Monday, May 19, 2008

How rich do you want to look?


Linda Grant over at The Thoughtful Dresser unleashed a torrent of posts on scarves, and one woman (I assume) commented that she did not wear Hermes scarves for fear of looking bourgeois.

I began to wonder, as opposed to what? Insouciantly bohemian? Stoutly working class? Private-jet megarich?

Fact is, I am a femme bourgeoise. Middle-aged (the upper reaches), middle-class, respectable. I vote, work, look after my teeth, teach my children some social skills and pray they stick. My first reaction when hearing of a divorce is sadness (but not judgment). I like buying good things and making them last.

And so on.

No matter what your class, and especially if you blur or straddle these too-easy distinctions, everyone has an Inner Snob. Mine is peevish and superior, and nags, "Don't look suburban." For Inner Snob, suburban is shorthand for a mall-centred esthetic that prizes buying the latest me-too trend and utter devotion to logos.

If told I look like a European haute-bourgeois woman, I'd be complimented. I think of my Swedish friend Towe, in fine wool pants, merino sweater cut like a shirt and patterned cashmere shawl, relaxed and elegant. She says, "I let my clothes speak, so I don't have to use so many words."

Or of Ja
ne Birkin (below) whose style I love but cannot really replicate as I'm heavier.

To be fair, what's behind that fear of "looking bourgeois:" too safe, uniform-y, rigid, is something I worry about too.

You can look tense and overdone in any class to which you belong or aspire. I see overdressed punks every day. And it's risky to attempt a look far outside your natural order.

My GF Suzanna's sister sometimes dresses, as she says, "looking rich": more gold jewelry than Mr T, $600 jeans (no I don't know the brand but she told me the price) and a Tod's bag. To me she just looks overwrought, put together by a stylist.

While some of us like to think we're beyond these class distinctions, sales people and marketers know differently.


18 comments:

materfamilias said...

Hope you don't mind if I copy-and-paste something that I wrote in a comment at my own blogpost on the weekend responding to this same issue arising on The Thoughtful Dresser: "Interesting coincidence that the day after I got my gorgeous scarf [as a birthday gift], The Thoughtful Dresser started a conversation about scarves, with numerous commenters speaking of the potential bourgeois-ness of the Hermès foulards. Personally, I rather think that fighting one's inner bourgeois is a foolish and losing battle, and I'd rather embrace my and give her a bit of funk while I'm at it, but I have to disagree that these scarves necessarily look matronly. I think panache comes with the way one wears a scarf. Believe me, I was not giving off any ho-hum, just another bourgeois silk scarf, when I wore my baby yesterday!"
I often chuckle at the memory of a grad student friend commenting about "The f**ing bourgeoisie" -- and I said, "Lisa, I'm the f***-ing bourgeoisie"!! And I had fun reminding her of this years later when she bought her first house, in a lovely neighbourhood, as her partner got tenure. . .

Duchesse said...

Materfamilias, thanks and enjoy your scarf!

I find what people do (including me), rather than the words they use to describe themselves, more accurate and revealing.

greying pixie said...

Yikes, duchesse, I hope I'm not the one you mention who doesn't want to look bourgoise! It's great and very funny to read your thoughts on the 'Inner Snob'. My husband is very tweedy English conservative in his dress and revels in misleading those stupid enough to prejudge him by his appearance. He says 'the way to subvert the middle classes is to dress like them.'

Class is a very complex issue in the UK. I feel much more at home with modern European society where everyone is bourgois and proud of it no matter what their politics.

editor said...

i peeked over at the original post/blog you allude to. hmmmmm.
i own... 3 regular carre, one "vintage" size, and 2 pocket squares.
if i could go back in time, i would have one regular size and one pocket square. the price is too high for how seldom i use them. the first was a gift, the second 2 were designs that i really liked (but i do not have to buy every piece of "art" that i see - pardon me, i'm just talking to myself). the vintage size was an attempt to get a little less silk for warmer weather, and i liked the colors. the pocket squares, one was a gift and then i got another in colors i prefer. so i could blame generous gifts for leading me down this path. the path goes no further, however. i don't mind wearing one as an obi-type of belt (very wide). and i'll occasionally (rarely) attempt a turban-style (knot in front) headband. the scarves are not very me. i don't know if it's their stiffness from the fabric, or their stiffness from having to support the heritage and implications of their identity. i will try washing them in the machine and see if that reduces either, in some way.
a silk scarf is a very practical thing to keep the neck warm in winter, i'll say that much.

editor said...

i don't think i addressed your post, duchesse. my apologies.
i do not care at all what household income my appearance tallies in the minds of observers.

greying pixie said...

