Looking like a Vanderbilt on a VanDeKamp budget
September 12, 2007 5:07 PM   Subscribe

You've seen her before: Perfectly coiffed hair. Impeccably dressed. Sensible, yet sophisticated expensive shoes ... and you know she's "old money." Can you cultivate that look or must you be born into it?

I love the polished, unfussy look of the monied set. I'd like to find out how I might get that look ... though I don't have the money ... or the connections ... or the leisure time ... or the delusions of grandeur.

I'm not talking about trashy Paris Hilton. I'm thinking more Kennedy or Astor or Vanderbilt.

What should I be looking for? A classic cut? Certain brands? Can I get them at the thrift store? Are there good imitations?
posted by anonymous to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (32 answers total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
Here's two I know for sure:

When shopping at top brand stores like Prada or what not, they arrive for special showings where the salesperson knows their taste and has pre-selected a rack of things to show them. Some things may have been stocked with them in mind.

They throw out about two thirds of their purchases once they get them home and try them on a few more times, or in various ensembles.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:28 PM on September 12, 2007

any j. crew catalogue will get you started.
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:28 PM on September 12, 2007

The women's portion of the Brooks Brothers and Ben Silver catalogs will have something that looks like this. I think pearls are almost a necessity for this look.
posted by milkrate at 5:35 PM on September 12, 2007

It seems to me that there are quite a few classic, high style designers that now sell at chain retailers. Why not check out the Isaac Mizrahi line at Target or the new Vera Wang stuff at Kohls? Then get a string of pearls, a crisp white menswear shirt, an a line skirt, and splurge on expensive heels!

PS - There's also a fabulous timeless Oscar de la Renta dress at Macy's right now. Is that the kind of thing you're looking for?
posted by B-squared at 5:41 PM on September 12, 2007

Paul Fussell's Class, or, if you want something even lighter, that Preppy Handbook book from the '80s, would be a good resource. Old-money style doesn't change very quickly.

There aren't any good imitations (because it's hard to fake expensive materials or quality construction), but you can get them at the thrift store. Good luck--there are a lot of people, relatively speaking, looking for these kinds of clothes at thrift stores, and there aren't a lot of people donating them.
posted by box at 5:42 PM on September 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

The Old Money that I know doesn't wear Prada. Think Talbots- tailored, classic, not necessarily fashionable. Could be this year's, or could be fifteen years old. Or twenty. Seriously.

This is one of those areas where the "three E" rule applies- you can have Ease, Economy, and/or Elegance; any two, but not all three at the same time.

You can get a long way there by investing in a quality tailored pieces in neutrals- black, navy, camel. Take the time to wander through the high-end places and look at how garments are finished, how they hang, how the fabric feels, and then look for those qualities in stuff that is in your price range. Thrift shops can be hit or miss, but some people swear by them.
posted by ambrosia at 5:44 PM on September 12, 2007 [6 favorites]

It's all about perfect fit combined with classic (conservative) cut and nothing too garish (except perhaps the diamonds). I always think of the chanel suit as the ultimate example of this look. A close-fitting skirt that hits slightly below the knee, combined with a silk blouse and black pumps.
Japanese women do this look REALLY WELL. Not the crazy little anime girls, but the professional women. I don't really know how one goes about finding what they wear, unfortunately.
posted by ch1x0r at 5:45 PM on September 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Seconding J. Crew and Target - I also love this look and have replicated it semi-cheaply at J. Crew. Banana Republic is also a good bet. Even trendier stores like H&M will have some pieces like this, you just need to pick and choose.

One nice thing about this "classic" fashion is that it's fairly simple and never goes out of style, so you can get just a few pricey pieces (shoes, a blazer, a nice pair of pants or a skirt, a coat) and then use them again and again with less expensive shirts and accessories.
posted by piers at 5:46 PM on September 12, 2007

Spend money on your haircut. I -- who am inherently messy -- was surprised to find out how much better my cowlicked, frizzy hair looks when I'm willing to pay the big bucks to a hairdresser who knows what she's doing.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:51 PM on September 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Avoid trendy looking pieces. Go to thrift stores where rich people are likely to donate their stuff and keep your eye out for well tailored clothing (jackets are lined, the fabric is not some polyester blend, everything is properly hemmed) that fits your body properly. Avoid anything tight. I tend to think of Faconable as shorthand for expensive/preppy casual. Invest in a *really* nice pair of loafers or maybe ballet flats. Nothing flashy or embellished.

