Style and Money

Imagine your income tripled overnight. If you make $12,000 a year, you now make $36,000 a year. If you live off of disability or unemployment benefits, either the check value triples, or another income stream comes into your life, giving you three times as much money as you had before. If you're homeless, multiply your average income from panhandling by three. You get the picture.

Now spend a few minutes imagining how this would affect your life, ceteris paribus (all else being equal). If your income is already seven or eight figures, it might just mean more headaches and more paperwork. If you make a few cents per day, the difference might be marginal. But most people would notice some differences right away. Here are a few:

  • Get out of debt faster. More money in the bank means more money to pay off credit card bills, student loans, insurance payments, mortgages, and so on.
  • More opportunities. When money is loose, you can take classes, go on longer (and more expensive) vacations, see more movies, eat at more restaurants, and try more things. If you love sports, you could buy better seats at the game, instead of watching the game on television.
  • Higher taxes. Unless you live in Dubai, more money usually means more taxes.
  • Other people notice. Of course, you could keep your income a secret, live as you do now, and invest the money, minus the occasional vacation or pair of loafers. You might even downgrade your lifestyle, giving yourself even more freedom. Many people already do this.
    If, however, word gets out, people are guaranteed to react to your wealth, however you use it. Some people would be encouraging, even proud of you. Others might be neutral, not really caring either way. And still others would envy you, implying that you had to lie and cheat your way to "the top."
  • More security. You don't have to worry so much about bills hanging over your head. Expenses which would send you into a panic before now seem trivial to you.

These are just a few examples. But as you can see, money is about more than being able to buy more and better stuff. Realizing this is crucial to understanding the relationship between money and style.

More Money = More Style?

No. Bill Gates is the world's second-richest man, but he's not the second-best-dressed one. Just because someone's rich doesn't mean they like to shop, or keep up with trends, or even look impressive to their peers. I would guess that most rich people don't like to shop, at least those who work for their money. And no amount of money can buy good taste or a new personality.

However, people with money use style to show off their wealth. While the "nouveau riche" use very gauche, blatant symbols (Cadillac car, mink coat, a watch the size of a six-year-old's fist), old money tends to use understated and coded symbols to broadcast their affluence. This might include a secret brand of watch, which appears the same as a simple analog watch until you look closer. This also might include wearing fashionable clothes before they're in season: someone with a lot of money can afford to travel to Paris or Milan, buy what's fashionable there, and come back home, where their clothing will always be avant-garde.

Certain styles are very hard, even impossible, to pull off without money. Fred Astaire looked like he was born in a top hat and tails; part of this swagger came from the high quality of his outfits. A badly-fitting suit would destroy the illusion and detract from his considerable talent.

This isn't some evil scheme, it's simple economics. A talented hairdresser can charge $200 for a haircut because enough people are willing to pay him/her that much to look good. If s/he charged less, too many people would make appointments, s/he would have less free time, and would probably make less money as well. Ditto for a talented shoemaker, tailor, plastic surgeon or makeup manufacturer. MAC Cosmetics, for example, are regarded as high quality, which allows MAC to charge $21 for a 0.3 ounce tube of lip gloss. Whether it's better than the stuff at Walgreen's is up for debate, but enough people are willing to pay $21 that they can make a profit.

Higher prices do not always indicate higher quality. Past a certain point, one pays for the sake of being able to afford something expensive. And even the best tailored clothing, or the most flattering haircut, can't make a boob any less of a boob. I'm sure a "bling" necklace costs a lot of money, but it still looks obnoxious.

Lack of money also influences style. Someone in the "nouveau pauvre" class will broadcast their education and upbringing through coded accessories, such as a scarf on a man, a "goodwill chic" outfit on a woman, or a Macintosh computer. Some subcultures, like goths and teddy boys, imitate high fashion, while others, like punks and "Joe Sixpacks," rebel and sneer at it.

Class, Style and Money

Social class, style and money are allies, but not blood siblings. In the Bay Area, it's not unusual to meet a thirty-something millionaire who still dresses like a college student––often because his money comes from the high tech field, where personal appearance matters less. Similarly, the economic recession has put the lie to many big spenders who were actually in debt up to their eyeballs. And even the "nouveau pauvres" described above still retain something of their social breeding, even if they work in retail sales.

In this essay, I've only considered the impact of money on clothes. Social class is a more complex topic, requiring a more complex explanation.

Further Reading:

Style and Class.

Conformism and Style.

Men's Style, which examines style and money in depth.

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