"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.


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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.

9Alerik10yIt'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.
5MichaelVassar12yExpensive enough clothing comes with in-store fashion coordinators, though you can ignore them once you get home of course.
4Douglas_Knight12yI agree with both of those sentences, but I think the conjunction is odd. There is fashion in lapel widths, but that fashion is, I think, for people who have to wear jackets, for whom jackets are thus not conservative. For such people, there are conservative (ie, low-risk) widths. For people who don't have to wear jackets, lapels may matter, but they'll matter in a very different way. For settings where a wide range of clothes are allowed, there are options that are low-risk and slow-changing. These usually involve dressing up a little, but not too much. I think people trying to avoid fashion underestimate the risk, ie, the residual details that matter. Also, there's some other mistake they make...maybe overdressing out of confusion of different meanings of conservative?
9HumanFlesh12yPeople can become so used to certain styles and colors that they don't even classify certain sartorial habits as fashion. They don't notice the cultural currents that surround them anymore than a fish notices that it's wet. To them, the word fashion is associated with only the most loud and heavily marketed forms of fashion. It's similar to how people associate the word diet with slimming diets. In truth, as long as we are eating, we have a diet. And as long as we dress ourselves, we are making fashion decisions. Conservative garb is not necessarily timeless. Some subcultural or countercultural fashions manage to loosen their connection to the year in which they were born. If you showed me a picture of a man in a suit taken in 1978, I could probably guess that it was from the late seventies by using the color palette and fit as clues. I would have a harder time identifying the year in which a photo of a skinhead was taken. 3-piece suits from 1917 were not made in the same styles as the ones that you can find in the store today, but Converse All-Stars [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chuck_Taylor_All-Stars], though designed in 1917, are still widely available. I can also go to a shoe store and buy a new pair of Adidas Superstars [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adidas_Superstar] that were designed in 1969 or Adidas Sambas [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adidas_samba] designed in 1950.
0Gunnar_Zarncke6yI like timeless fashion and just bought a pair of Adidas Superstars.
0HumanFlesh12yWhich conjunction do you find odd? Is it the "and" between lapel and tie?
6MichaelVassar12yYou haven't lived in New York I suspect.
4dclayh12yIndeed not, nor in any major city, at least since I've been old enough to make my own clothing choices. (I have, however, spent the last four years in NJ and will be in NY tonight [http://www.nycjunto.com/library/2009/08/index.htm], as it happens.)
4PhilGoetz12yYeah, it sounded like you were looking for t-shirts, not fashionable clothing. T-shirts aren't fashionable unless you're in college. In high school, they signal that you take metal shop and smoke cigarettes. After college, they signal that you still live in your parents' basement. (If you can't find the t-shirt you want on the internet, you're not looking hard enough.) If you'd said digital watches or shoes, though, I'd agree. Damn, digital watches and shoes are ugly nowadays. I'm more intrigued by the unwearability of some fancy clothing. Look at any Italian shoe costing over $400. You will find they are all unwearable: pointy toes shaped nothing like the human toe that trip you up; floppy sidewalls that make you look like you're wearing galoshes when you walk; painfully narrow yet overly long; polished leather soles that make walking on anything slicker than concrete impossible. Women's shoes are even worse. I think that making painful, difficult-to-wear clothing fashionable is a way of winnowing out people who aren't truly dedicated to fashion.

Yeah, it sounded like you were looking for t-shirts, not fashionable clothing. T-shirts aren't fashionable unless you're in college. In high school, they signal that you take metal shop and smoke cigarettes. After college, they signal that you still live in your parents' basement.

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.

I think that making painful, difficult-to-wear clothing fashionable is a way of winnowing out people who aren't truly dedicated to fashion.

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.

