The Romanticisation of Old Money
Updated: Dec 27, 2022
Late 1800s in America was a time of rapid economic growth and families were making fortunes from industries like railroads, factories and oil and coal mines. This was known as the Gilded Age. These people were called the ‘nouveau riche’, which roughly translates to ‘new money’ in French. However, the nouveau riche were looked down upon by their so-called peers (old money families) as they didn't have generational wealth or titles and were therefore deemed uncultured. In order to earn the respect of old money families, the nouveau riche would pay millions of dollars to send their daughters to England to marry into aristocratic families and obtain a title. These girls were called ‘dollar princesses’. Wherever they went, they were judged harshly as being too loud or too bold or wearing an overly-extravagant gown. But now, the ‘nouveau riche’ of the 1800s are considered old money families, so perhaps this means that in a few centuries the Kardashians will be deemed as old money too!
The long-standing look associated with old money has to be Ivy League fashion, which began its life in universities in the 1920s as a response to students wanting to dress more comfortably and casually. This shift in men’s fashion from scratchy wool suits to polo shirts and varsity sweaters was due to high-end brands like J. Press and Brooks Brothers introducing these pieces into their most popular collections. This college style then spread to female university students, in particular those at Vassar (a historically female university), where students rebelled against the oppressive dress code by adopting men’s clothing items into their daily wardrobe. Articles of clothing they were seen to wear include polo coats, Bermuda shorts, tweed skirts and knee socks. After an article published by Life magazine detailing the clothing items that Vassar girls wore, Macy responded by creating a collection of similar clothing items in their store. The style soon spread all over America as ordinary people tried to emulate the elite upper-class.
By the early nineties, the look had become less popular. That was until its more recent revival which we can thank tiktok for. Now the style has evolved to include button-down shirts, tennis skirts, sweater vests, cardigans, polo shirts, loafers, Mary Janes, pearls and dainty jewellery. The colour scheme is quite muted and subtle with browns, beiges, whites, navies and greens. In her article, ‘Are you ready for the return of prep?’, Rebecca Jennings sums up the style, ‘Lithe white people in khaki pants and Oxford shirts lounging on a sailboat; tweed blazers inside an Ivy League library; tennis skirts and croquet in front of someone’s summer home; Blair Waldorf and The Talented Mr. Ripley’. It may seem obvious, but none of the dilettantes of this style will ever be considered old money; it is more of a form of escapism for admirers, pretending that you are living in a lavish summer house rather than being trapped in a cramped apartment in quarantine.
The fact that an entire fashion trend lays its origins in the way the elite-wealthy of prestigious universities dress serves to highlight the huge poverty gap and inequality in America when it comes to education. 42% of private education institutions consider alumni influence as a major factor in the admissions process, even though this unfairly benefits white applicants, particularly those of old money. At Harvard, the admission rate for non-legacy applicants was 6%, compared to a staggering 33.3% for legacy applicants (those with alumni connections). Multiple generations in alumni families attend the same Ivy League college and as historically students who received higher education tended to be white, the alumni families are also, largely, white. It is also important to note that it is very hard to acquire generational wealth without a family history of oppression and classism. A lot of the people who are considered old money have built their fortunes by exploiting others, such is the nature of capitalism.
So, whilst tweed trousers and knitted sweaters might not seem particularly dangerous, the reality is that making them a popular fashion trend once more only serves to continue the celebration of old, white money and power, rather than sharing that power and status amongst people of all social, economic and racial backgrounds.