Yes, it’s come to that. I am reduced to posting pictures of attractive women. But, no, actually, there is a story here.
This summer, women are covering up. The NYT says they are “exposing less skin [and] ditching the micro-minis, cropped tops and thong-baring jeans of previous summers.
We must take this news bravely. The work of anthropology and economics will have to carry on. In this post, I want to use the two fields together to think about this new trend. (I am counting on help from my economics readers.)
An economics explanation suggests itself:
When women begin to wear less, they start a competition for male attention. In this matter, men are not the most subtle creatures. Advantage goes to women wearing less. What is attention-getting at T+0 (time right now) is merely ordinary at T+1. So women wear still less and so it goes. Eventually, women are looking ‘trashy, in the words of Jane Rinzler Buckingham of Youth Intelligence. At this moment, the competition is, in a sense, “maxed out. There is no competitive place to go.
There is presumably a “stall moment. Women know they have a problem, but they do not have a solution.
Then there is a “reset moment. Women move back to modesty. In a sense, they have to do this merely to start the game again. But what about those outliers, women who continue to wear less and reap the benefits of doing so? “More clothing women now suffer a competitive disadvantage.
An anthropology-economics suggests itself:
In order for women to move back to “more, the community of women (and the marketplace) must respond more or less collectively but without the benefit of explicit decision making or communication. They must move together and at roughly the same moment. How does a consensus like this emerge without the benefit of a presidential commission? This is a problem for complexity theory, the place that economics and anthropology meet, in my opinion. How and when women undertook this latest “emergent move would make a great case study. (Selflessly, I volunteer my services as the ethnographer.)
Furthermore, women must find a way to bring in the outliers, those women who refuse the new terms and reap considerable benefits from doing so. There must be some kind of moral suasion going on here, as women police the behavior of other women. Chances this are this happens through the distribution of scorn and accusations of ‘trashiness. We might think of this as a process by which the “more women withdraw the social capital possessed by the “less women. The “less women are now admired by men but mocked by women.
In this case, there is an economy of social capital that we do not understand. This is a great place for economists to help out in the anthropological domain.
Some additional, purely anthropological considerations:
Some of this turns on cultural tectonics. There are cultural ideas at work, moving beneath, and inflecting, the surface of the marketplace. A very brief sketch:
1) In the 1960s: women present themselves in a more or less sexual manner. The counter-cultural has set new standards of candor.
2) In the 1970s: women begin to think that male reaction to this sexuality is offensive. As one of them told me, ‘they are not reacting to me, they are reacting to my body. . Feminism is ignited. Wolf whistles and other reactions were now greeted with hostility
3) In the 1980s: women wear more. The preppie trend is a “cover up look and relatively asexual.
4) 1985: Madonna, in her famous boy-toy video of 1985, gives the “all-clear signal. She argues that women should reembrace their sexuality as long as they can choose the outcome of this sexuality. Women wear less.
5) Summer of 2004: women start to wear more.
Some of this comes is due to the “max out problem. But some of it may be a reflection of a deeper tectonic shift.
It may be that women are unhappy with what the “wearing less did to men. Almost certainly, it was one of the things that encouraged men to think of themselves as “dogs. (See several posts on this blog on this topic.) In short, a change in women provoked a change in men that women did not like and would now like to change.
If this is so, we are looking at the start of a new stage in the “gender wars. Men, consider this an early warning. Its not just the clothing thats going to change.
As to the larger question, how we think about the interactions of anthropological considerations and economic ones, clearly there is lots to do. How do actors compete when this competition is informed by cultural considerations? How are the cultural considerations shaped and inflected by the competition? You’re asking me?
La Ferla, Ruth. 2004. What Stylish Young Women are Wearing: More. New York Times. June 8, 2004.
Thanks to actress Rebecca Budiq for the use of her photo.