6MichaelVassar12yShoes that are comfortable but are not sneakers cost about $400 but DAMN are they worth it if you have to wear shoes. In men's fashion in general, uncomfortable imitations of elite clothes are favored by the North Eastern middle class, who don't realize that by spending 5x as much they wouldn't be so miserable, and don't have the confidence of the Western middle class to rebel and wear sneakers.
2Douglas_Knight12yThere's an implied, but not necessary contradiction there. Maybe the middle class doesn't shell out for expensive shoes because they've tried and gotten uncomfortable ones. Or maybe it's easy to find comfortable shoes, so long as they aren't Italian. But that leaves the question of what's wrong with the Italian ones.
8HumanFlesh12yDesigner suits, Savile Row suits, and bespoke brogues are among the most expensive garments men can buy. Surely there is status signalling involved in conservative fashions. Granted, the logos are typically less conspicuous in formal, semi-formal [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semi-formal], and business attire [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Informal_attire], but doesn't that just signal refinement? Designer jeans and expensive basketball shoes were largely unheard of until the late 1970s. The peacock signaling that you associate with clubwear may just be an artifact of the fact that human leks [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lek] now take place in nightclubs more often than in Débutante balls. There is also the trend wherein yesteryear's formalwear becomes the clothing of today's servants (think tailcoats and livery) while yesteryear's sporting garments appreciate in status. For example, the sportcoat was originally a hunting jacket. The blazer, too, was associated with sport. Brogues (AKA wingtips) were once outdoor shoes.

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)

2[anonymous]8yAs an example of this, where I am at least, lore has it that the iPhone is overpriced but not actually better than phones with Android, so usually you buy an iPhone if you want to show off money and a phone with Android if you just find a smart phone useful.
3Qiaochu_Yuan8yWhat does "better" mean here? My understanding is that the iPhone is easier to use out of the box, whereas Android requires more tinkering and is better suited to power users.
1Estarlio8y-shrug- Just upgrading from the phone I had in 2003 in the autumn of last years, I didn't really see any difference in usability between the two. Both had a bunch of icons, everything you clicked worked out of the box. Stick the sim in, charge it up, punch in your email accounts etc into the startup wizard and away you go.
0Nornagest8yYeah, that's close to my understanding: the iPhone is what you get if you want something that Just Works and don't care too much about price. Android phones are flakier (mine needed a custom ROM before it would give me a GPS fix, and it wasn't a low-end phone for its era) but cheaper and a lot more varied, hence more likely to have an offering that matches what you're looking for if you have specific needs or are tight on money. Android's a slightly more open ecosystem, but that would only be decisive for me if I was planning to do a lot of low-level hacking; higher-level development support is a toss-up from what I've seen.
0Gunnar_Zarncke6yIsn't this the geek vs. nerd [https://static.squarespace.com/static/51b3dc8ee4b051b96ceb10de/51ce6099e4b0d911b4489b79/51ce61cee4b0d911b44a1a64/1325710323053/1000w/nerds-vs-geeks-cut.jpeg] distinction?
7CronoDAS12yRobert W. Lucky disagrees, and explains how. [http://tinyurl.com/njlj4n]

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/

7NavinKumar6yAnd FCUK stands for French Connection United Kingdom. But that's not why people are buying it, and that's not the marketing being used to sell it. In this case, it's definitely counter-signaling. Tangent: I have worn Thomas Pink. They are awful clothes. Don't last more than a few washes.

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)

the people too poor to immediately replace all their clothes are wearing any other color.

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.

once photography was invented, the art world needed to move towards art that was generally not highly visually appealing, because verisimilitude was too cheap

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.

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

This is called "countersignaling."


And here I thought that was a Dragonball Z reference.

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.

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.

5Z_M_Davis12yI have a tee-shirt with robots on it [http://www.scarygoround.com/shop-shirtshop.php?shirtName=okaytobeyou], but it never gets me into conversations. What am I doing wrong? Does it involve going outside??
4thomblake12yWell, or having people go to wherever 'inside' is for you. But yes, it does involve interacting with humans.
0CronoDAS12yI thought it was originally a reference to this [http://www.dominic-deegan.com/view.php?date=2004-03-04] but I'm probably wrong about that.

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.

Any others?

7Eliezer Yudkowsky12yTo be specific, exaggerating sexual dimorphism. Business suits emphasize shoulders, for example.

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.

