Decolonizing Quiet Luxury

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Dear fashion thinkers,

If you’re anything like me, you might have been watching the astronomical rise of “quiet luxury” lately. But not simply watching. You’ve probably been thinking about the rise of the trend and perhaps also analyzing what it says about the current moment and how this relates to the many histories of luxury, especially those that remain untold.

Last month, I suggested that it might be the topic for this month’s newsletter. Soon after hitting “send” I received a call from one of my favorite fashion writers of the moment, Frances Solá-Santiago, to talk more about the subject for a fantastic article she wrote for Refinery29.

Our conversation was brief but substantial. And it got my “thinking motor” going.

So now I really had to write more about quiet luxury—as you may have seen in my first #grwm reel earlier this week!

But what is quiet luxury, to begin with?

To explain it briefly, quiet luxury is all about the “silent” display of wealth and leisure through minimalism and muted colors. Think Sofia Richie’s wedding looks, the HBO show Succession, and even Gwyneth Paltrow’s looks for the famous ski accident trials. Yet nothing is really quiet about this type of luxury, as it symbolizes “old money” and the style connoisseurship (or expertise) of what white elites have long considered “real” luxury. But I’ll let Fran explain it more thoroughly.

At different points in my life I think I’ve fallen prey to the hegemonic discourses about luxury and, most importantly, quiet luxury. If you follow me on Instagram and have read or listened to me elsewhere, you probably know about the many times I’ve chosen to reject bold colors and patterns in (probably useless and definitely pointless) attempts to hide my identity as a Latina.

Thankfully, I’ve always come back to re-embracing the bold styles that have been passed down to me by generations of fashionable people who don’t exactly conform to Euro-North American white standards. (I must say here that the whitewashing of many Latin Americans is worthy of consideration, even though I won’t get into it today.)

But it wasn’t until I started working on my Ph.D. that I began to (re)consider luxury from a decentralized perspective that actually questions the hegemonic narratives that, in turn, separate—and privilege—widely held ideas about ”old money” and “new money.” The difference between the two reinforces a hierarchy in which white taste is considered superior to other forms of stylistic expression and, as Dr. Jonathan M. Square has pointed out, that’s when quiet luxury becomes problematic.

The creation of a hierarchy between “old money” and “new money” or—to put it more broadly—between the aesthetic taste of white elites and pretty much every other social group has helped create our contemporary ideas about “taste” throughout history. And, believe it or not, ideas about luxury have always been an underlying element of taste.

When I began to delve into eighteenth-century fashion and portraiture in the Spanish American colonies, I was inevitably forced to consider discourses about luxury at the time. And, while much of the shared ideas about “luxury” in the Spanish Americas were framed around European conceptions of luxury, they didn’t always correspond.

In Europe, luxury was a heated subject of debate in the eighteenth century, especially because the economic system as a whole was drastically changing at the time, moving towards the capitalist economy of consumption that we live in today. There were many contradictions about luxury and one of the most commonly debated ideas had to do with whether luxury was good or bad for the economy. But what seemed clear was that luxury was necessarily associated with the virtuous consumption practices of the elites. It was present and allowed (ideally only) among the wealthy and powerful—but it had to be restrained.

Sounds like quiet luxury to me!

In Spanish America, however, things were quite different.

One of the first things that struck me about Spanish American portraits from the second half of the eighteenth century is that the wealth in adornment seems somewhat excessive when compared to European (even French) portraits of the time. The amount of golden (or at least gold-colored) trimmings that adorn the already rich floral brocaded dresses, topped with gigantic, overly decorated hats, and dozens of jewels with (semi)precious stones seems unrestrained next to the contemporary European laws of adornment.

There is a question of whether portraits depict “real” subjects in their “everyday” lives (and I won’t get into it today). But my research has shown that the wealth depicted in late-colonial Spanish American portraits does correspond to the richness in bodily adornment of at least some people of the elite. Inventories of the time register dozens of costly jewels, fabrics, and pieces of clothing. And European travelers of the time coincide in pointing out the seeming “excess” of Spanish American ostentation.

But why?

It’s difficult to ascertain with any firm facts, but my hypothesis is that ideas about luxury in the Spanish American colonies were strongly founded on Indigenous discourses about luxury—which at times even contradicted European ones.

In the Andes, for example, there existed a system of value that endowed a high appreciation for light-reflective and shining materials, based on the cosmologies of the region. Among the Inka, gold became a symbol of the Sun-God Inti and its qualities for germinating and fertilizing both in agriculture and human existence, essential to the survival of human beings. Other Andean cultures also associated the reddish color of copper and gold-copper alloys (known generically as tumbaga in the region) with the Sun and its qualities. Silver, on the other hand, was representative of the cycles of life and death embodied in the moon and lunar cycles. [1]

Attributed to Pedro José Díaz (Perú, active 1770–1810). Doña Rosa María Salazar y Gabiño, Countess of Monteblanco and Montemar, ca. 1770. Oil on canvas, 95.9 x 75.6 cm. Collection of Roberta and Richard Huber.

Pearls—perhaps one of the most commonly present jewels in colonial Spanish American portraits—were also lustrous and light-reflective, but their meanings are much more difficult to disentangle. From a European point of view, pearls had the added value of denoting “feminine” qualities, such as purity, but they also denoted the fear of uncontrolled sexuality and an “exotic Orient.”[2] Pearls had long been an essential element in the European “repertoire of luxury” but they became even more prominent in Spanish American portraits. In this case, women did not wear a single strand of pearls or two, but rather chose to cover their forearms with up to a dozen strands of pearls! Instead of being an inexplicable “curiosity” about Spanish American taste, this choice might have been based on an ongoing legacy of the Andean appreciation for light and shine. [3]

Importantly, the seemingly “over-the-top” or “excessive” forms of adornment seen in the colonial period still represent Latin American “exuberance” today. And, just like 300 years ago, it continues to be criticized by Euro-North American views that privilege more “toned-down”—even if costly—forms of consumption, quiet luxury undoubtedly being the first among them.

But what if we actually embraced the historical heritage of “loud luxury” that so many non-white Europeans and North Americans have indulged in for centuries? And, if we can’t make it that far, could we at least continue to question hegemonic narratives of luxury and recognize, uncover, and appreciate different—and louder—expressions of style?

I’d love to learn about the diverse expressions of luxury that you may know about. Please, please share them in the comments or by replying directly to this email. I will make sure to share them with readers anonymously if you prefer!

Thank you, thank you for reading and until next month!

—L 🧚🏻‍♀️


[1] Ana María Falchetti, Lo humano y lo divino. Metalurgia y Cosmogonía en la América Antigua (Bogotá: ICANH and Universidad de los Andes, 2018).

[2] Molly A. Warsh, American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492–1700 (Williamsburg, Va.: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 2018).

[3] Julia McHugh, “For new gods, kings, and markets: luxury in the age of global encounters,” in Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas, ed. Joanne Pillsbury et al (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2017).


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