The first edition of the Old Money Book was published in 2013. Byron Tully, an American writer living in Paris, recently updated the book to reflect changes in the world since the coronavirus pandemic began. This is a carefully researched, thoughtful, and practical book. It is a must-have for anyone interested in Ivy or traditional style. In its pure form, that style is an eloquent and elegant expression of a set of values and a particular way of moving through the world. Those values are sometimes reduced to terms like understatement, dignity, sprezzatura or duende – with perhaps too much emphasis on the latter two. This book explores the former two values, and explores why they are not only timeless, but why they are particularly relevant as we go through a global pandemic that will likely be followed by a period of economic uncertainty.
In normal times, the lessons in this book are a valuable reminder that clothing – even if it is a closet full of the “right” clothing, with jackets tailored to show the ideal amount of shirt cuff or trousers that break perfectly – will not make one a gentleman. Mr. Tully offers vivid examples of how the clothing will look like costume on those who do not have the manner and outlook that aligns with the style. Indeed, if one were the same size as the late Charlie Davidson of The Andover Shop, wearing his hand-me-downs would not necessarily confer the same sense of dignity or panache upon the wearer. Mr. Tully emphasizes how style is about much, much more than the clothing alone.
His book asks a central question for anyone interested in traditional clothing: why? Is it to signal alignment with a set of values, or a social aspiration? To signal respectability in order to represent trust and probity for clients? To demonstrate a certain sense of cultivation of taste? Mr. Tully emphasizes that clothing alone will never convey status if, the minute one opens one’s mouth, that the tone and words suggest a person at odds with the sartorial framing.
The core values of Old Money are intended to help weather storms like the one we’re currently experiencing. Mr. Tully outlines the principles by which new money survives these periods to become old money. He emphasizes that most old money families live well within their means, and don’t live with anything approaching the glamour of a 1990s Ralph Lauren advertising spread. He highlights the importance of understatement: financial reversals in times like the current pandemic won’t be as visible if one isn’t living paycheck to paycheck. Even if those checks were substantial.
Mr. Tully is rightly critical of the manic consumerism inherent in mass-market fashion, and gently points out that the same kind of consumerism can be found among proponents of traditional clothing. The pandemic underscores the importance of delayed gratification when it comes to purchases. The money spent on the fifth suit, the sixth blazer, or the bespoke whatever might be better off saved or invested, earning compound interest or capital gains.
He urges us to remember that an off-the-rack suit in the hands of a good tailor can become something highly flattering. But he pulls no punches. He cautions readers not to put too much faith in the power of any suit to solve their problems. No suit, no matter how bespoke the tailoring or how proper the fabric, will fill the void of low self-esteem. He notes that while a bad suit can cost one the job, the good suit will not necessarily win one the job or the romantic partner. There is an optimal balance, and it skews towards the more affordable end of that spectrum. If you’re a regular reader of Ivy Style, you’ve probably already internalized the lessons of what to wear and what to avoid. The Old Money Book takes things a step further, and offers a gentle but firm reminder that too much attention to one’s appearance can result in something which looks too keen, too fussy. Remember what was said of former prime minister Anthony Eden: “He looks too well put together to be a gentleman.”
The frayed-cuff, moth-eaten cashmere sweater, Boston-cracked-shoe aspects of patrician style lend themselves to the pandemic. They don’t call attention to themselves in ordinary times, but they feel especially apt during a crisis that has affected billions of people, killed over a million people, and may put many more into financial straits. Dressing in flamboyant go-to-hell clothing right now seems like the height of hubris: to telegraph that one has been unaffected by the financial crisis feels too much like wearing breeches and a powdered wig in Paris in the early 1780s.
A few aphorisms from the book highlight these insights. “It is less about the money you have, versus the money you’d like people to think you have.” And “Extravagance is the fear of poverty and the need for attention. Discretion is the fear of nothing and the need of nothing.” These are true now, but will remain just as true after the pandemic. Mr. Tully is eloquent about delaying purchases until one is at a certain financial level. The real sprezzatura of patrician style comes from the sense of ease of knowing that one has options as a result of having resources.
The Old Money Book should be required reading, along with Paul Fussell’s Class and Nelson Aldrich Jr.’s Old Money, for anyone interested in the patrician mindset that informs the decisions that shape traditional style. — ANV
ANV writes about the intersection of society, New England history, and style when he isn’t doing other things.