What the “Stealth Wealth” Obsession Reveals
Social media’s fashion detectives are underscoring the chasm between the one-percenters and everyone else.
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Quiet luxury, stealth wealth, Succession core. In recent months, these terms have been applied to a fashion phenomenon that’s captured the attention of TikTok and mainstream-media outlets alike. The trend ostensibly describes the style proclivities of America’s 1 percent—but it’s really more of a message about the anxieties of everyone else.
First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:
“Stealth wealth”—both the concept and the conversation around it—isn’t new. But one week in late March, two capstone events kicked the chatter into overdrive: the start of Gwyneth Paltrow’s trial over a 2016 skiing incident, and the premiere of the fourth and final season of Succession. In a near instant, savvy sartorialists spotted parallels between the actor and Goop founder’s “courtcore” and the subdued opulence of the billionaire Roy family at the center of HBO’s hit series.
“Much has been made of Kendall Roy’s baseball cap,” my colleague Amanda Mull mused in her recent Atlantic article dissecting the so-called trend. Indeed, the $625 Loro Piana cap donned by the troubled second son of the fictional dynastic clan has become an oft-cited exemplar of the discreetly-status-signaling fashion of the wealthiest Americans. As Amanda sums it up, “The textiles and cuts are impeccable, the colors are neutral, and the finishes are subtle and logo-free.”
In other words: If you know, you know. And being in-the-know, while also telegraphing that knowledge, is how elites uphold (and protect) their social codes. Proponents of the stealth-wealth concept insist that toting around a battered, five-figure handbag or swathing oneself in staid cashmere affirms membership to the rarefied class aptly described, by Amanda, as “the genuinely, generationally wealthy.” Quiet luxury—or so the theory goes—says I belong here. And, by extension: You don’t.
The anxiety surrounding the unspoken rules of elite-class membership makes for great entertainment, whether it’s the Gilded Age grandeur depicted in Edith Wharton novels or the “ludicrously capacious bag” that all but guest-starred in a recent Succession episode. But stealth-wealth style—as either a unified aesthetic or a universally understood upper-class membership card—is a myth, Amanda writes. Instead, she notes, the people most preoccupied with the so-called trend’s associated signifiers appear to be those furthest from its reach: the teens and 20-somethings who disproportionately make and consume content on TikTok, and who “[dissect] these looks and [devour] the lessons they seemingly teach.”
In one popular type of video, a young woman walks viewers through the tricks to getting the stealth-wealth look—high-quality basics, neutral colors, no logos—or demonstrates how to turn a regular outfit into a signifier of stealth wealth. TikTok’s dominant user base is at exactly the point in life where learning how status functions in the broader adult world becomes very important. They’re thinking about heading off to college or into the professional world, and presenting themselves to new groups of people in these scenarios is a very high-stakes game of dress-up. The Roys are not stylish or well dressed, but they are a pretty good guide for what to look for in a Zara knockoff if you want to blend in at an internship.
As Amanda points out, it makes sense that the covert messaging of quiet-luxury style would resonate with the fledgling adults of TikTok, who are actively figuring out how to self-present for the professional world. But insecurities around status, class, and access aren’t the sole purview of the young. They may, in fact, be symptoms of a more widespread sense of precarity—and an ever-greater distance between most Americans and the hallmarks of ultra wealth.
The timing of today’s stealth-wealth fixation is hardly coincidental. During the pandemic, the income gap between the highest and lowest U.S. earners widened for the first time in a decade. The wealthiest Americans are richer now than ever before. Yet, as the fashion critic Rachel Tashjian recently wrote in The Washington Post, somehow, the uber-monied class seems to have become less visible as its economic power has grown. “Other than the dysfunctional family we see on television every Sunday night, the one percent is almost out of view, especially for those who have spent the past few years learning about clothing (and status) through social media,” Tashjian observed.
As social-media fashion detectives continue their efforts to crack the code of superrich style, they underscore the chasm between one-percenters and everyone else. Because, as Amanda points out, the stealth-wealth rulebook was never really a thing to begin with: The mega-wealthy dress in all sorts of ways, occupying the spectrum from “understated” to “Paris Hilton circa 2007.” It’s not their status anxiety being reflected in the trend, but the fretful ruminations of a have-not majority, straining to hold their grip on much-lower rungs of the ladder.
- Debt-ceiling talks between the White House and House Republicans resumed a few hours after they were put on pause.
- President Joe Biden approved a plan to train Ukrainian pilots on U.S. F-16s, potentially paving the way for sending advanced fighter jets to Ukraine.
Republican Senator Tim Scott quietly filed paperwork to run in the 2024 presidential election.
- The Books Briefing: Turning history into a juicy story is a risky endeavor, Nicole Acheampong writes. Can we really know the figures of the past?
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Growing My Faith in the Face of Death
By Timothy Keller
Note: The pastor Timothy Keller, author of the below essay from 2021, died today at age 72.
I have spent a good part of my life talking with people about the role of faith in the face of imminent death. Since I became an ordained Presbyterian minister in 1975, I have sat at countless bedsides, and occasionally even watched someone take their final breath. I recently wrote a small book, On Death, relating a lot of what I say to people in such times. But when, a little more than a month after that book was published, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I was still caught unprepared.
On the way home from a conference of Asian Christians in Kuala Lumpur in February 2020, I developed an intestinal infection. A scan at the hospital showed what looked like enlarged lymph nodes in my abdomen: No cause for concern, but come back in three months just to check. My book was published. And then, while all of us in New York City were trying to protect ourselves from COVID-19, I learned that I already had an agent of death growing inside me.
More From The Atlantic
Read. Jenny Xie’s debut novel, Holding Pattern, focuses on a mother-daughter relationship with resonances of the author’s own. It’s a love letter that her mother won’t be able to read.
Watch. The film Master Gardener (in theaters) takes on neo-Nazism and white supremacy—and is Paul Schrader’s most hopeful work yet.
Years ago, I ran a feminist book club out of the wonderful Type bookstore in Toronto, the city where I spent my peak-TikTok-demographic years and started my journalism career. If memory serves, our first selection was Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth—an interesting novel to encounter at that formative phase of my life, amid the city’s rapid transformation from a cosmopolitan patchwork of immigrant neighborhoods into a playground for the rich. Of course, not everyone is able to replicate my experience of discovering Wharton as a youngish-adult woman facing the imminent threat of being unable to pay rent. But even though those conditions certainly heightened the novel’s effect, it’s worth a read at any age (or economic bracket). If you haven’t read it, you must.
Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.