Then-Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman addresses supporters during an event in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, 10/27/22 (Capital-Star photo by Ethan Dodd).
Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., held a press conference to talk about… something.
As far as conservatives were concerned, the actual content of the speech wasn’t nearly as important as Fetterman’s wardrobe.
For the uninitiated, Fetterman’s outfit of choice is routinely shorts and a hoodie. His wife, Gisele Fetterman’s social media presence regularly makes light of John’s predilection of wearing shorts regardless of temperature or season.
Fetterman’s hoodie and shorts have become as distinctive as his stature, and this outfit of choice has been consistent throughout his political career from Mayor to Lt. Governor and now to Congress.
Conservatives delved, devoid of hypocrisy, into relentless criticism of Fetterman’s attire. The same politicians who roll up their chambray shirt sleeves in campaign ads to perfect their Everyman Look, suddenly were distraught over their coworker’s OOTD. Commentators were able to extrapolate an extraordinary unspoken plot of malice from nothing but a pair of shorts.
The intersection of fashion and decorum has been a hot topic in the last year. Concepts like stealth wealth and quiet luxury have exploded on TikTok with search results at an all-time high: stealth wealth (13 million), quiet luxury (128 million), old money aesthetic (2.9 billion).
Stealth wealth is a specific understated way of dressing heavy on label-less, tailored looks. Outfits are muted in a classic color palette full of silk, wool, linen and other richly tactile materials. Nothing loud, nothing flashy, nothing ostentatious. Instead, each piece is intentionally selected prioritizing quality over trends. (Helpful hint: if an item of clothing is quality enough to be deemed “a piece,” you have succeeded at quiet luxury)
More than just a passing fashion trend, stealth wealth is the perfect encapsulation of how the elite use exclusivity to their advantage.
The first chore of exclusivity is to determine who is in the know. As the name stealth wealth implies, the truly wealthy do not peacock. Rather they dress deceptively plainly. You would be forgiven for finding the wardrobes of Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos wholly unremarkable as these men routinely opt for a subdued, borderline boring wardrobe.
Those in the know, however, would instantly spot that what looks like a simple crew neck t-shirt is actually a Brunello Cucinelli design where basic tops retail north of $500. A plain black baseball hat? A $625 cashmere Loro Piana accessory. Black vest perfect for a tech bro? A Moncler down vest easily worth more than $1,000.
In a world where any aspirational fool can save up enough money to buy a designer bag, the ultra wealthy have devised ever shifting standards to gatekeep access to the tippy top of the upper class.
Ask shoppers in an outlet mall what is a designer bag, and they will answer Coach or Michael Kors. Inside Bloomingdales they may point to Kate Spade.
On Rodeo Drive the answer would most certainly be a Birkin bag retailing between $25,000-250,000. But those truly in the know would recognize that the affluent routinely opt for obscure heritage brands like Moynat, a Parisian trunk maker founded in 1849.
Just because the elite eschew labels and overt logos does not mean that they are unbranded. It is just that their version of luxury is coded only decipherable to equally luxurious individuals. The 1% are not interested in expanding their excess to the masses. It is in their best interest to constantly make it too complex and insular for outsiders to understand.
It is impossible to impersonate your way into polite society because stealth wealth goes well beyond clothing. It is an entire lifestyle.
Thousands of micro-indicators help distinguish the haves from the have nots. A knowing eye understands that the bottom of shoes are worthy of note if painted red. An American Express Black Card is the payment of choice of modern aristocracy. In NYC, a (212) area code is a status symbol reserved for insiders in a IYKYK type of way. In Dubai, the license plates on the front of cars sell for millions of dollars. You could easily drive past a car sporting a $15 million license plate and not realize it.
A zip code, vacation location, hobby, pet, pre-school, stroller; all of these contain sub-messages indicating your in-group status making it all but impossible for an interloper to fool the lucky few who make up the ultra-wealthy.
The second goal of coded luxury is to not only keep the masses out, but also to keep the masses in their place. A default sartorial standard has long been used to demean and demonize outliers of any kind. Their exclusivity is exclusionary by design.
The term Old Money is the most obvious. Crisp button ups, a sweater tied around your shoulders, a simple sheath dress, riding boots, striped polos, silk scarves, wax jackets with plaid lining. Country club, prep school, polo match, Ivy League.
Patriarchal, white, thin, European centric beauty is set forth as the standard, thus making all other types of beauty diminished. The gates you must pass through to find yourself in this bespoke land of old money are there for a reason. Timeless, tasteful, graceful, sensible. By associating their narrow standard of beauty with success and rarity, they signal that their way of living is correct. Their lifestyle is proof that they are deserving of their status.
Racist undertones are obvious when British tabloids have been caught blatantly demeaning Meghan Markel’s fashion choices while deifying near identical choices made by Princess Kate. Even the phrase money talks, wealth whispers has been effectively used to dismiss the wealth accumulated by outsiders as slightly embarrassing and create an impossible to scale hierarchy based on the respectability of the origin of your wealth.
Those in power use fashion choices as an excuse to discredit rivals. They feign outrage over an exaggerated slight to push a narrative. This is the tactic they used on Fetterman. By using clothing as an acceptable determinate for respectability, critics argued that not only had Fetterman personally disrespected you with his attire, but he was now open to disrespect in return.
In 2021, during his campaign for Senate, Fetterman walked into an event, and as the crowd greeted him, he immediately began to apologize for his attire. He explained that he had a jam-packed schedule that didn’t leave him any time to change into something more appropriate. He hoped he did not disappoint anyone.
He was wearing a suit.
The intersection of fashion, decorum, wealth, and respectability politics is rich with examples of manufactured controversy. I’ll give you ten bucks if you can tell me the topic of Fetterman’s speech the day he dared step to a podium wearing a hoodie. Better yet, I’ll give you a million dollars if you can tell me the topic of the speech given the day President Obama wore a tan suit.
It can be easy to shrug off the petulant shouts of conservatives pouting about cargo shorts, but it is important to understand that their rationale is rooted in classism. Attempting to discredit a Senator based on an outfit is a transparent way for weak men to assert their waning relevance. This will undoubtedly become a recurring refrain from the least imaginative on the right at least until it is time for them to once again cosplay as an average Joe as they pander for votes.
It would do them well to consider that despite Fetterman’s past wardrobe misstep of meeting voters while wearing a suit, he did go on to be elected by people who didn’t care what their candidate was wearing nearly as much as what he was saying.
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