Editor, yet again, you read my mind. I have the same strange feelings about my 5 Hermes carres, 4 of which were gifts and the first I bought in Paris 21 years ago.

But one word of warning, don't wash them in the machine - the colours will run and they will be ruined. I found one for my daughter in a thrift shop for £1 recently and hand washed it - it was totally ruined. Better to stretch them on the diagonal a few times by wearing as a belt.

I think the 'art' aspect of Hermes is a little exaggerated, just because they carry the same price tag as a painting! The difference is that paintings tend not to be mass-produced and sold in every capital of the world! To be quite honest the quality of some of the drawing is a bit dubious.

But in summing up, I think what I've concluded from all this consideration is that even with Jean Paul Gaultier's input, there is no irony in Hermes scarves and that is what sits so uncomfortably with me.

editor said...

oh for sure, hermes silk twills have zero irony.
but here's the update (what you will learn about me, greying pixie, is that i'm stubborn and spontaneous). the scarves have been washed. 3 regular and one "vintage" size. came out beautifully. machine wash, cold water, gentle cycle (though it doesn't sound at all gentle to me), woolite dark. i had hand-washed 2 of them previously, but was not satisfied that they had really gotten clean. now they smell very fresh. the white parts are sharp and white. they are all pretty heavily pigmented too, so i would be able to see if the colors had bled at all.
funny enough, last night i hand-washed a pair of jeans, y's at work (one of the hundred lines from yohji). so there are some things i will do for love. i do not love these scarves, not in the same way - perhaps because they do not love me back. the jeans, on the other hand, fit perfectly. they love me, so i'll love them.
oh, and when i said art, i meant in that "eye of the beholder way" - the designs of the 2 scarves i really liked appealed to me, personally, so wanted to own them. but i forgot to factor in that they were meant to be warn, and should have considered if i wanted to wear them. i have a different scarf, of no significant value as far as i know, that i did frame, just for the design. the hermes scarves... i don't feel like spending any more money on them, even at the framers.

Duchesse said...

GP: there is at least offhand attempt in the design "Les Parisiens", but in 99% of the designs, no. But an ironic scarf is hard to find.

Editor: If you want to soften, dry clean (an inept cleaner will squash the handrolled hems.) The sizing will come out with cleaning. But then Helen Mirren blew her nose (as The Queen) into one.

editor said...

duchesse, this is the genius of machine washing them - the hems are totally plump.

Duchesse said...

What I was trying to ask is, "Do you sometimes try to look like you have more or less money than you do, when you dress?"

I have some major jewelry thanks to gifts... I did not wear it when I worked (even though it was not too formal) because I imagined my clients thought they paid for it. I'm getting over this attitude.

editor said...

yes, i answered that in my second comment above - the amount of money i appear to have is not a factor in my conscious mind when i choose/buy my clothes or when i get dressed:

"i do not care at all what household income my appearance tallies in the minds of observers."

materfamilias said...

