It’s not who you know, it’s what you wear

"A Woman of Ambition," 1885, by James Tissot

“A Woman of Ambition,” 1885, by James Tissot

As my former assistant Sandy works her way through the New York auction houses, I’ve tried to impress on her that she (and I) lack one asset for that milieu: neither of us grew up wealthy. There are people in the City who can identify your scarf from 500 paces. From that they can draw reasonably accurate deductions about who you know and where you came from.

At an art festival in Richmond, VA, a nearby fellow artist and I chatted about footwear and art buyers. (This is the déclassé version of the Manhattan couture scene, but the principle is the same.) We had each previously noticed that people who didn’t spring for good shoes were unlikely to buy art. While ill-shod people might be enthusiastic fans, they generally couldn’t or wouldn’t open their pocketbooks.

I was reminded of this when I read this essay. The authors noted that poor and poorly-educated people go to fewer classical concerts, plays, movies, dances, and sporting events. They do, however, watch more TV.

Because many art events are free, the authors concluded that price wasn’t the primary problem. I wonder if they’d ever considered that not having the right clothing was.

We like to say that we are democratic when it comes to dress, that all of us walk around in jeans and hoodies. It’s not true. Some of us wear jeans from Walmart, whereas others believe, as Vogue wrote, that “everyone knows their Acne from their Frame.” If, like me, you have no idea what Vogue is talking about, you’ve already identified yourself as part of the Great Unwashed.

There are rules to event dressing. For the most rarified of these, men show up on opening night in their own tuxes or suits; their wives wear couturier dresses. If it’s less formal, they will wear high-quality casual clothing of the “country weekend” ilk. These people are wearing outfits that speak to money, position and wealth.

In addition, there are some “types” at every cultural event. There is the fuzzy-headed professor who wears a shapeless jacket and running shoes. There’s a fifty-something potter in gauzy skirt and a geometric shawl. There are young students with backpacks, whispering to each other behind their hands. These people are wearing outfits that identify them as the intelligentsia.

All of them have the education, confidence, and clothing to take their place in society.

Can you explain why one pair is $260 and the other is $21? If so, lucky you.

Can you explain why one pair is $260 and the other is $21? If so, lucky you.

Now consider the people in the bottom of the economy. No, they don’t shop on Fifth Avenue. More importantly, they don’t speak the language of that kind of clothing. Faced with the challenge of crossing that culture line, I’d stay home and watch TV too.

I’m not sure I want to eliminate the pretty party frocks of an opening night, but I sure would like to make everyone feel welcome at cultural events.

Carol Douglas

About Carol Douglas

Carol L. Douglas is a painter who lives, works and teaches in Rockport, ME. Her annual workshop will again be held on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park, from August 6-11, 2017. Visit for more information.