Town & Country, the favored magazine of the American aristocracy, is among the oldest general-interest publications in the country: Founded in 1846 by a writer who coined the term “upper ten thousand” to describe the highest echelons of New York City society in which he moved, it’s been serving the ruling class the news it needs through wars, depressions, and more than 40 presidential elections. Finding blithe angles on the events that pummel the lower remainder of the population, then, is well-worn territory for “the authority on the meaning of modern society.”
But on the day of the magazine’s September 2020 issue release—an installment published at a moment when over 160,000 Americans have died over the span of a few months, cities are erupting in protest met with violent state suppression, and over 30 million people are unemployed—perhaps it’s worth checking in on what people described euphemistically as those of “style and accomplishment” are reading right now.
As I suppose is characteristic of a publication that’s been speaking to and for the wealthy since a few years before the Civil War, Town & Country slides between political and material forms of conspicuous consumption, moving rapidly from trend pieces about (mostly white) people spending as much cash as they possibly can to sequester themselves away from the rabble to a photoshoot of a Black dancer who transports audiences “not just to any house of worship but the working-class, Black, Southern temple of rural Texas.”
There’s some guilt and the broad gestures towards “justice.” (The cover story features a brief interview with Kerri Washington and members of every law-and-order liberal’s favorite organization, the ACLU.) There’s a lot of hand-wringing about how much money is too much money to be seen spending In These Times. There’s the actually very funny term “resistocrat.”
There’s also a guy photographed standing in front of a vintage Land Rover who says: “The stock market is like a kindly but alcoholic uncle, sweet and beckoning and then ready to deck you at Christmas dinner.”
The issue opens with a letter from Stellene Volandes, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, thanking various celebrities and corporations for their gracious Zoom presence during T&C’s philanthropy summit in July. Matthew McConaughey was “there,” I gather. He graced the cover last month, promoting his Just Keep Livin’ Foundation, which provides yoga, aerobics, and regular “gratitude circles” as part of an after-school program. (“I’ve always been a hedonist, and part of having a foundation is putting a capital H on hedonism. Being able to give back in ways is a selfish endeavor,” the actor said in last month’s issue, with a characteristically charming refusal to make very much sense.)
The front of the book gives us some assurance that the editors of T&C are definitely paying attention to this crucial moment in history, and are on the correct side of it, much like their well-informed readers: They’ve printed a letter from a multilingual TV executive to her Black teenage daughter extolling the patriotism of “peaceful protestors” and ruminating on the French meaning of Derek Chauvin’s last name. Elsewhere, an art critic meditates on the merits of delayed gratification when it comes to works of art and new TV that aren’t coming out because the studios have to shut down—the intellectual’s approach to a crisis of global consequence.
The issue’s lone book review opens with the “soothing reverie” of imagining that presidents were not term-limited and the “sensible and elegant” Obamas were still in the White House, which is, I’m sure coincidentally, also one of the best jokes in Get Out.
From there we find a man who, having bought a rare $80,000 Land Rover and restored it at some expense finds he is “not feeling like a moron,” as well as a rather incredible style section piece on ethical consumption under capitalism that is worth quoting directly:
Set against the background of a global pandemic, a social justice reckoning, an ongoing environmental crisis, and a volatile presidential campaign, the new fall season brings a set of tricky questions for luxury buyers that have always been brooding under the surface but only recently struck a nerve: Are you well versed in a brand’s sustainability practices? How about its diversity initiatives? Do you keep up with the founder’s political donations?
From Rodeo Drive to Madison Avene to Via Monte Napoleone, retail’s main thoroughfares are littered with landmines, and the wrong move can leave the casual shopper not with a status symbol but with a scarlet letter. Wearing current-season designer was once enough to telegraph taste, status, and access. But was shopping ever really all that innocent, or was it always a hidden Rorschach test of our values?
