Monday, September 24, 2007

Against Dressing Up

Fashionable or fancy appearance has no intrinsic value. The only value is to make yourself look comparatively better than others. If everyone dressed up, no-one would be any better off than if all had stuck to casual attire. In fact, everyone would be worse off, because less comfortable, not to mention the wasted time and effort. It's a mere rat race, so those who put effort into their appearance impose externalities on those who don't (by making them look worse). That's obviously bad, and there is no general benefit to justify imposing this costly transfer of status. So, we may conclude, it is immoral to 'dress up', follow fashion, put much effort into your appearance, etc.

N.B. This complaint does not extend to basic hygiene, since that is a non-comparative value: a world full of smelly people really is worse, in a way that a world of unkempt people is not.

Possible objections: I see two ways one might rebut the claim of 'no general benefit' here:

1. Insist that mere appearance is a non-comparative value after all. (Apparently cosmetic surgery gives lasting satisfaction, unlike most luxury purchases which people soon adjust to. This at least suggests it isn't comparison to one's recently past self that one values here. But it may still be the comparison to other people.) I remain skeptical.

2. Appeal to status pluralism. If some people care more about appearances than others, then maybe those who care can obtain great subjective benefits while the rest of us don't much care about the imposed "cost" of looking worse in comparison. I'm sympathetic to this line of thought -- the only flaw is that it ignores the run-on consequences: other people think appearances matter even if we don't, and so may treat us worse, and we certainly care about that.

Absent any more convincing objections, we seem led to the conclusion that caring for appearances is indeed a mere 'rat race', or Prisoner's Dilemma, such that deliberators in the Original Position (behind the veil of ignorance) would make a collective agreement not to start down that track. Is there anything to stop me drawing the convenient conclusion that dressing up is not just tiresome, but unjust?


  1. or, 3. Hold that while appearance is to some extent a positional good (is that the term I mean? Anyway, you get the gist)and to some extent an absolute good. Consider intelligence, or education. In one sense, education is worthwhile because if you have mor of it than other people, then you get access to things that they don't. We can see this when we look at qualification inflation - back in the 70s you could get a good govt job straight out of high school, cause relatively few people finished high school. Now most graduates starting govt jobs have an MA. But on the other hand, some level of education is good for its own sake - to the extent that in simply enriches our lives. I think appearance is similar.

  2. Yeah, 'positional' is the term I'm after, thanks for that. I didn't mean the first option to imply that it was only an absolute good - that would be crazy. Still, even on the mixed interpretation, why think that it is an absolute good at all? Would you prefer to live in a society where everyone was (equally) better-looking? It doesn't seem to me as though this would make any difference.

    I should add: some positional goods can be instrumentally useful. Credentials may usefully signal differences in ability, conscientiousness, etc. Could ranking people by appearance serve any similar purpose? (If so, it might not matter that it has no intrinsic value.) Perhaps it is a useful filter for conformist values, etc. It makes it easier for those with similar values (in this respect) to identify each other. So there is some value in that, at least.

  3. cosmetic surgery probably offers lasting value in that it gets one on going additional attention from the general public at the expense of others.
    Still I guess maybe someone could make a case for 'everyone being pretty" being an absolutely good thing.


  4. I guess my thought there is that prettiness is inherently relative. Someone raised among trolls would gain all the aesthetic value from a normal-looking person that we get from supermodels. Much like how it's a bad idea to develop a taste for fine wine, since then you don't enjoy the cheap stuff so much! (Maybe one could argue that there are objective aesthetic values that are better appreciated in the latter cases, but I have trouble taking that sort of concern seriously.)

  5. Wow. Thank you for posting this. I have gotten into many conversations/arguments on this subject with friends, but have never been able to express my concern as clearly as you just have.
    I am inclined to think that dressing up could not just not have a positive good, but could have a negative by creating a larger gap between rich and poor (some people can't afford 5 suits, or something like that). Of course, that is only assuming that people would judge others for dressing in certain ways.

  6. Yeah, nice point. Curiously, poorer subcultures may waste even more on branded shoes and such (since relative differences are larger at the lower end of the scale). So that's an additional reason to think that they are especially disadvantaged by this rat race.

  7. The rat race argument, when applied to things of aesthetic function, really puts us at risk of abandoning aesthetics entirely, which would take a lot out of life. Dressing up solely because everyone else is doing it may be problematic, but in at least some cases there really does seem to be aethetic value that comes out of it.