On preview, yes, The Preppy Handbook! There is a whole section on how to dress like a proper WASP in there. It was written in the 80s, but that sort of thing never changes.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 5:54 PM on September 12, 2007

Read the blog of Melissa C. Morris. She comes from money, dresses like this (though is heavily obsessed with preppiness, too), and talks about this stuff.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 5:56 PM on September 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

I went to high school with a bunch of people who were truly old money, at least by American standards, and I have to say that they are often not especially impeccable. True old money has nothing to prove. They often look frumpy or downright raggedy. They do, however, tend to clean up pretty well.

But I've got some advice if you want to look like stereotypical old money. First of all, buy fewer things, but assume you'll wear them more. So if you're going to buy a skirt, you want something neutral enough that you're going to be able to wear it two or three times in a week without anyone noticing. You want it to be timeless enough that you'll be able to wear it in five years. Finally, you want it to be sturdy enough that it will still be in great shape in five years, even though you've worn it twice a week. You'll have to spend more on this skirt than you usually would, but consider it an investment. Or you might be able to get something appropriate from a consignment shop. (Thrift stores are definitely cheaper than consignment stores, but you have to sort through a lot less crap at the consignment stores.)

Get things tailored. The reason that things fit people beautifully is that they're altered to fit them. If you gain or lose some weight, take your clothes to be taken in or let out. Develop a relationship with someone who does alterations, so you know that she knows what she's doing.

For the perfectly coiffed hair, find out if any local high-end salons have an apprenticeship program. It's possible to get a very expensive-looking haircut for free (or at least for cheap) if you're willing to let an apprentice cut your hair. As long as you go to a nice salon, they'll do an excellent job, because they're getting graded on it.
posted by craichead at 6:20 PM on September 12, 2007 [3 favorites]

I think a normally overlooked yet perhaps the primary part of that look is actually the body and body language. People from old money have a kind of confidence bourne of a lifetime of most people doing their will. They often end up with extensive expensive posture training via early (and ongoing) activities like dance instruction, equestrian instruction, etc. perhaps even a finishing school. (Plus that surgical perfection - I don't mean boob jobs, but the lifetime of top notch cosmetic dentistry, that sort of thing).

As to the clothes, nothing off the rack will ever pass for something tailor-made to your body. But many off-the-rack stores offer alterations for a purchased item at a very low price, which is the next best thing.

This thread has some of the ways that people see the difference between people wearing fake and genuine "designer" items. this post in particular. It might also be the case that, as with body language, people who aren't aware of these things still sense the difference even though they can't put their finger on what it is.

Finding out what makes a $4000 suit look like a $4000 suit, and what makes a $200 suit look like $200 helps you to find a $200 suit that can pass for $1000. To that end, This is the blog of one of the worlds top tailors. It's about men's suits, but I much of the stuff about construction and materials would apply to both genders.
posted by -harlequin- at 6:34 PM on September 12, 2007 [4 favorites]

It's about the fit and tailoring (and confidence of the person who's wearing it), less than the clothes themselves, although they need to be quality. But you can get whatever designer stuff you want, if it looks 'off the rack,' it's just going to make you obvious as a poseur.

Rich people (and more than just 'rich;' people who are used to being rich) do not wear clothing that looks less-than-perfect on them, just because it cost them a lot of money. Anyone with a credit card can buy a designer label, but getting (apparently) tailored clothing and wearing it well is the true differentiator of class.*

This is even more the case with men's clothing, but true in my experience for women's as well.

* - When they care about appearances. I've also met very wealthy, old-money people who just don't give a crap what the bourgeois think of them -- anyone who's anyone already knows they're rich, and thus they feel it unnecessary to go around advertising it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:35 PM on September 12, 2007

Buy yourself a copy of A Privileged Life: Celebrating Wasp Style by Susanna Salk. Two others to check out are Slim Aarons: A Place in the Sun and Once Upon a Time.

Look at Ann Taylor. This dress in particular struck me as very waspy when I was browsing around today. AT generally offers great sales and these sorts of dresses can be found in the $30-$50 range a month or so after they debut.

