High fashion, high pressure: wealth culture proliferates in students’ wardrobes


Maeve Goldman and Kate Beckler

When Christine Tao (10) was in sixth grade, she overheard a conversation between two friends in which one accused the other of wearing a fake Cartier bracelet, she said. “It was shocking that anyone, much less a twelve year old, would be expected to own a $6,000 item,” Tao said.

The popularity of luxury fashion items on campus is hard to ignore, Maisy* (10), who is anonymous because she does not want to receive backlash from her friends, said. “Since my first day at Horace Mann, it has been very apparent that students wear expensive shoes and expensive jewelry,” she said.

Golden Goose, Moncler, Gucci, and Off-White are a few of the many luxury brands present on campus, Alex Nagin (12) said. In 2021, the average upper-class student in America spent $1,100 dollars on clothing each year, though a single article of designer-labeled clothing on the school’s campus can exceed this amount, according to an article published on the website Renolon in January of 2022.

Although not all students come from the same level of financial privilege, the large population of wealthy students who wear similar types of clothing shapes fashion trends at the school, Heidi Li (10) said. Young people who are still exploring their styles are often influenced by the shopping choices and specific clothing items of their peers, she said. “There is this unspoken rule where, when everyone has something, you feel the need to have it yourself.”

Wealth culture is defined by an environment in which students purchase items in order to outwardly display their wealth, Maisy said. “The most common luxury items are a puffer jacket or a logoed sweatshirt which are centered around brand name and reputation, not a specific design element,” she said. “If you’re buying something solely for the logo, I would say that’s flaunting. It feels as if people are just trying to prove that they have money.”

As fashion trends at the school become more expensive, students who want to stay in style face constantly increasing stress, Maisy said. “Seeing high-end fashion every day puts increased pressure to constantly buy new things and keep up with trends,” she said. Owning these types of clothing sometimes feels essential to fitting in, she said.

“At a school like Horace Mann, there can be this expectation on all students to spend lots of money on clothes or to have lots of money to spend on clothes,” Kira Lewis (9) said.    

Similarly, Serena Bai (9) feels the pressure of the fashion trends at the school. “I definitely have experienced peer pressure when it comes to clothing back when I was more insecure and really just wanted to fit in with the people around me,” she said. 

Bai remembers buying crop tops and Lululemon leggings in order to blend in with the girls at the school, she said. “When certain types of clothing are normalized, people then want to ‘fit in with the trend’ which, in a sense, creates a scenario where students are somewhat pressured into conformity.”

Although some students genuinely enjoy luxury goods, other students purchase them due to pressure from their peers, Ellie Romero (9) said. When students are younger they have less confidence and security in their identity they may feel pressured to wear the same clothing their classmates own, she said. 

When Romero was in the Middle Division (MD), she felt there was a need to wear brands such as Aviator Nation in order to fit in. “Now that I’m in high school, I feel more comfortable expressing my own fashion and people tend to wear less of the same brands.”

Despite attending the Lower Division, Li felt an increased need to fit in with her clothing choices when she entered the MD, she said. “During middle school everyone was wearing the same things and the same trends, for example, Golden Goose shoes.” Although she knew Golden Goose sneakers, which cost about $500 a pair, did not align with her style, Li still felt she needed to buy a pair, she said. Even though she didn’t end up purchasing the shoes, the pressure to buy them “just didn’t feel right,” she said.

Despite the existence of wealth culture, certain students buy from luxury brands such as Lululemon and Aritzia not because of the label, but because they like the clothing the brand sells, Romero said. Many people wear brands like Aritzia for its trendy yet elevated styles and Lululemon leggings for their quality and comfort, she said. Both Aritzia and Lulelemon — whose black yoga pants sell for $68 and $98 a pair, respectively — have become staples for many female-identifying students at the school, she said.

Bai struggled at the beginning of ninth grade before developing her own style. “After a while, I realized that clothes really didn’t change the way I felt about myself, nor did it change the way other people saw me,” she said.

Luxury items often have a special design and quality that people genuinely enjoy, Li said. People who are passionate about fashion appreciate the design elements certain brands are famous for, she said. “For example, I really like Alexander McQueen shoes because, although simple, they have intricate design elements at the heel which make them more unique than other shoes,” she said.

