Before 'Quiet Luxury,' There Was Prep.
"What is subtly implied in preppy clothes and quiet luxury is: It's about having [leisure] time," said Avery Trufelman.
Before today’s post, a quick ~note~:
This week, Substack launched Notes. You can access it at the Notes tab in your browser or the Substack app. It’s kind of like Twitter except I’ve been enjoying using it a lot more than ye olde dying bird platform over the last week. I’ll be using Notes to share random thoughts, ideas, and interesting pieces of media that I might not be able to cover in the newsletter. I hope you’ll come find me there.
“I'm as confused by the fashion industry as the next person,” said Avery Trufelman, host of the popular Articles of Interest podcast, which covers the clothes we wear through fascinating deep dives on everything from wedding dresses to plaid. “Every question that I have asked on my podcast is not rhetorical.”
With quiet luxury and stealth wealth dominating lifestyle media discourse, I have been thinking a lot about Articles of Interest’s “American Ivy” series that came out in the fall. Over the course of seven delicious chapters, Trufelman traces the roots of what she identifies as one of the most popular trends in the history of trends, which is as closely tied to “old money” as quiet luxury: prep.
“There’s one particular trend that seems to come back again and again and again,” Trufelman said at the top of the series. “Someone said that the only trend that’s similar is, like, pants for women.” (One of her interviewees, an Australian fashion illustrator, calls it “ivy,” hence the title.)
I called Trufelman to find out what she makes of the current obsession with quiet luxury. Our conversation has been edited and condensed. (Follow her on Substack:. She was kind enough to let me borrow the few images below from her posts.)
It can’t be an accident that the “American Ivy” podcast came out in the fall, shortly before everyone started going crazy for quiet luxury. How would you say the two connect?
I’m in Utah right now, looking at the outdoor recreation archive. It's actually so cool, it's an archive of thousands of outdoor clothing catalogs starting from the 1800s. Like the earliest Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. It's sort of incredible to really see — before there was old money, what was there? And they were all literally hunting catalogs, and they’re advertising Bean boots. What is subtly implied in preppy clothes and quiet luxury is: It's about having time.
In all these catalog images, they're all these gentlemen hunters, smoking pipes, and while they're clearly not woodsmen, they're out on their estates on the weekends. So it's really about, I think in a modern context, a sort of reclamation of values. To be like, I don't live online. I have a full, rich, outer life that's not about surface signaling. I appreciate luxury, I travel, and I enjoy a good, meaningful life.
For those who haven’t listened to “American Ivy” (and I recommend they do), explain why you wanted to do such an in-depth exploration of this topic.
Honestly, it was kind of an accident. I thought that I was going to do a series about trends. In the words of [fashion critic] Rachel Tashjian, the only trend is trends itself — the obsession with talking about trends. I was thinking it’d be interesting to do an analysis of different trends. I was going to do rave pants, choker necklaces, Ugg boots, preppy clothes, Abercrombie, all this stuff that sort of traumatized me as a child.
If you just read a little bit about where preppy clothes come from, you're pulled into this vortex of deep American history. Preppiness really does embody everything about like, what do we value? What is considered the good life?
You started working on the show early last year. Did you know quiet luxury and stealth wealth were going to be so big?
I was talking to a lot of trend forecasters. And I was like, “I'm thinking about doing this series on trends, one of the trends is going to be preppy.” And they would all stop me and be like, “That's going to be so big.” I sort of feel like I cheated because now people are like, oh my god.
Do you watch Succession?
I wrote about the clothes in the season premiere and didn’t expect the post to be so popular, but it blew up so much that I’m doing weekly recaps. The obsession with the clothes on that show, I have to admit, took me by surprise.
Of course people love your analyses because it's exactly the same appeal as The Preppy Handbook. Like, There's this world you don't know about it, I'm going to give you the decoder ring. These people look like you and me, but they're very different.
Any moments on the show stand out to you from a stealth wealth or preppy perspective?
Cherry Jones [who plays Nan Pierce] is like, “I hate talking about money,” and pouring a drink and everyone around her is wearing their open-neck polo shirts tucked in. She’s wearing a headband. It’s so good. It’s perfect.
I feel like the fixation on quiet luxury stems from the pandemic. Like, when we were in lockdown a lot of us started thinking about inequity in new ways, and as a result it’s maybe just not as cool to be blatantly wealthy. Do you agree or do you see it differently?
I think in American society, it's never been very cool to be wealthy, and the wealthy people I know have always hidden it. So I think that’s a part of it. I also feel like it's not entirely about wealth.
The trend forecasters I talked to were like, it's kind of about looking like you have your shit together. It's about looking smart and looking on top of things and looking sophisticated. I'm sure that's a part of reentering public life — I'm going to dress to be legible to other people. So sure, some of it is about wealth, but I think some of it is like, the legibility and accessibility and ease of this style. That basically says, “Hello, how are you?” And, “Trust me.”
Someone DM’d me the other day saying she was obsessed with quiet luxury and wanted to understand why a ludicrously capacious bag wouldn’t be part of the trend. She said, don’t wealthy people need purses? And I was kind of like, well, no, not necessarily. But what would you tell her?
They really don’t. It’s funny this has been a debate. Back in the day when women had pockets, they were sort of these massive things that pendulously hung from the hips. Housewives would keep their sewing in there and little bits of food and it was just this matronly, fuddy-duddy equipment. And then when the handbag was invented, this little tiny reticule, it was for women who were going out dancing, partying, who didn't have to worry about the cares of the home. That's an incredible luxury, to walk out with only your phone. You have someone to take care of your kid, you're not carrying around baby stuff. You don't have to carry around little granola bars because you don't know when you're going to eat. Just being like, The world opens up to me. And whatever I need, I will arrive at it or it will be given to me. Having a little handbag is all of that.
Can you talk about some of the backlash to prep throughout history? I feel like we’re already seeing a backlash to quiet luxury on social media.
The biggest one was in the sixties. Really, preppy should have died in the sixties because that was the look of college campuses, then suddenly college campuses were not just sporting havens, they became extremely political, these incredible hubs of self-expression where people could take ideological risks, which then manifested itself in wild sartorial expression. Then, the backlash to the backlash was “everyone's dressing too crazy.” And for lack of other ideas, really, everyone just went back to preppy in the eighties.
I saw documents from 1965 that said, “There are no trends anymore, we're all free.” And obviously if you look back at a photo of the sixties, you can tell that it was taken in the sixties. Surely we'll look back at 2023 and see that there was a style and that we were all sort of following it. But I just don’t think trends are as rigid.
Where do you think quiet luxury is going? Is it the bellbottom of this decade or more transient than that?
It's really hard to say. Preppy comes and goes and also never leaves.
I think the decade defining trend, the thing that's the equivalent of bellbottoms, are tattoos. That's going to be the thing that we look back and think, Oh my god, everyone had a tattoo. That's a powerful reclamation quite literally against clothing, being like, I am the sum total of all of these symbols that I have amassed on my body over time. I think that really changes self-expression because we can wear a lot more things — there's already some mark of ourselves emblazoned permanently upon us.
Articles of Interest just started publishing new, stand-alone episodes, including chapters on the Clueless closet and pointe shoes. So go have a listen and subscribe on your favorite podcasting platform.