Colourful dresses hanging on successive hangers from a rod at a clothing store.

A why of how we wear what we wear

There are many major industries operating around the world commonly perceived to be big drivers of climate change. Plastic, steel and concrete manufacturing come immediately to mind – but fashion doesn’t, even though, materially speaking, its many inefficiencies represent something increasingly worse than an indulgence in times so fraught by economic inequality and the dividends of extractive capitalism.

And even then, details like ‘making one cotton t-shirt requires 3,900 litres of water’ (source) spring first into our consciousness before less apparent, and more subtle, issues like the label itself. Why is the fashion industry called so? I recently read somewhere – an article, or maybe a tweet (in any case the thought isn’t original) – that the term ‘fashion’ implies an endless seasonality, a habit of periodically discarding designs, and the clothes they inhabit, only to invent and manufacture new garments.

The persistence of fashion trends also presents social problems. Consider, for example, the following paragraph, copied from a press release issued by Princeton University:

People perceive a person’s competence partly based on subtle economic cues emanating from the person’s clothing, according to a study published in Nature Human Behaviour by Princeton University. These judgments are made in a matter of milliseconds, and are very hard to avoid. … Given that competence is often associated with social status, the findings suggest that low-income individuals may face hurdles in relation to how others perceive their abilities — simply from looking at their clothing.

Let’s assume that the study is robust as well as that the press release is faithful to the study’s conclusions (verifying which would require a lot more work than I am willing to spare for this post – but you’ve been warned!). Getting rid of fashion trends will do little, or even nothing, to render our societies more equitable. But it merits observing that they also participate in, possibly are even predicated on, maintaining ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups, demarcated by the awareness of dressing trends, ability to purchase the corresponding garments and familiarity with the prevailing ways to use them in order to incentivise certain outcomes over others on behalf of people who adhere to similar sartorial protocols.

(Aside: Such behaviour usually favours members of the elite but it’s not entirely absent outside the corresponding sociopolitical context. For example, and as a tangential case of enclothed cognition, the titular character in the 2016 Tamil film Kabali insists on wearing a blazer at all times simply because his upper-caste antagonists use their clothing to indicate their social status and, consequently, power.)

Obviously, the social and climatic facets of fashion design aren’t entirely separable. The ebb-and-flow of design trends drives consumer spending and, well, consumption whereas the stratification of individual competence – at least according to the study; certainly of likability based on status signals – sets up dressing choices as a socially acceptable proxy to substitute seemingly less prejudicial modes of evaluation. (And far from being a syllogism, many of our social ills actively promote the neoliberal consumer culture at the heart of the climate crisis.)

Then again, proxies in general are not always actively deployed. There are numerous examples from science administration as well as other walks of life. This is also one of the reasons I’m not too worried about not interrogating the study: it rings true (to the point of rendering the study itself moot if didn’t come to any other conclusions).

People considering a scientist for, say, career advancement often judge the quality of their work based on which journals they were published in, even though it’s quite well-known that this practice is flawed. But the use of proxies is justified for pragmatic reasons: when universities are understaffed and/or staff are underpaid, proxies accelerate decision-making, especially if they also have a low error-rate and the decision isn’t likely to have dire consequences for any candidate. If the resource-crunch is more pronounced, it’s quite possible that pragmatic considerations altogether originate the use of proxies instead of simply legitimising them.

Could similar decision-making pathways have interfered with the study? I hope not, or they would have strongly confounded the study’s findings. In this scenario, where scientists presented a group of decision-makers with visual information based on which the latter had to make some specific decisions without worrying about any lack of resources, we’re once again faced with yet another prompt to change the way we behave, and that’s a tall order.