  8. People tend to express such desires as ones to 'look good' rather than 'better'; I don't see any reason not to take that talk at face value as reflecting some non-comparative value in being well dressed. What's the reason to doubt this?

  9. Richard,
    This is an interesting post. A few things:

    1) You seem to assume that dressing up only has value in the public sphere: "the only value," as you say, in dressing up is to make yourself look as good as or better than others look. I don't think that's right. There can be value in dressing up, even when one is alone. In fact, I do that, or at least I wear basically the same thing when I am going out for the day, as when I am going to be home alone writing and reading. In putting on a button-down shirt and combing my hair, I am mentally preparing myself to accomplish something, and I didn't make the effort, I think I would get less done. At the very least, the practice seems to have instrumental value, at least for some people. (Others, of course, can work quite productively in their underwear and a t-shirt with their hair unkempt.) Now does this practice of mine have intrinsic value? Perhaps, although I guess it's a bit narcissitic: One could get a feeling of aesthetic pleasure from one's own overall appearance. Is that so wrong?

    2) Even when the dressing up is happening in the public sphere, you seem to assume that the dresser-upper is always interested in looking better than others, or at least in keeping up appearances with them. I'm not sure that is always true either. Might someone just be interested in his or her appearance for its own sake, and be indifferent to how it compares to that of others? (Or maybe I am missing your point: Are you saying that one's aesthetic standards here, even when applied solely to onself, are themselves only determined in relation to what others are wearing? If that is your worry, I'm not sure I see what's troubling about it.)

    3) Even in cases where there is a social obligation of sorts to be dressed up (eg: "jackets required" or "black tie"), there could be distinctive values that come from the fact of dressing up itself. It might lend the occasion a certain ambience that could not be recreated if everyone were wearing sweatsuits, say. (Or in the way that holding the event in a historic and elegant building might lend to the ambience. Our Princeton opening reception, even with the same food served, would have felt differently had it happened in P.J.s Pancake House instead of Prospect House.)

    4) Could you, by the same sort of argument, be blamed for NOT dressing up? Of course, in most work environments, one's career is adversely affected by not dressing up, but universities may be a special case. At Princeton, the faculty seem to get more dressed up. But where I was an undergrad, it was basically de rigeur among many of the philosophers not to care much about one's appearance--jeans and t-shirts--that sort of thing. That signalled "the 'true'-philosopher-who-doesn't-care-about-his/her-appearance," as one of these philosophers ironically and perceptively put it herself. Couldn't this be seen as imposing a burden on those, like me, who do derive (in a non-competitive way) comfort/ satisfaction FROM dressing up? In order to fit in as a philosopher there, I would seem to need to dress down!

    More generally, I think that many philosophers have an unjustified hostility to appearances as somehow superficial, a silly distraction from our true calling in the pursuit of the truth and, accordingly, an impoverishment of one's life. I tend to think that one's life can be greatly enhanced by the beauties to be found even in the most prosaic- the color and texture of a shirt, the sound of the leaves rustling on the street, the taste of an ordinary cup of tea (with a madeleine dipped in it?). Indeed, I think that the failure to attend to these sorts of pleasures is a similar sort of impoverishment to one's life. In fact, sometimes I think those appearances are worth more than truth, as Nietzsche was sometimes prone to suggest.

    That's rather a long post. I shall try to post on Parfit later. Your presentation was wonderful by the way--I'm sorry I didn't contribute more to the discussion. My thoughts need time to percolate.


  10. But can't this be generalized into an argument against making\doing\bringing-about anything that would be the best of its kind so far?

    If the improvement at the upper level isn't accompanied by a matching improvement at all other levels it will raise the standards and make people be less pleased, and if the improvement is universal [all other levels are pushed ahead as much as the upper level did] it would do neither good nor ill.

    It can be very plausibly argued that a medieval peasant would consider the living conditions of a working class 20th century westerner to be absolutely fantastic, and it's very likely that a 20th century working class westerner doesn't consider his own living conditions to be absolutely fantastic. So I fail to see how this is different from the case of someone who grew up among trolls and thinks a regular person is stunning.

    Or is the idea that only aesthetic pleasures are fully positional and most other things are a mix of positional and absolute? That would suggest some funny ideas, like, to make sure you go from reading only the very worst literature to reading the very best literature with skipping any intermediate levels, because that way you would repeatedly get the abnormal pleasure of reading a book that breaks your curve [supposedly after that your taste would update and you would only get from the better books the same pleasure you got from lesser books before].

