Status has never been strictly about money. Think of Lily Bart’s initial distaste for wealthy Simon Rosedale, whose deep-pocketed “smart London clothes” couldn’t change his last name into something acceptable for the social register. It’s a truth that’s both democratic and not: Status is often acquired without cash, which can make it even more difficult to possess. It’s a secret handshake, whether in the form of the fresh jonquils and candied cherries of Wharton’s era or the ramp capers that locavore chefs clamor for today. And in a sense, those totems have become more secretive than ever. Perhaps as a reaction to our new age of relentless peacocking — to all the posting with fabulous geo-tags and just-right accoutrements at the outside edges of the frame — people have gotten more subtle at signifying social standing in ways that the lay observer wouldn’t be able to decode.
Part of the allure of the status symbol is that it’s out there for all to see but meant to be understood, perhaps, by a far smaller crowd: your own crowd. When a goth raver puts on her black Manic Panic lipstick, she’s doing so to impress her friends, or people she hopes to be friends with someday — the ones who know and care that Manic Panic lipstick is the only lipstick to wear and that you have to schlep to the basement of Trash and Vaudeville on St. Marks to get it. When Williamsburg Guy slowly rolls down Bedford Avenue in his vintage-mobile, he’s keenly aware that his fellow Williamsburg Guy neighbors are going to be super-jealous. Even in this era of widening inequality, the ultimate aim is to be — to however small a degree — the envy of your peer group, whether you’re an oligarch or a Pratt student.
In an attempt to get them to explain what may pass right in front of our eyes yet remain unseen, we went straight to the members of many such tribes — mathematicians, Goldman Sachs VPs, cactus collectors, chefs, oboists — and asked them to single out their status symbols. The increasingly fine distinctions that emerge require a novelist’s eye for detail, but once you’re attuned to them, you can look at a stranger on the subway and experience the deep pleasure of recognition without having to clear any social hurdles at all.
—Essay by Noreen Malone
And for Some Perspective: Status in New York Magazines Past
1975: The Elsa Peretti t-shirt
“Here we have the status joke of the summer — Elsa Peretti’s stuff painted on a T ($14), front only, but then status is up front, isn’t it?
1980: Laoshan water
“The latest status water is Laoshan; $1 a bottle in the Delicacies Department.”
1983: Dripping draperies
“Arrivistes, beware …One revealing slip of the tongue — calling draperies ‘drapes,’ for instance — and it could be curtains.”
1995: The Volvo station wagon
“Spiritual descendant of the VW Bug, it cries out against the soullessness of our rapacious hypermotorized culture.”
Reporting by Jason Chen, Belle Cushing, Nate Freeman, Wendy Goodman, Véronique Hyland, Crystal Martin, Rebecca Milzoff, Seth Porges, Robin Raisfeld, Trupti Rami, Margaret Rhodes, Alex Ronan, Kayleen Schaefer, Katy Schneider, Lauren Schwartzberg, Erica Schwiegershausen, Jessica Silvester, Raven Snook, Joshua David Stein, Alexis Swerdloff, and Sierra Tishgart
*This article appears in the September 21, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.