Why Having Good Taste Is Really Just Code for Being Rich

Cool as code word for "rich"
“Old Lady Dressing” as done by The Row Fall/Winter 2014

We live in an age of perhaps unprecedentedly conspicuous consumption. Oh, sure, we’re not quite at the level of decadence seen in, say, pre-Revolution France, and we’ve even come a long way from the early 2000s when anything and everything was blatantly branded (even asses, which, goodbye forever, Juicy Couture tracksuits), but not only do we now exist in a time of dramatic income inequality, we also find ourselves in an age of constant social media updates, many of which are directly related to consumption habits. And it is through this carefully filtered lens that we observe the lifestyles of everyone from our peers to our idols, and frequently those lifestyles involve luxurious travel destinations, exorbitantly priced home furnishings, meals that cost as much as some people’s monthly rent, and clothing items that equal many people’s annual salary. All of which is to say, that unlike in times past, when even the most flamboyantly wealthy Americans consumed with a degree of discretion due to the simple fact that there was not yet such a thing as Instagram or a rather execrable app meant to track your purchases for the public, we now are surrounded by signifiers of wealth, both blatant and subtle as well as being inescapable in their ubiquity.

And while for many people who bear witness to this type of conspicuous consumption (Kim Kardashian, for example, has over 15 million followers on Instagram), these displays of wealth are the epitome of luxury and are something to which people aspire, for many others (including those who hated the Vogue cover featuring Kardashian) they are the height of vulgarity and are signifiers not of abundance, but of absence… of poverty. The poverty of which I speak is not strictly a matter of financial worth (although, it should be noted, labeling something or someone “vulgar” is historically the equivalent of calling them either poor or nouveau riche) but also speaks to an absence of something that is only tangentially associated with money: social status and cultural cache. In other words, good taste is something that can’t be bought, but is rather something one is either born into or has bred into them. There’s no maybe about it—you’re born with it, or you’re not of it.

It’s this type of assessment of taste and style, one which values intangible signifiers over those that are more concrete, which is evident in a recent Elle article, “All Hail the New Hipster,” which purports to be a celebration of something called “old lady dressing,” but is really about something more insidious, namely codifying style and taste in such a way as to exclude those who failed to be born rich, or, at the very least, upper-middle class. In the article, writer Alice Gregory admires the style of the older women who populate her neighborhood, Brooklyn Heights. And while it may seem surprising that a 26-year-old writer would emulate the look of people three times her age, Gregory writes, “It’s not about their maturity, per se—though nothing catches my eye quite like a glossy pewter bob—it’s the counterintuitive assertion of wealth: the stylish nonstyle,” Gregory goes on to lament that what once passed for “cool” (think Coachella, or, you know, don’t) has now become attainable for “any suburban teenager with Wi-Fi and $15 in her pocket.” And so the last frontier in style is simply “affluence”—or, in Gregory’s case, “the illusion of it”—which has become “the last unattainable goal.”

Gregory calls this style “aggressive tastefulness” and cites Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen’s fashion line The Row, a line which features things like $4,000 backpacks, as an exemplar of this type of dressing, while also admitting that “what lends minimalist dressing its gravitas is its price.” In fact, the entire article is a sort of plea to shun things like ankle bracelets (7-year-old Gregory was told by her grandmother that they make her look “like a whore”) in favor of things that offer a subtle opulence, like Tod’s boots. Gregory admits that she doesn’t have the income to afford what the truly wealthy can, and instead stocks up on Gap jeans and $9.99 Uniqlo turtlenecks, but in perpetuating the reductive idea that the style that is worth the most is literally worth the most, Gregory reinforces an insidious underlying message, namely, that not only does good taste comes with an astronomical price tag, but also, unless you already have a certain kind of pedigree, it will remain forever out of reach. 

While it might seem like this article is just another way for a fashion magazine to appeal to its hopefully shopping-happy, trend-seeking readership, there is something far more troubling about the promotion of things like “rich old lady dressing”  than simply its appeal to an overtly elitist demographic. What trends like this—and, for that matter, normcore—do is alienate the huge swathes of the population who have no hope of, say, inheriting their mother’s perfectly worn, late 70s camel hair coat or, for that matter, are even familiar with what the wealthy old ladies on the streets of Brooklyn Heights wear to begin with. There is no room for rebellion here, no room to break the rules. This type of dressing is establishment dressing in the extreme, and speaks to a type of privilege that has historically shut out anyone who didn’t belong among the elite in the first place. It’s all well and good to admire the subtlety of wearing a “uniform” of a black turtleneck, simple jeans, and a nice pair of boots, but the snobbery inherent to this particular “trend” should make us as uncomfortable as all the young women who have whole-heartedly embraced “festival fashion” as their go-to daily wardrobe. The problem with this trend is that, like normcore, it isn’t transferable. It is an indication of privilege and serves to delineate those who don’t belong from those who do. The fact that Gregory concludes by writing that we should all attempt to “look like a person who has no idea what’s going on but employs a very good personal assistant who does,” does nothing but make me wonder, what then, should a personal assistant look like? Unfortunately, the personal assistants of the world don’t seem to fit into this particular style narrative as anything more than props. Props, who, we should note, hopefully don’t wear ankle bracelets lest, you know, someone think they were whores.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen