Harry Mount

Conspicuous luxury looks cheap

Showing off your wealth is tacky

  • From Spectator Life

Street robbery has become an epidemic. Horrible thugs are stealing luxury watches and jewellery in broad daylight. The number of luxury watches stolen almost doubled in England and Wales between 2015 and 2022 – with 25,802 stolen in 2022. The problem is particularly bad in London, where the Metropolitan Police have set up a special unit to tackle the problem.

Even the greediest thief isn’t about to strip your suit off your back

It’s an unforgivable crime. Lock the muggers up and throw away the key. Of course people should be free to walk the streets, decked in gold and silver. Oh for the legendary days of medieval England when you could supposedly leave a bag of coins nailed to a tree for a year and no one would steal it. 

That’s no longer the case, if indeed it ever was. In the Daily Mail last week, an anonymous writer movingly revealed how she’s so scared of being attacked on the streets of London that she refuses to carry her £1,500 Chanel handbag, wear her Rolex watch or even put her engagement ring on, for fear of muggers. Instead, she keeps her handbag forlornly wrapped up at home in its box.

It’s a sad indictment of British law and order that the rich have to confine their luxury goods like this. But, still, they might end up looking better as a result. Real style doesn’t come from wearing stealable stuff. Conspicuous expenditure just doesn’t look very attractive, particularly on men. Because men have fewer outlets to show off their money, they concentrate their efforts on the blingiest watches – or, worse, rings and necklaces.

There’s no need for the sumptuary laws of medieval England, which actually banned luxurious clothing. Instead, emulate the most stylish people, who have already realised that understated style is so much more impressive than the overstated version. Quite often, I see the actor Bill Nighy walking around Mayfair and St James’s during the day. He looks marvellous in beautifully cut suits. Yes, those suits cost thousands but they are in restrained dark greys and dark blues – luxury going undercover.

Even the greediest thief isn’t about to strip your suit off your back – not least because a tailored suit is so personal that it doesn’t look nearly as good on anyone other than the person it was designed for. A tailored suit isn’t fungible – once removed from its owner, it’s little more than connected strips of wool, with none of the immediately sell-on-able qualities of, say, a flash watch or car.

As the adage goes, it should take some time before you notice someone is well-dressed. In the same way, it should take some time before you notice someone has spent a fortune on their clothes. This isn’t an attack on the nouveau riche, but on the nouveau laide – people who spend lots of money to look unattractive. Too glaring an advertisement of the cost of your style is just a kind of showing-off. How unpleasant to want to show the world you are richer than other people. But it’s not unpleasant to be dressed beautifully.

When I see Bill Nighy on the streets of London, I don’t think, ‘You’re rich’, ‘You’re trying to show off,’ or ‘You’re trying to make me look poor or badly dressed’. I just think, ‘God, how impressive and lovely,’ in the same way I do when I see a beautiful building or picture. Well-dressed people lift your spirits – they don’t cast you down out of envy or an unsatisfactory bank balance.

Style needn’t cost much, in any case. Just look at prewar photos of crowds at a football match, where everyone looks stylish. And compare them with gatherings of the rich in first-class lounges at airports today – where hardly anyone does. The rich today may spend much more on their clothes than the poor but it’s vanishingly rare to see a beautifully dressed, rich person.

As Dorothy Parker said, ‘If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to’. How much better if you show off your millions through style rather than conspicuous expenditure.

Written by
Harry Mount

Harry Mount is editor of The Oldie and author of How England Made the English (Penguin) and Et Tu, Brute? The Best Latin Lines Ever (Bloomsbury)

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