  11. err, "*without* skeeping any intermediate levels"

  12. I don't get it, Richard. I don't see why we should think that attractiveness is a relative notion. That seems entirely wrong to me; how attractive I am does not depend on how attractive anybody else is.

  13. I'm not sure that dressing up is really about looks. Apart from sending all kinds of signals (status, income, interest in intercourse) it seems that dressing up also functions as a ritual. For some at least, the fancy party they go to starts when they first decide what to wear for it. To you this is a hassle, to me the party itself is most likely the greater hassle.

  14. Richard: If "better looking" = "more pleasurable to look at" and "pleasurable" = "what we want" then *by definition* we would want to live in a society where everyone was equally better looking.

    It also seems obvious that any sensible person would want just that.

    I would say that appearance is a mixed basket of partly positional an partly absolute (heavily externalized) goods. Some elements of appearance, like smooth skin or the absence of major specific defects, are close to pure absolute goods. Others, especially secondary sexual characteristics, tend to be almost purely positional, and occasionally, as in height and possibly breast size or conformity to other fairly temporally bound fetishes, positional goods and absolute bads. It's clear, for instance, that I would be a fool not to make everyone including myself 10% shorter, with the expected accompanying health benefits from carrying less weight etc, but I would selfishly pay substantial wealth to eliminate all physical deformities even if this lowered my appearance ranking somewhat, though if completely selfish I might not correct all physical deformities except for my own if I was deformed.

    Jealousy creates negative externalities as well. It is possible that in some cultural contexts making everyone better looking could be net harmful by increasing jealousy, but this would be grounds for condemning such a jealous culture. Increases in appearance might also increase lust, with undesirable side effects, particularly in cultures that don't deal well with lust.

    Summary: life is complicated, and we should ban (or probably better, heavily tax) most breast implants and most cosmetic uses of human growth hormone

  15. Hallq, ditto.

    Richard, I think you may have misrepresented the practice of "dressing up". Usually, it calls for an occasion when the very fact that you will be seen is important. When it comes to things like weddings, teaching a class, appearing on television or movies, going to the opera, going on a date, a party, etc. appearance is important socially because it presents a cue to how the occasion is to be valued, and how you wish to be valued as a part of it.

    Sure, in general there is no objective value for appearance, and it is hard to think of someone who wears high-heels and a dress or a three-piece suit without an occasion to do so. And more simply, "designer-casual" clothes have a tendency to mimic style without explicitly expressing it (think of when some comments on a shirt, "That looks great!" "Really? It was just $15 at the Gap."). Such mimicry isn't quite a rat race, it's just looking nice.

    Andrew, I'd dress up if I taught at Princeton. It's quite an honor.

  16. Lots of interesting comments here! I should first clarify that I didn't mean to be talking about the ritual phenomenon of "dressing up" for a special occasion. I'm talking about the demands of everyday grooming (though this includes a suit and tie for some professions, even casual clothes vary in their fashionability - or so I hear).

    In response to Jonathan and Michael: I was thinking that (a) aesthetic pleasure is a response to things that rank highly on our subjective "good-looks" scale. (b) This scale is calibrated according to local norms. (This is where the relativity comes in.) Hence the happy trolls. (c) We don't really care about appreciating good looks for their own sake, but only for the sake of the pleasure they give us. It follows that we should be indifferent between the societies of trolls vs. supermodels.

    Peli - yes, my thought was that this is a special case in lacking all absolute value. (Obviously there are all sorts of advantages to improved living conditions!) Again, the test is simply to ask whether you would prefer to live in a world where the absolute levels were uniformly higher (bearing in mind the recalibration of one's subjective responses). Uniformly better living conditions are clearly desirable, even after the novelty wears off. The thought of uniformly prettier people doesn't strike me as having the same enduring value.

    I don't see this as extending to all aesthetic values, since I care about the objective qualities of literature (say) in addition to the subjective response it elicits in me. But this does not seem to be the case for mere attractiveness. (Maybe I'm just unusual in this respect. Other commenters report finding non-comparative value in all this. I'd concede the point for deep beauty: if all the world had scenery to rival New Zealand's, that would be wonderful indeed. But, again, I think everyday grooming is about a lesser kind of aesthetic value than that.)

