Why do Europeans dress better than Americans?

In “Europeans Dress Better Than Americans: Fact,” bangsandabun writes that “I stated on Twitter the other day that North Americans dress badly and it ruffled a few feathers. I don’t even see this as a debatable point. The evidence speaks for itself.” I think he’s right, despite the danger of assuming American and European differences based on casual observation.

Bob Unwin speculates about why Americans might dress worse and things the difference is historical, except for this: “different signaling aims (more internal cultural diversity and weaker class distinctions; male clothing needing to be less ‘gay’ and more conventional.”

I haven’t spent enough time in Europe to judge fashion. But I do have a certain amount of “fashion blindness” that I used to take pride in (more on that later), and even now I don’t care about the subject enough to notice fashion most of the time. Plus, living in Arizona makes fashion blindness much, much worse: it’s too damn hot to wear anything more than shorts and a t-shirt for five months of the year, which obviates much of the fashion impetus, especially for men. For women, “fashion” tends to mean “clingy and revealing” in the heat, which I like but don’t think is especially fashionable; it’s more of a physical fitness signal. Still, when I lived in Seattle I didn’t see a much stronger fashion impetus than I do here in Arizona, so I don’t think weather is the whole explanation.

My friend Derek Huang just got back from a year in Germany and mentioned wanting to learn how to tailor clothes a couple weeks ago, so I sent him the above links and asked for his thoughts about whether Europeans are more stylish:

Definitely. Especially in Paris, I felt really out of place. Part of it was just going to a bunch of museums, seeing vibrant colors and designs that pop out, and then seeing that in the stuff people wear. (“That scarf is so Monet”). It’s still a pretty big status symbol over there (Europe). Less so in Spain, where they dress more American. I think American fashion is very much centered around casual-individualism. And that can be pulled off well, but it is also a license to just DGAF. The fashion in Europe is much more constrained. There are certain things you just don’t do, so I feel attention to detail is so much important as a way of standing out.

And I’m at the stage right now where I can talk enthusiastically about this stuff, but every day I wear a T-shirt and walk around in flip flops. I want to tailor my own stuff so I can learn what works for me, what doesn’t. Fashion is like applied art + social theory which is potentially interesting.

But then again there are only so many hours in a day, and if I’m in a culture where time otherwise spent worrying about clothing can be spent working on physics, then that’s an advantage.

Also, there was a good point in one comment about greater stylistic diversity in the U.S. If there are lots of social groups, then it’s more important to signal that you’re in a certain group than it is to try to be “better dressed.” It’s analogous to the diversity of contemporary music. Back when music was all just white Europeans, we could talk a lot about who was clearly better, who was a genius composer, etc. but now music is so broad, that we have less collective effort funneled into trying to improve things along a narrow subset of possible styles. I have noticed that you see more creative, wacky stuff around the University of Arizona than around Heidelberg, but there’s also more general mediocrity and some truly hideous fashion choices.

I like the analogy about music: It’s hard to evaluate a rapper, an indie rocker, a DJ, and a classical composer, because, while they’re also doing something that stimulates the ear in an aesthetically pleasing audiological fashion, that’s about all they have in common. Car analogies are apt too: a truck is not automatically better than a sports car, but it may be appropriate in a different situation.

The point about clothes that actually fit is also a good one. I don’t even really know enough to know what good fit means for me, or for most people, although it might be one of these “I-know-it-when-I-see-it” kinds of things, in the same way most people will instinctively recognize good writing over bad writing, without necessarily being able to explain which is better.

In addition, in the U.S. I think there’s a West Coast, technical-elite culture that disdains fashion as fakery and that valorizes the cult of you-are-what-you-do. I can imagine my more technically minded friends saying that the compiler doesn’t care whether your socks and shoes match. Technical accomplishments are transparent in their effectiveness, while fashion is closer to sales or persuasion, in that it’s much more interpretive and less binary. Therefore your clothes shouldn’t matter (in my imagination, Apple employees are better dressed than their counterparts elsewhere, because of the firm’s focus on design; I have no idea if that’s accurate, however), and I don’t know of any technical people who are renowned for their fashion sense; if anything, fashion becomes anti-fashion, since Bill Gates is or was notoriously indifferent to fashion, and Mark Zuckerberg is famous for wearing hoodies and flipflops. Yet both are among the most important people of their generations.

It’s also possible that most people only have a certain amount of energy to devote to taste or aesthetic matters, and Americans allocate their energy elsewhere; in the case of tech people, the “elsewhere” might be the beauty of their code. Personally, I’m most concerned with writing prose that sounds like faint wind chimes being caressed on a cool autumn evening.* Derek wants to spend his limited mental energy and attention thinking about physics. I want to spend mine thinking about literature and writing. Fashion may be a distraction from these pursuits, rather than a complement to them. But I wouldn’t mind having a small number of simple, comfortable things to wear that don’t make me look like I rolled out of bed in the morning. I may have found those things—the perfect, perfect-fitting black T-shirt, and size-30 Lucky Jeans—but they were found mostly through serendipity.

Anyway, I didn’t used to think fashion important at all, but now I’m less sure: signaling is much more powerful than I used to imagine, and my priorities have shifted in important ways since I developed a strong anti-fashion bias as a teenager living outside of Seattle. Now I wonder if that anti-fashion bias is holding me back, because people are very quick to evaluate based on all kinds of things, including clothes.

