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Birkins and Wife Bonuses: An Anthropologist's Take on Upper East Side Mom Style

The unofficial rules of dressing like a Manhattan power mom.

Last month, anthropologist Wednesday Martin introduced the world to the concept of a “wife bonus”—an annual shopping budget based on a husband’s earnings and his stay-at-home spouse’s domestic performance. And today, Martin offers a closer look at the recipients of said bonuses with the release of her Upper East Side ethnography, Primates of Park Avenue.


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The author paints the women she befriended during her time as an UES mom as bone-broth–swilling, Birkin-toting, Physique 57 addicts who prep for school drop-off the way stars ready themselves to walk the red carpet. We caught up with Martin to take a deep dive into some of the topics she touches on in her book—like the Upper East Side handbag hierarchy, how to use pre-sale as a verb, and why Soul Cycle devotees are "wannabe thugs."

How would you sum up Upper East Side mom style?

Well, fashionable. And more fashion-forward than I had expected. When I moved to the Upper East Side, I thought that mom fashion would have the emphasis on mom. But the emphasis was—and is—definitely on fashion.

Is there a uniform?

I love the sort of evolving uniform that I saw over the course of my fieldwork. One of my favorite evolutions was from the crinkly Lanvin ballet flat to the Isabel Marant wedge sneaker.

Does that mean Upper East Side mom style is going in a more casual direction?

I moved to the West Side, so I don't know what that shoe is now, but I always loved the way these Upper East Side mommies managed to be glamorous even when they were schlepping their children at 8am for school drop-off. They often looked like they were ready to sit down in the front row at fashion week. That is no exaggeration. I have seen women bringing their kids to play group in head-to-toe Givenchy florals, complete with Givenchy lace stilettos.

Then there's the casual elegant look, which I really love. That's like, the Rick Owens jacket with the great jean, and probably an Isabel Marant wedge sneaker. Or maybe, when you're going to be with your driver all day, a Manolo boot. Christian Louboutin was surprisingly popular for school drop-off.

It sounds like they put a lot of thought into their shoes.

The shoes were always tricky because I think what women wanted to do was negotiate over-the-top glamour and impressing each other and impressing men and impressing Bill Cunningham, with, you know, actually being able to walk with their kids. There were no mom jeans and ponytails, ever.

Never?

Maybe if somebody had a stomach bug, but in public never.

School drop-off sounds like a big event!

Sometimes these women look so extraordinary for drop-off because they have a charity breakfast to go to after. So they get up in the morning and have their hair and makeup done, and have personal stylists get them ready.

I mean, there are tons of hair and makeup professionals in New York City, so I did notice that the women all around me had kind of movie star ways. Here it's not necessarily terribly expensive to get someone because there are so many talented people doing it. But that was one of the practices that set the bar very, very high.

Where do Upper East Side moms shop? What are the big stores?

The tribe loves Bergdorf Goodman. And also Barneys. Those are two really, really beloved sites. I heard of less women shopping at Saks, or Bloomingdale's, or Macy's. Sometimes we'd hear about a group going to Woodbury Common.

Woodbury Common! Really?

That would not be totally unusual because everybody, no matter how rich you are, we all love a fashion bargain right?

When you first moved to the Upper East Side, did anything about your style immediately peg you as an outsider?

We lived downtown and I showed up to look for an apartment. I had an appointment with the broker, and I wore what was really popular at the time downtown—Marc Jacobs high-waisted trousers and one of his little floral blouses.

When I showed up in the lobby of this building on the Upper East Side, the broker looked at me, looked at the other broker, and said, "Is your boss coming today?" Because I looked like a teenager to her. It was a testament to the power of clothing.

By the time I left the Upper East Side I was a Prada-holic. And I was dressing more in line with the tribal clothes.

In your book you say that Upper East Side women either exercise at Physique 57 or Soul Cycle. You also say that the women who go to Soul Cycle are "wannabe gangsters."

I was part of this Physique 57 tribe and our uniform was very, very rigid. It was black Lululemon or Bandier leggings and a racer-back tank top. Always. And these special grippy socks with little rubber bits on the bottom so you don't slip on the rug.