    Andrew - thanks for the challenging comment! There's a lot there I hadn't considered, and so will need to take a bit of time to remedy this. But here's a quick thought: even taking the purely personal, non-comparative benefits you gain from meeting your aesthetic standards, wouldn't it be nice if you could obtain these more easily, i.e. by having lower standards? (Or would that necessarily degrade the experience somehow?)

    "In order to fit in as a philosopher there, I would seem to need to dress down!"

    Ha, nice point. In the ideal world, everyone could do as they personally please without fear of others judging them adversely, or feeling 'out of place', etc. (Princeton seems to strike a nice balance, in that respect.) Still, if we absolutely must have an oppressive social norm in one direction or another, we should prefer the option that is least burdensome overall, right? And it's easier to be shabby than tidy...

  17. Richard,
    You say, “Even taking the purely personal, non-comparative benefits you gain from meeting your aesthetic standards, wouldn't it be nice if you could obtain these more easily, i.e. by having lower standards? (Or would that necessarily degrade the experience somehow?)”

    It seems to me that by having lower aesthetic standards, you lower the overall aesthetic value you can draw from an experience. Suppose I am trying to convince an avid Britney Spears fan to become interested in Wagner. This fan protests that the costs, both financial and mental, are higher for this more rarefied pursuit, and that he would rather keep his standards low so that he is more easily satisfied. But it’s not as if the resultant satisfaction one gets is necessarily the same in each case; that strikes me as too coarse a view of human satisfaction. If it’s X with Britney Spears, it may potentially be 10 X, say, for Wagner. So it’s not so much that by avoiding Wagner, the Britney fan “degrades” his experience, as that he closes off the opportunity to improve the overall quality of his aesthetic experience to a level that would not have been possible were his standards lower.

    “Still, if we absolutely must have an oppressive social norm in one direction or another, we should prefer the option that is least burdensome overall, right? And it's easier to be shabby than tidy...”

    Well, this seems to assume that our concern should be with a kind of human energy efficiency—doing what is least burdensome. I suppose I would accept this principle in many cases, provided there were not other values that could potentially be lost. But here, and in many other cases, there are countervailing values that can be lost—namely, aesthetic values. It is an open question whether they are worth the extra effort, but I don’t think it’s obvious that they are not worth it: Even if the “oppressive social norm” turns out to be more burdensome, it still nonetheless may prove more valuable.

  18. Thank you Andrew. That was extremely well put, and your Britney Spears / Wagner example is wonderful. It's always struck me as odd that no one finds the desire to create a thing of beauty over there *motions to space in front of self* questionable, but so many find it questionable to want to create a thing of beauty over here *motions at space where I'm sitting*.


    You seem to think that you're harmed by looking worse than those around you. In what ways do you think this hurts you? Is it that you look around, see that your not as well dressed as everyone else, and feel crappy about the fact? Or is the harm the result of the way others treat you for being less well dressed?

    If the latter, your conclusion seems silly. Billy, Mary, and Suzy are sitting in a room. Mary is less well dressed than Billy or Suzy. Billy treats Mary poorly (or worse than he might otherwise) because of this. Is it really sensible in this situation to blame Billy and Suzy's dress for harming Mary? Wouldn't it be more sensible to blame Billy's treating people differently based on how well dressed they are?

    Also, you touch on something in your reply to Vanessa that I think's somewhat important. Dress can be a form of expression. The way someone else is dressed can tell us about them, as can the way someone responds to our own dress. While my aesthetic sensibilities may be offended by 2006Girl in stiletto flip-flops and rolled up sweat pants with sparkly writing on the butt (leaving me slightly less well off than I would have been had I not seen her), I think that all in all I'm actually benefited by her choice of dress: I know to steer clear of her, and will drastically reduce the likelihood that I will have to interact with this person or will be polluted by any inanity that might float out of her mouth. Your disregard for clothing signals something about your priorities. And while there may be people who will avoid you or treat you less well for your dress decisions, for the most part, having these people avoid you or make themselves known to you by their behavior is probably to your benefit....much as it's to 2006Girl's benefit for me not to vomit all over her.

    At least that's what I always told myself when kids in school made fun of me for wearing dresses or wearing black or dressing nicely. (Dressing nicely is really not what gets you social points. It's dressing fashionably, and within some socially determined range of formality.)

