On Veblen, Fashion, and Economics

I came to Thorstein Veblen for his theories of systems economics; but I stayed for his theory of women’s fashion. It’s a kicker, and the short version goes something like this:

In “barbarian” societies, the difference between a “leisured” class and a “working” class whose labour supports it, came down along gender lines. What was classified as “women’s work” was menial, proto-industrial production - ignoble maintenance work. The earliest form of “ownership” was not ownership of goods, but ownership of *people* - specifically “an ownership of the woman by the man”, at first in form of tribal trade or trophy.

From the ownership of women the concept of ownership extends itself to include the products of their industry. Later, given a superfluity of subsistence goods, it becomes a mark of success to display leisure - non-productive consumption of time. The busywork of housewives is an extension of this display of “vicarious leisure”. Women’s fashion is designed to illustrate and advertise disutility, lack of or impedance from practical function. Thus Veblen:

To apply this generalization to women’s dress, and put the matter in concrete terms: the high heel, the skirt, the
impracticable bonnet, the corset, and the general disregard of the wearer’s comfort which is an obvious feature of all civilized women’s apparel, are so many items of evidence to the effect that in the modern civilized scheme of life the woman is still, in theory, the economic dependent of the man — that, perhaps in a highly idealized sense, she still is the man’s chattel.

All this changed, right? Veblen wrote “The Theory of the Leisure Class” in 1899. Since then, there have been two big bursts of gender equality legislation. There are no formal education or economic impedances to women acting in society.

Yet the visible dictates of women’s fashion haven’t changed. The forces of flux that Veblen was scratching his head over 108 years ago, left
unanswered the question as to the motive for making and accepting a change in the prevailing styles, and it also fails to explain why conformity to a given style at a given time is so imperatively necessary as we know it to be“.

This sudden interest in fashion is not just abstract. I enjoyed spending half-an-hour browsing the archives of “The Sartorialist“, a photoblogger who stops stylish people on the street and takes pictures of them. Sometimes the pictures are accompanied by notes explaining why the picture was taken, which I enjoy because they illustrate the precision and minute detail of the photographer’s approach towards mens’ fashion.

The pictures of men are mostly about small variations on a set of rules. The arrangement of shapes and tones, the tiny rulebreaking details, allow people to appear stylish but not garish - to seem confident, relaxed, dressed in themselves. The pictures of women mostly look like dolls. The latest weird shapes, layers, very distinctive pieces and composites. They mostly seem self-conscious and nervous in outfits “displaying a general disregard for the wearer’s comfort”.

I wound up reading Veblen because of “The Rebel Sell“, a book whose analysis is influenced by the workings of his theory of “conspicuous consumption”. The book has a chapter covering the “countercultural” perspective on a media debate in Canada at the time, about school uniforms, and how the removal of them from public schools encourages a neurotic hyper-fashion-sensitivity amongst younger people that is heavily exploited by the fashion market.

Perhaps teenagers are the best explainers of “why conformity to a given style at a given time is so imperatively necessary as we know it to be”. An article in the “USA Today” on the plane to Canada offered a fourteen-year-old girl’s commentary on why she had held off shopping for “Back to School” clothes until a few weeks into the school year; to see what everyone else was wearing, because “you don’t want to be wearing the same thing as 12 other girls… but you don’t want to stick out too much.”

When i need a new piece of clothing, i go to that big Swedish chain that has a store on every High Street in Western Europe. It is very economical and i can usually find something to wear in there. This will take half an hour of filtering through plunging necklines, decorative frills, thin fabrics, and colours and cuts that are just too distinctive and “now” - that don’t guarantee more than one “season” of wear, because the clothes will appear so “last season” after that. If i go looking for anything specific, such as a plain-coloured long-sleeved t-shirt, i am guaranteed not to find it.

I recently went to this store with a male friend. In the menswear section there was a rack of exactly the kind of sturdy, long-sleeved t-shirt i was looking for and couldn’t find. The shirt came in a broad palette of colours, and a range of sizes starting at two sizes too large for me. All around, there is the ruleset, with subtle variations. The fabrics are heavier, for more wear; the styles are simpler, more practical.

