"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.
I agree with everything except your first paragraph. I've never had trouble finding perfectly normal clothing that allows me to sidestep fashion and merely look good. Neither have I noticed any particular social opprobrium for doing so, though I'm hardly at a maximal status (and my social circle is likely atypical), so who knows.
My impression is that it's always been possible (for men at least) to take the low-risk option and dress "conservatively".
A data point: My father bought me a beautiful and very conservative black suit for my Grandfather's funeral around 1994 when I was still a student. I liked it very much and wore it a lot.
The other day, looking for something to wear to a wedding, I dug it out and tried it on. It makes me look like a character from an 80's rock video, or possibly an episode of "Miami Vice", and I wouldn't be seen dead in it.
From which I conclude not only that there is fashion even in the most sober of men's clothing, but that I am aware of it in some way.
Both these conclusions surprised me.
One doesn't necessarily "sidestep fashion" by dressing conservatively. Desired lapel and tie widths change over the years. Do you care if your clothes have stains or holes? That signals something about your fashion sense.
Figuring out which clothes appeal to the shifting tastes of various audiences in various social settings is not easy for someone who suffers from schizophrenia, autism, trisomy 21, severe depression, or other affliction that impairs one's will or ability to conform to mercurial social trends.
Even someone who buys desirable brands can be inept at coordinating garments and selecting an appropriate cut. Like many other social behaviors, the clothes we wear send messages about our social roles, aspirations, and neurological health.
It's been my experience that fashion revivals leave a sort of "residue" of retro coolness that doesn't disappear entirely. My only suit probably dates back to the seventies (I wasn't born until the early eighties), but wearing it gives me occasional points for being "retro" or something to that effect. Since it doesn't stand out glaringly it doesn't attract too much attention (I think there is something to being conservative), and since I'm totally out of phase either with cutting edge fashion or any revival cycles, I don't appear to be behind the curve and struggling to keep up with fashion. I just look like an outlier that could fit into some fashion cycle associated with some subculture somewhere, or who has a strong self-identity (plus in complements my body shape relatively well, so I don't look absurd that way). But then, I only weakly interact with most social groups, and my strongest social ties are with fashion challenged subcultures anyway. In short, being way out of phase in fashion cycles (which gives one a fairly large margin of error) is relatively safe compared to being just slightly behind a fashion cycle.
In general, T-shirts aren't optimally fashionable in terms of high fashion, but they can be fine for normal cool guy fashion when done right. Graphic print T-shirts are great for the day, usually accessorized with a necklace, watch, or wristbands. They need to be reasonably tight, because a baggy look evokes high school and fails to show of your shoulders. At night, T-shirts are great fine for most clubbing when worn under a blazer, jacket, or sportcoat.
While I find this hypothesis completely plausible, I do think that a lot of these uncomfortable items are simply aesthetically superior. Pointy-shoes just look more elegant to me, and I don't think this is because they are uncomfortable.
It seems to me that groups who can signal within-group status unambiguously will tend to downplay fashion.
Examples. Tech/Science smart people don't bother much with it, as it's not possible to fake it in their world, while humanities 'intellectuals' have to play a role, as their intelligence can't be casually observed by outsiders. Ditto for Athletes, or really anyone who gains substantial status from visible muscles or visible grace.
I would expect this to also be the case for people who engage in any sort of formal contests, e.g. poker players.
Unless we expand fashion to include technology accessories. I gather there are a lot more early adopters in Tech/Science.
Actual tech/science smart people buy -- or build -- gadgets because they're useful or interesting for tinkering. The "middle class" of tech/science buy gadgets because they're fashionable. The former is perfectly happy having an old example of a gadget if it performs admirably and is not on the edge of the person's tinkering interests; the latter discards old gadgets and buys new. As a result, you basically get two kinds of early adopters. One is the person who consciously adopts new tech, spending money for status, and the other is the person who acquires new tech sporadically, or builds it from parts, or even invents it, because of a tinkering (aka hacking) urge or a specific functionality need.
