I am now receiving “Town & Country” in the mail because, on a tip from a clever friend, I went to fatwallet.com, and told a few casual lies. (I could be practicing entertainment law and making $150,000 a year). Based on my fictitiously rarified self, I became a free recipient of the self-described “luxury lifestyle magazine.”
If you are not a regular “Town & Country” reader, I will help you to understand the nature of the publication by telling you that most of the advertising is for diamonds (and not the kind that come from Zales in the mall), with a few luxury cars and exclusive resorts hawked along the way. Society weddings are featured in the back of the magazine. The focus is not on celebrity glitz, but on the homes, clothing and entertainment of the kind of Old Money that owns a summer-house on Nantucket, orders curtain fabric from Braunschwig & Fils and stays at The Connaught when in London.
In this issue, the Editor’s Letter focuses on the effect the recent economic downturn has had on the halcyon days of the, well, the right-up-until-a-year-ago era. She calls 2009 “the year of ‘no mores’- no more lavish spending, no more whimsical investments, no more doing things just for the hell of it.” On the following page, she comes to her senses and recommends that we consider purchasing as a Christmas gift a $325.00 chinoiserie enamel ring box. This would, I imagine, be a stocking stuffer along with a 2 carat diamond ring from Cartier (to put in the box) , a perfect black truffle, a cashmere dog sweater, and a pair of airline tickets to Anguilla.
During my recent magazine addiction (from which I recovered completely in the Conde Nast wing of the Betty Ford Clinic), I saw this “Poverty Chic” idea again and again. I have been reading fashion magazines for a long, long, time, and while one might find articles about “Six Outfits Under $100” in media targeted towards suburban moms, teenagers or the socially disenfranchised, the push in high-end publications has always been to buy what was new, regardless of cost, or at least want it enough that it hurt. You might have had to figure out on your own that Payless was selling a pleather version of the Jimmy Choos that blew you away in “Vogue,” and make your own, less “luxe” version of Marc Jacobs latest ensemble, but the mission of the magazines was to get you to buy the real deal, from $40.00 lip balm to $10,000.00 necklaces made of raw aquamarines mined by Indonesian virgins. To my astonishment, in my most recent reading I found articles about “shopping your closet” rather than buying new, fashion spreads that included at least one item from Target or H &M, and articles about how to go longer between highlights, blowouts, manicures and other essential personal maintenance.
Although I am not happy that many at the tippy top of the socioeconomic pyramid have lost jobs or taken a bath on investment returns, it is interesting to me to watch the process by which the realities of my daily life have become “chic.” We have a more than adequate roof over our heads, and are sufficiently fed and clothed, but we do not eat out regularly, take vacations, buy hardcover books, buy expensive theater or concert tickets, or spend lavishly on holiday gifts. If I need a pair of black flats, I go to Target. My diamonds were inherited, and I buy my hair color in a box at the grocery store, blow out my own hair, and do my own nails. We are completely entertained through a combination of Netflix, free local concerts and tickets to theater performed at local high schools and theaters. I love beautiful things, and admit to having cravings for everything from a Kate Spade bag to a Cooper Mini, but those desires are filed in a brain compartment far away from the realities of my actual life. They are in the toile-covered, expensively scented “if I had a million dollars” compartment, right under paying off all of our debt and giving a huge donation to the local food bank.
We have been, and continue to be, the recipients miraculous generosity from a wide variety of people – my parents, who outfit Sam in Abercrombie before school starts and take us to Florida every year, my mother-in-law who sends me St. John suits and bags, Rob’s former employer who sent us on annual vacations to beautiful resorts in the Caribbean in the dead of winter, and friends and family who take us to amazing restaurants and pick up the tab in such a way that we never feel like “poor relations” but like essential and valued company. Those things, for us, are breathtaking breaks from penny-pinching pragmatism. They are not “business as usual,” but treasures. Four months ago, when I bought the first new car I have ever owned in my 31 years of driving, I was as pleased and in love with my tiny Hyundai as I would have been had we bought a Mclaren coupe. I still get a little rush every time I see my own tiny, shiny, stubby wheels, parked in the driveway.
We have made some choices about what we value in this family, some of which mean that I have to consider every purchase from an expensive spice I can only use in one recipe, to a whole album (!) on iTunes. I worry about the cost of potential orthodontia, prescription medicines, failing washing machines, and lurking old-house disasters. The fact that this life, which we have lived for many years, is now considered novel and maybe even fashionable, is somewhat surreal. It is, I believe, how many Americans live, and compared to billions of people in this country and in the greater world, we are fabulously wealthy. For families living in real poverty, our big (heated) house with running water, our full refrigerator and our medical insurance would be luxuries. Shopping at Target and coloring one’s own hair are not novelties discovered by the editors at “Elle;” they are the realities of average American lives.
I am genuinely not happy that the mighty have fallen; I am not happy when anyone falls. I might wish, though, that there was less media focus on the getting and spending aspects of hard times, and more on the silver linings. This focus on what can be “bought” skews incorrectly the image of what it means to focus less on the material world, whether by choice or necessity. My books come from the library, my toilet paper is generic, and my cashmere used to be my mother’s, but despite my inability (and unwillingness) to spend $325.00 on a ring box, I have a sound marriage, a circle of friends and family who could only possibly love me for who I am (since I have nothing else to give them), and a great kid who is already learning how to work and plan to get what we can’t easily afford. Our family, and not what we buy, or where we go, is the center of our lives. There isn’t a job loss or investment disaster that can change that; long after the market has righted itself, and Biarritz and haute couture are bullish again, we will continue to have the most luxurious things of all.