I wish I had more time to speak to this, but I'm getting ready to leave for Paris (and yes, I know that that's a very bourgeois vacation -- quite liked Leah McLaren's comments on this issue in The Globe this weekend, Canadians).
First, I'm interested in the conversation re scarves as I imagine I'll attempt a hand-wash at some point. As a knitter, I'm used to washing delicate yarns, and I was pleased to hear that editor's had success with this.
Second, I love the birthday gift of a Hermès scarf that I rec'd this weekend (see my post for a pic if you're interested). This is a reward of middle-age, as we could never have dreamed of affording this until recently -- I know my husband enjoyed being able to treat me to this and I love wearing it. Yes, there are matronly patterns, but I don't think mine is. I never asked for irony from my scarf. I'm very happy with the joyous colours it delivers, and as I'm very used to wearing scarves of all types, I don't find it overly stiff. This is obviously all a matter of personal preference. I do find the price shocking. I have favourite scarves that I got for $30 to $60 dollars, and I could have bought 8 or 10 with the cost of this one.
But, finally, Duchesse, to get to your question: for me, yes, there is a certain defensiveness in my sense that others perceive me as bourgeois, not so much because of their assessment of my taste and supposed conservatism as because I feel conflicted about the good fortune I have. I come from a large family raised on a civil servant's income; most of my clothes, growing up, were second-hand. I married and had children young, and we managed on a limited income so I could mainly be home with them. I went back to school in my late 30s, then did graduate work, finally a doctorate, and now I make enough money and the kids are grown, so that I do indulge from time to time, and I do exercise care around how I wear costlier items. The town I work in hasn't moved so far from its blue-collar, resource-based roots, and I think flaunting good fortune tasteless (does that make me bourgeois? alright then).
Such an interesting point you've raised and I wish for more time to think and write about this. Perhaps when I get back . . . the saga continues . . .
One last point: obviously, much of the Hermès scarf's cost has to do with the branding, conceded, but I note that the scarf is "made in France." This suggests that workers were paid a decent living wage for the work, something that I can't be sure of with my other less expensive favourites, and something that matters to me. I don't want my frugality subsidized by Third World labourers.

cybill said...

This is such an interesting post, I wish we were all together in the same room to hash it out. Over here in Aus, there is no such thing as class distinction, in some gatherings wearing shoes is considered "up yaself". I too hate the idea of being considered suburban, but being bourgeoise doesn't bother me. Perhaps your friend is a communist...?

greying pixie said...

I have very strong feelings about the display of wealth. My father took me on my first visit to Paris when I was 17. As we strolled along the boulevards I pressed my nose up to the windows of the beautiful shops, feeling unworthy of entering. He taught me a really important lesson, that with the right confidence and attitude you can appear wealthy without necessarily wearing the associated clothing and accessories.

I think this has been a very important lesson to me. I spend a lot on avant garde designer clothes, but I also collect secondhand designer, and only yesterday spent £6 in a charity shop on a secondhand black and silver lurex jersey long loose dress (sounds awful, but will be really chic for dinner parties). I want to look well groomed and well dressed, which has very little to do with wealth.

I would hate to look 'rich' in the way that Victoria Beckham does, for example. To me that is vulgarity in the extreme and displays an inordinate lack of imagination.

Duchesse said...

Greying Pixie: That's it- the Victoria Beckham look! She is stoking the lust of thousands of aspirational buyers.

Editor: Whether one intends to or not, others still make an assessment.

There are times, such as walking through the chowk of Delhi, where I very consciously dress down, and others when I enjoy puttin' on the Ritz.

editor said...

oooo, greying pixie, i very much agree with the vb shot. and i too put a premium on simply conveying that i care about my appearance. i respect myself, and maybe that shows.

yes, duchesse, i never questioned whether or not strangers, or acquaintances, evaluate my net worth based on my appearance. you asked if it was a factor, a consideration (if we strive to present ourselves with more or less than we have). i answered no. do you have a second question, or do you feel that i have not accurately responded to your post, or participated in the discussion satisfactorily?
on my blog, my posts are sometimes misinterpreted. if i've done that here, i apologize.

Duchesse said...

Editor: I have no requests and appreciate your comments.

I am interested in all posts and as materfamilias has noted, think a real conversation would be...rich.

Deja Pseu said...

I grew up in an era when ostentatious display of wealth was still considered vulgar. That said, I generally shun what I feel looks "cheap", but what I like best is the look of understated luxury. Would I rather people take me for rich than poor? Bien sur, but agree about the horridness of the whole VB over-the-top aesthetic.