How Millennials Learned To Love Old-Money Aesthetics
Younger generations are giving the penny-loafered, chintz-upholstered old-money vibe a 21st-century reboot.
On any given midsummer Saturday night, New York’s Upper East Side is a social wasteland. The neighbourhood’s wealthy habitués flee the city for breezier country homes, leaving their tony stomping ground deserted. Aside from the hum of taxis passing by and the random Pomeranian bark, the streets are all but silent. On a recent July evening, however, rumblings can be heard from a crowd lingering in front of the stately Carlyle hotel. Inside, an earpiece-wearing security guard politely organizes a line snaking through the lobby—a scene more often found outside clubs below 14th Street. They aren’t waiting to hear some mononymous DJ or even to dance; they’re just hoping to snag a table at Bemelmans Bar—the circa 1947 boîte known for piano standards and stiff martinis.
Named after Ludwig Bemelmans, the Madeline author whose whimsical murals adorn the 672-square-foot canteen, the bar is a vestige of Old New York seemingly frozen in time. Waiters in white dinner jackets and bow ties ferry silver bowls of potato chips to every table while a jazz trio plays tunes from the Great American Songbook, just as they have for 75 years. Bemelmans’s consistently gracious service and genteel environs have made it a favourite neighbourhood watering hole for generations of Upper East Siders, from Jackie O and Brooke Astor to the average Park Avenue prince.
The line of this Sunday night, however, isn’t composed of locals roughing it in town for the weekend, though some of them can be found among the bar’s candlelit banquettes. Along with the expected patrons in their Van Cleef & Arpels jewellery and Tom Ford suits, there are Gen Z women taking selfies, a man-bun-sporting dude slipping the pianist a twenty and a hipster carrying a Machado de Assis paperback. They’re all part of a new demographic, coming from downtown, Brooklyn and beyond, that defines such throwback civility as an ideal night out.
Since Bemelmans reopened post-lockdown, there has been a surge of younger clients coming for a taste of bygone Manhattan (and the highly Instagrammable setting). “We never had lines prior to the pandemic,” says Tony Mosca, the Carlyle’s food and beverage director. “Now there are lines out to Madison Avenue on a nightly basis.” The crowds start arriving as early as 3 pm and keep going strong until last call.
“People are able to connect with each other a lot more in this environment than, say, a nightclub,” Mosca observes of the bar’s popularity after months of social distancing. And while Bemelmans has emerged as the city’s hottest new (old) spot, similar influxes have been reported at the St. Regis’s King Cole Bar and the Plaza’s Palm Court, two other haunts of the Social Register set.
Despite the threat of recession and all the talk of inflation’s havoc, wealth—or at least the look of it—is on the rise. And not just any kind of wealth: blue-blooded, Ivy-educated, Newport-summering affluence. Sneakers are being swapped for penny loafers, modernist interiors are being swaddled in chintz and chinoiserie, Hamptons vets are decamping to Palm Beach. All the traditional trappings of WASP-dom, a sensibility that has been upheld by generations of the one percent of the one percent, are striking a chord with many who don’t know Andover from Exeter and couldn’t care less. It’s about the image of affluence, not the cultural baggage.
The Gen Z influencers of TikTok have dubbed it #oldmoneyaesthetic, a term that began trending last spring and that, together with the hashtag #oldmoney, has garnered over 1.8 billion views as of writing. These digital arbiters have devoted countless videos to the topic—primarily stock-photo montages of boiserie-clad châteaux, manicured tennis lawns, models in crisp white shirts and so on—celebrating it as the ultimate lifestyle goal. Often, this world is contrasted with what has been deemed “California rich”: a version of affluence quickly amassed and oft associated with Hollywood glamour. “Why be California rich,” @eileen_darling asks, “when you could be Connecticut rich?”