Obviously, this is an oversimplification, and the lines are typically not so clearly drawn, but there is a definite unfalsifiability issue for the actual tech/science "upper class" as MichaelVassar suggests. The interesting thing about that, though, is that these people are not doing what they're doing to stay ahead of the "middle class" Joneses the way the clothing/fashion upper class do things; they're just doing what intrigues or helps them individuall... (read more)
What you all seem to be missing is that on a T-shirt, "Real Men Wear Pink" is a pun. In this context, Pink is not a color, it's a brand name: http://www.thomaspink.com/
All good points, although I'd like to throw in a couple of my own. We see that fashion is very important almost universally in Western society among teenagers and, to a slightly lesser extent, young adults. This is a group of people who do not yet have enough skill or knowledge to successfully signal their status in the same ways that adults do: although there is stratification in skills and knowledge, it's relatively small to the wide variation that will appear in adulthood (mostly due to people pushing their skills and knowledge to have higher value, thus shifting the mean, rather than a general dispersion where an equal number of people get less skilled and knowledgeable as get more skilled and knowledgeable). But fashion is something that is well within the reach of teenagers and young adults to use for more stratified status signaling. The story then plays out as described in the post.
At this point in my life, I find fashion to not be very important except in one regard: signaling class. I work at a university providing instructional support to faculty by running and maintaining some computer assets (vague enough for you). Around campus, clothing is used to signal a pe... (read more)
This one hits close to home.
During my middle school years I was going to a private school with wealthy children. It was all my parents could to to afford regular clothes, however I wanted to keep up. So I saved my money and waited months to go buy the hippest shirt around. So I stroll into a dance that we were having with my (no joke) purple superman t-shirt and quickly get rebuked and laughed at. Needless to say, I was behind the curve on that one - and it never saw the light of day again.
False signal failed.
The art theory is interesting, but incomplete. It seems that once photography was invented, the art world needed to move towards art that was generally not highly visually appealing, because verisimilitude was too cheap. Note that art having mass appeal is often taken as a bad thing. If everyone likes a piece of art, owning it says nothing about you. If no one likes a piece of art, and you pay a lot for it, that does signal something about you. Basically, the upper class and the artistic cognoscenti had to aim for something that did not have obvious appeal and that made it easy to regulate the entry of new artists, and modern/post-modern art accomplishes that perfectly.
A similar phenomenon likely occurs with wine. There are many drinks that taste better, but what's the point of drinking root beer if everyone likes root beer? Wine has high variance in flavor and does not taste good enough for people to like it without putting in serious effort. It's the perfect status-signaling drink.
This is rather tangential, but I wonder if the technology that affected painting was not photography, but chromolithography, eg, the mass-produced posters of Cherec and Toulouse-Lautrec that are famous from the 1890s. But Cherec opened his shop in 1866, which fits the timing of Impressionism pretty well. It makes sense that photography would drive painting out of portraiture, but painting remains an important tool for verisimilitude, eg, the covers of novels.
Here's a highly detailed chromolithograph from 1872.
This is called "countersignaling."
And here I thought that was a Dragonball Z reference.
I wear cargo pants because they have lots of pockets, and t-shirts with robots on them because it gets me into conversations about robots. I don't have any problem ... (read more)
I'll bet every 17 years or so you get confused for some kind of hipster :)
What a fascinating case of parallel evolution: As the cicada has a life cycle of 17 years (a prime number) to avoid predators with shorter life cycles, so too does the common or garden nerd choose clothes that are fashionable only once every 17 years, to minimize overlap with other, dangerous fashions.
I agree but I think that there are some other forces at play in fashion too.
Fashion sure involves an element of exaggerating desirable body traits with clothing. High-heel shoes that make the wearer appear taller, jackets that extend and exaggerate the shoulders, and dresses that enlarge and exaggerate the waist and breasts are some examples.
I suspect that there is also an element of intentionally identifying as part of a group by wearing similar clothing, regardless of whether that group is high-status or not.
How does that account for high heels? The most obvious effect is to make the woman wearing them taller, which decreases a difference between the average man and the average woman.
