In recent months “quiet luxury” has been having a bit of a moment. At first glance, perhaps this trend can be attributed to the success of Succession’s final season, but here we are, still talking about it. The thing is, it’s nothing new and as a sartorial statement it’s nothing exciting (though that may be the point).
Quickly, what is quiet luxury or “stealth wealth?” It’s essentially clothes that demand a luxury price tag, but without logos or big statements. In other words, it doesn’t scream wealth, it whispers it. This often means that they feature timeless styles and neutral tones like a logoless baseball cap that costs north of $1,000.
The movement has its roots in the French Revolution (1789-99) as measures were taken by men in particular to remove themselves from the opulence of the nobility they were revolting against. This was known as the Great Male Renunciation which was paired with the rise of industrialisation. With the removal of the court, power reverted to wealthy industrialists whose uniform was the dark tailored suit. So instead of a powdered wig and breeches symbolising wealth and power, it was the suit. In the U.S, the removal of wigs was also associated with republicanism during the American Revolution (1775-83). This was in part a survival tactic for the wealthy in France who didn’t want to lose their heads by showing off how much money they had, and a political statement in the U.S.
For the uber-rich, the 1%, stealth wealth has existed since the 18th century. The rich imitate the masses, which in turn mimic the rich. Think of Mark Zuckerberg who is known for wearing plain clothing like a t-shirt and jeans. It’s relatable and inoffensive, but it hides the truth that in fact his plain grey t-shirt from Brunello Cucinelli costs between $300 and $400 USD.
In the United States, there’s a general WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) culture that due in part to reasons of religion, turned away from maximalism as a reaction against the Catholic Church. Think of the difference between the gold trimmed and stained glass decor of Catholic churches in comparison to the more Spartan and plain Protestant churches, or if that’s too dry for you, think of the stylistic difference between the proud WASP Charlotte and Carrie from Sex and the City. However, in France it has little to do with protestantism, rather it’s more akin to old money ideals of inheritance.
“In France, luxury has nothing to do with the bright, shiny, new things,” said professor Olivier Roux (via Forbes). “Logos and monograms are not luxury. It’s a cashmere sweater from Loro Piana. It’s a vintage Hermes bag, preferably handed down by your mother or grandmother. It’s heirloom jewellery that’s been in your family for generations.”
Why Has Quiet Luxury Reappeared?
Quiet luxury is a cyclical trend that often appears in times of economic crisis or uncertainty. The last time we saw this was during the Global Financial Crisis (2007-08) and as in 1700s France, it’s the rich disguising their wealth.
Today the trend has reappeared for a few reasons, the primary one being the pandemic. During the pandemic, people had a lot of savings thanks to lockdowns and were receiving stimulus money from the government. This meant people tended to spend on items with big brands with big visibility statements, remember the Y2K revival that has almost disappeared already?
Post-pandemic, people are moving away from this thanks to a mixture of fatigue and uncertain economic conditions. With fears of a global recession looming and surmounting cost of living pressures, those with cash don’t want to show off (unless you’re King Charles).
In the U.S, white collar workers are beginning to be laid off in droves (particularly in the tech industry) and while they can no longer afford $1,000 cashmere sweaters, they can afford cheaper alternatives from J. Crew. So the quiet luxury aesthetic continues amongst the masses simply because people want to look good but can’t afford luxury brands any longer. Once the upper and middle classes can no longer afford these items, the 1% reflect that same aesthetic back towards them in an imaginary show of solidarity.
There’s also the influence of Succession which every outlet is overstating as one of the driving forces behind the trend, but as we can see there are greater forces at work.
Why it's Boring
It isn’t an inclusive aesthetic, nothing favoured by the rich is, but it’s also overwhelmingly white.
Robert Burke, a luxury retails consultant, said (via Time), “When you know, you know, that’s sort of the point. The people they care about, the people in their rooms, know exactly what they’re wearing. And they’re the only ones who matter.”
The “only ones who matter” are those with wealth. The wealthy consider it good taste to dress in quiet luxury no matter what background they come from. If the dark suit was the uniform that displayed power and wealth in the 18th century, quiet luxury is the uniform for those same people today.
However, there’s a problem when your aesthetic can be described as a uniform because that is not what fashion is supposed to represent. It’s supposed to be a reflection of your personality, your background, what makes you you. Adhering to the design codes of quiet luxury limits any potential personal expression like loud statement jewellery from Italy or head scarfs from Africa. This means it’s boring, predictable, and repetitive with little innovation and a larger emphasis on tradition.
Like all trends, quiet luxury shall too pass. There are many people who don’t buy into it and there are strong and successful brands like Gucci that aren’t going away anytime soon.
This isn’t supposed to set in panic for the future, rather it’s an explanation for why the trend has become such a dominant force recently. As times get tough, the upper and middle class’s spending is reduced and the willingness to show off wealth diminishes. This is then reflected by the uber-rich who revert to their centuries old uniforms.