This strain of discreet wealth has never really been out of fashion—it’s not like Ralph Lauren was ever hurting—but since the pandemic, it has entered the zeitgeist anew. As the adage goes, everything comes back around eventually. So if you’d written yourself off as a fuddy-duddy, we have good news: Your time is now.
The concept of “old money” has been around far longer than polo matches and prep schools, but the phrase really entered the conversation during the late 19th century. The industrial revolution saw merchants and tradesmen attain wealth with unprecedented speed, amassing fortunes to rival those that had been built, and handed down, over generations. Particularly in America, the Puritan tastes of prominent Mayflower descendants were starkly contrasted by the baroque excesses of arrivistes—a conflict central to HBO’s The Gilded Age, which, uncoincidentally, has brought this cosseted class war to prime time.
In Mrs. Astor’s day, the line between old and new money was as clear as an Edison bulb. Now, however, things are considerably murkier. The Gilded Age’s gatecrashers—Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Morgans—are today’s gatekeepers, not to mention that cryptocurrency can make even tech fortunes look quaint. (The very concept of this article, it should be noted, is decidedly not old money. Such wealth is a bit like Fight Club—the first rule is you don’t talk about it.)
“Those times are gone,” says Nick Mele, a Palm Beach–based photographer and lifelong Newport summer-er who documents the modern beau monde in the tradition of Slim Aarons. “When we talk about old money, we’re not talking about where your money comes from or how old it actually is. We’re talking about a mindset.” Where you went to school or what clubs you belong to may still have cachet, but they’re not the price of entry. “We’re in a meritocracy for the most part,” he continues. “It’s about an appreciation for traditional values.”
That phrase may often be thrown out as a dog whistle by conservative politicians, but when it comes to this new embrace of old aesthetics, it’s used in a literal sense. “Old money” now has less to do with the origins of one’s bank account and more to do with what its contents are spent on. There are countless TikToks devoted specifically to this concept; many are apt (Brunello Cucinelli, Hermès, horses) while some have a questionable definition of what constitutes sophistication (Banana Republic, reading, continental breakfasts).
“Some people think it’s just about one thing: the money or the brands or the look,” says DW, a self-described European teen behind @oldmoneyaddicted who declined to provide his name, exact age or geographic location. He claims to have been born into a family with a long, well-documented history, which inspired him to share his insights on old money with his 68,900 TikTok followers. “It’s a lot more: your education, how you behave, how you may go unnoticed with a Patek Philippe on your wrist… Being a gentleman has meaning.” At least as far as style goes, the internet’s general consensus is: Old money is unaffected understatement.
Edith Wharton, who could be considered the Robin Leach of her day, spells out this idea in 1897’s The Decoration of Houses, a kind of Victorian equivalent of “how to get the look” TikToks. Written as a riposte to “the vulgarity of current decoration” employed by parvenus, the book traces interiors of the wealthy back to the Renaissance making a case that good taste is about certain timeless principles: proportion, practicality, quality.
“The simplest and most cheaply furnished room (provided the furniture be good of its kind, and the walls and carpet unobjectionable in color),” she writes, “will be more pleasing to the fastidious eye than one in which gilded consoles and cabinets of buhl stand side by side with cheap machine-made furniture, and delicate old marquetry tables are covered with trashy china ornaments.”
Mimi McMakin, an interior designer and fourth-generation Palm Beach native, sums up the look as “clean, very simple and looks good with a tan.” McMakin, who along with her daughter Celerie Kemble, recently renovated the Colony Hotel—a much Instagrammed rhapsody of wicker, de Gournay palms and flamingo pink that has become the Floridian answer to Bemelmans—seconds Wharton in that old-money decor isn’t so much a specific style as it is an ideology.
“Most important of all is comfort,” she says. Rattling off a list of quintessential elements—tailored slipcovers, Portuguese floor tiles, lacquered coffee tables—she stops herself mid-sentence. “Did I mention down? Down! Down! We are known for the sound when you sit in one of our pieces: oomph. That’s luxury.” Face it: A plush armchair will always be more inviting than some mid-mod design in plywood and polycarbonate.