Good luck!
posted by cior at 6:46 PM on September 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm with ambrosia. The old money I know doesn't wear Prada either. They live in polo shirts and shorts and expensive but worn boat shoes or loafers. Or Lily Pulitzer capri pants and ballet flats.

From what I've noticed there isn't a lot of flash. Except for a weighty diamond on the finger and very expensive watches here and there, everything is subdued. You're not going to see a blingy Dolce and Gabbana logo on the arm of their sunglasses. You're not going to see sequins or rhinestones. You'll never see brassy streaks or black roots on a WASP's head. I'm stating the obvious here, but think natural, even if you have to fake it. The appearance of good health is paramount: slimness, good teeth, manicured hands, clear skin, etc.

I'll second Paul Fussel's Class. I'll always be a prole, but it's a fun read.

Consider copying the annoying Gwyneth Paltrow's style. She wears the American sportswear look beautifully.
posted by LoriFLA at 6:49 PM on September 12, 2007

Black Halo has a wonderfully classic look.

On the expensive side, but they are investment pieces, never going out of style.

Mandy Moore in a beautiful and classic Black Halo dress
posted by 20something at 6:51 PM on September 12, 2007

It seems to me that there are quite a few classic, high style designers that now sell at chain retailers. Why not check out the Isaac Mizrahi line at Target or the new Vera Wang stuff at Kohls?

I'm a huge fan of this kind of stuff (I probably wear something from the Isaac Mizrahi for Target line every day!) but in the grander scheme of things, there's no faking really quality material and cut. A cool knockoff of a classic cardigan or blouse might work just fine for a cute work look, for example, but in the long run the weight and drape of cheap cotton will never compete with good cashmere or linen.

My approach is to buy select, classic, more expensive pieces -- like a really good houndstooth blazer, classic leather dress boots, etc. -- and combine it with less expensive seasonal pieces. I also look for classic pieces at good consignment shops (recent scores for under $50 each include an amazing black cocktail dress from Saks and a pair of understated Miu-Miu mary-janes with a timeless toe and heel).
posted by scody at 7:01 PM on September 12, 2007

I went to high school with a bunch of people who were truly old money, at least by American standards, and I have to say that they are often not especially impeccable.

Too true. I would add that those I knew considered the Preppy Handbook to be a weird creation that had nothing to do with them. Truly old money of my acquaintance, serious money, tend to drive beat up old Chevies with dog blankets in the back, and wears shirts with ever so slightly frayed cuffs, ties inherited from their grandparents that were brilliant in their day and now are approaching fascinating artifact. It's new money that goes for the bright shiny fun new things money can buy, and generally is more anxious about how they are perceived.

Which is not to disparage your desire for looking sharp, an impulse I actually applaud- way too much lazy ugly out there just now. For the moment I live on the wrong side of some fairly high rent tracks, and in local supermarkets I have seen middle aged housewifes in pajamas. Please. Old money believes in comfort, but has a little self respect. Pajamas are for homeless people, not suburban matrons.

As a practical matter, you might try a few episodes of What Not to Wear, or even that Tim Gunn thing on Bravo. They don't always get it right, but it's a start.

Don't pay retail, but don't assume that high end shops are beyond your means. Go for end of season sales and be amazed. Go to second hand shops in high rent towns. Check out the various aftermarket stores (Marshalls, etc) and look hard- Marge Simpson's finding a Chanel suit is not that far off reality - Mrs Jones has found Robert Clergerie in her size for under twenty dollars. Max Mara for similar price, if memory serves, before he was well known in AMerica. The names might be less familiar to one. Which means you have to be able to identify quality merchandise that no one else does by something other than name brand recognition.

How? You might try taking a sewing class if that's possible. YOU will in due course understand why it is impossible to make a really good knock-off of a five thousand dollar dress. To see where they're cutting corners. (Hint- why are strapless wedding dresses so big right now? Because good sleeves are amazingly difficult to sew- why bother if you can convince the bride that she looks fabulous without?) And you may discover an unsuspected talent within yourself.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:06 PM on September 12, 2007 [2 favorites]

You can get St. John Knits on ebay for that special Nancy Reagan look.