I suppose that they give the appearance of shorter feet.
Doing impractical things is classic signaling. The less practical the stronger the signal.
What they do is make the legs look longer, as well as forcing changes in posture, tilting the pelvis forward and increasing lumbar curvature, which generally has the effect of making the female hip structure look more pronounced (forces a gait that involves more hip movement, &c.).
They also tend to result in back problems if worn too often; excessive lordosis of the lumbar spine isn't good for you.
There basically isn't any difference.
People often don't believe this and ask for peer-reviewed studies, etc.
I also did a lot of casting about Pubmed for any article actually specifically discussing whether there's a difference in this dimension. But the result that there is no difference between sexes was so reliably reproduced (without comment, you have to look at the tables) anytime I found a study that collected that data (usually in the aim of answering a more interesting question) that I can only assume it is simply ambient knowledge for anyone doing anthropometry and thus not considered worth publishing, discussing or citing.
Which, interestingly, allows the mistake to propagate among people who don't do anthropometry.
Stereotypically feminine colors (e.g. pink and purple) for shirts and ties were popular among London's businessmen in 2002. Not long after that, lager louts and Essex wide boys took a shine to pink polo shirts -- typically worn with the collar popped. Eventually chavs, spides, neds, and scally lads began to collect pink shirts sold in market stalls.
Young men in New Jersey and other guido (AKA gino) habitats were seen wearing pink polo shirts in 2004. The fashion eventually trickled down to garden-variety North American dudebros.
Black leather jacket, black t-shirt, black jeans, cowboy boots, and a zippo pouch: some outfits never go out of style. I'm going to be wearing this until the day the cops put a bullet in my head.
I'll hijack this thread a little - I've always wondered what would happen if someone decided to simply start wearing only upper-class clothes from decades ago. eg. if one picked the 1940s, one would stock up on the trench coats & fedoras etc. What do the more fashion-knowledgeale LWers think would happen?
| rich people have to buy sculptures made of human dung just to keep up.
This explanation of modern art seems incomplete. For many artists now, bleeding edge art is an exercise in "conceptual" problem solving and game-playing. (For discussion see, e.g., Kosuth 1969.) The economic forces described by Bell/Pinker do put selection pressure on which art gets distributed, displayed and, to a small extent, produced. But to describe these pressures without some reference to the noble and useful productions behind them seems to imply the common error of dismissing modern art as a bluff, a bullshit or some other mostly-useless activity.
Are you saying that rich white kids adopted ghetto fashion before poor white kids did? Doesn't ring very true to me.
There's a difference between poor, middle-class, and rich. The idea is that the middle class want to mimic the rich to look higher status. The rich don't want the middle class to get away with it. The rich can mimic the poor and not be taken for being poor but the middle class can't, so the rich steal the poor's fashion.
This post is about the structure of a natural phenomenon. It might be funny to us, but it's a normal outcome of an evolutionary process.
My concentration was broken by reading that line.
Six years seems too soon for a style to come back into fashion. People sometimes keep a garment in rotation for six years, so it would be hard to distinguish the people who intentionally adopt an old style from those who never bothered to update their wardrobe. It can also take six or more years for a style that's first accepted in Manhattan to spread to Topeka.
Fashions tend to run in 15 to 30 year cycles. In this way, a style can seem new to teenagers and no... (read more)
This discussion makes me glad to see the proliferation of mandatory uniform rules in public schools in the US.
I noticed the same phenomenon when I went to a public elementary school that required uniforms.
Even though the school was in one of the poorest areas of the city, kids still found plenty of ways to signal their status to others. High-status kids had more jewelry, fashionable haircuts, and were exempt from many of the uniform rules (such as having to tuck in their shirts) because they made friends with the administrators. Girls tended to signal more with their clothes because we had the options of blouses, skorts, and skirts in addition to the polo shirts and shorts the boys wore.
It took me a few years to understand the subtleties of what was happening, but by my final year in the school, I was playing the status game as well. If one of the goals of having uniforms at that school was to emphasize student equality, I never got the sense that it was accomplished.