Which brings us back to the aesthetic’s governing principle: Wealth whispers. In fashion, this rule translates to relatively simple designs—oxford-cloth button-downs, blue blazers, Shetland-wool sweaters—that, more or less, have remained unchanged since they first turned up on Ivy League greens a century ago. “It’s always going to be classic,” says Zachary Weiss, a 30-year-old branding consultant and bon vivant whose 38,100 Instagram followers tune in to see his patchwork madras and “go to hell” pants living the good life from Antibes to Aspen. “You’re not going to look back at a photo and regret putting on this outfit,” he continues, describing the style’s enduring appeal. “There’s this idea of quiet luxury that is emerging with a younger set.”
Even fashion’s cool kids have taken to tinkering with the staid codes of preppy style. For spring 2022, Miuccia Prada’s Miu Miu collection went viral with low-slung chinos, pleated skirts and cable knits slashed to dangerously short lengths. For fall, Gucci’s Alessandro Michele riffed on tweedy balmacaans and sweater-vests, while Celine’s Hedi Slimane gave polo coats and Fair Isle sweaters a dose of punk-rock irreverence. Thom Browne, fashion’s most dedicated preppy, took subversion to the extreme in his most recent collection, with boys in repp ties, grosgrain jockstraps and ladies-who-lunch bouclé skirt suits—a look that one imagines wouldn’t fly at any country club, except maybe one on Fire Island.
“We’re seeing a resurgence of what I would call neo-preppy,” says Justin Berkowitz, menswear director at Bloomingdale’s. “It’s not the classic you would have read about in The Preppy Handbook.” He points to designers Mike Amiri and Rhude’s Rhuigi Villaseñor, who are cross-pollinating canonical designs such as rugby shirts and varsity jackets with the swagger of streetwear. While preppy style makes a comeback almost every 10 years, Berkowitz notes that “what’s more interesting about this iteration is that we’re seeing a more diverse ideology incorporated into [the classics].”
As a result, people who once dismissed Ivy style as a white-bread uniform for upper-crust bores are reappraising it. Against all odds, old-school might actually be cool. One of New York nightlife’s buzziest recent openings was the Nines, a downtown approximation of Bemelmans (complete with baby grand and martini sidecars) that replaced a former see-and-be-seen spot frequented by the fashion pack. Even if the gilt ceiling is wallpaper and the red-velvet upholstery skews bordello, the Nines has proven that scenesters can get into Cole Porter. Paradoxically, Weiss says this shift has been most apparent at nightclubs of the disco-ball and DJ variety. “An ‘old money’ look will get you in much faster than, you know, a bunch of Balenciaga,” he says of the most discriminating door policies. “At one point in my life, if I showed up in my normal look, they would be like, ‘No way, nerd.’ Now, it works.”
Lockdown’s closures and social distancing provided prime conditions for old money’s preferred hobbies to find a new audience. Research firm NPD found that last year’s sales of golf-club sets in the US—a good indicator of new players taking up the sport—increased 37 percent year-over-year, and a study of golfers with an average age of 30 showed that the number of rounds played by younger people reached a record high. Similar upticks have been reported in tennis and in sailing, which for the only year in over a decade saw an increase in first-time boat buyers.
Accordingly, the popularity of yacht and country clubs has boomed. The National Club Association, a lobbying group representing 420 private clubs, including such pedigreed institutions as the Everglades and Winged Foot, has found that the number operating at full membership more than doubled since the pandemic’s onset. In moneyed locales across the country, there are tales of couples who, two years ago, would’ve been a shoo-in at any club but now have been wait-listed everywhere. Although the NCA doesn’t track the age of club members, the group’s president, Joe Trauger, reports that at his own Washington, D.C., club, “demographics have definitely been getting younger, and that’s something we’re seeing emerges as a trend in quite a few places.”
