mixing not matching, a new consumer strategy


The blog sits at is never far from the beating heart of popular culture. Today, we look at costume on the hit television series Housewives.

Cate Adair [costume designer for the show] borrows from both haute couture and thrift shops, mixing and matching high- with low-end, cutting edge with vintage—all with wild abandon.

“I’ll take a fabulous designer skirt and pair it with a pair of pumps I found direct cheap and someone’s grandma’s vintage jewelry,” she says. “I think that’s the way realwomen shop. They’ll splurge on something they really love but also find deals at Target or at the local flea market. That’s how real women express personality in an extraordinary way.”

We know that this is art imitating life. I was sitting in a NYC bar last week and Cheryl Swanson (Toniq) exclaimed that she had been at a NYC dinner party in which everyone was evidencing the high-low strategy in their wardrobe, men and women both.

A new book by Silverstein called Trading Up explains the mixing phenomenon pretty much the way that Adair does. Consumers buy low in order to buy high. That vintage and Target shopping is really about freeing up budget to buy a few things that are extravagance and or indulgence and or status laden.

No doubt, this is part of the story. But it begs a question: why is it suddenly ok to wear things that were purchased on the cheap? (We know some of the factors here: better quality at the low end, and better design as well.)

There may be a deeper motive. I wonder if people are not mixing for cultural reasons as well as economic ones. It’s possible that we are looking at a new strategy of message construction and self presentation.

We know, thanks to Diderot, that there was a Western convention that says that everything in a consumer’s choice set (syntagmatic chain) must come from the same place in the paradigmatic category. Everything, coat, shirt, pants, must be of roughly equal quality, cost, formality and style. You couldn’t mix without looking odd.

But something happened. I think highly redundant cultural creations are not precisely that. When we wear an outfit all from Ralph Lauren, it’s a little like we are telling the same joke over and over again. It’s as if we are repeating ourselves in the most tedious way.

Jonathan Miller has a wonderful little essay in which he talks about the importance of creating characters for the stage that play against type. He says that if you create an “old man” for the stage and you make everything about him, clothing, voice, body posture, read “old,” your character seems almost to vanish from the stage. The secret of successful direction is to add to every character something in their presentation of self that runs against type. This, Miller says, has the effect of a key light (my metaphor, not his). The character now leaps into view.

I wonder if this is not the cultural motive that inspires us to create the mixed message outfit. We are now pretty good readers of the codes of a consumer culture. We don’t need lots of repetition to get it. The use of “genre” to construct looks can let up a little. We have permission to move away from highly redundant codes. But there is another motive. When we mix the message, we become more interesting to look upon. We become more vivid. We become actual. We might even say that this is the sartorial equivalent of the “mash up” that combines two songs, making them both more interesting than either would be alone.

There is lots more to say here. Not least: this is the introduction of post modernism into the life of the consumer. But the lobby of the Sutton Hotel is now deafening. Gotta go!


I am stuck in a Toronto hotel that has no broad band access except for wireless in the lobby. And it’s really noisy here. (“For the love of God will you please pipe down. Can’t you see that I am trying to blog.”) All references here and above are approximate.

Diderot. Xxxx. Thoughts on a new dressing gown. [will supply reference when I get back to CT end of the week]

Finlay, Liza. 2005. Desperate fashion. Rogers TV Guide. January 22-28, pp. 14-15, p. 15.

Miller, Jonathan. [will supply reference when I get back to CT end of the week}

Silverstein. Trading Up.

6 thoughts on “mixing not matching, a new consumer strategy

  1. amoeda

    Mix ‘n’ match has been a dominant trend in women’s fashion marketing and media for several years now. To really immerse yourself in its intricacies, read a few issues of Lucky, the bible of bottom-up, shopper-driven (as oppose to old-school Vogue’s top-down, couture-driven) fashion tastemaking. Pointedly taglined “the magazine about shopping,” it assumes its readers shop at thrift stores, boutiques, department stores and Target in equal measure and features products from them all. The heroines of Lucky are slightly-hipper-than-average Real Women in the glamour industries who fearlessly construct outfits that express their personal styles in features like “Four Girls… One Black Miniskirt,” in which the same piece of clothing is part of one woman’s “glam” look, another’s “ladylike” ensemble, etc. The point is that stylishness is not a condition of compliance with external dictates, but a process of self-authorship. In this view, the more unexpected the source (e.g. Walmart)or combination of items (e.g. Walmart + Cartier), the more admirable your feat. “Highly redundant codes” are not just tedious reading, they’re lazy shopping! This posture strikes me as a reaction to the label-consciousness of the ’80s and ’90s. From the marketer’s perspective, it gives women an ideal that can age gracefully as they do, while encouraging them to maintain the impulsive personal spending habits of their single years even as their lives and obligations change.

  2. amoeda

    p.s. I have yet to notice a corresponding trend in men’s style publishing, even as that category grows. Do men not mix it up? Or do they just not shop?

  3. steve

    The funny thing to me is that the mix-and-matchers are usually far less vivid. I am much more likely to turn my head and look at someone with a coherent “look” than I am some sort of vague potpourri. (Cf. the highly put-together women of Dallas.) Of course, there are always those creative people who invent their own striking eclectic styles, but the key is that the pieces look like they are tightly related even though their provenance is diverse–in effect, they’ve created their own label. An awful lot of the Lucky looks, by contrast, come out as bland averages of disparate stuff.

  4. Lynne

    I think a lot of the result depends on the development of the skill and the eye of the mixer, as well as her self-confidence. For some of us (like me) it has taken a while to learn what shapes are flattering and how to shop for line first and other features second. I find Lucky refreshing because I look at what they are doing and look for the skeletal architecture in the clothes/shoes/accessories, and use that to inform my shopping and mixing. But I’m much better at it than I was even 5 years ago.

    Interesting thoughts about redundant codes and mixing. Am I using redundant codes when I find, for example, that I prefer to wear turtleneck sweaters with skirts and knee-length boots? When I know it’s a flattering combination and I vary the components style, texture, and colors, is that redundant? Or is that simply having learned what works for me?

    Another question: do people want to be vivid? That was not the first adjective that popped into my mind as the objective. Striking, or distinctive perhaps, attractive certainly. But vivid? That’s exactly what I find *un*appealing about the Dallas look.

  5. rkleine

    re. that cite on Diderot. i assume you are thinking of a paper published by grant mccracken. the paper is included in grant’s book, Culture and Consumption.

  6. Liz

    Grant, “wardrobe mixing” is a time-honored feminine strategy, at least in my family. My grandmother used to say, “Your blouse can come from Woolworth’s, if your pearls are real”. My other grandmother would say, “one good piece carries the ensemble” (ensemble being of course an outdated word for ‘look'”. ) This was in the dark ages before women wore trousers and when many women could sew….the strategy would be to purchase a great jacket and some inexpensive skirts and tailor the skirts as necessary for a better fit.

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