What’s with the fascination with designer clothes?

I watched the Netflix series Inventing Anna that told the story of a young Russian-born German woman named Anna Sorokin who came to New York in her twenties with the name Anna Delvey and managed to persuade many of the wealthy socialites in that city that she was a wealthy heiress to a massive trust fund that she would have access to as soon as she reached a certain age. She used that reputation to live large, getting multiple credit cards and bank accounts with large overdraft limits, stay for extended periods in fancy hotels, eat in expensive restaurants, fly in private jets, and get major players in Wall Street such as lawyers, bankers, and hedge fund managers to work on her project of converting a choice building in the heart of the city into a highly exclusive art-based private club that would serve just the highest echelons of the elite. She even persuaded prestigious architects, artists, and designers to join her project. And then finally, it all fell apart, as it had to, because it was all a house of cards. She was not an heiress and there was no trust fund. She was running a Ponzi scheme, using money that she borrowed from one place to impress wealthy people that she too was wealthy and thus get them to fund her lavish lifestyle, since they assumed that she had the means to repay them.

How did a 25-year old manage to persuade so many older people who were supposedly expert in the world of business and money to do this? As far as I can tell, it was by being acutely aware of knowing who to pick as marks for her scheme and being able to speak knowingly about art, wine, food, people, and places, and treating service staff with rudeness and condescension. Once she got in with one well-connected person, she used that person’s connections to get to know other people, and so on. Once she was embedded in the network, each person assumed that others knew or had vetted her and that she was a genuine heiress and were thus willing to overlook the fact that she often left others to pick up the tab for her expenses, believing her that temporary glitches had prevented wire transfers from her wealthy father from coming through, and that there had been some mistake with her credit cards being declined.

If you or I stay at a hotel, the first thing they ask for is a credit card to guarantee payment. But in her case, the hotels seemed to accept her assurances that they would receive a wire transfer for the money. One can sort of understand how she managed to stay at the fanciest hotels in their fanciest suites and run up huge bills in the hotel restaurants and room service without payment in advance. These places like to have high-spending guests who provide the biggest profit margins by staying in their most expensive suites and using their most expensive services. They are probably used to trust-fund kids being careless about money and payment because they expect their wealthy parents to settle their debts later, and thus reluctant to risk antagonizing such a guest who might potentially be worth tens of thousands of dollars in long-term revenue to them. When Delvey was asked about payment, she would indignantly ask “Do you know who I am? Do you know who my father is?” So they let the bills pile up until they could not ignore it anymore.

But a key ingredient in this con seems to be clothes. People seem to be judged by how they dress. Delvey spent enormous amounts of money buying designer clothes and the fact that she was always so fashionably dressed seemed to go a long way in impressing people that she must be truly wealthy. The lesson of the series is that if you dress in expensive clothes, can speak fluently about topics like food, wine, and art, and are willing to be brazen enough to lie through your teeth and make others feel bad for asking you to to repay them, you can get away with a lot. This story is the flip side of The Tinder Swindler that I wrote about earlier, except that in that case it was a designer-clad young man staying in expensive hotels with limousines and private jets who wooed single women of ordinary means and then fleeced them. Here it was a designer-clad young woman who used those same type of clothes and lifestyle, not to sexually seduce wealthy people, but to get them to support her lavish life.

I must admit that I am utterly baffled with why people are willing to spend so much money on clothes. For me, as long as clothes are comfortable and reasonably well-fitting, I am satisfied. I cannot tell the difference between very expensive designer clothes and off-the-rack department store clothes. I know people who dress tastefully but inexpensively. But clearly for people who move in wealthy circles, the cost of the clothes you wear is a measure of your worth, and if you do not dress like that you cannot get inside their circle. Of course, if people want to spend enormous amounts of their own money on expensive clothes, that is their business but to use them as a measure of somebody’s merits seems shallow to me. There is also a kind of reverse snobbery that sometimes comes into play. If everyone knows that you are incredibly wealthy, like Warren Buffet or Bill Gates, then you can dress casually. It is only those who have not reached that level of fame who need to have clothes that impress.

Jessica Pressley, whose story in New York magazine the TV series is based on, tries to make sense of how Delvey could have run her swindle for so long. One thing seemed to be that Delvey herself seemed to really believe in her big project and thought it might happen, though it clearly was a disaster waiting to happen. Maybe that level of self-delusion is needed to keep up the act.

