics of wealthy hotel heiresses and the simple pairings of tech CEOs than pay attention. Their clothes are a skillfully deployed distraction. Their clothes granted them publicity when they needed it to launch brands. Their clothing granted them hiding when they were blamed for recessions, high rates of poverty, and global tragedies.
The rich use their fashion aesthetics to dazzle and confound. When they flaunt their wealth through clothes, it gets people talking about the clothes and not about the sources of their money. When they hide their wealth through their clothes, it makes them appear more approachable and — some argue — more deserving of their wealth than gaudier rich people. The fashion aesthetics of the rich also change social expectations. Because of an ever-present, implicit societal demand to emulate the upper echelon, working and middle-class people are constantly being given contradicting messages on how to present themselves. Their clothing is seen as an encouragement or hindrance to earning money. Their lack of wealth is blamed on their inability to understand how to dress. Yesterday, dressing for success meant well-made dresses and well-tailored suits. It was about “dressing for the job you want, instead of the job you have.” Today, working and middle-class people are told to stop caring so much about clothing and to simplify their wardrobes so they can spend more time being productive than getting dressed. Tomorrow, who knows?
As we enter into the next recession and conversations about wealth and fashion continue, we should remember that the constantly shifting aesthetics of the wealthy is a means of exercising oppression. The clothing that rich people wear is a physical extension of their power. Physical appearance is one of the main tenants upon which people are judged. Manipulating your appearance can give you significant amounts of leverage in how you interact with the world and how the world interacts with you. Working and middle-class people often spend a significant amount of time, money, and effort on their appearance in order to survive in the world. Their main goal is survival, first and foremost. However, wealthy people are able to manipulate their appearance in order to consolidate power, protect resources, or gain more wealth. Steve Jobs was able to generate trust and interest in his brand by wearing the same clothing every day as an allusion to his humility and intelligence. Kim Kardashian was able to remain a topic of conversation for over a decade, earning her billions due to her constantly shifting styles and outlandish clothing choices. Unlike the middle and working classes, their clothing was not a means of survival but a strategic tool that they were able to use to amass multi-billion dollar global empires.
No matter how many times it changes, the goal remains the same: constantly maintaining its public image in a way that protects and produces more wealth. While Paris Hilton has toned down her look and Kim Kardashian has gone from color-block bandage dresses to neutral blazers and body suits, it all remains the same. You’re wondering what they’re wearing and they’re making money off of your attention.