"Okay I’m gonna tell you why your basic outfit is super boring and it’s not working for you," says Maddison Collinge, a 25-year-old influencer from Michigan. She’s speaking on a TikTok video she uploaded in July where she shares her tips for looking expensive. "This is the secret," she says, dangling a handful of golden necklaces. "I cannot explain how important it is to accessorise." Maddison made this TikTok after noticing how many of her followers told her she looked expensive. "I don't know the mind of somebody who actually is expensive. I'm just trying to imitate the look," she tells me, stressing that she’s never bought a designer item in her life. Nonetheless Maddison seems to have something that her followers want, and they describe it as 'expensive'.
If you type 'how to look expensive' into YouTube you’ll see pages of videos from influencers explaining how you can turn your budget outfit into something which looks a million dollars. You’ll hear words like 'elegant', 'rich', 'bougie' and 'affluent'. Why are people so interested in looking expensive?
In many ways we’ve been trying to look expensive for centuries. Middle-class Victorian women often had the high fashion dresses of the time copied by local tailors or made the styles themselves. In the late 20th century, the first synthetic diamonds hit the market. Then Samantha in Sex and The City bragged about her fake Fendi Baguette. But over lockdown, when the poor became poorer and the rich grew uncomfortably richer, and Kim Kardashian was criticised for throwing an island party in the middle of a pandemic, it seemed like rich people were finally out of vogue. Class criticism was everywhere. But no matter how much we all hate on millionaires, it seems our desire to look like them persists.
"It's about dressing for the life you want," says Miranda Holder, a luxury stylist who thinks that 'manifestation' culture may have something to do with everyone’s desire to look expensive at the moment. Miranda, who got into manifesting over lockdown, has started teaching these techniques to her clients. "If you dress like you have money, people tend to treat you differently," she says. "It affects everything from your posture to how you carry yourself to how you interact with people." For Miranda, expensive clothes are synonymous with nice clothes. "You can't have a good-looking outfit that looks cheap because that's almost a contradiction in terms." (We have to assume that not everyone feels this way. As Dolly Parton said: "It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.")
Toni Sevdalis, a 24-year-old who became known for her 'Bougie on a Budget' YouTube videos, says she doesn’t personally want to fool people into thinking she’s rich, although she can see why others might want to. "I don't really care if someone thinks I have loads of money. But I think today, with social media, that's what a lot of people strive for because that's what people see." Toni says she feels more confident when she looks put together. "If I'm just running errands and I pop into the local department store not dressed nicely, I won't be taken seriously," she adds.
The expensive look, according to influencers, seems to have a few key components. They all wear minimalist, neutral colours, whether it’s black, beige or grey. They also stress the importance of well-fitting clothes, 'clean' and simple makeup, neat hair and gold jewellery. Martine Alexander, a wardrobe concierge and celebrity stylist, thinks this advice may be too trend-focused. She doesn’t believe that really rich people wear a specific type of outfit: really 'expensive' people, she says, often just wear their gym clothes. There might be a difference between the publicly wealthy (like the Kardashians, who we see online, flaunting what they have) and the privately wealthy (see Adrien Brody’s character in Succession, who looks more like someone who’s a bit chilly than someone who has millions in the bank).
Martine agrees however that rich people are likely to look understated, minimalist and be well groomed. "They will be manicured as they take pride in their appearance. But with their clothes, it's not really the be-all and end-all. If they're making a bit of an effort they will probably buy something like a leather trouser or leather leggings. Maybe a court shoe."
Miranda also believes that neat hair, clear skin and well-fitting clothes look expensive and, like Martine, thinks some of the popular YouTube pointers are just trends, especially gold jewellery. "Ten to 20 years ago gold wasn’t as fashionable. Instead platinum white gold and diamanté were all the rage. And actually that can look really expensive as well." Miranda thinks that bright colours can look just as expensive as neutrals, too. "You could see Victoria Beckham in the most incredibly cut, vivid purple blouse against beautiful, flowing, bright red silk trousers – a real bright colour clash and that also looks incredibly expensive," she says.
These vloggers aren’t purely aiming to look expensive – they want to show their followers how to look expensive on a budget. It’s not every day that you find a pair of beautifully cut, red silk trousers on the high street and when you don’t have much money, neutrals can be easier to work with. Lydia Tomlinson, a vlogger from the UK, advises wearing black because it can hide the fabric type, meaning you can get away with looking expensive in cheaper clothes. Yami International, who loves watching 'how to look expensive' videos, says they offer her advice for styling a limited wardrobe. "They teach you how to use one piece for several outfits and how to spend your money on clothes wisely," she tells me.
'Accessible' isn’t a word we normally equate with influencers and granted, despite their budget-friendly tips, many 'how to look expensive' videos can feel inaccessible for other reasons. "I feel like women with my body type are just not represented enough on the internet," says Kay Mollah, a 32-year-old plus-size vlogger who couldn’t find any 'how to look expensive' videos made by women with her figure. Kay says she taught herself to dress in a more sophisticated way. There was a time, she tells me, when she took less pride in her appearance but that looking expensive helped to elevate her confidence. "I want to help others on the same journey," she says. It’s important to Kay that her videos are as relatable as possible; to this end she shares tips like how to manicure your nails using $20 press-ons from Amazon instead of going to the salon.
Even though the younger generation is often more critical of the class system, being perceived as expensive is still important to many. Perhaps we’re all dressing for the life we want – it’s possible to dislike rich people and still want to be one of them. However, all of the women I spoke to emphasised that they’re not so much trying to look rich as they are trying to look chic and put together.
So why does the word 'expensive' seem to be synonymous with these things? More to the point, why does putting the word 'expensive' in your video title make for social media catnip? I think it’s about one thing: if we’re getting an expensive look for less, we’re cheating the system. We’re trying to appear identical to the rich celebrities we see across social media, at a fraction of the price. Some might say the desire to look like you're worth a million is universal; perhaps more universal is the appeal of a great bargain.