Maybe it could have happened. In this city, where enormous amounts of invisible money trade hands every day, where glass towers are built on paperwork promises, why not? If Aby Rosen, the son of Holocaust survivors, could come to New York and fill skyscrapers full of art, if the Kardashians could build a billion-dollar empire out of literally nothing, if a movie star like Dakota Johnson could sculpt her ass so that it becomes the anchor of a major franchise, why couldn’t Anna Delvey? During the course of my reporting, people kept asking: Why this girl? She wasn’t superhot, they pointed out, or super-charming; she wasn’t even very nice. How did she manage to convince an enormous amount of cool, successful people that she was something she clearly was not? Watching the Rikers guard shove Fast Company into a manila envelope, I realized what Anna had in common with the people she’d been studying in the pages of that magazine: She saw something others didn’t. Anna looked at the soul of New York and recognized that if you distract people with shiny objects, with large wads of cash, with the indicia of wealth, if you show them the money, they will be virtually unable to see anything else. And the thing was: It was so easy.

Shiny objects and distraction. That has always been the secret of magicians and con artists. It is also the stock in trade of many politicians.

One little thing that puzzled me (and the article and TV show did not address) is that for the longest time none of her friends knew that her real name was Sorokin and not Delvey. And yet her passport was in the name Sorokin. How could she, as a foreigner, get credit cards with the fake name and travel abroad with other people and even have them buy plane tickets for her without them knowing her real name? When confronted later, she said that Delvey was her mother’s maiden name, which also turned out to be false. The lesson seems to be that if you are adept at manufacturing shiny new objects, and have the chutzpah to act as if everyone but you is wrong, you can fool all of the people some of the time.

Here’s the trailer.


  1. garnetstar says

    Clothes are odd: I appreciate the art in good design or excellent handcrafting, but, wearing them myself? They’re made for models to wear, not people. Also, she must have been flashing the labels or the logos prominently, because there isn’t anything that distinguishes a top “designer” from just good-quality clothes, to the eye.

    And yes, her not paying her bills would make her fit right in. People in that milieu are no more discerning or questioning than in any other, and the same con works on them, just with different spin.

    And, the very best way to convince people of what you’re selling is to believe it yourself. The best way to sound sincere and convincing is to be sincere. Moreover, if you tell a story enough times, trying to sound sincere, soon you will come to believe it yourself.

  2. Tethys says

    Unlike Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, women who are wealthy are absolutely judged on every aspect of their personal appearance.

    Hair, makeup, clothes, and especially shoes.

    Couture clothing is very expensive because it’s made with the highest quality fabrics, and to much higher standards than the clothes found in a typical department store.

    New York is the place to go if you want to be a fashion designer in the US.

  3. mikey says

    I read the Pressley story a little while back, and ended up not feeling all that sorry for her, because of the sorts of superficial things she values. The item that stuck out for me was the $600 t-shirt Anna bought for her concierge friend. No shirt is worth that, and I can’t help but sneer at anyone who would covet it.

  4. seachange says

    You’ve been asking a lot of questions that seem rhetorical, but then it’s not apparent that you mean them that way from what you then blog. I dunno if this will irk you I don’t mean to irk you.

    People are lazy.

    Survival depends on your ability to adapt to your environment. For humans, we live together, so survival depends on your ability to use the interpersonal modules of your brain as best you can. Human beings are the major obstacle to your/mine/your readers’/anyone’s personal-selfish success, for everyone.

    I’m not very smart, it takes me a longer time to think of things than most people. What I have discovered, being slow, is that smart people equate thinking fast with thinking well. They do not test each hypothesis if it seems beneficial, scientific, matches their experience, moral, logical, or holy. Instead they shortcut it to: did someone who they like/respect/follow agree with it. This is an interpersonal decision. A lot of the time: it works! The preponderance of evidence is what you talk about, and it has resulted in ‘scientific’ racism in the past, for centuries. It is durable and self-reinforcing!

    (there is a reason logical positivists take their philosophical position)

    The traitorous capitalistic betrayal of America by Congress when they no longer limited who owned what in terms of news and entertainment markets means the post-school input of curated new information recieved by most humans in the United States has been corrupted in favor of money and power. These are the “smart people” or are presented as “smart people” by propagandists who are the owners of monopolies of informational power. Since like I said most smart people value speed over everything and they know that other smart people do this to, this means that they (idiotically?) follow that the news tells them.

    This means the majority of news in the US is Fake News.
    Market forces that would make liars and purveyors of propaganda fail no longer exist, because they are monopolies.

    (does this sound like Putin yet? like Trump? …gosh)

    All of those criteria I mentioned are ways to approach truth.
    Because humans are the main benefit and obstacle to everyone’s survival, *truth* is really quite irrelevant. It only matters what everyone else who has access to the money and power that you need and want think.

    People are selfish.