Is it possible that women can be advertising their own disutility, their own propensity to leisure? Why is women’s fashion so overfocused on display and on differentiation?

A “Rebel Sell” analysis of fashion retail would go a bit like this: the “fashion industry” is very overt in its exploitation of the cultural-countercultural feeding cycle. Designers and buyers actively seek out localised tastes which can be capitalised into bigger trends. The fashion industry comes to suffer from a collective action problem. If one organisation develops a popular innovation that its competitors don’t, it will profit at their expense. In order to maintain its place on the High Street, each outlet must maximise volume *and* keep innovating.

Thus the fashion chains’ own urge “not to be the same, not to be different” means both that there is a terrific amount of homogeneity and plagarism between outlets, and that there is a terrific pace of renewal in order not to be out-competed by those producing “the new”. They get locked into an almost literal Keynesian Beauty Contest. A buyer is not looking for what will “suit” women best, be most adaptable to different peoples styles and shapes, or what generally is the most stylish clothing. A buyer will base decisions on their assumptions about what other buyers think is appealing to the market. Collectively, they are not finding style, but for a kind of “homogenous distinctiveness”.

This dynamic reinforces the “rebel sell” bind that their young female customers are in. If they shop on the High Street, at any time the styles across all the outlets are too much “the same”. Meanwhile the kids’ own pursuit of “the different” quickly becomes adapted into “the same”. Those who are really uncomfortable with “the same” are driven to a high level of artificial distinctiveness in dress. The world treats them differently, the experience of reality becomes a constant critical appraisal of dress.

This *isn’t* so far from many people’s experience of reality. Dress has amazing power and helps define peer relations and it is infectious. Dress presents a barrier in many social situations (less so, than it did presumably when it was a definite marker of class, when multiple sets of clothes were just unaffordable to many). This is why one ought to dress up smart and neutral to catch plane flights; less interpersonal friction, more knee-jerk politeness.

It bugs me that women’s self-presentation so often looks like a program that reads, “Look at all this wasteful creativity. I am decorative and nervous about it.” It reinforces gender-role-based expectations in such a crass way. But I’ve never found any theories about why this happens that i could buy into before. “Competitive display as a man-catching activity” - just a fantasy. “Collective programming on the part of a repressive, male-dominated industrial fashion complex” - requires too much belief in malicious systemic agency, also an anti-fantasy. “Media/PR manipulation through forced emulation of celebrity icon figures” - possibly, but this comes after the fact of fashion creation and not before.

I liked the Veblen theory because it collapses the problem into economics. It de-sexualises the discussion of women’s dress codes in a way that I find helpful; it is too easy to run into concerns about advertising and pornography, which can be very emotive, obscuring analysis and rendering viewpoints easy to caricature.

But can we now explain why, if the economics have changed, the reality hasn’t? Why does fashion still dictate high heels, constricting skirts, piles of trinkets, long hair - the tokens of economic unfreedom? Business clothing for women remains a natty imitation of male styles, or a vestigial version of the crippling skirt-and-heels outfit.

As observed in the world, it seems to be younger women who dress so self-consciously and most closely to “trends”. Women get older, they and their peer group settle into a personal style, crucially acquire more economic power, more cultural know-how and more personal mobility. The competitive consumerism of “young teens” inspires whole books. But young teenaged people are economically unfree. If we follow Veblen, then the teenaged and younger are economic dependants being used as a conduit for “vicarious leisure” in such a way as domestic servants and housewives were once used.

Thus, very young women remain dressed in the costume of the economically unfree. Lacking their own transport or local knowledge, they get stuck on the High Street where it is very difficult to find anything outside of the group vision of buyers, that homogeneous distinctiveness. Exploration of “the same, but different” becomes harder when the prevailing same is so extreme.

Mandatory school uniform would’t fix this, and might even help propel it. A quota on parents limiting positional spending on their offspring would be good, but sadly unenforceable, as the public sphere can’t get into family matters. A more effective solution would be to send children back to work. From the age of 7 or 8 they could create value a couple hours a day, rather than the crafts busywork they currently do. That would help get them, and all of us, out of the costume of economic unfreedom.