8Perplexed11yI had always heard they create an exaggerated feminine gait. Check the hip motion.
5DanArmak12yThey also make the woman taller compared to other women. If being shorter than average can lower status, then once some women wear high heels, the others can't afford not to follow suit.
3ChristianKl11yHigh heels are impractical. They don't allow running and other sports. The same goes for long fingernails.

Doing impractical things is classic signaling. The less practical the stronger the signal.

0Tyrrell_McAllister11ySexual dimorphism refers to physical features, not to abilities as such.
1Hans12yThey emphasize the legs and the thighs, and create a more "female" body posture.
8Tyrrell_McAllister12yThat's pretty vague. I can think of many more direct ways to "emphasize the legs and the thighs". For example, one could dangle bells from them. As for the more "female" body posture, what about that posture is particularly feminine, other than that it is the posture induced by high-heels? Did women have a greater tendency than men to walk around on their tip-toes in the EEA?

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.

0Tyrrell_McAllister12yThe part about making the legs look longer is hard to fit into the "accentuate sexual dimorphism" account. But I see your point about forcing a gait that involves hip movement. I don't quite see why high-heels would do that, but that's probably just because I don't understand the body mechanics well enough.
5scientism12yIt fits. Women have long legs relative to their torso; men have short legs relative to their torso; so longer legs are more feminine.
7Tyrrell_McAllister12yI hadn't realized this. Looking online, I see that people prefer larger leg-to-torso ratios in women than in men. But I'm having trouble finding references for the claim that women naturally have larger leg-to-torso ratios. I expect that you're right, but would you be able to point me to some documentation that this ratio disparity is natural and universal?

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.

0Tyrrell_McAllister9yThanks. By the way, your link sends me to a page saying that I need to join a group to view the content.
1SoullessAutomaton12yFor some reason long legs are attractive, possibly because it signals health, an individual grown to full height. This actually applies to both sexes, though generally men can't get away with raised shoes quite as easily (half an inch extra on the heel is typically all you'll find). High heels essentially force the wearer to walk on the balls of their feet; the presence of the shoe heel prevents the heel of the foot from dropping naturally when stepping. This has the effect of reducing ankle motion; the higher the heel, the more pronounced the effect. Try forcing your ankles to maximum extension (foot angled downward) and slowly walking around; you'll probably feel unbalanced slightly. If you experiment a bit, you'll find that walking feels more stable in this pose if you tilt your pelvis slightly (arch your back as if leaning backwards, but keep your torso upright) and walk with a hip-swinging motion (I suspect this helps due to keeping the center of gravity lower).
1ratdreams11ynot citing this, but I read that long legs in women could be a signal of youth. A young girl who just reaches maturity is all lanky long limbs. The proportions even out as she gets older. Sexual selection would favor those who can keep a youthful proportion later in age. Same argument goes for a blond head. The younger the woman, the lighter her hair (generalizing, European).
0Hans12yyeah, what he said, except that i couldn't find the words to explain it in English.
0roystonlodge12yHigh-heels can also work the calf muscles, over time contributing to an arguably more shapely leg.
1cousin_it12yIf women wore them during exercise, rather than once a week when they're heading out to party.
2juliawise10yI've seen women's magazine articles that advise walking around the house in heels to build up your muscles so you don't keel over in public. So yes, there may be an exercise component.
0inblankets8yPhysical fragility.
1[anonymous]8yOn the other hand, more people wear business suits at work than in nightclubs and the like. So I don't think that's the whole story. Also, in certain parts of the world it's unfashionable for men to not be clean-shaven, which decreases sexual dimorphism.

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.

3PhilGoetz12yPink polo shirts were in fashion in the 1980s. I was there.
2Douglas_Knight12yBut did it have the same class transition? It's also interesting that the color switched garments. The "lager louts" aren't going to look like businessmen if they wear polo shirts. Are they trying to? if not, why the same color?
9HumanFlesh12yIn London, there is a reasonable overlap between set businessmen and set lager louts.
1PhilGoetz12yDidn't start with businessmen, unless you mean businessmen visiting Martha's Vinyard in the off-season. I don't know if lager louts, wide boys, chavs, spides, neds, and scally lads ever wore them. I hope none of those things are ethnic slurs.
1HumanFlesh12yThey're not ethnic slurs.
0[anonymous]12yI guess we should call them class slurs.
0therufs8yI'm pretty sure some of them are class slurs, if you want to get down to nitty gritty.