    Selfish people either don’t want you to feel that they are unreasonably so, or are certain that they can stomp you even if you disagree. They also, if they want to feel they are good people, want to believe that there is something different about themselves that makes the luck and circumstances that surround them seem to be of their own efforts. Any of these kind of person (this is most persons including me) is liable to reinforce the ludicrous shit that is at the core of capitalism, which fictional Ann (perhaps an Ayn, also formerly russian possible a Drumpf formerly easter european) is acutely aware of.

    Finally, of all the multiple intelligences, the brain simply isn’t evolved with a sense of being wrong. If your brain thinks of something, it thinks it is right. If you think there might be a tiger there and you don’t do anything nine times out of ten you are right but the tenth you are lunch. If your brain thinks of something, since you are a materialist, then you think it is true. You Mano have been exposed to counter-immediate-survival information and the means to evaluate it. Most people haven’t.

    You Mano are skilled at bringing out many different modules of your brain and attaching truth values to them. Because the group of people you have chosen/been able to surround yourself with, this has served you well. It is not so helpful for the survival of other people to do this.

    My parents have died, leaving me in the investor class. My observations now of the business world match my observations of the people who failed at the sciences that I and my sibs studied at college, who then went into business school.
    The field of business selects for those who can play the human game more than it selects for smart. It is weird and surprising for me to have to interact with people who I discover are actually honestly dumber than me and whose staff is smarter than them, because it is so rare. How do they keep their money?

    Michelle Obama’s observation of world leaders is that they are not that smart. As an african-american woman she had to excel way above everybody else, in heels and backwards. The face of fictional? fictional Ann’s world, it is not african-american now is it.

    fictional Ann’s problem is that she lived faster and harder than the value of her lies, and chance and luck can only take you so far in the survival game. Trump is tolerated for his lyingest of lies, so lies have a higher value in the society she is in than you Mano believe is credible. I don’t think you are right.

    Other than that, she did in fact fit right in with the wealthiest part of the wealthiest nation. The phenomena of Karens and the Devil Wears Prada part of how it all works. They use the instruments of the state/power of the industry to kill those who they are certain are not part of their sources of wealth and power. Those dumb business people I have to interact with, they successfully play this game. I live in Los Angeles where people who are nines and tens in their small pond come here and discover they are sixes and sevens. It is not accidental that the highest level of breast augmentation happens here. What you wear (even if it is a saline sack) matters.

    fictional Ann doesn’t think shes a six or seven. She learns different, presumably.

  5. mnb0 says

    “If you or I stay at a hotel, the first thing they ask for is a credit card to guarantee payment.”
    Not me. The hotels where I’ve stayed never asked for one, because I never had a credit card. I always have paid when I left. As I’ve never visited the USA I’m not sure if this says something about that country or about the hotels you choose. Mine never were too expensive, because I neither could afford it nor were interested.

  6. kestrel says

    I think throughout history humans have used clothing to not only keep warm, have pockets to carry things etc. but to show social status. Look at the stuff the Pope wears. Each culture has a lot of rules about that; we in the USA are no different. Apparently this woman knew those rules, as well as how to act to fool the people around her. So I don’t know that it’s a fascination with designer clothes so much as some people know those rules about how to look like they are a higher social status. It’s a sort of outward way to display your status without having to talk about it.

  7. sonofrojblake says

    [the Tinder swindler] was a designer-clad young man [conning] single women of ordinary means

    I take issue with that description. As with “Anna”, Shimon Hayat’s gig was a Ponzi scheme. He was able to buy designer clothes and charter private jets because of the money he scammed off previous victims. Now -- I’m a chartered chemical engineer, and a man of ordinary means. Any swindler could take me for all I’m worth and wouldn’t be able to afford to charter a private jet to get out of the hangar, much less actually fly anywhere. He’d maybe be able to pull together a nice bespoke suit, possibly. My point is, by design and of necessity, the Tinder swindler’s victims were people who were prepared to part with tens of thousands of pounds in cash to a person they’d only recently met. That’s not something a person of ordinary means could do even if they wanted to. It’s something you need to be RICH to do. Which is why he needed to dress like that -- to impress rich people.

    I am utterly baffled with why people are willing to spend so much money on clothes

    And yet earlier you answer your own question:

    People seem to be judged by how they dress.

    It is only those who have not reached that level of fame who need to have clothes that impress.

    Maybe… Harry Enfield (British comedian) had a character who, over a number of sketches, delighted in observing to various people he encountered that he was “considerably richer than” them, despite being actually just quite well-off lower middle class. The punchline to the series was when his brother-in-law won the lottery. On the way, though, he had this delicious experience:

  8. crivitz says

    This sounds similar to the case of Chauncey Gardner in the movie Being There. The difference is that he stumbled in among the rich folks by accident and wasn’t trying to fool them with his knowledge of clothes, art etc, but the rich folks fooled themselves into treating him like a genius. He did have the ability to walk on water though, so there’s that.

