Imagine that the person you are dating invites you to his great-uncle’s birthday party. This is not just a family gathering. The great-uncle in question is a billionaire and the party is in their New York City penthouse. To fit in, wear your best dress and carry your most expensive handbag – a large, four digit Burberry tote bag.
Unbeknownst to you, your Burberry bag is a major fashion flaw. It immediately distinguishes you as someone who is not part of this super elite. It’s not the price tag or brand that has given you away: it’s the size of the bag.
Here’s what unfolded in a scene from the season four premiere of HBO’s Succession. While attending Patriarch Logan Roy’s birthday, Cousin Greg is mercilessly mocked by Tom Wambsgans for his date’s “ridiculously roomy” handbag. Bridget’s handbag, mocks Tom, is “monstrous” and “gigantic”.
The caustic humor between Tom and Greg is an entertaining and captivating feature of Succession. In this scene, however, their retort reveals a lot about the power structures within elite society.
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Money talks, wealth whispers
While many would consider Bridget’s Burberry tote the epitome of luxury and elegance, the bag’s functionality and iconic checkered pattern was completely gauche for the Roys.
The size of the bag implied that Bridget did not have a staff to cater to her every need. She should carry everything she needs for the day with her. According to Tom Wambsgans, this includes her lunch (implying she cannot afford to dine in restaurants) and suitable shoes for the subway (implying she does not have a driver).
This is a stark comparison to Shiv Roy, who is rarely seen with a bag or any other accessory except her phone. Unlike Bridget, Shiv is not plagued by the stresses of life. She has people for that.
The iconic Burberry tartan that covered Bridget’s bag was also a “massive faux pas,” according to Tom. Have visible brand names and patterns be associated with people trying to emulate wealth, but not familiar enough with elite society to understand its sartorial nuances. The higher elite like quiet but luxurious fashion.
This style is often referred to as the old money aesthetic.
The aesthetics of the old money
Since the early 1900s, the old money aesthetic has been a symbol of wealth and privilege. Characterized by polos, chinos and an over-the-shoulder knit, this style romanticizes country club, hunting and equestrian cultures. Think Ralph Lauren and the Kennedys.
The old money aesthetic is also deeply intertwined with notions of nobility.
Historically, royals and aristocrats were considered superior to all others. This social hierarchy was enforced by laws regulating what people could wear based on their class. Clothing was an immediate visual representation of social status and power. In 16th century England, only kings, queens and dukes were allowed to wear gold clothing. If you didn’t belong to the nobility, you weren’t allowed to wear crimson or blue.
Dressing above your post had dire consequences. Henry VIII’s Acts of Apparel made it illegal for anyone except “The King and his Family” to wear clothing purple. In 1513, one of Henry’s noblemen defied this law to declare his own claim to the English throne. Not long after, Henry had him executed for treason.
In more recent times, the nobility’s predilection for tailored jackets, wool sweaters and tweeds has come to reflect a leisure class exempt from work. The innate historical bond between dress and class has made these items inseparable from notions of social superiority. They are considered timeless, stylish and sophisticated.
The Roys and everyone else
The intrinsic connection between clothing and social superiority is regularly used in TV programs such as Succession. Costumes are an important tool for creators to demonstrate hierarchy between characters. Although almost all the characters in Succession belong to the wealthy upper class, they are clearly not equal.
Cousin Greg’s date, Bridget, is rich enough to afford a four-figure pocket. However, the size and loud pattern mark her as new wealth and tasteless.
Tom’s mockery of Bridget is somewhat ironic, as he too was ridiculed for his sartorial inferiority. Tom always presents a polished, buttoned up appearance in designer suits and ties. This contrasts with Kendall and Roman, who rarely wear ties, often combine suits with trainers and baseball caps and, in more recent episodes, favored a combination of jeans, t-shirts and blazers.
Tom’s refined and pleasant appearance reflects his eagerness to please Logan and secure his position in the family. When mocking his suit in season two, the Roy kids allude to this desperation, reaffirming that his status is less than theirs.
The Roy family’s costumes firmly place them at the top of the social elite. They are often in cashmere knitwear and fitted blazers. In the country, caps and Barbour jackets match their casual, conservative, old-world look.
Unlike those outside the family, they don’t need to impress anyone. Their dress indicates a hidden wealth, and its historical significance leads to social superiority.
Next time you tune in to Succession, pay close attention to the subtleties in the characters’ costumes. They reveal a lot about the structure of society.
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