fashion and economics: committment, release and paradox


The topic of today’s blog: the new, troubling, rationality of the economic actor.

But first, the fashion news. Today’s New York Times says that young women are:

‘turn[ing] their backs on track suits, tank tops and bling, putting their money instead on the seed-pearl-studded camisoles.”

Bling is out, elegance is in.

This is continuous with a trend noted in this blog a month ago (7/11) on the decline of the bare mid riff. I noted that young women were moving away from the sexuality of Christina Aguilera and the later Brittany Spears towards the polish of Reese Witherspoon’s character Elle Wood (in Legally Blonde) and the women of Sex in the City. Flash is out, poise is in.

This represents one of those sudden shifts of taste and preference that now routinely transform our culture and our commerce. A trend gathers like a wave at sea. And then it comes ashore. Without good forecasting (and a sturdy “marine band radio”), it’s upon us before we know it.

And it has force of impact. Lots of people, and especially economists, regard fads and fashions as so much fluff, epiphenomenon that comes and goes, signifying nothing. But in fact, this change in fashion makes (and marks) a change in what Greenblatt calls “self fashioning.” These young women will become substantially different people, moved to make substantially different life choices. They will pursue different movies, men, colleges, and careers (until the next trend comes). Fashion might once have been superficial (a thing of the surface). Now it comes ashore like something out of The Day After Tomorrow.

Things change. And we change with them. We’re a proverbial cat on a hot tin roof. We must be economic actors who practice commitment and release. (I am now evoking terms similar to the ones proposed by Hirschman: loyalty and exit.)


We must commit to new trends. We must give up the old and embrace the new. Those who fail to do so are scorned. (Recall the contempt we had for hippies when disco arrived, and the contempt we had for disco enthusiasts when preppies arrived. “Snap out of it!”) We practice loyalty, but it is a rolling, contingent loyalty.

There will be slow pokes. When I was in Redmond this week, I heard a 12 year old girl asking her mother if she (the girl) could buy something “saucy.” The Pacific Northwest has always been slow to get the news, and chances are this little girl will win the argument only to discover that, mysteriously, Christina isn’t saucy anymore. One of us will overhear her at the mall begging her mom for a seed-pearl-studded camisole.


But then we have to leave. The all-clear signal sounds. Trends change. Time to move on and embrace something new, as women who invested heavily in raccoon eye liner, saucy clothing and a candid sexuality are now redeploying. (The stars will have to redeploy as well and it will be interested to see whether Christina Aguilera can make the shift.)


It is a double, contradicted, rationality. On the one hand, we must commit well and thoroughly. Boomer readers will remember people who did not quite commit thoroughly enough to the hippie revolution. The price? The price was to foreswear “cool” and all the benefits of credibility, membership and sex it made possible. On the other, we must move when the trend does (or pay the price of “uncool” and all the costs that come with that).

This means the rationality of the actor depends upon two conflicting impulses. We must commit with perfect “loyalty.” We must then release and “exit.” How the hell do we do this…by keeping two internal sets of books, one hidden from the other? By practicing a cultural mandated amnesia? How does the rational actor avow and disavow with such perfect intermittent sincerity?

There is a credibility problem. The world is likely to say to Christina Aguilera: “Sorry, you can’t do elegance, not when you did rauchy so very convincingly.” But do we say this to one another? Forget the external dialogue, what about the internal one? Why don’t we put our heads in our hands and say, “you know what, I am the world’s biggest hypocrite?”

Economic actors in a dynamic society have an adaptive problem. They must “lock on” and “lock off” continually. Under the force of necessity, they have apparently crafted a solution: cultural amnesia or intermittent sincerity. This might also by one of the places irony came from in the 1990s. This is a useful adaptive position, because it allows us to play out anything and everything with a wink. We are not “really” doing this. Perhaps this is the new adaptive response we would expect from the economic actor.

But try telling that to a teen girl in 2004. Irony was someone else’s cultural moment. This generation is rather more sincere. Her persona is rather more earnest. Maybe it’s wrong to say that youth is wasted on the young. They’re going to need it.


Greenblatt, Stephen. 1980. Renaissance self-fashioning from More to Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hirschman, Albert O. 1970. Exit, voice, and loyalty: responses to decline in firms, organizations, and states. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

La Ferla, Ruth. 2004. Less Bling, More Elegance. New York Times. August 8, 2004

5 thoughts on “fashion and economics: committment, release and paradox

  1. Michelle Mossop

    But Grant, Christina Aguilera has made the shift towards this new trend! Check it out…

    In fact, just moved back from the UK where I rode the fashion Ferris wheel along with every other girl my age. I found that I “committed” and “released” far more quickly there than I ever had in North America. It was quite the ride–and I’m pretty tired of it now.