  9. Mano Singham says

    sonofrojblake @#9,

    The women were of ordinary means with ordinary jobs. They were not themselves wealthy which may be why they were dazzled by his flaunting of the indicators of wealth. What he was able to do was persuade them to drain their savings accounts, max out their credit cards, get new credit cards and max them out too, and get bank loans. They ended up with huge debts that they are still paying off.

    If you have a reasonably good credit rating in the US, there are plenty of financial institutions that are eager to lend you lots of money because that is how they make money. A lot of ordinary people end up with large debts because of the easy availability of credit.

  10. sonofrojblake says

    @11: it’s probably the working class chip on my shoulder that regards anyone who can afford credit as rich, and anyone who can’t afford it but gets it anyway as stupid.

  11. John Morales says

    “anyone who can afford credit” is mistaken thinking. Getting is not affording.

    As Mano notes, many people can get it, though they can’t afford it.

  12. sonofrojblake says

    Thanks for that, John Morales.

    Why, when you read the phrase “anyone who can’t afford it but gets it anyway”, did you think I needed it explaining to me that “many people can get it, though they can’t afford it.”. Because the most charitable thing I can think of is that you got bored 20 words into my post and just stopped reading. One other interpretation I can think of is you read it all but were too stupid to understand it. The other is that you understood it just fine, but felt the need to type something, anything, smug and condescending in response, and it didn’t matter that it didn’t make sense.

    Just curious which it is.

  13. John Morales says

    Neither, sonofrojblake. It was a typo.

    Point being, by acknowledging that (they can get credit though they can’t afford) you vititate your working class chip’s input.

    (Smugness and condescension? Eye of the beholder. Guilty flee where no one pursueth. Etc.)

  14. sonofrojblake says

    It was a typo? Then what did you mean to type?

    Any working class person knows it’s possible to get credit you can’t afford. It’s a specifically working class affliction to look down on credit, even when you can afford it, so the contempt for those who get it when they can’t is strong. Again, it’s very, very obvious you don’t know what you’re talking about, but by all means, keep digging.

  15. John Morales says


    Then what did you mean to type?

    This: “anyone who can’t afford credit” is mistaken thinking.
    Autopilot mishap; instead of “can’t”, I typed “can”. Inattention.

    (I intended to paraphrase you)

    It’s a specifically working class affliction to look down on credit, even when you can afford it, so the contempt for those who get it when they can’t is strong.

    No. Your contempt is strong.

    Again, it’s very, very obvious you don’t know what you’re talking about, but by all means, keep digging.


    Quoth you: “My point is, by design and of necessity, the Tinder swindler’s victims were people who were prepared to part with tens of thousands of pounds in cash to a person they’d only recently met. ”

    So, let’s be clear here; there is a tension between
    “That’s not something a person of ordinary means could do even if they wanted to. It’s something you need to be RICH to do.”
    “Any working class person knows it’s possible to get credit you [sic] can’t afford.”

  16. sonofrojblake says

    “No. Your contempt is strong.”

    Indeed. My attitude formed in pure isolation, unaffected by the attitudes of anyone around me, and is unique to me. /s

    As for the last bit, it would seem obvious there’s no tension. To give a scammer thousands of pounds you can afford you need to rich. To give them thousands you can’t afford you need to be stupid.

  17. Holms says

    Smugness and condescension? Eye of the beholder. Guilty flee where no one pursueth. Etc.

    Did anyone else enjoy John Morales of all people using the ‘accusation = guilty conscience’ defence? I sure did.

  18. brucegee1962 says

    The “grifter who cons the millionaires” story has probably been around since at least the Renaissance or earlier — ever since a person could reasonably pose as a displaced noble from another country far enough away that there wouldn’t be anyone around to check up on your story. “The Million Pound Bank Note” is one such story by Mark Twain from 1893 on a similar theme, and I’m sure I could come up with earlier ones with a bit of effort.

    That Meryl Streep clip from “The Devil Wears Prada” completely sidesteps the central question. The character demonstrates why high fashion is _influential_ — but it doesn’t answer why it is _important_. Do all the fashionistas in the world improve anyone’s life in any measurable way?

    Note that this question is quite different from the question of whether art as a whole is useful. Other forms of art are far less susceptible to fashion — a Rafael is just as beautiful today as the day it was made. At least, I hope people don’t get shamed for hanging “last year’s art.”

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