When I began learning how to salsa dance, I wore rubber-soled shoes (this is not a good idea). Eventually a friend showed me how to pick better shoes, and I bought very nice dress shoes that were three to four times as expensive as any shoe I’d ever worn before. Women started complimenting me on my shoes. I assume that, for any person who vocalizes an opinion about fashion or related matters, at least another ten people probably notice but don’t say anything. But I also had to worry more about shoe maintenance: they need wooden inserts to maintain their shape when I’m not wearing them. They’re less comfortable than running shoes or Vibram Five-Fingers. They need to be polished regularly. Nonetheless, the difference in how people perceived me was and is undeniable. If something as simple as shoes can cause this much change, I wonder what else I’m missing by simply not being observant enough.

Still, I can’t deny the culture in which I live. In “The New Pants Revue,” Bruce Sterling points out that “Jeans and tactical pants are the same school of garment. They’re both repurposed American Western gear. I’m an American and it’s common for us to re-adapt our frontier inventions.” By way of full disclosure, I now wear “Tactical Shorts” regularly, as silly as I feel writing that out, and so far their durability has been excellent. Sterling is obviously pointing in the direction of hidden historical factors, and I think there is an American suspicion of highfalutin apparel that couldn’t be worn on farms or factories, despite the fact that most of us, myself include, spend much more time in Office Space-style offices with climate control, ergonomic chairs, and limited exposure to sharp objects.

Note that I don’t wear tactical shorts with the nice shoes.

I wonder if, over time, Europe is becoming more influenced by U.S. fashion indifference, or if the U.S. is becoming more influenced by European fashion, or if we’re in a fairly steady state of mutual difference. I also wonder if people in the U.S. would be better served by paying more attention to fashion, at least at the margin.

See also “Why Americans dress so casually.”

* Present sentence excluded.

EDIT: I wonder if technology will lower the cost of fashion sufficiently to encourage Americans to become more fashionable (or “dress better” in American parlance). Articles like “Hot Collars: I got three custom shirts online. I’ll never buy off the rack again,” about the online custom-clothing companies Indochino, J. Hilburn, and Blank Label, make me think this is at least possible.

EDIT 2: As commenter Marcus points out, I’m incorrectly conflating “fashion” and “aesthetics,” which are really separate issues. He’s correct, and his comment is worth reading.

To most people, reading and writing are boring and unimportant

Robin Hanson says: “… folks, late in life, almost never write essays, or books, on ‘what I’ve learned about life.’ It would only take a few pages, and would seem to offer great value to others early in their lives. Why the silence?”

He offers various explanations, like “People don’t want to hear the truth, and they won’t find lies useful, so why bother,” “Young folks already think they know all the answers, so won’t listen,” and “Few care what people will think of them after they are dead.” But he also says, “None of these explanations seem especially satisfactory. What’s going on?” I offered my theory in the comments section but will elaborate on it here: Most people don’t give a shit about writing or ideas. You can observe this from their behavior. People do things that are important to them (like watching TV, making money, or having sex) and don’t do things that aren’t important to them.

Let’s change the question a little: Why doesn’t Robin build furniture, or write vital open-source software, or feed the hungry in his spare time? Those would seem to offer great value to others. Actually, he might do some of this stuff—Robin seems like the sort of fellow with a lot of unusual hobbies and habits—but even if he does some of that stuff, the question becomes why he does that and not some other valuable thing. Maybe he’s doing the value maximizing thing for him, in which case he enjoys it, in which case he keeps doing it. The question and answers become circular and tautological very quickly, but in this case I don’t think “circular” is “wrong.”

To return to the original question about “What I’ve learned about life,” I think that, for most people, writing life lessons, or whatever, would be completely unimportant. Plus, as a corollary to that, writing is really hard for most people. It’s really hard for me, and I do it every day! So we probably shouldn’t be surprised that most people don’t bother doing hard, meaningless things. Starting from scratch in any skill is a challenge. I’d like to learn how to sew, but I don’t even really know how to start (outside of a Google search), and I don’t really have time to begin learning a complex new skill until October 5. So although I’d like clothes that fit better, I don’t want them badly enough to really do something about it and build domain knowledge in that field.

So, given that most people find new skills hard to learn, and find writing unimportant and boring, the better question is: Why do people write, especially blogs? Robin is the outlier, not the hypothetical old person imparting life lessons. You could reduce this question to, “Why isn’t reading and writing important to most people,” and beyond the obvious answer—they can survive and reproduce without them—I don’t have much.

Gwern’s answer in Robin’s comments seems sound to me: “Differing incentives and realities. Old adults give advice to teens which basically assume they can act like old adults; they forget just how painful things like waiting were, and wish away even the most transparently biological realities like shifts in circadian rhythms.” I would add that teens also don’t think they’ll ever be old. They live in the present.

Thinking back over my own life, I’m struck by how few old people have had useful advice for me. For adolescents and young adults, sex is tremendously important, yet few old people give real advice about it, or gave real advice to me; many of them also don’t seem to understand what the modern dating environment is like. In addition, old people might be worried about coming across as lascivious or inappropriate, when they’re really just trying to impart knowledge—I know that I seldom tell my students, for example, what the dating world is actually like.

I’m also really interested in being a writer, and have been for a long time, but very few adults know anything about being a writer. Those who do often don’t know anything about the Internet, which is now inextricably linked with most writers’ writing lives. So the limited advice that old people can offer often doesn’t seem applicable to me.

Perhaps some old people sense this, and sense that many younger people won’t listen to them anyway.

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