Quiet Luxury And Its Problematic Roots

I don’t have a TikTok account and I don’t keep up with all the ridiculous trends that are unraveling on that platform. But inevitably, the tidal wave of the internet washes the “latest big thing” on other social spaces as well. People start recreating, discussing and analyzing the trends that originated on TikTok. That’s how I got introduced to the newest craze that goes by the name quiet luxury: it popped up in my YouTube recommendations.

Granted, the obsession with this style is not new, for 2 reasons: 1) it has been trending for at least a few months and it doesn’t show signs of stopping and 2) there have always been an iteration of this trend, albeit not under the same name.

Trends with the same flavor have circulated the internet for at least a decade. I remember some years ago there was an influx of fashionistas teaching us how to “look expensive on a budget.” Although it’s not quite the same thing, it’s definitely a second cousin.

While this latest trend might look like a harmless one, or even a beneficial movement due to the promotion of sustainability, there are subtle whispers underneath the discourse that point in another direction. This article is aimed at following those whispers and illustrate the classist (and racist) foundations they echo.

But first, let’s define our terms.

Quiet Luxury 101

Quiet luxury is a fashion trend and aesthetic that seeks to reject the traditional signifiers of wealth and instead embrace more subtle notions of it, such as fabric quality, the attention to detail, an impeccable cut and the craftsmanship that went into the production of a garment. Loud logos are replaced with understated hints of provenance, synthetic fibers with natural-derived ones and ostentatious prints with muted details.

As per internet wisdom, the brands that epitomize quiet luxury are Loro Piana, The Row, Khaite, Max Mara or Brunello Cucinelli, among others.

The phrase that encapsulates this social orientation is “if you know, you know,” alluding to the exclusive club you’d be a part of if you adopt this style.

Quiet Luxury style
Quiet Luxury Style

Although the main anchor point of quiet luxury revolves around one’s fashion choices, the trend bleeds into other areas of life and can reflect where one lives, the hobbies one participates in, or the places one chooses as holiday destinations. Say goodbye to Ibiza and pack up for a weekend in Gstaad.

Collage of 4 photos showcasing the aesthetic of old money: equestrian rides, grand old homes, classic style furniture, etc.
Old Money Aesthetic

One doesn’t usually hear about quiet luxury without mention of “old money,” which encapsulates the signifiers that identify someone as coming from a generationally wealthy family.

Although there’s overlap between the precepts of quiet luxury and old money style, these two are not interchangeable.

Old money style aesthetic
How the Old Money dress

Quiet Luxury In Context

It’s no secret that the world of fashion is intricately wrapped up in the larger societal context, important luxury houses creating new styles based on the latest social events. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic and in its aftermath, the runways have reflected people’s tendencies and desires. During the crisis, the collections exuded feelings of uncertainty and referenced our desire to be safe and comfortable.

After the pandemic restrictions eased off, the designers collection’s shifted again. This time, echoing people’s desire to go outside, and the need for “freedom,” the pendulum swung in the other direction. Boldness and loud self-expression were the attitudes du jour.

But now, the waters are shifting again.

It’s no coincidence the quiet luxury trend is blooming right now, according to Lorna Hall, director of fashion intelligence at WGSN, quoted in Business Insider. She argues in the same article that quiet luxury is actually a response to the uncertain economic situation in the world: the cost of living is soaring, job security is dwindling and people feel abandoned by the same institutions that are supposed to protect them. Because so many people have a less than ideal living situation, struggling to make ends meet, the logic goes, it’s vulgar to flaunt your wealth. The only socially acceptable thing to do is to be as discreet and unassuming as possible with how you present yourself.

I personally don’t buy that for second. If there is one reason why the ultra rich are reluctant to show off their wealth is because of security reasons, not out of respect for the less fortunate, whom they don’t brush shoulders with anyway. To take the point even further, just a few weeks ago (as of late May 2023) the UK and the whole world has been subjected to one of the most ostentatious parades of wealth: I’m referring of course to the coronation, which was mainly funded by British taxpayers.

According to the internet gurus, 3 major events contributed to the rise of this trend: the popularity of HBO’s show Succession, Sofia Richie’s (Lionel Richie’s daughter) wedding and Gwyneth Paltrow’s latest trial. How much these events were actually responsible for the quiet luxury sentiment doesn’t interest me a lot. I’m more fascinated with the questionable undertones of the trend, which I’ll turn to in a bit.