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.

5taryneast6yAre you kidding? the style of even just black leather jackets has rolled and shifted considerably even just over the last few decades... you should see the black leather jacket I once wanted in the 80s - (it had sleeves you could unzip and take off!). Have a look at Micheal Jackson circa 1980 and see if you'd get laughed at by all the people wearing modern/recent leather jackets...

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?

6ShardPhoenix12ySome people already do this and they're generally considered clueless meganerds by the mainstream, as far as I can tell.
5gwern12yHm. I too have seen such people at conventions and such, but they're always mixing trench coats/fedora with other things - they don't genuinely look like they've stepped out of the 40s, which is what I'm suggesting.
5Technologos12yI've found that wearing a fedora is one of the most effective ways to get positive attention in many of my social events, for what it's worth. It's unusual but in a classy, conservative way, unlike many of the "peacocking" things that PUAs do.
2Username6yYeah, as ShardPhoenix says fedoras and the like can be a terrible fashion local optimum https://www.google.com/search?q=site%3Ahttp%3A%2F%2Fwww.reddit.com%2Fr%2Fcringepics%2F+fedora [https://www.google.com/search?q=site%3Ahttp%3A%2F%2Fwww.reddit.com%2Fr%2Fcringepics%2F+fedora]
3orthonormal12yThere are plenty of people who do that socially, especially in San Francisco. They tend to be young and hip with good jobs.
2bogus12yAIUI, that's sort of what the lower class used to wear some time ago, before the ghetto-gangster culture took over. I think wearing these kinds of clothes is a good idea and I've seen this advocated before (not by fashion experts, though).
8gwern12yOh the ironing!

This discussion makes me glad to see the proliferation of mandatory uniform rules in public schools in the US.

9jefftk10yTalking to friends who had to wear uniforms, people found other ways to signal status: jewelry, fancier shoes, hairstyles etc. Is there a reason to think that kids spend less money/effort on status signaling if they're required to wear uniforms?

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.

5Yossarian8yThis was the case for me in my uniforms required school. The obvious and conspicuous item we could control was our tie, but thinking back on it now, kids signalled identity and status through shoes, belts, and other accessories (though I was effectively blind to such things at the time). Seniors were also allowed to wear khaki pants, a conscious allowance on the administrators' part designed to reinforce the different classes.
5lessdazed10yEven these guys [http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-TCeReF_0ze8/TkLSbkt1VxI/AAAAAAAAMhM/159yHDIP334/s1600/orig_201A0C061F96412A90AB5D90AC5FB518.JPG] have different clothes and such to signal status, as is apparent if one attends events like this. Once the uniform gets strict enough, there is a limit to how much money can be spent on signalling, though not effort, I think. Things taking effort tend to be subject to diminishing returns, the part of diminishing returns that isn't usually focused on is that one can usually do better by putting more into it.
1[anonymous]8yhttp://xkcd.com/915/ [http://xkcd.com/915/] springs to mind.

| 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.

1PhilGoetz12y"Modern art is either a noble activity, or bullshit." <= If there is some noble and useful aspect to modern art, then this is a false dichotomy.
1dumbshow12yI don't understand.
3PhilGoetz12yI'm sure there is modern art that is bullshit. There may also be modern art that isn't. (There may even be ways to look at a single artwork and say that it's bullshit on one dimension, but great art on another dimension.)
0dumbshow12yOK. I agree.
0Jonathan_Graehl12yIt follows that he thinks modern art is definitely bullshit.

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.

