Manners & Misdemeanors
Tales From the Truly Rich: How They Live the Hush-Hush Life
Flying under the radar is one of the commandments of the Truly Rich.
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Consider the case of Working Hard Girl, an acquaintance from my university days. (I am not going to tell you what year that was.) She was always dressed in white Oxford shirts and lived-in jeans as if she was about to go on safari or do research about safaris, which she was actually doing on school breaks. Her everyday style had been described by one of my college BFFs as non-existent. I thought it was perfect.

For the Truly Rich Lady, comfortable basics trump an allegiance to trends. A tidy uniform of crisp Ralph Lauren button-downs, khakis, penny loafers, and sensible heels can be a snoozefest, but there are a couple of reasons why we subscribe to it.

My father says that a disgusting amount of money should only be channelled into important things like a conservative investment; my mother prefers spending her dough on rewarding activities such as donating to charities, and I like divesting myself of cash by taking weeklong trips to faraway locations with agreeable weather (away from the parents). In the circle of the very rich, money is seldom wasted on an ever-changing wardrobe.

Don’t get me wrong. The Truly Rich Lady does not shun luxury objects from fashion houses. But these magnificent things are never acquired because they are from So-And-So Brand, but because they are beautiful, unique, and made very well.

Also—and more important—nondescript clothes offer freedom. For WHG, it would be unwise to attract attention when your family is the leading distributor of doorknobs in the Southeast Asia. Random people may just come up to you begging for doorknobs.

Special occasions are another matter. My favorite look from WHG was composed of a black swing dress covered in brocade, a pair of black velvet heels, and a showstopping necklace adorned with pastel-colored flowers. We were at a wedding of a mutual friend, so I cornered her by the cake. In between dainty bites of the confection, she told me that the dress was found in a thrift store in New York years ago, the shoes were “just something I grabbed from the closet,” which is code for very expensive, and the costume jewelry by Christian Dior was loaned by her grandmother. Her hair was blown out and tied back, and her makeup, I found out, was done by herself in the car on the way to the location!

With her elegant bearing and always pleasant demeanor, WHG in the black swing dress was the most handsome woman in the room that evening, even if there were younger hens swanning about in their slinkiest dresses, including my college BFF, whose flytrap was agape for an indeterminate length of time upon seeing WHG. Poor friend couldn’t believe that this chic being was the shirt-and-jeans girl she deemed out of fashion.

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Don’t get me wrong. The Truly Rich Lady does not shun luxury objects from fashion houses. But these magnificent things are never acquired because they are from So-And-So Brand, but because they are beautiful, unique, and made very well. There will be the made-only-for-her dresses, the jewelry collection passed down from several generations, and a respectable number of those It Bags, which will be used until the handles fall off.

I do remember seeing WHG carrying one of these designer bags, but I don’t think she uses it often. Instead, her daily companion is a custom black handbag that was ordered from a local couple who sources leather from Italy and then hand stitches the skins together in a small shop. Her preferred bag, nameless and naked, probably cost a fraction of its designer counterpart, but it appeared equally beautiful on her arm and functions the same way.

What I also remember is that she had one of those watches. It wasn’t a gold watch or diamond-covered watch, but a timepiece with a clean face and a leather band. Looking closer, I recognized the logo scrawled on the dial and knew it cost more than a luxury sedan. It was the only expensive thing on her person, but that tiny object and the nonchalant way she wore it (with jeans and a shirt, of course) was a true signifier of wealth.

There’s one more thing that I admire about WHG. At social gatherings, she was not one to flit about like a restless rabbit. Except for greeting the hosts and the obligatory hellos to acquaintances, she usually stayed among a small circle of friends, preferring to spend the evening unnoticed.

I am reminded of a particular passage in The Age of Innocence, on how the “van der Luydens are the most powerful influence in New York society... [because] they make themselves so rare.” Which applied to WHG, because people always sought her out at parties. She didn’t have to work the room. Partygoers flocked to wherever nook she was hiding. One time, I tried to make myself so rare, too, but the effect was that people just forgot about me. Oh well.

I had a run-in with WHG recently. She alighted from the newer model of the car I remember she owned from way back when. She was still dressed in a white Oxford shirt and perfectly lived-in jeans. She told me she is now happily settled with a boringly normal job and a family. I knew very well that boringly normal is also code for CEO of her own successful company. After our brief exchange, she went on her way, still graceful and quiet and Truly Rich as always.

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C.C. Coo
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