Before that, let’s acknowledge some positives. In the footnotes of this trend, its proponents champion quiet luxury as a sustainable alternative to fast fashion because it upholds the importance of investing in pieces that are going to last you for many years, buying less but from ethical brands and even wearing clothes that were passed down to you from your parents. Heritage and durability take precedence over labels and popularity.

These are all laudable positions, but let’s be real, the people who have the funds to purchase luxury items are probably not doing it to save the planet (nor are most of them limiting themselves to only a few essential items), and the ones who are only imitating this aesthetic are probably more concerned with what their image portrays rather than being sustainable.

Kings & Peasants

Throughout history, the aristocracy always needed a sound justification for their position of power and superiority, and that was achieved by invoking their divine right to rule and also other signifiers of excellence, such as their wealth and by extension, their clothing (among other things).

People have tried to replicate the styles and way of life of the rich for centuries. But of course, if everyone could exhibit affluence, then how would the “true” nobility stand out? Therefore, a game of cat and mouse ensued, where as soon as the working class could replicate the image of the wealthy, they switched up the game, creating new rules and norms, adding more layers of complexity to what it means to be well-off.

The Loud Issues With Quiet Luxury

Because I’ve just finished reading Luke Burgis’ Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life, I can’t help but think about the quiet luxury trend through the lens of mimetic desire, which is the topic of the book. Burgis makes the case, drawing on the work of René Girard, that humans are mimetic creatures – that means they emulate and aspire to the models they have (meaning other people). Desire doesn’t spring out of our unadulterated hearts, but is shaped by the actions of those we seek to mimic, which can be either celebrities or our peers.

Animals imitate sounds, facial expressions, gestures, aggression, and other behaviors. Humans imitate all of those things and more: retirement planning, romantic ideals, sexual fantasies, food preparation, social norms, worship, gift-giving rituals, professional courtesies, and memes.

Fashion is probably one of the easiest and most straightforward things to imitate, since it’s such an integral part of how a person presents themselves. We cannot escape mimesis, but we should be aware of the models we have and their influence on us.

It seems that the proponents of the quiet luxury trend have as their models of desire figures such as Sophia Richie or Succession’s characters.

Representation of mimetic desire.
Source: Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life

Mimetic desire can also work in reverse, by avoiding imitating the people one sees as inferior or undesirable. In the case of quiet luxury, this entails rejecting anything that is seen as belonging to the working class or to the infamous “new money” people.

As Burgis details in the book, when a group of people all desire the same thing, animosity starts to breed between them, even leading to violence and a process of scapegoating.

In Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Cost of Free Markets, Todd McGowan explains how our wants are filtered through “the Other”:

We desire what we assume the Other desires because the Other desires it and because we want to attract the desire of the Other. It is in these two senses that our desire is always the desire of the Other.

The problem doesn’t lie in the fact that we’re inspired by a fashion style, but that we associate undertones of morality to the style one adopts. What quiet luxury evangelists are implicitly saying is that if you’re modeling your fashion choices by Sophia Richie, then you’re more valuable as a human than if you imitated Kim K’s style.

Next is the issue of good taste. I’ve been thinking about this for a while. Some questions that we have to ask ourselves are: who sets the standards? what happens to those who don’t meet them, be it in fashion or other domain? Frances Sola-Santiago wrote this article:

[T]he trend bases the notion of good taste, a cultural construct, on the idea that the powerful are those who create it and, even worse, that they are the only ones who know how to appreciate it. 

Following from mimetic desire, if we’re treating the top 1% as the arbiter of desire, ultimately we imply that their preferences are the standard for what’s considered “good taste”.

Here’s what fashion editor Diana Vreeland had to say about taste:

Too much good taste can be very boring. Independent style, on the other hand, can be very inspiring.

If everyone adopted the quiet luxury aesthetic it would mean a flattening of our individual personalities and peculiarities that often come off in our style, rendering everyone, regardless of culture or economic background, an inauthentic copy of a made up social norm. Not to mention the fact that a wide spread embracing of this style would result in a goal post shifting once more.

