Slaves to fashion signaling

I understand the signaling theory of clothes fashions to be something like this: wearing fashionable clothing in spite of fashion changing all the time demonstrates that you are socially well connected and know what is up (not to mention that you have money and are not too weird, much like many kinds of signaling).

However in practice it seems at least some elements of fashion are basically enforced by shops, so you can’t dress unfashionably unless you save up unfashionable clothes from the past, or go to special effort to acquire them. I go out shopping for clothes with not much more than a passing understanding of which twenty year window of fashion I am in—just the kind of person who should not be dressed fashionably on the signaling theory—and then when I set out to buy the kinds of clothes that I want, shops don’t stock them, and shopkeepers say ‘sorry, that isn’t in this season’. In fact my understanding of what is in fashion is mostly based on which things shops will allow me to buy.

I hesitate to claim I am consequently fashionable—presumably I am still failing at a vast many fashiony things. But what is the point of changing which things are in season every few months if you are just going to tell the unfashionable people anyway and refuse to sell them things that aren’t fashionable?

A natural answer is that there isn’t a point, but there also isn’t a single agent behind all this, so there is not much reason to expect a point. Once you have fashion cycles in place for the kind of signaling reasons suggested, then shops have little reason to stock the stuff that’s out of fashion, unless there are a whole lot of unfashionable people and they agree somewhat on which unfashionable things to wear. And there probably are some shops like that.

But should the fashion cycles persist if fashion signaling is so inescapably easy as to be meaningless? Imagine that you are a moderately fashionable person. Once every intrinsically untrendy person is wearing maroon this season because it was the only thing they could buy, why do you even bother with it?

I think the answer is that I am only seeing the very bottom of the fashion signaling hierarchy. And the lowest rungs are indeed being cut off by the market herding the people who would dress without regard to fashion into ‘fairly behind the times’ or ‘looks like they buy their clothes at the supermarket’ levels of adherence. But it still works because there are a bunch of higher levels that I can’t see. The moderately fashionable person indeed does not wear maroon at the time I am doing it—they wear something else that shows knowing observers that they got it somewhere special with their special knowledge. Maybe they were wearing maroon six months ago, which is where the people in the stores I go to got the idea.

This would also explain why my clothes are so great. I just got a comfy, warm, well fitting, aesthetically pleasing top from Target for $15, which seems a bit confusing given that people commonly spend more on clothes and go to fancier stores. It’s maroon though, which I had figured was because maroon is currently considered cool. But if maroon were currently considered ‘cool’ in the sense of ‘not more uncool than you are allowed to be this season without making a real project of it’, everything would make a lot more sense.

So I think my overall story is that the signaling theory still works as far as I know, but that the mass market doesn’t support arbitrary divergences from fashion because it’s just not worth sewing a bunch of women’s cargo pants in a non-women’s-cargo-pant season. Which pushes the least fashionable people to join the lowest level of fashion consciousness that is large enough to support a market. I am in one of these low categories, so all I see is that I am being pushed to join a higher category. I don’t see the categories above, in part because they wouldn’t work if people like me knew too much about them.

I have little idea if any of my picture here is correct. The extent of my knowledge of this topic comes from some amateur economic theorizing and a bunch of confusing shopping experiences while seeking clothes suitable for doing amateur economic theorizing in. And there remain facts about the fashion market this theory does not explain, such as ‘too often when I decide I want some obscure thing, the next place I look sells almost nothing but that’ and ‘department store employees are not necessarily aware of T-shirts’ and ‘when I bought some socks recently, they turned out to have my three letter initials printed on the toes’.

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