You Can’t Even Tell Who’s Rich Anymore

You Can’t Even Tell Who’s Rich Anymore

You Can’t Even Tell Who’s Rich Anymore

Billionaires dress like the guy next door, which elides the fact of our ever-worsening inequality.

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One of the great disappointments of contemporary life is that in times of hopelessly vast income inequality, society’s arch-capitalists—and many very rich people in general—are boring. The zenith of their boringness? How they dress. Look, for example, at Meta CEO Mark Zuckerburg. Extremely rich guy. If you saw him on the street, walking around in a Patagonia vest and a quarter-zip pullover paired with chinos, you’d easily mistake him for one of your dad’s friends. Bill Gates dresses more like your friend’s granddad—khakis, long-sleeved rugby shirt, loafers. Elon Musk does that infuriating 2010s tech-guy thing where he pairs an ill-fitting blazer with a T-shirt and jeans. These men, when they wear suits, look like penguins, waddling around galas and red carpets completely ill at ease with themselves. It’s not just tech billionaires, either. If you flip through People, you’ll see ungodly rich actors and actresses being snapped in Nike sweatpants, Starbucks cups in hand.

Those magnates who try to style themselves often frankly don’t even know how to. Recall, for example, that picture of Tiffany executive Alexandre Arnault sitting courtside at an NBA game wearing the tacky shoe collab the brand did with Nike (two sizes too big) combined with the equally tacky Sapphire Rainbow Murakami Hublot watch (which features a manga-style flower character covered in precious jewels), out-of-style skinny jeans, and, as icing on the cake, a necklace from Tiffany’s rather embarrassing jewelry collab with NFT purveyor CryptoPunks. This man, the head of what was once one of the most revered fashion institutions in the world, does not know how to wear clothes. He only knows how to lard his frail, millionaire body with various hype-driven status symbols. I find this a travesty.

If I had as much money as a Zuckerberg or an Arnault, I would leave the house every single day in impeccable and expensive outfits. I would rock vintage Chanel and wear long gloves and big sunglasses and the weird statement jewelry they sell at art museums. I would own Miu Miu shoes. I would have a personal tailor and a closet the size of my living room. I would buy diamond and sapphire art deco brooches from Van Cleef & Arpels, the stuff that is appraised at exorbitant sums on Antiques Roadshow. I would start smoking cigarettes just to smoke them out of one of those long cigarette holders Breakfast at Tiffany’s–style. And I would know how to put it all together. I spend days daydreaming about how I could make myself more mysterious by only wearing pared-down minimalist clothing from Eileen Fisher. I scour the thrift store and vintage racks and procure interesting pieces. I dress myself eclectically, but well. If I can do it, why can’t Zuckerberg, who has more money than God?

You used to be able to look at someone and tell that they were rich. Clothes have always been an important class signifier. The magnates of old all had personal tailors, custom suits, beautiful shoes, and exquisite yet curated jewelry. A child asked to stereotype a rich person will tell you they wear a fancy suit or a ballgown with a pearl necklace. But even when I was a child, the richest people in the world no longer dressed like that. Formality has long been equated with wealth, but wealthy people, off the red carpet, no longer embrace formality. What a waste!

For the last few years, tactical gear such as hiking boots, cargo pants, and waterproof jackets have become de rigueur under the aesthetic categories of “normcore” or “gorpcore” (named for “good ol’ raisins and peanuts,” a term for trail mix). Rihanna even wore a pair of Salomon sneakers at her Super Bowl halftime show. Before that, the emergence of business casual in the late 20th century soon transformed all business into casual, which spelled the death of the suit, an institution—and a craft—that had lasted a century. It is sad that both the art of making and wearing a fine suit have been relegated to a niche market and that we can no longer point at some guy wearing one and say, hey, look at this rich guy. If you see someone on the street wearing a double-breasted suit now, it is less likely that he’s a robber baron and more likely that he is someone like Derek Guy, aka the Menswear Guy on Twitter, a writer and enthusiast who is just into that sort of thing.

Our Internet-, AI-besotted era is a time of collapsed signification, of symbols detached from original individual, collective, or cultural meaning. To rub some additional salt in the wound, those symbols are often borrowed or stolen from the lower classes by the upper. The heirs of old wealth go to private colleges and wear the same Carhartt jackets owned by truck drivers. Tech billionaires try to look like your neighbors or pensioners. McMansions try to look like farmhouses. Apartments in luxury high-rises look like half-empty Airbnbs. Brands, of course, have also taken note. Is the guy splattered in paint a house painter, or is he sporting a $1,900 jacket made by the American brand Amiri? Is the woman wearing Salomon sneakers and cargo pants a hiking enthusiast or a streetwear aficionado communicating subtly only to those communities in the know? Nobody knows!

What is lost when sartorial symbols of labor—be they working-class-coded such as Carhartt and Dickies or the technical gear necessary for doing certain jobs or activities—are appropriated by rich people? You might be thinking, “But, Kate, doesn’t this signal that we will soon be dressing in a newly aesthetically classless society?” Haha, no! That’s what I find most interesting about all of this: If we look beneath the surface of high fashion, the added insult to injury (beyond Tiffany’s selling NFT bling) is that the rich’s appropriation of “ugliness,” “normalcy,” and working-class aesthetics is inherently ironic because they are rich and sometimes, in the case of such trends as over-articulated ugly dad shoes, that irony is explicit. It’s not just that fashion houses like Balenciaga have, for the last few years, laid claim to everything from “My Name Is” tags to graffiti; it’s that they think all of those things are funny. A Cala blog earlier this year put it best:

As the world faces an unpredicted instability—being it climatic, political, pathological, or behavioral—we, global customers, should no longer sustain the burden of irony in any creative output; we should be all on strike against unnecessary layers of meaning injected into luxury products; we should be consuming any kind of luxury we’re capable of, but without the totally-irrelevant demand of making it funny and self-referential.

Beneath all of this—irony, appropriation, humor—is confusion. When it is no longer possible to visually distinguish—via signs accrued through a lifetime of observation, experience, and social cues—between the wealthy, the working class, and people who like hiking, you are liable to make some seriously embarrassing mistakes. I often think about an apartment building that made the rounds on social media a few years ago. The building was new, mid-rise, clad in colorful aluminum paneling, the kind of building that pops up near a subway stop and has a name like “The Dalton.” The attendant viral joke was about how arts districts hasten gentrification. Everyone felt kind of foolish when the building in question turned out to be supportive, low-income housing for the formerly homeless. What I’m getting at here is it’s probably wise not to assume too much these days, as aesthetic signifiers can no longer be trusted. Sure, maybe the guy wearing a puffer vest is a minor tech billionaire. Maybe he’s just cold. Either way, that burden of distinction is now on all of us. Good luck out there.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
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