In a world that elevates making money and multiplying it to the rank of art, it’s ironic that your purchasing power can’t buy you the right to display your wealth as you please. Now the Internet Police demands you be discreet about it.

Our fascination with the obscenely wealthy takes many forms: from thinking they possess some secret magic formula that if followed would also bring us unimagined prosperity, to adopting (as much as possible) their habits, routines and even attire. And unfortunately, it sells. I’ve lost count of the articles that talk about how this or that millionaire (or billionaire) spends his day, or manages his tasks or some other stuff that’s inconsequential to his success, but that’s sold as the key to unlocking outrageous riches.

We’ve always revered the understated style of (some) tech billionaires, the most prominent examples perhaps being Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, with their minimalist, guy-next-door outfits, but which actually cost hundreds of dollars. This is a great article talking more in depth about this specific topic. Their casual attire evokes a “he’s just a normal dude” aura that distracts us from the questionable things they’ve done.

The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy, first published in 1998, by Thomas Stanley and William Danko, paints a picture of your average, unassuming millionaire, who doesn’t showcase his wealth in any way, focusing instead on living below his means (in order to accumulate more wealth, one might presume). This book undoubtedly contributed to creating in the general public a “down-to-Earth” image for millionaires. It also reinforced the idea that it’s morally better to keep a low profile, drive a modest car and wear plain clothes that don’t showcase your riches.

Just because one version of wealth is more discreet, doesn’t mean it’s morally superior or exempt from scrutiny. More important than how one’s wealth is displayed is how it was accumulated in the first place, and when we’re talking about the top 1%, we can be sure it involved exploitation of disadvantaged groups or government intervention.

Trying to emulate the upper classes goes against the idea of dismatling the current power structures. If we’re aspiring to be like them, then how are we supposed to address the injustices and exploitation that made them who they are? In this article, Letitia Garcia writes:

But above all, it’s a style that is associated with a minority that oppresses, enriches itself through others’ needs, and inhabits a microcosm that is far removed from the daily reality that it sometimes scorns. 

Since quiet luxury entails disposable income, and many Gen Z’ers don’t have it, the next logical step was the emergence of quiet luxury without the… luxury. If you can’t have a shirt signed by the Olsen sisters, then at least buy a similar one from ZARA. Unfortunately, that defies the whole purpose. You’re no longer practicing quiet luxury, you’re at best cosplaying wealth. (This, of course, excludes the people who simply dress like this out of preference, without any reference to an elitist trend.)

Minimalism or an understated style are all fine until you attach to them the tag of “superiority” and moral virtue.

Another unfortunate flavor of quiet luxury is racism. The garments of indigenous cultures or other minority groups have regularly employed the use of color, loud prints and maximalist details. Although not explicitly, by glorifying the aesthetic of Quiet Luxury, we’re diminishing the heritage and cultural significance of non-Western peoples. Not to mention the subcultures of hip-hop or hippies whose very essence rejects Quiet Luxury.

The Other Types Of Quiet Luxury

In a world where the market has wormed itself into all aspects of life, the true quiet luxury isn’t in any way materialistic. It has nothing to do with the fabric your clothes are made of or the label that’s stitched on them. It doesn’t reside between the fibers of your merino wool sweater, nor underneath the sole of your Loro Piana loafers.

The true quiet luxury, at least as I see it, has more to do with being free from all these games. As grim as it sounds, these trends are testament that we’re all still deep in Plato’s cave, watching shadows on the wall and attaching our sense of worth to them, clinging for dear life. The shadows keep changing, nonetheless we keep buying (literally and metaphorically) the new one, thinking “This must be it. That’s how I’m gonna be happier and better than everyone else.” I hope we’ll have the courage to look behind us and recognize the source of the shadows.

The non-material side of quiet luxury can take different shapes depending on the individual, but I’d venture to include a few basic aspects (think of them as the basics of your wardrobe). The first is leisure time – time reserved for oneself, free from markets and bosses. It’s not idle or passive, but rather a fertile ground from which your passions and interests will take shape. The second luxury is good health – both physically and mentally. Finally, equally important, there’s the luxury of contentment, the freedom from being pulled into the vortex of unnecessary desires. As the Epicurean school of thought believed, the highest pleasure is tranquility. Not feeling the need to pursue the newest meaningless trend is a priceless luxury.

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