Why does the 'rich aunt aesthetic' that local influencers love so much exist?

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An Instagram post by Kefilwe Mabote. (Image captured by Zachariah Schrueder)
An Instagram post by Kefilwe Mabote. (Image captured by Zachariah Schrueder)
  • The ‘rich aunt aesthetic’ is often hotly debated on social media, and people are struggling to understand why young women are dressing like 40-year-old rich aunts.
  • This hyperfeminine way of dressing is usually characterised by satin midi-length skirts, balloon sleeve blouses, exaggerated hats, and formal two-pieces.
  • Here, Khensani Mohlatlole discusses why women have taken a keen liking to it. 

The rich aunt, as a trope, can be traced back to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s Vivian Banks.

When Will Smith is sent to live in plush Bel-Air to escape gang violence and poverty and meets his Aunt Viv (Janet Hubert), we were also subsequently introduced to one of the most aspirational images for black women in post-apartheid South Africa. 

Aunt Viv was always dressed in designer clothing as she enjoyed the leisurely, self-fulfilling pursuits that were exclusive to upper-class white women.  

janet hubert
Janet Hubert (Photo by Deborah Feingold/Corbis via Getty Images) 

Her new status enabled her to defy tradition, creating her own path that her race and gender would have denied her. 

It’s therefore evident why this is an aspirational image for young black women in South Africa.

Aunt Viv - the rich aunt - represents upward mobility, agency, and independence. In aspiring to become their version of the rich aunt, young women are adopting the character’s visual language. 

READ MORE: An ode to TV's It girls who seemingly dressed beyond their means and the stylists who made them so 

Synonymous with luxury, she arrives to our Instagram feeds with monogram bags, premium fabrics, and a hybrid of 1950s femininity meets 1980s power dressing. Hourglass silhouettes, ruffles, polka dots meet tailored blazers, angular bobs, and kitten heels.  

Popular influencers who best exemplify this are Kefilwe Mabote, Mihlali Ndamase, Lerato Kgamanyane, Siya Bunny, and Boity. 

But why does this trend exist?

Fashion doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There are several influences on this trend that impact why it exists and why it looks like that.

The simplest reasoning for its appearance is that luxury is mature.  

While we see teenagers as the faces of editorials and runways, luxury fashion is not made for the young. Chanel suits sell for upwards of R15 000, and most people - unless born wealthy - aren’t earning that money until they’re well into their careers, often into their thirties.

Hence the quilted purses and tailored blouses appear ageing. 

READ MORE: Influencer De Luxe | Kefilwe Mabote pens advice on claiming the woman you want to become in new book

Of course, in the digital age, many are finding financial success at a younger age. 

In times of economic uncertainty and unemployment, young people will look to glamourous careers like acting and influencing.

Many millennial women reached success on Instagram after migrating from the blogosphere by providing magazine editorial level content that was accessible, which is why we see such highly produced, high input fashion content. 

This is a stark contrast to how Gen Z creates content - improvised and low-res. 

READ MORE: As you diversify your social media feeds, here's how to meaningfully support Africa's content creators 

Whether or not you like it, the rich aunt aesthetic is significant in understanding the moment.

It’s clear that with the constant threat of poverty, gender-based violence, and marginalisation - emulating the rich aunt aesthetic (somewhat) provides a sartorial reprieve from the grim, harsh realities of what it’s like to be a young, black woman in South Africa. 

What's your go-to aesthetic? Tell us about it here.

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