    But the reasons I committed and released so quickly was because I ended up being engaged in this strange wild theatrical with other girls walking down the streets of London. It was these girls who would be found every weekend at the markets (Portobello or Spitafields) looking to buy original pieces from the clothing booths of the city’s new, unknown designers. These girls would find interesting things and find interesting ways wear them. In fact, it is my belief that these girls were actually accessing their creativity through clothing and using it as a means of self-expression–they were free.

    But then they got caught. A few months later, similar pieces would appear in H & M or TopShop. Now, if you’ve ever been into one of these stores, you’ll know how scary it can be there. Girls are racing around, elbowing and kicking one another…I swear you can almost get beaten to death there, it’s that aggressive.

    It got me thinking….So what? Girls create these trends…and then what? We sell them to ourselves? Do we literally just carry trends back to ourselves? When does creativity turn into commodity? Should girls take full responsibility of this cycle–or is someone else in on it?

    I think I got my answer one Saturday morning.

    A woman came up to me with a camera. She said she was a designer from PUMA. She took a photo of my slippers and me, or the little old man in Morocco who made them, have yet to see a return.

  2. Grant

    Michelle, thanks for another remarkable post. I am glad to hear that Christina is moving with the times. I guess this is what I get for using the New York Times as my ethnographic source. As to life in London, the fashion hot spots are extraordinarily rapid in their pace. And yes, they serve as a fountain of innovation for the rest of us. But I’m not sure I share your unhappiness with the Puma sleuth. Change has got to come from somewhere. Thanks again. Grant

  3. Marnie

    Are “cultural amnesia or intermittent sincerity” the only alternatives? I like to wear all sort of costumes, yet they are all sincere. I don’t have cultural amnesia when I do this, though ’tis true I don’t care much about fitting in. I care more about portraying precisely the look I have in mind. These looks can be anything from that of half-nekkid party-goer to immaculate young professional finance-wiz to farmer to punk-rocker. It’s fun to dress.

  4. Grant

    Marnie, certainly not, in a transformation age, some treat their wardrobes as a kind of identikit that makes available lots and lots of expressive possibilities. Here “commit and release” is supplanted by a more post modern model. But I believe there is often some “commit and release” favorite beneath the post modern one. Great post! Grant

  5. LK

    one more for the britney (et al) backlash file, from 16 aug 04 edition of NY times. now that much of the ideology has been stripped from the punk look (which is what it was…a look as opposed to way of life, which is much closer to what it was the first time around) it will be interested to see how much of the preppie ideology, if any, resurfaces with teens.

    (note: this is just the first few paragraphs of the article…go to to search for the full piece)

    Student Chic Is Remaking Itself, Trading Grunge for Cable Knit


    Published: August 16, 2004

    Last year, Benjamin Spoer, a college sophomore in Berkeley, Calif., was just another grungy teenager, with his long hair, dirty jeans and favorite black T-shirt with a gory red bird on the front. Now he is transformed. He has cut his hair, and in a couple of weeks, he plans to go shopping for some blue button-down shirts.

    He threw the bird T-shirt away.

    “The guys at school used to come to class in T-shirts with four-letter words on them,” he said. “Now they wear clothes from Gap and American Eagle. Since grunge is starting to fade away, they’re going with what’s out there.”

    Maybe young people are getting more sophisticated, or maybe they are just getting bored. But from kindergarten to college, America’s students are cleaning up their acts. And while they do not generally want their fall fashions to be labeled “preppy” – they insist they are putting their own twist on the look – they say styles are definitely getting simpler.

    Goth is also out. The numbers have plummeted at Hot Topic, a clothing chain that was the darling of the spooky, blood-and-darkness Goth crowd. American Eagle Outfitters, meanwhile, whose figures fell as Hot Topic’s rose, is suddenly soaring, with its stripped-down, cleaned-up khakis flying out the door; July sales were 22 percent higher than they were last year. And Polo Ralph Lauren, whose expensive children’s clothes are the epitome of prep, just reported that profits more than doubled from a year ago.

    Sewell Robinson, 15, from Stonington, Conn., said that many, if not most, of her classmates have kissed grunge goodbye. “That punk look is going away, all those bracelets up the arm. Black and pink is out, and those shirts that say, ‘Funky Monkey,’ ” she said. “Now it’s clean-cut, like looking ‘nice’ for the day.”

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