For the past two years, fashion was concerned with the ultra-flashy styles of the Y2K era. The maximalist styling, sky-high shoes, and micro-mini hemlines that were synonymous with the early 2000s had reappeared to take over the 2020s zeitgeist. Now, however, it’s hard to find that kind of gratuitous glitz, as runway collections have focused on perfecting wearable styles and today’s It girls are forgoing gaudiness. Meanwhile, on TikTok, fashion fans are deeply invested in “quiet luxury,” trading Y2K-inspired trends for minimalist styles and muted colour palettes, and becoming a phenomenon in the process.
Thanks to the latter, the search term “quiet luxury” has surpassed 35 billion views on TikTok, with its twin concept “stealth wealth” growing to over 600 million views. Inspired by shows like HBO’s Succession and celebrities like Kendall Jenner and Sofia Richie, creators are diving deep into the idea that not looking wealthy is the richest thing you can do, providing everything from “old money” outfit inspiration and tutorials on how to look “expensive” to explainers on why the 1% dresses this way.
Quiet luxury is nothing new. Tech billionaires like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have worn three-figure t-shirts to work for decades, while brands like Bottega Veneta have chosen to forgo logos, making craftsmanship the reasoning for the hefty price tag on their bags. But recently, a chain of pop culture phenomena has unleashed the internet’s fascination with the art of looking wealthy, but stealthily.
When HBO’s Succession, a show about an American media empire helmed by the Roy family, premiered its final season this March, the characters’ clothing became as talked about as the plot. Earlier this year, Gwyneth Platrow’s courtroom outfits, including minimalist and neutral-toned pieces from brands like The Row and Proenza Schouler, kept social media engaged for the course of her ski accident trial. Then, when Coachella Festival opened its doors for the first weekend in mid-April, Kendall Jenner — known for years to have attended the festival in jewelled clothing and overly accessorised outfits — surprised fans by wearing a basic black tank top and matching pants. Most recently, the internet put the spotlight on Sofia Richie’s wedding in France, which featured custom Chanel pieces and a slew of quiet luxury outfits. One TikTok creator noted the aesthetic made Richie look like a “rich wife.”
@4amstudios.co Sofia Richie from a marketing perspective. Her rebrand is GOLD. 🍸 Old money, elegant queen, and shes on TikTok right in time for her wedding rebrand? Obsessed. #sofiarichie #sofiarichiestyle #sofiarichiewedding #sofiarichierebrand #sofiarichie #socialmediamanager #brandstrategy #pr #digitalmarketing #marketing #influencermarketing #marketingteam #marketingtiktok #socialmediamarketing ♬ original sound - 4AM STUDIOS
Meanwhile, runway trends have become increasingly demure, minimal, preppy, and, well, basic. Take, for example, the craze over Bottega Veneta and Prada’s white tank tops for autumn 2022, with the former opening its show with a simple white top and blue jeans (made out of leather). Or the denim maxi skirt comeback that’s become fashion’s trendiest style for 2023. At the autumn 2023 shows earlier this year, capsule wardrobes were the biggest trend. So much so that fashion critic Cathy Horyn wrote, “I think I'll vomit if I hear the word ‘wardrobe’ one more time,” in one of her reviews.
Yet none of those examples come cheap. And there lies the contradiction of quiet luxury: spending a lot, looking like less. So, why is TikTok obsessed with dressing like ladies who lunch?
Laura Beltrán Rubio, founder of the fashion history platform, Culturas de Moda, says that in its own way, quiet luxury may represent a rebellion for Gen Z: “Fashion has been very loud and logo-heavy over the past few years, so I’m inclined to think that they may see it as a counter proposition to all that.” But, for Jonathan Square, assistant professor at Parsons School of Design, the issue lies in the overnight pendulum swing and rapid prioritisation of quiet luxury over maximalist styles, which often include aesthetics rooted in Black communities. “There would be absolutely nothing wrong with minimalism, but I think it becomes problematic when you attach superiority,” says Square. “Now, people say outright that they’re going for an ‘old money’ aesthetic, which is clearly classist.”
At the root of it all is a desire to assimilate — or, even escape. Growing up in a colony like Puerto Rico, I know a thing or two about being indoctrinated into acting, dressing, and aspiring to be like your coloniser — or the ruling class. From a young age, I saw local magazines preaching that the elegant and classic styles worn by socialites and royalty like Jackie Kennedy, Queen Letizia of Spain, and Kate Middleton, and which San Juan-based socialites followed to a tee, were superior to the trends that emerged on the streets of Puerto Rico. If a girl wanted respectability, and most of all, access to opportunities and spaces she wasn't supposed to have, wearing popular fashion trends, like baggy jeans, colourful tube tops, and hoop earrings, was not the way to go. The key was to look like you were born into so much wealth that you had no reason to show it off — only bask in it. I navigated that kind of code-switching from the time I was in middle school. When I moved to San Juan, where wealthier communities lived, I shed layers of rural styles and absorbed the Eurocentric looks celebrated there. “There is a racist undertone in this because it goes against the native cultural expressions of other communities, who are not the white elite,” says Beltrán.
Spaces where the white elite are the norm were the starting point for Succession costume designer Michelle Matland, who recalls physically spending time in places where the upper class mingles to get a sense of what they wear and how they behave. “In early stages, a lot of time was spent researching, not just in magazines and online, but physically visiting restaurants, corporate offices and the like,” Matland tells Refinery29. “We spent months finding out who these people are so that we can be as authentic and real as possible and tell the story we were trying to tell.” Over the past three seasons, Matland’s work has made people deeply curious about clothes that might look basic but that have a hefty price tag which tells a different story.
“The idea was if you have real money, you don’t show it off,” she says. “These people have mega money and it’s expensive and it’s tasteful but it’s not labelled or showy.”
This concept came to a head in the show’s Season 4 premiere, in which Cousin Greg’s date brings a large tote bag to a family function. Tom Wambsgams, who married into the Roy family himself, mocks the bag as “ludicrously capacious.” He continues: "What’s even in there, huh? Flat shoes for the subway? Her lunch pail? I mean, Greg, it’s monstrous. It’s gargantuan. You could take it camping. You could slide it across the floor after a bank job." It’s a hilarious take on the oversized tote bag as the official handbag of the working class — or, rather, the bag of the classes who need to work. Matland admits her team spent months deciding on the right handbag to show in this scene, choosing a Burberry Large London Tote Bag — retailing for over £1,490— that features the house’s iconic print. “We decided the handbag should be as traditionally outrageous as it could possibly be without being unrealistic or distracting from the story,” Matland says.
But more than the size, it was about the bag’s print. The choice made Greg’s date an outsider. Historically, logos, flashiness, and vibrant clothing have often been dismissed by rich and white groups, according to Square. “There are long roots to this bias that people are tapping into when they use words like ‘understated’ or ‘paired down,’” he says. “It’s aesthetic whiteness.” And recently, Square points out that the fashion world has been shedding its streetwear layers, which were highly popular in the late 2010s, resurfacing styles and aesthetics that represent a pendulum swing. “It just seems like people are sort of retreating back to things that have been historically associated with wealthy white people,” he says.
With young women on TikTok promoting the idea that a monochrome outfit makes one look like a “rich wife,” it’s clear that quiet luxury is about a lot more than just clothes. Amid an impending recession and cost of living crisis, there’s a clear desire from quiet luxury promoters to escape this reality by using the trend as yet another aspirational costume. But, in the process, both the industry and fashion fans are furthering a centuries-long assimilation that’s always shed cultural richness from BIPOC communities.