There's a chain called Haggar where you can buy nothing but clothes that would have been in fashion in the 1950s. I had always wondered, before I found it, how some older guys managed to still look like they were living in the 1950s.
In this case, I don't think they're signalling. I think they're reminiscing. Unless they're signalling, "Why'd they have to go and change things?"
No, they're signaling conspicuous egalitarianism.
Real men really do wear pink, unironically and without disclaimers, where I live.
This true across demographics. There are pink-shirted buisnessmen (where the pink shirt is a normal one in the same design as a regular white one) and pink-sweatered teens.
Women still wear -more- pink, obviously.
My decision procedure works like this:
To minimise attire decision fatigue
Get attire that:
maximises mobility, thermal comfort, decency and accessibility
minimises cost and components
The outcome sounds like this:
Nike techfleece jumper + Chanel (yes, men's) dress pant + Nike Runners for casual wear and any kind of formal dress shoes cause they're all bad for your feet, bad for running, and not that great looking anyway + Uniqlo Collared shirt switched for a tshirt when sleeping and another tshirt to wear underneath to keep the sweat awa... (read more)
Real men wear Pinker (on their sleeve)
I can't stand the stuff I see in the fashion magazines, it's hideous and absurd looking. Fashion models look like someone without depth perception or color vision dressed them. All the stuff I wear tends to be contrasting primary colors (black, red, blue, white) with straight lines of design and minimal labeling. As a consequence, half of my clothes are middle-priced men's clothes.
OK, this is all well and good, but why does my wife persist in wearing shoes that make her feet hurt (and sometimes give her blisters)?
Obviously, because she is trying to attract a higher-status man.
No, seriously: Why do people still try to be fashionable after they're married? If I were married, I'd buy a Toyota Camry and shop at the Salvation Army.
(Okay, I already have a Camry and shop at the Salvation Army. But only at the most fashionable ones.)
See my comment below, on why the most fashionable clothing should be painful and impractical.
People do let themselves go somewhat after marriage. But they don't fall apart entirely because:
Staying fashionable is fun for some people.
It is important for same-sex status games for women especially.
You have to continue to look nice or your partner might leave you.
Not staying fashionable signals laziness and implies that past efforts to stay fashionable were deceptive mating practices.
They might still care for signaling reasons: to show off their mate, raising their status in the eyes of both sexes.
If anybody wants to get deeper into how fashion, class and status work I highly recommend Bourdieu's 'Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste'.
Bourdieu collected large amounts of data on the expressed taste of different social classes in visual art, food, music, literature, social gatherings etc., augmented by semi-structured interviews with a smaller sample. It's not too useful to try and summarize it, but some of the major useful concepts include: Fields (not everybody plays the same status game), Distinction (actions and taste are arbitr... (read more)
I now wear a pink "real men wear pink" shirt when I teach about signaling at Smith College. Thanks for the idea. Students take pictures of the shirt.
we lie with our clothes the same way we lie with our words. whether we're trying to conceal wisdom, confidence, wealth, strength, compatibility, etc... there's a distribution to the potential gain and chance of getting "called out". That's assuming we're making a concious choice. A big portion of it is effective marketing making us insecure about all those things we try to conceal first, whether we are missing in any of those deparments or not. I think it's much more subconsious that we'd like to admit, particulalry if we think we're so rational.
"A peacock's tail is a way of signaling that its owner is so fit it can afford to have a big maladaptive tail on it and still survive"
Is that really true? I didn't realize chickens think that way. Besides, a peacock's fitness INCLUDES the tail. If it could demonstrate that it's fit with a tail, and then discard the tail, it'd be badass.
What on earth are you talking about?
I've noticed that, in the late 1990s / early 2000, there was a run-up towards ever bigger brand logos on shirts and shoes. I think this was a one-time event, not a repeating cycle. I've now noticed that this trend is receding, even among high schoolers. In the age of Facebook signaling, could it be that clothing logo-ism is on a permanent trend downward? What comes next?