The life of leisure speaks to many who took the pandemic as an opportunity to reconsider their relationship with the office. As Weiss observes, “these clothes, this imagery show that you live beyond the workplace.” The Great Resignation’s mass exodus from conventional careers—a recent McKinsey survey estimates that 40 percent of workers are considering quitting their jobs—makes conspicuous enjoyment of the finer things, or what the kids call self-care, less taboo. Hustle culture has given way to pleasure culture.
A similar reassessment happened at home. Lockdown life made people realize they want their interiors to be a sanctuary, but not one so monastic that they can’t actually live in it. “If you have an all-white room, you cannot put a picture of your dog out. Heaven forbid that there’s a magazine or book on a table,” says Bunny Williams, a Sister Parish protégé revered for translating “traditional” to today. Unlike the Scandi-minimalist style that has dominated popular design in recent years, old-money decor accommodates life’s messiness.
“People think that it’s stuffy,” says Miles Redd, a designer who marries WASP-ish taste with a punchy colour sense that would make Wharton blush. “It is all comfort- and practicality-driven: Persian rugs hold up and don’t show dirt, as does chintz; canopied beds keep out a draft and are cozy to sleep in.”
Such pragmatism is a side effect of generational wealth’s dirty little secret: “The WASP world, it was old money,” Williams reflects. “But, a lot of the time, that money didn’t last.” Houses and furniture were often inherited; the spare funds to redecorate, however, were not. So Granny’s sofa got a slipcover instead of being replaced, the old oak floors were painted rather than refinished—layers were added, but nothing got tossed.
Old money’s thriftiness makes the style surprisingly democratic and, particularly for a generation that has inherited only a planet in decline, sustainable. Williams says that antiques dealers she knows have had their best year ever, noting that younger people are now a fixture when she goes antiquing in Connecticut or Atlanta. Redd, too, reports that his younger clients are getting into serious collecting, buying at auction or at Masterpiece, TEFAF and other fairs. “The bottom line is: Things made in the 18th century have craftsmanship you don’t see today,” he says. “And, if you are clever, you can get it for a lot less than something new.”
“In Newport, a beat-up old beach car is appreciated more than a shiny new Porsche or Range Rover,” says Mele, the photographer. To him, the difference between old and new money is embracing cracks in the walls and chips in the china. “There has been a real trend for everything to appear perfect, especially with Instagram. Everybody wants to put forth this idea that their lives are pristine and there isn’t a pillow out of place. That really wasn’t the old-money aesthetic.”
Richard Thompson Ford, a Stanford University law professor and author of Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History, suspects that this embrace of the old school is partly a reaction to the fast fashion and influencers that have proliferated online.
“On the one hand, there’s snobbery involved,” he says of the patrician concept of a “proper” way of appearing. “On the other hand, there’s arguably a critique of the crass overconsumption that we might associate with the Kardashians—that is maybe not so bad.”
Casual was the status quo even before the pandemic, but, especially after the forced sweats-and-sofa routine, formality has novelty. “Menswear was dominated by streetwear for the past, say, 10 years; we’re starting to see that idea change,” says Berkowitz of Bloomingdale’s, noting that customers are increasingly spending more on polish, figuratively and literally. “We’ve seen a huge resurgence of dress shoes… loafers are becoming cool.” Even among hoodie devotees, there’s an urge to get spiffed up and go out on the town.
“There are so many places in New York where you can eat, but there are very few where you can actually dine,” says Angie Mar, chef and owner of Les Trois Chevaux, an intimate West Village restaurant that tips its toque to Lutèce, Le Cirque and others of that ilk, places celebrated as much for their well-heeled clientele as for their haute cuisine. Though Mar rose to fame with burgers and chops at the Beatrice Inn, when it came time to reopen post-lockdown, she decided to change tack and “bring a bit of glamour back to the city.”