  19. Some reflections:

    "Dressing down" in and of itself is not necessarily less burdensome. Some people put a considerable amount of effort into "dressing down"--it doesn't require one to look bad or dull or boring. And one can look bad whether they dress up or not. Standards for looking good cut across styles of dress, so lowering standards doesn't necessarily mean a decrease in burden.

    For the normal guy, looking good requires about as much effort as not looking bad. Andrew mentioned putting on a button up shirt and combing his hair. (I hope you're not too tired to write after that!) For most guys in most situations, the standards aren't very demanding. The gain in aesthetic value comes cheap.

    However, it's sadly different for "feminine" standards. The demandingness of the current standards for people who identify with a certain feminine aesthetic can be very harmful. And that's a really good reason to lower standards.

  20. Helen - yeah, I'd always gotten some comfort from the filtering point, but now find myself reluctant to dismiss others just because they would dismiss me. It seems like a relatively minor vice in the grand scheme of things, after all.

    "Wouldn't it be more sensible to blame Billy's treating people differently based on how well dressed they are?"

    It would be if it were practically possible for Billy to overcome this bias, but I worry that it's just human nature. (Professional appearance automatically elicits my respect, at least.) But if we can't change human nature, we can at least modify our social norms to minimize opportunities for its harmful expression. That was the rough idea, anyway.

    "It's always struck me as odd that no one finds the desire to create a thing of beauty over there *motions to space in front of self* questionable, but so many find it questionable to want to create a thing of beauty over here *motions at space where I'm sitting*."

    Ha, nice point. I need to retreat a bit here, in light of your and Andrew's comments. You see, I initially had in mind the assumption that cosmetics was not really about beauty at all, but some more shallow kind of assessment. On reflection, I'm willing to grant some absolute value to elegance, at least, and so must admit that the world would be a poorer place without your black dresses. But it isn't clear that the usual social pressures are advancing those genuine aesthetic values, as you note: "Dressing nicely is really not what gets you social points. It's dressing fashionably, and within some socially determined range of formality." Do you think this leaves any defensible ground in my vicinity?

  21. Richard,

    I'm not sure that the distinction you imply between the elegant and the fashionable will do the work you need it to. Is the idea that the fashionable will not be genuinely aesthetically-appealing, whereas the elegant will be? I don't think that's right. Presumably the people engaged in the "fashion practice" do find the clothes appealing and wear them for that reason. (Excepting, of course, those fashions the point of which is to thumb one's nose at the appealing).

    Or is your idea that mere fashions are transitory, unlike elegance, which supposedly persists: What is in fashion one year will be out of style the next year, whereas if one had an elegant dress or tuxedo from the 1950s, it would presumably still be elegant today. Granting that, though, aren't the fashions appealing when they are in fashion? I prefer elegance to fashion in my own dress, and in that of others, (I still want to be wearing the same shirts in 10 years!), but I am not sure that a person who cared about looking nice would have a reason to prefer one over the other, provided he or she was willing to go shopping again when need be. I don't think something needs to have "absolute" or universal aesthetic value in order to have aesthetic value simpliciter.

    (As an aside: I'm not sure that elegance really persists (in the way that perhaps the greatest art does). I think it's just a way of describing fashions that last much longer. Would it be elegant for a woman to wear a corset and hoop-skirt today? If she did, it would seem more an ironic statement than anything else, probably not as the height of elegance.)

    Or maybe your objection is more of a moral one--the whole idea of a fashion industry creating our preferences might seem rather repellent. I have some sympathy with this view, but I'm not convinced it will pan out. What is the worry here? Maybe that they are creating preferences where there were not preferences before, I suppose, so that we end up with a kind of aesthetic false consciousness. But is creating new preferences where there were not preferences before itself somehow troubling? Before l was exposed to Hegel, I was not interested in reading Hegel. Now, my preferences have changed after having taken a course on a different subject, and reading a bit of Hegel along the way. Now I have a very strong preference to read Hegel. Did this course create a "false" preference in me, or "manipulate" my preferences? Or did it just "shape" my preferences? That's an interesting question.

    (Helen--I think it depends on your setting whether you get social points for being fashionable. High school is definitely that way-- a wedding, maybe not. Perhaps normal settings are a bit of both. I love the idea of dress as a warning sign!)

    (Nick--quite right. It can take a lot of effort to look like you're not putting any effort into your appearance. There's some film with Hugh Grant, the name of which I'm blanking on now, where he goes to the salon have his hair "professionally disheveled," as he says.)



Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.