4[anonymous]10yThis works with signalling about values as well.
0TraderJoe9y[comment deleted]
9gerg12yPoor kids had ghetto clothes first; rich kids had the clothes second, but ghetto fashion first.
3MichaelVassar12yRich white kids also have more contact with ghetto kids than poor white kids do, with lower upper middle class white kids in the expensive burbs having the least contact with ghetto kids.
3Nanani12yIt's not a question of contact, it's a question of seeing that fashion in the media, i.e. via rap stars and so on.
0MrHen12yI didn't understand this. Why would rich white kids have any more contact with ghetto kids?
4HumanFlesh12yThey both live in cities.
3Douglas_Knight12yIt sounds to me like you're asking a historical question, while the first two answers give theoretical answers. But the theory is relevant: the rich don't care about the poor, so it doesn't matter if poor white kids adopt the fashion. The claim is that the rich adopted it before the middle class. I think this whole discussion need more concreteness.

I wonder if nature is laughing at us.

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.

But by 2015, that stigma will be gone and purple has a chance to come "back in style".

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)

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.

5PhilGoetz12yYou mean, they're trying to prove they're more egalitarian than everyone else? Only egalitarians should be allowed to vote.

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.

[-][anonymous]5y 2

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:

  1. Staying fashionable is fun for some people.

  2. It is important for same-sex status games for women especially.

  3. You have to continue to look nice or your partner might leave you.

  4. Not staying fashionable signals laziness and implies that past efforts to stay fashionable were deceptive mating practices.

6pwno12yAgreed. I think that wanting to look more physically attractive than other women is similar behavior to men wanting to dominate each other (AMOG, in PUA term). Both behaviors continue after marriage.
1PhilGoetz12yFashion is something used to attract initial attention. I think a lot of people don't care if their mate is fashionable after they're married? (Honestly, most men don't care much if their woman is fashionable, ever; so my perspective is skewed.) I've had the experience several times that girlfriends pressured me to do things that would make me less attractive. Perhaps this was done unconsciously to reduce my opportunities.

I think a lot of people don't care if their mate is fashionable after they're married?

They might still care for signaling reasons: to show off their mate, raising their status in the eyes of both sexes.

