Have you ever watched an award show red carpet interview? The “I’m a higher life form than you” attitude bellows from the screen. The hosts say things such as, “Reese Witherspoon is stunning in this Elie Saab Haute Couture!”
Barely used goods are discarded because they’re so “yesterday,” needlessly filling landfills. Eco-friendly cars and buildings are unsold because they’re “ugly.” What’s the latest in the healthcare debate? Who cares about that? Knowing who hates Taylor Swift this week is REALLY IMPORTANT! How in the world do we get so caught up in such meaningless claptrap? There are some interesting factors at play.
There is a Secret Language Spoken All Around You
Some ultra-specific fabric shapes and colors, product labels, and hairstyles are breathlessly analyzed. Complex messages are being examined. For example, a backward baseball cap implies a lot of things about a man, which may be completely unrelated to baseball. But most of us great unwashed only know the general message. We know when clothes are garish, trashy, or dressy, but not much more. Try watching a film in a foreign language. You know this demon is torturing a family, but you don’t know why.
We mere mortals can miss that our appearance speaks about us as well. We can’t escape it any more than someone who can’t compute 2+2=4 can just say, “Math is overrated.” It’s uncomfortable but true.
Understanding This Language is a Full-Time Job
“So, what’s going on?” you demand. First, consider this question: What is dancing? Why do humans do it? Good dancing is also communication, and the primary message it sends is that you are good at dancing. Similarly, the primary purpose of the secret language of fashion is to communicate to others that you speak the secret language.
For example, let’s say I’m a fan of the show Rick and Morty, and I hear somebody in the break room say, “I’m a pickle, Morty!” This is merely someone saying, “I love that show.” I may respond, “I’m Pickle Riiiiick!” This simply communicates that I also speak the language. Someone who has never seen the show will not understand.
Similarly, in fashion, the careful selection of brands, the fierce rejection of outdated looks or out of season, etc. are ways to say, “I know what the secret fashion rules are and abide by them.” Another example: Men will see a woman in “provocative” clothing and say, “See? She wants men to get aroused by her body!” In truth, the woman wants to be complemented by other women. Yes. Really.
Guys do this too. They buy sports cars, never intending to drive 120 MPH. Gun enthusiasts buy assault rifles, never expecting to get into a military battle. We all buy “sexy” things for reasons that have nothing to do with sex.
STATUS is the Goal
Every single person treats people differently based on how they’re dressed. If a stranger knocks on your door at 3 A.M. asking for help, how the stranger is dressed will largely determine the response. A well-groomed man in a suit will get one reaction. If he badly needs a shave and is wearing the top half of a clown costume and absolutely nothing else, he will get a different reaction.
We’re all judged similarly, 24/7. Your posture, hygiene, clothes, hair, jewelry, shoes, and mannerisms are scrutinized only to determine your social status. It’s not about wealth. A meth dealer may have more money than a law student but will have lower social status.
Social creatures develop hierarchies that determine who has access to the best things like food, mates, etc. This status should be based on who is the fittest. But your abilities are worthless if you can’t convey them to other members of the tribe. So we use things like clothes and cars to signal our status.
The Kardashians get up to $500,000 for mentioning a particular brand of cosmetics in an Instagram post. So are we hopeless as a people? Celebrity sort of makes sense when the person is great at something, but how do you explain these people who are just famous for being famous? Well, being good at fashion (that is, conveying status) is important and thus earns them the very status that they are conveying. They’re not trying to fool anyone. They are conveying that they have the ability to convey ability, which is something everyone wants to learn. It all makes perfect sense.
Further, we do this without mass media. We look in our social circle to find the trendsetter. Even among chimpanzees, lower-status members of a group will carefully observe and imitate high-status members. If you want higher status, you look to those that already have it. Do you know those powdered wigs that came into fashion centuries ago? They came into fashion because exactly one king decided to wear one.
Being Good at Fashion Equals You are Good at People
Being obsessed with style and trends proves that you are good at style and trends, which indirectly proves you are good at socializing. When you put on a suit for a job interview, you’re doing the same thing. But the job interview never truly ends.
This is your most critical skill. A good first impression is crucial, and in face-to-face interactions, that the first impression is mostly visual. Remember, your first impression is the only one you usually get – 99 percent of people will never see you again. That means that for most of the world, you are your first impression, a moment frozen in time, one that to a large degree is colored by whether or not you had a stain on your shirt. You can complain about it all you want, but it’s not physically possible to get to know everyone on a personal level. So you have to address these “shallow” things.
Even in the gaming world, people spend a fortune on digital clothes to dress up their characters. (The Overwatch game generated $61 million in sales to players who wanted to make their digital avatars look cool.) One of the allures of gaming is that it gives us a second chance at achieving social status we couldn’t achieve in real life.
So yes, what you wear shouldn’t matter. However, “shouldn’t” is completely irrelevant. Everyone knows that you made fun of the way someone was dressed recently. Everyone plays this game, whether you want to or not.