Why Real Men Wear Pink

“Fash­ion is a form of ugli­ness so in­tol­er­able we have to al­ter it ev­ery six months.”

-- Os­car Wilde

For the past few decades, I and many other men my age have been locked in a bat­tle with the cloth­ing in­dus­try. I want sim­ple, good-look­ing ap­parel that cov­ers my naked­ness and maybe even makes me look at­trac­tive. The cloth­ing in­dus­try be­lieves some­one my age wants ei­ther cloth­ing laced with pro­fan­ity, cloth­ing that ob­jec­tifies women, cloth­ing that glo­rifies al­co­hol or drug use, or cloth­ing that makes them look like a gang­ster. And judg­ing by the cloth­ing I see peo­ple wear­ing, on the whole they are right.

I’ve been work­ing my way through Steven Pinker’s How The Mind Works, and reached the part where he quotes ap­prov­ingly Quentin Bell’s the­ory of fash­ion. The the­ory pro­vides a good ex­pla­na­tion for why so much cloth­ing seems so de­liber­ately out­ra­geous.

Bell starts by offer­ing his own ex­pla­na­tion of the “fash­ion cy­cle”. He claims that the goal of fash­ion is to sig­nal sta­tus. So far, so ob­vi­ous. But low-sta­tus peo­ple would like to sub­vert the sig­nal. There­fore, the goal of lower class peo­ple is to look like up­per class peo­ple, and the goal of up­per class peo­ple is to not look like lower class peo­ple.

One solu­tion is for the up­per class to wear cloth­ing so ex­pen­sive the lower class could not pos­si­bly af­ford it. This worked for me­dieval lords and ladies, but nowa­days af­ter a while mass pro­duc­tion will kick in and K-Mart will have a pass­able rhine­stone based imi­ta­tion available for $49.95. Once the lower class is wear­ing the once fash­ion­able item, the up­per class wouldn’t be caught dead in it. They have to choose a new item of cloth­ing to be the sta­tus sig­nal, af­ter a short pe­riod of grace the lower class copy that too, and the cy­cle be­gins again.

For ex­am­ple, maybe in early 2009 a few very high-sta­tus peo­ple start wear­ing pur­ple. Every­one who is “in the know” enough to un­der­stand that they are trend-set­ters switches to pur­ple. Soon it be­comes ob­vi­ous that lots of “in the know” peo­ple are wear­ing pur­ple, and any­one who reads fash­ion mag­a­z­ines starts stock­ing up on pur­ple cloth­ing. Soon, only the peo­ple too out-of-the-loop to know about pur­ple and the peo­ple too poor to im­me­di­ately re­place all their clothes are wear­ing any other color. In mid-2009, some ex­tremely high-sta­tus peo­ple now go out on a limb and start wear­ing green; ev­ery­one else is too low-sta­tus to be com­fortable unilat­er­ally break­ing the sta­tus quo. Soon ev­ery­one switches to green. Wear­ing pur­ple is a way of broad­cast­ing that you’re so dumb or so poor you don’t have green clothes yet, which is why it’s so mor­tify­ing to be caught wear­ing yes­ter­day’s fash­ion (or so I’m told). When the next cy­cle comes around, no one will im­me­di­ately go back to wear­ing pur­ple, be­cause that would sig­nal that they’re un­fash­ion­able. But by 2015, that stigma will be gone and pur­ple has a chance to come “back in style”.

Bell de­scribes a clever way the rich can avoid im­me­di­ately be­ing copied by the mid­dle class. What is the great­est fear of the fash­ion­ista? To be con­fused with a per­son of a lower class. So the rich wear lower class clothes. The the­ory is that the mid­dle class is ter­rified of wear­ing lower class clothes, but the rich are so ob­vi­ously not lower class that they can get away with it. Bell wrote be­fore the “ghetto look” went into style, but his the­ory ex­plains quite well why wealthy teenagers and young adults would vol­un­tar­ily copy the styles of the coun­try’s poor­est un­der­class.

Bell also ex­plained a sec­ond way to sig­nal high-sta­tus: con­spicu­ous out­rage. Wear a shirt with the word “FUCK” on it in big let­ters (or, if you pre­fer, FCUK). This sig­nals “I am so high sta­tus that I think I can wear the word ‘FUCK’ in big let­ters on a t-shirt and get away with it.” It’s a pretty good sig­nal. It sig­nals that you don’t give a...well...fcuk what any­one else thinks, and the only peo­ple who would be able, ei­ther eco­nom­i­cally or psy­cholog­i­cally, to get away with that are the high sta­tus1.

The ab­solute best real world ex­am­ple, which again I think Bell didn’t live to see, is the bright pink shirt for men that says “REAL MEN WEAR PINK”. The sig­nal is that this guy is so con­fi­dent in his mas­culinity that he can go around wear­ing a pink shirt. It’s an odd case be­cause it gets away with ex­plain­ing ex­actly what sig­nal it’s pro­ject­ing right on the shirt. And it only works be­cause real men do not wear pink with­out a dis­claimer ex­plain­ing that they are only wear­ing pink to sig­nal that they are real men.

Pinker notes the similar­ity to evolu­tion­ary strate­gies that sig­nal fit­ness by hand­i­cap­ping. A pea­cock’s tail is a way of sig­nal­ling that its owner is so fit it can af­ford to have a big mal­adap­tive tail on it and still sur­vive, just as a rich guy in a back­wards base­ball cap is sig­nal­ling that its owner is so rich he can af­ford to copy the lower class and still get in­vited to par­ties. The same pro­cess pro­duces a body part of as­tound­ing beauty in the an­i­mal king­dom, and ghetto fash­ion in hu­man so­ciety. I won­der if na­ture is laugh­ing at us.


1: Bell (or pos­si­bly Pinker, it’s not clear) has a similar the­ory about art. Buy­ing a hip “mod­ern art” paint­ing that’s just a white can­vas with a black line through it is sup­posed to sig­nal “I am so rich that I can af­ford to pay lots of money for a paint­ing even if it is un­pop­u­lar and hard to ap­pre­ci­ate,” or even “I am so self-con­fi­dent in my cul­tured­ness that I can en­dorse this art that is low qual­ity by all pre­vi­ous stan­dards, and peo­ple will con­tinue to re­spect me and my judg­ments.” Then the mid­dle class starts buy­ing white can­vases with black lines through them, and rich peo­ple have to buy sculp­tures made of hu­man dung just to keep up.