Despite its quintessentially downtown location, Les Trois Chevaux is distinctly uptown in spirit. A chandelier salvaged from the old Waldorf Astoria, a discreet Picasso lithograph and arrangements by one of Anna Wintour’s preferred florists set the stage for prix fixe menus, starting at around $380, showcasing frog’s legs mousseline and hen-and-lobster ballotine—the kind of exceptionally complex French cooking that even French chefs have mostly ditched for more egalitarian fare.
Similarly, the Grill, occupying the old Four Seasons space at the Seagram Building, has brought back such midcentury indulgences as prime rib carved tableside, lobster Newberg and baked Alaska. In Los Angeles, Horses has reinvigorated a nearly century-old Sunset Boulevard staple with the clubby, put-it-on-my-tab ethos of socialite favourites Swifty’s and 21. At a recent meal there, a server described one diner’s fish as “a 1980s country club revived.”
It’s not just the food that’s gussying up: Les Trois Chevaux is one of numerous restaurants nationwide that have reinstated dress codes. Where jacket requirements could be perceived as an effort to keep the riff-raff out, Mar sees it as a way of reminding diners that a great meal isn’t just about eating. “It’s an experience,” she says. “Dining should not be any different than going to the opera.”
In interviews for this story, manners repeatedly came up as the utmost defining feature of old money. While politesse is certainly an admirable quality—and, yes, it would be nice if everyone still dressed for the opera—who decides what is impolite? Mele recounts a memory of his grandmother, Newport grande dame Oatsie Charles, at dinner one evening, lecturing his brother on the importance of manners while snatching food from his plate and eating it with her hands: “My brother looks at her and says, ‘Granny, what the hell?’ and she goes, ‘Not table manners!’” The rules aren’t so straightforward.
Jason Jules, co-author of Black Ivy: A Revolt in Style, which traces the evolution of preppy style among Black Americans, observes: “We all use these words like ‘elegant,’ ‘sophisticated’… In the wrong hands, those words are used to judge us, classify us and divide us.” Given that this world has, historically, been the purview of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, it’s a slippery slope from the “right” shoes or shirt to, as Jules says, “you need to have straight hair, to have perfect teeth, to have light skin, to be beach blond.”
“The old-money aesthetic occupies a powerful, symbolic place in American culture,” Ford says of the tendency to romanticize the look. “There’s a nostalgia for a more innocent past…[to] imagine what it would be like to live as a privileged person at a period of time when America’s influence and moral authority were unquestioned—that’s not right now.” Of course, that idealistic picture was just a veneer even then. Today, in light of social-justice movements such as Black Lives Matter, it can be hard to reconcile the resurgence of old-money aesthetics with the moment in which we’re living. It’s especially surprising that Gen Z—the most politically correct generation yet—is so enthusiastically teeing up for croquet.
While one suspects that very few (if any) #oldmoney TikToks are created as conscious political commentary, there’s an implicit statement in virtually storming this rarefied club. That the club has, historically, been open exclusively to straight white conservative elites isn’t a deterrent—adapters aren’t trying to emulate the Mayflower Society, just taking their look and running with it. “We all know it’s the language of the establishment,” says Jules. “But we all want to be able to access that on our own terms.”
In some respects, this return to the traditional can feel like a product of “woke” fatigue. It’s not that old-money aesthetics fly in the face of political correctness; it’s rather that we’re all too tired—from the pandemic, from politics, from the pressure not to offend—to get hung up on whether tennis sweaters or delftware are problematic. Woke culture can, in its own way, be as restrictive as Emily Post. “I’m speaking as a Democratic, Asian American woman, single business owner who has no backing, and I’m into this,” Mar says of her decidedly expensive taste. “Why feel guilty about it?”
People just want to enjoy the pleasures that old money affords, and who can fault them? There’s a reason why this look has stuck around for so long: It’s pretty objectively nice. “Maybe it’s just fun to raid Granny’s wardrobe,” says Jules, dismissing concerns about the politics of it all. Regardless of race or class, he says, “there is only one right way to eat an oyster.” Mrs. Astor surely would agree.