Eat well and exercise so you look healthy, and take really good care of your skin and nails and hair.
posted by thirteenkiller at 7:25 PM on September 12, 2007

-harlequin- is right: Posture. Poise. No shrugging. No extravagant arm waving. Stop touching your face. Pleasant demeanor and tone of voice. Take a look at George Washington's Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation, written out when he was about 16 years old. He was fussy in his attempts to appear unfussy -- and in his case it certainly worked. (“. . . Shake not the head, Feet, or Legs rowl not the Eys lift not one eyebrow higher than the other wry not the mouth, and bedew no mans face with your Spittle . . . Do not Puff up the Cheeks, Loll not out the tongue rub the Hands, or beard, thrust out the lips, or bite them or keep the Lips too open or too Close. . . .”).
posted by Dave 9 at 7:29 PM on September 12, 2007 [4 favorites]

Tailoring. Tailoring, tailoring, tailoring.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:10 PM on September 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Agree with all of the above about the importance of tailoring, quality materials, etc. To add to that -- another thing that separates your hypothetical socialite from most women on the street is the quality of her accessories. She wears diamond earrings that are large but not too large, or a string of real pearls; an elegant, understated wristwatch that probably cost more than your yearly salary; classic leather shoes that are in good condition, and a coordinating leather handbag. In combination, these things make her look "put together," whereas the rest of us forgot our earrings this morning and our shoes need to be shined.
posted by junkbox at 8:12 PM on September 12, 2007

Oh, and if you'll allow me to be Captain Obvious for a moment, tailor-made clothing generally doesn't sport prominent logos, brandnames, or other advertising. In a thrift store, that helps cut the field down quite a bit right there :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 8:29 PM on September 12, 2007

I think its not what you wear- though that is 100% a factor- but how well you look down your nose at people. KNOW you and your family is better than 99% of the people you will ever meet; but, at the same have that sense of noble obligation to be courteous to them, decently polite, and don't rub their nose in the fact that your shoes cost more than your car. Oh, and stressing out about anything short of debutante balls, massive charities, or... well, thats all you can stress out about, really. It gives wrinkles though, don't forget. At least, those are my observations from brushing against the old money in my town.

Also.... I notice certain generations tend to be quite dumb... Yay trophy wives....
posted by Jacen at 10:36 PM on September 12, 2007

Get the Official Preppy Handbook, indeed.

Get a very good haircut and manicure and pedicure, have clear skin, and be tan (or fake tan but it can't look fake), and your accessories should be very good quality but not flashy and not look brand new - it doesn't matter if they look brand new (but obv if they are falling apart - replace). Longchamp bag maybe (they are big in Georgetown right now).. Lilly Pulitzer dress for summer (I hate these, but they're so preppy).. some very affordable classics at LL Bean (french sailor shirt, boat shoes, duck boots, tote bag). Stick to the classics and have your dress clothes tailored so they fit perfectly..

For brands I would think, LL Bean, Bass shoes, Brooks Brothers, Ralph Lauren (the high end label not Lauren Ralph Lauren), Gucci loafers, Liberty print shirts, Lacoste polos.. Agnes B is always classic and simple, a basic Agnes B dress shirt would be excellent. Petit Bateau t-shirts.

I think above all there is an approach to it.. that you are secure about money so you don't really care about money, don't talk about how much things cost or really even pay much attention to the price if it's something you need, go for classic and top quality and what will last.

I don't think I'll ever be this way but I pay attention.. What I used to do is find the poshest zip code in a metro area and then look up the thrifts right nearby, esp. the little church thrifts that are off the radar, that's how I got my vintage coach satchel and ralph lauren bag and such, and in a funny way it lets you have that "I don't care" attitude about money because that high end designer item cost you a proportionate amount of your income if it was $5 at a thrift, right? :)
posted by citron at 10:43 PM on September 12, 2007 [3 favorites]

2nding citron's spendy thrift rec. I would never have a cavalier attitude about a Kate Spade bag I paid sick dozens for, but mine cost me $5 at the Palo Alto Goodwill so I beat it up something terrible. I'm still not entirely convinced it isn't a fake, but it doesn't have any of the usual telltale signs...and being mean to your fancy bag is about as key to looking "old money" as actually having the bag. The illusion is spoiled if the aforementioned sick dozens look like they meant anything to you.
posted by crinklebat at 11:17 PM on September 12, 2007

Read the Sartorialist.

