"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable we have to alter it every six months."
-- Oscar Wilde
For the past few decades, I and many other men my age have been locked in a battle with the clothing industry. I want simple, good-looking apparel that covers my nakedness and maybe even makes me look attractive. The clothing industry believes someone my age wants either clothing laced with profanity, clothing that objectifies women, clothing that glorifies alcohol or drug use, or clothing that makes them look like a gangster. And judging by the clothing I see people wearing, on the whole they are right.
I've been working my way through Steven Pinker's How The Mind Works, and reached the part where he quotes approvingly Quentin Bell's theory of fashion. The theory provides a good explanation for why so much clothing seems so deliberately outrageous.
Bell starts by offering his own explanation of the "fashion cycle". He claims that the goal of fashion is to signal status. So far, so obvious. But low-status people would like to subvert the signal. Therefore, the goal of lower class people is to look like upper class people, and the goal of upper class people is to not look like lower class people.
One solution is for the upper class to wear clothing so expensive the lower class could not possibly afford it. This worked for medieval lords and ladies, but nowadays after a while mass production will kick in and K-Mart will have a passable rhinestone based imitation available for $49.95. Once the lower class is wearing the once fashionable item, the upper class wouldn't be caught dead in it. They have to choose a new item of clothing to be the status signal, after a short period of grace the lower class copy that too, and the cycle begins again.
For example, maybe in early 2009 a few very high-status people start wearing purple. Everyone who is "in the know" enough to understand that they are trend-setters switches to purple. Soon it becomes obvious that lots of "in the know" people are wearing purple, and anyone who reads fashion magazines starts stocking up on purple clothing. Soon, only the people too out-of-the-loop to know about purple and the people too poor to immediately replace all their clothes are wearing any other color. In mid-2009, some extremely high-status people now go out on a limb and start wearing green; everyone else is too low-status to be comfortable unilaterally breaking the status quo. Soon everyone switches to green. Wearing purple is a way of broadcasting that you're so dumb or so poor you don't have green clothes yet, which is why it's so mortifying to be caught wearing yesterday's fashion (or so I'm told). When the next cycle comes around, no one will immediately go back to wearing purple, because that would signal that they're unfashionable. But by 2015, that stigma will be gone and purple has a chance to come "back in style".
Bell describes a clever way the rich can avoid immediately being copied by the middle class. What is the greatest fear of the fashionista? To be confused with a person of a lower class. So the rich wear lower class clothes. The theory is that the middle class is terrified of wearing lower class clothes, but the rich are so obviously not lower class that they can get away with it. Bell wrote before the "ghetto look" went into style, but his theory explains quite well why wealthy teenagers and young adults would voluntarily copy the styles of the country's poorest underclass.
Bell also explained a second way to signal high-status: conspicuous outrage. Wear a shirt with the word "FUCK" on it in big letters (or, if you prefer, FCUK). This signals "I am so high status that I think I can wear the word 'FUCK' in big letters on a t-shirt and get away with it." It's a pretty good signal. It signals that you don't give a...well...fcuk what anyone else thinks, and the only people who would be able, either economically or psychologically, to get away with that are the high status1.
The absolute best real world example, which again I think Bell didn't live to see, is the bright pink shirt for men that says "REAL MEN WEAR PINK". The signal is that this guy is so confident in his masculinity that he can go around wearing a pink shirt. It's an odd case because it gets away with explaining exactly what signal it's projecting right on the shirt. And it only works because real men do not wear pink without a disclaimer explaining that they are only wearing pink to signal that they are real men.
Pinker notes the similarity to evolutionary strategies that signal fitness by handicapping. A peacock's tail is a way of signalling that its owner is so fit it can afford to have a big maladaptive tail on it and still survive, just as a rich guy in a backwards baseball cap is signalling that its owner is so rich he can afford to copy the lower class and still get invited to parties. The same process produces a body part of astounding beauty in the animal kingdom, and ghetto fashion in human society. I wonder if nature is laughing at us.
1: Bell (or possibly Pinker, it's not clear) has a similar theory about art. Buying a hip "modern art" painting that's just a white canvas with a black line through it is supposed to signal "I am so rich that I can afford to pay lots of money for a painting even if it is unpopular and hard to appreciate," or even "I am so self-confident in my culturedness that I can endorse this art that is low quality by all previous standards, and people will continue to respect me and my judgments." Then the middle class starts buying white canvases with black lines through them, and rich people have to buy sculptures made of human dung just to keep up.