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Recession-Core Is Trending on TikTok and Red Carpets, but Honestly It Just Highlights Class Divide

A few months ago, I was scrolling through social media when I stumbled upon a reel on the rise of ‘recession-core’ in mainstream fashion, which now garners more than 930 million views on TikTok. I watched out of curiosity, intrigued by the socio-economic implications, but my feelings of excitement toward this embrace of ‘quiet luxury’ quickly turned into uneasiness over this supposedly newfound trend that’s continued to dominate headlines, red carpets and runway shows.

‘Recession-core’, ‘quiet luxury’, ‘old money’ or what say you—it’s all the same: romanticizing the upper echelons of society. We see it in our televisions every Sunday night as we watch Succession’s Roy family in their Brunello Cucinelli and Loro Piana wardrobe. We rave over Gwenyth Paltrow’s chic courtroom outfits, fully oblivious to the idea that a team of publicists most likely helped curate the desirable image that jurors would resonate with, trust in and bestow a predetermined credibility towards. And Gen Z and millennials with an attachment to The Simple Life devoured every Chanel detail leading up to what was deemed “our” Royal Wedding, that is, Sophia Richie and Elliot Grainge.

Paula Boudes/Graeme Hunter-HBO/Pool-Getty Images/@sofiarichiegrainge-Instagram

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In a nutshell, this trend, coined by ufodelaney on TikTok, grew as a response to the economic downturn. It’s a shift in the way we dress up, embracing a more dressed-down look that’s understated in nature. Think: neutrals and muted tones, classic fits like plain T-shirts, trousers, minimalist jewelry, etc. It’s a stark contrast to, say, the beads-, feathers- and-fringe-covered wardrobes of the roaring ‘20s that preceded the Great Depression, and especially the maximalist styles that have gained popularity over the past few years. But what was evidently born out of a stance to shed ourselves of signs of conspicuous consumption has frantically taken a twisted life of its own. It’s less look-at-me, but make no mistake: Those minimalist looks still (often) cost a fortune. And that’s kind of the point—outfits that subtly signal your status, rather than shout it, because that’s the polite thing to do when times are tough, right?

And let us not forget Miranda Priestly’s credo in The Devil Wears Prada: The lumpy cerulean sweaters of the world hold more weight than face value.

On the one hand, the recession-core movement doesn’t have to be that way. To Christian Juul Nielsen, creative director and founder of AKNVAS, a women’s fashion label “creating garments that play with color, texture and drape…that break the mold of traditional work-wear,” it’s clear: “Fashion is bigger than what is presented on the runway or in stores,” he says. “[It] reflects a wider look into what is happening culturally and politically. While it feels right to dress in ‘quiet luxury’ with a particularly dark cloud cast on the world in recent years, I am a firm believer that people will always want to dress up, and there is a confidence that comes with feeling luxe. Evoking luxury is more of a feeling and does not require a large cost.”

The challenge, though, is that supply and demand can make this minimalist aesthetic soon fall out of reach for most people, even if you don’t shop at the quiet luxury labels du jour. You know the drill: High supply with low demand equals lowered prices. Now what happens when the demand starts to rise while supply fails to follow suit? (I.e., your basic tank and bodysuits continue to sell out, as we’ve recently seen happen on many retailer’s websites.) Prices rise, making your beloved, everyday $15 t-shirt now cost a whopping $35 (or even upwards of $100 for some luxury brands). And don’t forget to factor in a post-pandemic economy, where businesses continue to recover from manufacturing delays and scarcity of materials and resources…yet some take advantage of pricing “appropriately” to such demand.

Like me, creative director and founder Aaron Potts of A.POTTS, a genderless fashion brand grounded in diversity, creativity and self-expression, and whose designs you’ve seen on the likes of Questlove and Robin Thede, is hesitant of recession-core, let alone the idea of trends. “I am always leery of any term that becomes popularized in the media to describe a school of design,” says Potts. “Many times, I find that once these movements/trends have a name, they become bastardized, and it's time to reassess them.”

On the surface, recession-core comes off as mindful of the times. It can feel ridiculous to flaunt designer labels and flashy jewelry when you—and those you know—are struggling with layoffs, bills and the rising cost of, well, everything. But once it became a “thing”—a trend, a fad, a style to be modeled and replicated—recession-core became stratified, and judgment was attached to it. Suddenly, dopamine dressing was tacky, but the status symbols remained. They were just more covert now; even more a sign that if you could detect the quiet luxury, you were “in.” A prime example? The now-infamous “ludicrously capacious bag” scene from Succession, for starters.

Sure, fashion is a cyclical rotation of taste and design—rosettes can trend today and low-rise jeans yesterday—just like maximalism is giving way to minimalism. But the water becomes murky once we throw monetary value and status (however loud or understated) at the core of any driving influence. So rather than follow the trend, let’s liberate ourselves to be forward-thinking in our sartorial choices, wearing what reflects who we are or what we stand for over what’s in our bank account. Or, as Potts puts it, “I want to create culture, not just be reactionary.”

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Stephanie Meraz is PureWow’s Assistant Editor. She graduated with a bachelor of arts at the University of San Diego, where she majored in English literature and creative writing, and completed Columbia University’s intensive publishing course. Stephanie is a natural savant when it comes to pushing the boundaries in fashion, beauty, and dating & relationships. She has over 22+ years of experience as an avid shopper, securing a Limited Too personal stylist at four years old. You can count on her to test out the latest hair trends, suggest shopping tips, and spill the tea on her latest juicy dating experiences. No topic is off limits—however personal or embarrassing. Connect with her on Instagram or LinkedIn.