New rules for bragging: how flex culture lost its muscle
Flex culture as we once knew it is dead. These days, celebs and influencers are practising the art of subtle humblebrags.
It’s 2017 and your hypebeast boyfriend has just spent 16 hours queuing up outside Supreme for some branded enamel chopsticks. Post Malone’s Rockstar is number one in the charts. Nepo baby It Girls like Gigi and Bella Hadid are suddenly culturally inescapable. Influencers, too, are everywhere, with their marble kitchen surfaces and candy-coloured fitbits and Yeezy Boost trainers. It’s the height of flex culture, streetwear and explicit indicators of wealth. Traditional celeb culture is still alive and kicking.
Fast forward five years and the flagrant flex culture of the 2010s appears to have evolved into a different beast entirely. Post-pandemic and mid-cost of living and housing crisis, ostentatious bragging feels not only out of touch, but quite distasteful. Rent in the UK has hit record highs, food and energy has become unaffordable for large swathes of the population and wage cuts are now the norm. No one wants to see your MTV Cribs-style house tour unless you’re Julia Fox brandishing an iPhone around a chaotic, cramped apartment. What was once vaguely aspirational now just elicits a deep, unshakeable disdain.
This doesn’t mean that flex culture – among celebs and influencers alike – has died out completely. It’s simply taken a subtler turn. Where we might have once seen influencers in head-to-toe brands and streetwear, we’re now seeing the rise of “thrift with me” videos on TikTok, where a “look” is made up of vintage items blended with designer garments or high street clothes. Basically, if you’re pairing your £1000 Prada loafers with a “cute little thrift store find” then you’re not flexing too overtly. It’s just enough to show you know what’s “cool” while also being sustainable in the current climate. Nevermind that the thrift store find was in fact a rare Jean Paul Gaultier top. A second hand item is a lowkey humblebrag, regardless of the mammoth price tag.
Meanwhile, overt house bragging has been replaced by the likes of “clean with me” and “fridge organisation” videos on TikTok, where content creators like @Honeybobabear organise their blueberries into little boxes, or @Kaelimaee stocks her cavernous fridge with bottles of Voss and vitamin water. While this isn’t the same as posting pics from a multi-million pound townhouse, there’s an element of subtle wealth signalling at play here. Who can afford all these food products, let alone a two-door, fully-integrated fridge with an ice machine? Who’s got the means to acquire a mini SMEG fridge, just for drinks? It’s flex culture, but artfully hidden beneath a “handy how-to” guise.
Celebs themselves also appear to have gone suspiciously quiet lately. Probably because they’re not quite sure how to behave when so much of their star power used to rely on being aspirational and out-of-reach. Remember when Hailey Bieber posted a photo of her, the Hadids and Emily Ratajkowski sunbathing on a yacht with the caption “work is tough”? That simply wouldn’t fly now. And as a Twitter user pointed out, literally nobody would care if Ellen Degeneres posted her celeb-heavy selfie at the 2014 Oscars today. When you can barely afford to pay for your mouldy house share in Zone 4, the sight of famous people looking smug and patting each other on the back isn’t just mildly irritating – it’s painfully absurd and misjudged.
One way that some public figures have gotten around “trying not to brag” is by making sure they sound mindful and informed, or including caveats alongside posting anything remotely flashy. Lifestyle influencer and business owner Grace Beverley is good at this. “I know sharing this publicly isn’t the done thing buuuut if we don’t remain transparent, how on earth can we break down barriers to entry in entrepreneurship (particularly for women whose funding stats are dire)?” she wrote, alongside a screenshot from an article about how she raised $5.7 million for an activewear start-up. Essentially, it’s OK to display your wealth as an influencer, so long as there’s a sidebar that either acknowledges your privilege or underlines how hard you worked to get there.
Despite the fact that poverty has risen exponentially in the past year, with 30 million people in the UK expected to soon be unable to afford even a “decent” standard of living, there will always be wealthy people who will hoard and display their wealth. There will always be influencers, models, actors, singers, reality TV stars and people who are famous for being famous who will barely feel the cost of living crisis biting at their heels. It probably won’t even penetrate their bubble, beyond maybe their mortgage going up, or having to fire some assistants. The gap between the have and have-nots is ever-widening, leaving the haves floundering about how to remain cool and prestigious while also remaining relevant (spoiler: it’s not possible).
If you earn more than 45 grand, I’m not interested in seeing your “thrift with me” videos, or an unboxing of a £500 skincare device, or how you renovated a Victorian house at 28-years-old after after your work from home business “really took off during the pandemic.” Because inevitably, it will always come with a certain admission: “I was lucky enough to get some help from my parents, which obviously I’m super grateful for and I acknowledge my privilege.”
Flex culture may have evolved, but it’s still just as transparent. Rich people be quiet challenge.