No one he shoots looks stuffy, but lots of them look rich, even the college girls and interns who you know don't have money. Some of the people he shoots are edgy, but lots of them look old-school classy, especially Europeans. The only hard rule seems to be that they don't wear jeans and always wear heels.

The difference between some girls on the Sartorialist and someone who really is old money is probably brands, but that's of secondary importance. Become relentless and discriminating in cruising sales and thrift stores. Examine seams, feel how fabric drapes, look for details like princess cuts, linings on jackets and skirts, and buttons that aren't plastic. It takes a long time to understand what really fits you, so try on everything. If something is great but just needs the sleeve an inch shorter, find a tailor. This will take time to find these things at thrift stores and sales, whereas someone with money can walk into high-end stores where everything is well made and have a sales person consult on fit.

And one note on skin and makeup: don't overdo color. Try as hard as you can to treat your skin well so it doesn't need much makeup. Just like you wouldn't buy your clothes from Walmart, don't buy your cleanser/moisturizer/makeup there either, because it will show (that doesn't mean the most expensive stuff is the best either).
posted by slow graffiti at 11:27 PM on September 12, 2007

Simple, elegant, classic stuff. Think Brooks Brothers, Talbots, Ralph Lauren, Izod, St. John, Lilly Pulitzer. You could probably do a cheaper spin from J. Crew or Banana Republic. In the end, you're better off spending the money on a well made wool skirt and twinset that you will have for years to come rather than a cheaper knockoff that will only last one or two seasons and will show its wear.

Always simple, clean makeup (nothing crazy trendy) and nice, clean lined jewelry - nothing over the top. A set of good looking pearls, nice simple small hooped or stud earrings, a nice watch and you're good to go. You really don't need more than that to get started. If you want to elaborate - a good silk scarf.

As a PP mentioned, check out Sartorialist.com.

No matter what and without a doubt, buy the best shoes and handbag you can afford
. You can figure out cheap ones without trying hard, and it really does make a different. A good haircut is also important. If you can't afford the splurge, look into 'model night' at some of the really high end salons in some of the bigger cities.
posted by dancinglamb at 12:09 AM on September 13, 2007

It's not about brand names. The idea of wearing clothes that people might know of is insane. Lacoste is different because it's a polo shirt and not serious. I remember when Brooks Brothers first came out with their label in the early 80's and there was quite a bit of tooth gnashing. Nowadays BB is really just any other retail store though I hear they do still make suits.

If you're shopping at thrift stores, go to the 'expensive' or 'rich' towns or parts of towns and buy there. Know that you are most likely buying the clothes of deceased people because otherwise clothes are made to be worn-out, never, ever discarded. (Why would you discard clothes?)

Know a good tailor. Discuss this with no one, it is irrelevant.

LL Bean makes fine sweaters. Harris tweeds are often very attractive. Ferragamo (most all Italians, for that matter) make fine shoes. I have no idea who made my bag and really, you shouldn't either. It is, simply, very fine and otherwise beneath discussion.

Sound advice from upthread:
"...think natural, even if you have to fake it. The appearance of good health is paramount: slimness, good teeth, manicured hands, clear skin, etc."

"First of all, buy fewer things, but assume you'll wear them more..."

This post brought to you by the voice of my grandmother, Tootie, who would have never understood your question but not held it against you either. Class is about demeanor, you never know who you might be speaking to so you are always better off treating them well until you do. Then, god help you.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:15 AM on September 13, 2007 [4 favorites]

For me, I always imagine someone with very clear skin and natural makeup. All those expensive skincare items, treatments, and cosmetics really make a difference here. Also, tailored clothing is paramount. I agree with someone's suggestion above that Gwyneth Paltrow is a great model for the moneyed look (I also agree she is incredibly annoying, no matter how stylish she may be).
posted by exquisite_deluxe at 7:39 AM on September 13, 2007

Nowadays BB is really just any other retail store...

Made abundantly clear by the outlets in airports.

I was going to add NO FATTIES, but I see From Bklyn has already covered that...
posted by kmennie at 12:05 PM on September 13, 2007

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