When you walk out into the parking lot at this place called The Barn in Bridgehampton, where Soul Cycle and Physique 57 share a physical space, you see these wannabe thug kind of women, who you had just seen at your friend Shelly Levine's daughter's bat mitzvah. But they would be dressed in, you know, gangster iconography. They'd wear these tight black workout pants that said "posse" down the front.

Go on.

And a gangster-style bandana, folded over. And they would call each other "thug," too. So it was really funny because they were these mommies, you know?

It shows you how strong fashion tribalism is. It actually gives these people a feeling of identity. That these women thought they were sort of cooler than the Physique 57 moms.

So I take it no one shows up to these classes in, like, their old college lacrosse tee.

One time I wore a running skirt to class and I could tell that people were surprised. They looked at me like, "Why is she wearing that?" Because what you're supposed to wear is so clearly established.

In your book you go into Upper East Side women's intense exercise routines. Do Upper East Side men spend as much time on their bodies?

I sometimes say that wealthy men are the new women. Because they do all of these things that my father's generation never would have dreamed of doing. These guys are extremely fit, they spent a lot of time working out, they spent a lot of time just making themselves look good in ways that men would not have a generation earlier.

In Primates of Park Avenue, you say that the Birkin bag is the ultimate status symbol for Upper East Side women. After getting your own, what do you think? Are they as scarce as Hermes says they are? Is the wait list just for show?

Part of the appeal of the Birkin bag is its alleged scarcity. That it is hard to get, that it's only for a few, that it takes a really long time to make one because they only make so many. So you have to wait.

But not if you have a great relationship with a salesperson there, or have a friend who has a great relationship with a salesperson there. And you don't have to wait if you're a celebrity. So getting a Birkin isn't just about being able to afford it, getting a Birkin requires playing the game, using your influence, and working your connections in a way that New Yorkers love to do. You have to work the system, and you have to get your cultural capital involved.

What's the most common Birkin on the Upper East Side?

I think the black with palladium hardware might be the one that you see the most.

What about other handbags?

You see a lot of the Celine trapeze bag. It's similarly cool and desirable, but because it doesn't have the same cultural cachet that the Birkin has, it's a different animal. One time, when I was applying to schools with my son, I went and sat in the waiting room of one of the admissions offices, and I was with a group of about six other women and  every single woman had the same Celine bag.

I think that the Birkin is the holy grail, and there's another whole tier of "It" bags underneath it. One of the things that really surprised me— I think the Valentino ‘Rockstud' bags are so amazing. And yet not very many of the women that I was spending time with used them.

You talk a lot about the importance of labels on the Upper East Side. In your group of friends, was it possible to just opt out of that? Could you be uninterested in designer fashion and still be accepted?

Sure, there were outliers. You could be not into fashion if you were already really rich and influential. But if you wanted to work your way up the dominance hierarchy, you could not do it in sweatpants.

But don't stand out too much. Don't be too fantastic looking, because then you're sort of trying to scale the dominance hierarchy too quickly, and that'll get you in trouble too. You have to calibrate your fashion choices in that way.

You talk about something called "presale-ing" in the book. How does that work?

Well if you have a relationship with a salesperson at a place—you know, on Madison or 5th—and you're considered a "good customer" your salesperson will get in touch with you and offer to presale you. That just means giving you a look at the things that will be on sale eventually, and giving you the opportunity to choose them ahead of time. And in a very crowded town where everyone's a size 2, that can be very meaningful.

Let's talk about how you got a blowout when you went into labor.

That's fair game. Okay. Yes, I really internalized the laws of my new land and I just embraced self-grooming right through, you know? And, I knew about women getting Brazilian bikini waxes when they were nine months pregnant.

Ahh!

But my obstetrician told me women were really carefully groomed all through their pregnancies. I mean, you didn't really see unattractive pregnant women very often on the Upper East Side. The bar is very high for women to look good and that standard is not relaxed during pregnancy.

It occurred to me that—you know what?—I want to look good in the damn pictures in the hospital when the baby is born. So I got a blowout. And because I got a blowout, my contractions were very close together when I got to the hospital. It turned out okay though.

Was it a close call?

When my husband called I said, "I'm getting a blowout!" and he said, "Come on we've gotta go to the hospital right now! Are you kidding me?" He couldn't believe that I was getting a blowout while I was in labor.