Countersignaling Today Through Clothing

I’m a big fan of stoicism and I also try to think about the recommendations from The Minimalists in my daily life. I try not to let material goods control me, and I try to stay away from overtly status seeking behavior. I try to be pretty content with an average used car and try not to feel a need to have very expensive clothing. I think these are meaningful ways to live and approach life, but part of what I might be doing is a substantial amount of countersignaling.

 

Tyler Cowen writes about this kind of countersignaling in his book The Complacent Class. He writes, “American’s at the top have become the experts in countersignaling, because they don’t feel they have to impress anyone. Everything is now casual, because the new aristocracy of talent enforces all the conformity that is needed.”

 

I started at a Bay Area tech company after college. We all wore hoodies and only a couple of our top sales executives ever wore slacks or a suite. The emphasis was never on what you owned or how you dressed, but on how smart you were and how many impressive ideas you could come up with. This came pretty natural to me, and it aligns with the stoic and minimalist ideas I frequently engage with.

 

At the same time, I think it is valuable to pull everything apart to look at my behaviors more closely. I hate the time and energy that goes into dress clothes. I like the relaxed feel of casual wear and the fact that I can easily pack casual clothes in a gym bag without them becoming a wrinkly mess. I’m uncomfortable with expensive clothing, knowing that I could use the $140 for a solid pair of dress slacks on more meaningful causes than just me looking good. From many standpoints, I think the shift toward casual dress is a good thing, for worker health, comfort, and for how we use resources.

 

Simultaneously, there is still a lot of signaling that is going on with the way we dress, even when we are dressing casually. It says, “I’m so good I don’t have to worry about looking the part—my work speaks for itself.” Dressing casually says, “The older generation that set the rules is irrelevant, we are defining things how we want.” In some senses these signals are direct attacks against the generations that came before us and built the business world and culture that allowed my generation to come along and invent innovative tech. There is something dismissive in the attitude presented and something that might be more inclusive for younger more diverse workforces, but simultaneously prejudiced against older workers. In the end, I think the trend is a good one, at least if it can live up to its inclusive potential. Slacks, dress shirts/shoes, and ties are terrible, and we shouldn’t have to suffer through them and spend all our free time and money hassling over our clothes. We should be comfortable with a minimal set of clothing, and focus on doing great work. Simultaneously, we should be respectful of the business culture that helps us be professional and get good work done. Somewhere in the middle lies a reasonable blend of both, and all along the spectrum is a lot of signaling and countersignaling.

Individual Clothes

Something that is very common to science fiction movies involving future civilizations is a common wardrobe shared by most of the characters. Future cities, alien civilizations, and advanced people in the minds of our science fiction writers seem to give up on a world of distinct fashion in favor of some type of sleek outerwear that has minimal variation from one person to another. Everyone is in the same sleek silver jump suit. Everyone just wears the same indistinguishable plain clothing. The future is not fashionable, its practical and efficient.

 

I find future clothing interesting because it seems to be saying something different than what we say with our clothing choices today. In a movie, the unimportant background characters all wear the same clothes because they are not supposed to be the standout focus of the film (also a set designer and costume manager would go crazy coming up with 500 different costumes for different people). A lot of our future societies are also either utopian or dystopian, and a sense of individuality is either erased by a tyrant or given up by the society in favor of the collective. Clothes become a way to say, “I’m one of us,” rather than a way to say, “I’m me.”

 

In The Elephant in the Brain Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson talk about the hidden messages that our clothes send to other people. They write, “Today there’s a stigma to wearing uniforms, in part because it suppresses our individuality. But the very concept of individuality is just signaling by another name. The main reason we like wearing unique clothes is to differentiate and distinguish ourselves from our peers. In this way, […] the most basic message sent by our clothing choices [is] – I’m my own person in charge of my own outfit.”

 

We choose clothes that say something about us. They signal the groups we belong to, how much we adhere to social norms, and what kind of person we think of ourselves as. We are not just trying to look good, we are trying to give people extra information about ourselves so that they know a little bit about who we are without having to interact with us directly. In movies they tell us who are background characters we can forget about, and in science fiction they tell us that society has congealed together in an efficient and unified manner. Today, however, they tell the world how special and unique we want to be.