0thomblake12yI must agree, though I also didn't use fashion to attract initial attention. It seems abhorrent to imagine there are people who would leave someone for looking unfashionable.
4therufs8yInsofar as fashion signals that: * a fashionable person is mindful enough of status to spend resources on following fashion's dictates * a fashionable person is sufficiently skilled at reading fashion/status that they can spend their resources effectively then someone giving up on being fashionable may be an indicator of deeper problems than clothing, e.g., apathy about reduced status or lesser social awareness. If there are status gains elsewhere (e.g., partner is now in medical residency and wears scrubs when not asleep), I'd suspect unfashionability would not be a dealbreaker.
0Kawoomba8yI wouldn't call relative apathy about status signalling a "deeper problem", on the contrary, I'd call it a virtue. Enough effort is wasted on endless social hierarchy competitions already.
5therufs8yI certainly don't think status indifference is universally problematic, but was trying to point up the difference between "I've figured out that the people in my social circle/the norms I've been using are vapid and petty and I'm ready to move on with my life" and "I'm no longer inclined or able to participate in activities I find meaningful." The discussion, as I read it, had been about using fashion to attract partners and then giving up on being fashionable. In this case, I posited someone who started dressing fashionably specifically in order to attract partners and quits dressing fashionably when they've done so. Maybe they've had a revelation of the "my norms are vapid" sort, or maybe they've just accomplished their goals. But thomblake had an implied question about whether anyone would actually leave a partner because the partner looked unfashionable. One possible cause could be that what made them initially attractive were other character traits/personality features that also led them to dress fashionably, in which case the partner might be have good cause for concern (the "no longer able to do activities" situation). P(!traits | !fashion) > P(traits | !fashion). So the other status gains I referred to would increase the estimate of P(traits | !fashion). One wouldn't leave a partner for no reason other than unfashionability unless one places such a high value on fashion that no other status gains could make up for its lack. But a partner who suddenly quits caring how they look might send up some red flags. (Absent discussions of updating norms, of course.)
1[anonymous]8yIt depends: I wouldn't call not strongly caring about status as a terminal value a problem, but irrationally underestimating how important status is as an instrumental value for other goals is a problem (the stereotypical failure mode of nerds, and IME that stereotype does have a grain of truth).
-3Abd8yApathy isn't ever a virtue. It might indicate that something is irrelevant, but it was only stated that this "may be" an indicator of a "deeper problem," i.e., various psychological disorders do have apathy, particularly a loss of concern for how one appears to others, as a symptom.
5Vaniver8yNot even to Stoics [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apatheia]?
4Kawoomba8yWhy are you telling me what I can or cannot consider a virtue? Consider any topic you are invested in, the degree of such ranging from "apathetic regarding topic X" to "highly invested regarding topic X". Relative apathy about a topic translates to a greater degree of indifference regarding that topic / less of a stake in that issue. Is it so inconceivable for you to be apathetic towards, say, antiquated traditions, and to consider that indifference as a positive trait, as a virtue? Some meditative frameworks strive towards apathy / indifference towards many areas in life, and regard such as virtuous. You misread the parent comment: Apathy about reduced status and lesser social awareness were cited as examples (e.g., exempli gratia) of deeper problems. Even if the referent had been indicator, the "may be" would not be involved either way.
-1Abd8yAh, you may consider anything you like about anything. You may, for example, consider anorexia a virtue. However, if simple indifference is a virtue, then I have a limitless supply of virtue, because I am indifferent to a limitless supply of possible objects. "Lesser social awareness" is a recognized psychological impairment (it means "lesser than normal," or "lesser" as in lessened for the individual), perhaps a developmental or affective disorder. Indifference about status may be something we might laud, under some circumstances, but it can also be an indicator of depression. Again, the operative conditional is "may be." The word "apathy" is also important. That's why I distinguished between apathy and indifference. Apathy is an abnormal indifference. Someone who is apathetic about food is anorexic. The situation under consideration was someone "giving up on being fashionable." That implies a change, that the person was concerned about fashion or appearance previously. Obviously, this might be the result of some turning to more important concerns, but, as stated, and with real people, a shift like that can be a symptom of a disorder. So, Kawoomba, what is your concern here? What's important about this topic? Personally, I'm concerned about anyone who would think of apathy as a virtue. Apathy is a psychological condition, it is not "rational." Indifference may be rational. One who is apathetic will not even consider issues or investigate possibilities. One who investigates possibilities may decide that they are indifferent among a number of possible choices. I might even be a fashionista, but on a particular day decide to wear those old torn pants and shirt, even if they are the "wrong color," and so what? But that's not apathy, it's indifference. Apathy isn't really a choice, it's a disabling of the mechanisms that make choices and take action. At least that's what "apathy" means to me. When I'm apathetic, I don't want to get up in the morning. It's all
