Slobbery as Snobbery

Saturday, June 21st, 2014

Theodore Dalrymple describes the modern fashion for slobbery as snobbery:

A century ago, there would have been one clothes shop for every hundred well-dressed people. Nowadays there is one well-dressed person (if that) for every hundred clothes shops. What accounts for this strange reversal of ratios?

Beyond the fact that clothes are now mass-produced rather than made individually, there is an act of will involved. Practically everyone now dresses not merely in a casual way, but with studied slovenliness for fear of being thought elegant, as elegance is a metonym for undemocratic sentiment or belief. You can dress as expensively as you like, indeed expensive scruffiness is a form of chic, but on no account must you dress with taste and discrimination. To do so might be to draw hostile attention to yourself. Who on Earth do you think you are to dress like that?


  1. Candide III says:

    One (comparatively) seldom sees scruffy people in Japan. The effort to maintain elegance is almost visible to the naked eye.

  2. William Newman says:

    I think Dalrymple’s observations follow from quite a few causes, and Dalrymple is using sloppy motivated reasoning in his diagnosis of a smaller number of causes.

    Clothes have gotten cheap enough that they are no longer such a natural mechanism for conspicuous consumption as they used to be, knocking part of the foundation out of the old behavior pattern. Something milder but similar seems to have happened with cars, kicked off when midrange Japanese imports became not only good but better in objective ways than many of the old prestige cars. And maybe some of the changes in prestige visual art around the time photography became cheap are something similar as well.

    Signaling status with consumption is still alive and well in other goods — housing, for example — for which the economical version still comes with significant real disadvantages compared to the expensive versions.

    Another thing going on is not precisely sloppiness but a peculiar ape-the-lower-class (counter?)signaling pattern that I don’t understand very well — tattoos, frex. It seems to me that some of the clothing behavior is probably tied to this pattern, but like I said, I don’t understand this pattern very well.

    And there is also a pattern where people who have other ways to demonstrate merit decide to be pointedly indifferent to and/or hostile to other kinds of signaling, such as some kinds of conspicuous consumption. Various kinds of techies, almost-techies (e.g. some kinds of pilots) and academics, for example, have messed with clothing fashion for a long time, and seem to have a conflicted relationship with signaling status through conspicuous consumption in real estate today.

  3. Dan Kurt says:

    On Being Well Dressed.

    During my lifetime I witnessed the collapse of being well dressed as a habit. I remember my maternal grandfather who was definitely lower class as to income (shopkeeper, machinist) and interests (baseball, never read a book in his life) would not leave home without his hat and suit if he went by public transportation. He was typical of those of his generation who I remember from my youth. My own father was not as determined to be always well dressed but had many suits and starched white shirts and a hat that he wore frequently.

    My experience in life (including Ivy League degree and post-doc) was to never wear a suit including during all my years in the corporate world (science related) not business. My son, a Ph.D. Mech. Engineer, taught for a few years after his doctorate at two Universities and wore “golf shirts” and “slacks” to teach and he wears similar garb at the corporation where he does mathematical dynamic modeling. I asked him if any of the co-workers and bosses ever wear suits and hats and he said not to his knowledge.

    We have become less civilized I fear.

    Dan Kurt

  4. Candide III says:

    William, you are mixing up conspicuous consumption and being well-dressed, of which slovenliness is the opposite. (Your statement that you don’t understand the ape-the-lower-class fashion underscores this confusion). At least in the Anglosphere, ostentation has not been a sign of class for more than two hundred years. Good clothes are usually not conspicuous unless you know what to look for. Think, for instance, about the difference between a tailored suit and an off-the-rack one.

  5. T. Greer says:


    I think the most convincing explanation for that I’ve yet read was penned by Scott Alexander in this post.

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