The story is accompanied by a spread featuring an $895 serape-inspired wrap made by Mexican artisans and a $2,700 clutch made by a company that “actively supports artists” with a yearly prize. It concludes that none of this matters, actually, since “regardless of the churn of social and geopolitical drama,” luxury fashion items retain their value and can be resold, “pandemics and recessions be damned.”
In other shopping news, T&C asks: “Bangles in a Pandemic?” The answer is, of course, yes. We meet a mother who has been thrilled to have a quiet moment with her family during their quarantine in Southampton and wants to memorialize it with gold, and another who is favoring a diamond necklace decorated with scorpions and bears to symbolize members of her family. “Women bought personal and symbolic jewelry to remember this moment,” one says.
Speaking of personal and symbolic actions that help the average woman cope, longtime New York fashion writer Lynn Yaeger writes on the “the pleasure and privilege of haute,” noting that when the world turns upside-down it’s time to refocus on what a person truly desires: fantastically expensive shit.
At times like these, when the world feels as if it has gone crazy and the ground has shifted beneath our feet, we find ourselves reassessing what is really important to us. Maybe it was being locked down for months, but the questions—What do we value? What matters to us? What do we really want?—seem more vital than ever.
Here is what we know right now: If you love fashion, what you desire at the moment are clothes that present the kind of artistry and aesthetic brilliance that my plaid collar possesses—things that are worth acquiring, regardless of cost.
In reading Town and County’s home section I discovered two rather obscure trends aimed at people with anxieties that could only come from an excess of leisure time: Testing and deploying a signature scent for one’s entire home and buying hand-blown glass vessels so no one has to look at the unsightly brand-names when they open their bathroom vanity. “When a product speaks for itself, it doesn’t need a label,” writes the latter article’s author, though how a person is supposed to sort through 100 smoked glass bottles to find the proper potion is left unsaid. Perhaps there is a clue in an anecdote relayed to the writer by Karl Lagerfeld, who is said to have had his staff pour his favorite “bath soak’ into a decanter every day
In real estate, I learned, the big trends are bunkers and air filtration systems. In cities across the country, developers and real estate agents are making a killing selling either vast expanses of private land, or means to breathe private air.
Huge properties at the top of the market—think koi ponds, ranches, helipads— are going for once-unimaginable prices. For those who can’t entirely escape, germ-killing UV lights and air systems are all the rage. In Manhattan, two newer penthouse apartments have a closed-loop HVAC system that pumps air in from the roof and doesn’t let it mingle with the rest of the building. In another story, perhaps as proof of the staying power of luxury buildings, Town & Country profiles a castle that dates to before the Bubonic Plague.
“But can money restore a sense of order during this most disordered of times?” asks Town & Country in its story “Buying Normal,” posing a question that seemed pretty clearly answered on every other page. Country homes, private tutors, James Beard-winning private chefs, pod schools, and covid-19 testing for live-in staff are all discussed. (Oddly, the question of whether money can buy happiness also includes an aside about women wanting to switch careers to go work in the non-profit sector in what’s referred to as “a latent midlife crisis, or simply a crisis of conscious” as the world around them burns.)
And finally, as all magazines must coin a portmanteau to describe an invented trend once every few months, Town & Country has brought us the “Resistocrat,” the shockingly liberal descendants of the traditionally Republican titans of industry—or people who simply log on every once in a while. “A new generation of heirs are leveraging their legacies and defying dynasties—for the common good,” declares Town & Country. “Hardly a news cycle goes by these days without at least one dynastic turncoat or class defector breaking the ranks.”
These recent “class defectors” are said to be, in order of appearance in the story: Claudia Conway (for tweeting), Mary Trump (for writing a salacious and extremely lucrative book), Abigail Disney (for tweeting), Christy Walton (for donating to an anti-Trump PAC established by influential Republicans), Porter McConnell (for working at a liberal non-profit), and James Murdoch (for donating to Democrats and spending money to research climate change).
The problem of such radical actors infiltrating the halls of power through the sheer luck of their DNA is, apparently, a well-known issue, according to one historian quoted who studies these things: “I call it the Rockefeller Syndrome,” she says.