-1Kawoomba8yAt this point we probably need to find a common definitional basis. Merriam-Webster: A-pathy, from pathos (emotion), "without feeling". 1. lack of feeling or emotion: impassiveness 2. lack of interest or concern: indifference Example: "People have shown a surprising apathy towards these problems." Neither does wiktionary imply anything generally abnormal about apathy, their example from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: Notice how apathy is not automatically a descriptor of a universal stance relating to everything, but as in the above examples, can be limited in scope to certain issues. As did I. If you started out by defining apathy as necessarily "abnormal", of course it would follow that it is necessarily abnormal, but that would be nothing but circular reasoning. Also, using non-standard definitions should be pointed out lest it cause confusion. Now to my original comment: How is your "apathetic about food" relevant to "apathetic about status signalling"? My statement was limited to the latter. I'm not extolling the general virtue of apathy, stoicism, or anorexia? Your cognitive resources are limited. So is your lifespan. So are mine. I find it virtuous not to waste either in vast proportions on tribal hierarchy squabbles. With the rampant obsession about status signalling, dress codes, formulaic conversations, I find it of importance not to call apathy about social status a deeper problem, nor an indicator of one (the original "may be" did not qualify that claim, as I explained). Calling it a "deeper problem" I'd straight out object. Calling it an indicator of a deeper problem is a skewed perspective if it can also be an indicator for a perceived virtue. I'm not advocating torn pants here (which in Western civilization are often worn for signalling reasons, alas), but a (to me) more sensible (and productive!) freeing up of some resources by being relatively more apathetic concerning that topic.
7eirenicon12yFashion has very little to do with attracting partners and a lot to do with impressing your peers. Women try to be fashionable for their friends and coworkers, not their boyfriends or husbands. When a girl dresses fashionably in a social setting with her boyfriend, she isn't trying to keep his attention, she's trying to signal "You can't compete with me" to other women* (this will end the instant they have children). Men are much more likely to dress 'schlubby' when they have a partner because they don't depend on their looks to stay in competition with other men. Stay solvent, brush your teeth and remember your anniversaries and you can wear and drive whatever you want. *This is frequently seen in popular culture in the form of "low-status girl is afraid high-status woman will steal her (percieved) high-status boyfriend, even though he loves her and sees through high-status woman's play." There's probably a TVTropes article on it. This only works because the low-status girl is usually as attractive as the high, just not as well-dressed or made-up; in reality, men with less attractive girlfriends often cheat with more attractive women, given the opportunity.
4PhilGoetz12yBut the question is why she feels the need to signal this.
5whpearson10yIt says something about how egalitarian a society you come from that you can ask that question. Asking that question in Victorian England would be unthinkable. If you were fashionable/mannered/cultured you could get invited to the right parties, know the right people and get the right jobs or get your kids sent to the right schools. Signaling High status was likely to get you lots of perks.
5lavalamp12yOK, I walked into that one. hehe.
0Dustin12yBeing married doesn't mean you don't want other people to find you attractive. Fashion plays in to this to some degree. As a married man, if I have to pick between not worrying about fashion and women other than my wife not noticing me (whether this is imagined or not) or worrying about fashion and women other than my wife noticing me, I'm going to worry about fashion.
1knb12yHigh-heeled shoes reshape the calves and raise the buttocks; they also produce the illusion of long, slender, shapely legs.
0HumanFlesh12yRead Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class and Zahavi's Handicap Principle [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handicap_principle] if you'd like to know the answer.
3lavalamp12yI don't think it applies. When was the last time you heard a guy say, "Man, her shoes were so hot!"
4David_Gerard10yAt this point I picture the stereotypical goth pickup line "Nice boots ... wanna fuck?"
3HumanFlesh12yThe books that I mentioned discuss many kinds of signaling, not just sexual semiotics. Sometimes people wear uncomfortable shoes not to look hot, but merely to avoid looking like a proletariat.
2Will_Sawin10yDon't high heels affect a woman's posture and therefore apparent body type? So if high heels are under discussion, then they can increase the quantity of guys saying "Man, her body is so hot!" which, while stilted and awkward-sounding, is a common sentiment.
0[anonymous]8yAbout once a year, I see men on Facebook complaining that trainer shoes are unsexy and that if women give a damn about erectile dysfunction which is such a big problem nowadays they should stop wearing them.
0inblankets8yAll the time. Or they don't know what it is, but they're reacting to the traditional presentation (heels).

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.

4Z_M_Davis12yThey don't have to [http://lesswrong.com/lw/l0/adaptationexecuters_not_fitnessmaximizers/].
2MBlume12yThis is really true. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_selection]
3RobinHanson12yActually I read recently that they see no correlation between tail quality and sex success in Peacocks.
2Cyan12yThese researchers [http://www.adeline-loyau.net/publications/Loyau_etal_AnimBehav2008.pdf] suggest that "tail quality" is not fully encompassed by the quantities measured in that research.
0PhilGoetz12yHow do they know how female peacocks measure tail quality? I suppose they mean, the tail properties relevant to the "peacock's-tail" theory of sexual selection.
1orthonormal12yIt's the standard explanation [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handicap_principle].

What on earth are you talking about?

5Mitchell_Porter11yIt's a link-spammer trying to blend in by repeating a recent comment by Roko.

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?