If students want to replicate high-end fashion trends without purchasing such expensive clothes, there are many brands that are similar to the luxury-brand styles, Li said. “You don’t need to purchase from the actual brand to participate in the trend,” she said.

Bai has adopted the practice of purchasing more affordable options inspired by luxury goods, she said. If Bai enjoys a specific luxury trend or style such as Chanel, she then incorporates it into her wardrobe by shopping for second-hand items with similar design elements, she said. “I used to read a lot of the luxury fashion magazine Vogue,” she said. “It’s really cool to see items from the runway on real people.”

The trends defined by wealth culture are constantly shifting and increasing, Li said. Social media has expedited the trend cycle at the school, making it difficult to meet standards of staying in style even more unattainable, she said. On apps such as Instagram and Tik Tok, creators constantly post new outfit ideas and shopping lists that create exponentially more trends that students then follow, she said. For example, creators on Tik Tok popularized Vivien Westwood necklaces and brown North Face puffer jackets, items that became instant staples on campus, she said. 

The fast-paced nature of the trend cycle makes it easier for Li to find inspiration and incorporate new styles into her fashion, Li said. “After Instagramers kept on posting pictures of outfits with the Vivienne Westwood necklace I decided to purchase a variation of it,” Li said. 

As students mature and age throughout high school, the importance of material items dwindles, Li said. In the MD, she was motivated to purchase expensive items simply because they were trendy. “Now I focus more on the quality and style of an item than the price,” she said. “At the end of the day it’s just clothes.”

Even though a large portion of the school does not wear expensive clothing, the pressure in the school’s environment can still affect students such as Tao, she said. “The fact that people cared that much about the price of clothing is something I had never encountered before.” 

The pressures of wealth culture transcend student life, extending to parents as well, Tao said. When she was in seventh grade, Tao’s mother purchased a Louis Vuitton bag after attending a parent-teacher conference, though she had never expressed interest in designer bags before. “She saw that the majority of parents had luxury bags and said she didn’t want to embarrass me,” Tao said. 

“We had the conversation with her that we didn’t care about the price of the accessories she had,” Tao said. “She feels very silly about it now.” 

Similar to Tao, Bai does not mind seeing designer clothes around campus but thinks that using designer clothes as a symbol of wealth is problematic, she said. “I don’t mind seeing designer items, but it does bother me when people constantly show designer items as a symbol of wealth or to make other people feel bad for not owning designer,” she said.

In addition, Bai feels that the normalization of expensive clothing over moderately priced clothing can defeat the purpose of a dress code, she said. “The whole purpose of not having a strict dress code in place is for students to have the freedom to choose what they wear and have the freedom to express themselves through fashion.”

Because clothing on campus highlights the physical differences between socioeconomic classes in students’ on campus, it has unintentional consequences on the way students interact with each other on an interpersonal level, Nagin said. “Wealth often defines friend groups.”

Even though students have a wide array of friends, people who wear expensive brands are often in the same core groups, Nagin said. Clothing is a visual signifier that these people exist at similar socioeconomic rates and for the most part live in the same neighborhoods where there is easy access to certain brands, he said.

“When I arrived at Horace Mann in sixth grade I was never explicitly told which kids were wealthy or not,” Tao said. “However, their clothing was a clear indicator.” Although she was never instructed not to interact with kids from wealthier backgrounds, she felt an inherent sense that individuals with vastly different wealth quotas had different interests and would not be compatible, Tao said.

Maisy does not believe fashion is a factor in friendships, she said. “If there are similarities in the way friends are dressing it may be just because they have similar interests and therefore styles.” 

For students not in upper-class-coded circles, higher-end fashion plays less of a role in everyday life, Lewis said. “A lot of students come from one specific background but there are also a lot of students who don’t come from that background,” she said. Since Lewis’s friends do not purchase expensive clothing items, she doesn’t feel the need to focus on wealth culture, she said. “I couldn’t tell you the difference between a pair of Converse and a pair of Golden Goose shoes.”