Grimmelmann: “Is Fashion a Bad?”


I always enjoy James Grimmelmann’s blog and learn much from his articles. He combines a passion for precision with an unerring sense of the big picture. That’s evident today on the Picker MobBlog discussing Raustiala & Sprigman’s work on IP protections (or the lack thereof) in the fashion industry. Rather than engage the usual dialogue on innovation maximization, Grimmelmann asks flat out: is fashion a bad?

Sure, the fashion cycle may work for the fashion industry, but is that really something we should be glad about? . . . If low IP protection is good for the fashion industry because it enables rapid copying and a quick cycle of obsolescence, and if that cycle involves waste induced by conspicuous consumption, then isn’t a low IP regime a bad thing?

I’m sympathetic with Grimmelmann’s position, and this gap is symptomatic of a larger problem: “most economists believe that the core of economics can be developed with no assumptions at all about what an economy should aim to provide” (Dupre & Gagnier). But I also feel obliged to give the other side its due. And recently, one of the most enthusiastic exponents of laissez-faire here has been Virginia Postrel. Consider this encomium to style:

Even analysts who do not view luxury goods as waste do not [adequately] credit the goods’ intrinsic sensory appeal. . . . [They have] a hard time noticing any qualities beyond status badges and advertising-created brand personas. [But] more is going on. . . . People pet Armani clothes because the fabrics feel so good. Those clothes attract us as visual, tactile creatures, not because they are “rich in meaning” but because they are rich in pleasure. The garments’ utility includes the way they look and feel.

So the challenge for the latter-day Veblen is to disaggregate the “status-conferring” aspect of the fashion from its aesthetic, tactile, and expressive appeal (as Jeff Harrison notes). But as Veblen himself realized, this is an inquiry that has to share in both economic and humanistic approaches. And perhaps it even involves a bit of “norm entrepreneurship” in reinterpreting fashion . . .

Consider, for instance, this view of fashion from Nicholas Xenos’s brilliant Scarcity and Modernity:

[Often] the first function of fashionable objects . . . [is] to distinguish “us” from “them” – it is a negative identity (we are not them) transmitted through an affirmative judgment (the sharing of good taste). . . . [G]ood taste requires the abandonment of fashionable new objects once they have become common currency, and hence no longer marks of distinction–though it sometimes happens that the fashionable set, accustomed to the rapid changes in style necessitated by its precarious social lead, moves on to new styles without the old ones filtering down. . . .

And, finally, this damning conclusion of the book:

Chasing an image of what we would like to be like, we are less likely to be satisfied with what we are at any rnoment. We resent those whom we cannot catch and those whom we perceive as trying to catch us. Consuming is the activity of a democracy of signs; resentment is its final judgment.

Xenos’s account here is both a description and a judgment, designed to shake individuals out of the more routinized forms of status-seeking. Consider this response to a boutique related in Postrel’s book:

“The stuff was just so BEAUTIFUL, and when I looked down at my Old Navy sweater, I couldn’t help but feel a bit wanting. . . . I wanted to leave Rodeo Drive for the same reason I often avoid fashion magazines: not because I don’t care about such trivial stufi but because I DO care, and when I look at these beautiful things, I’m left with an aching feeling of desire and a slight dissatisfaction with my current life. Luxury is incredibly powerful, and it gets to almost all of us, even when we’re told it’s meaningless.”

Xenos would likely see this as a wholly artificial need induced by a consumerist culture. But Postrel actually tries to elevate it:

The status critique sees only two possible sources of value: function and meaning; and it reduces meaning to a single idea: “I’m better than you.” It denies the existence or importance of aesthetic pleasure and the many meanings and associations that can flow from that pleasure. Luxuries, in this view, offer no intrinsic appeal beyond their social signals. But only superficial people, filled with status-anxiety and insecure about their own worth, would care about those meanings. By circular reasoning, then, to be attracted to such goods is to lie a

superficial person.

Postrel then goes on to give several reasons why fashion ought to be valued in itself, as a manifestation of individual freedom, societal openness, and aesthetic sensitivity.

Can Postrel’s and Xeno’s points of view be reconciled? No. But It’s a very important debate, and kudos to James for bringing it out in the open where it belongs. Where do I stand? Well, here are some words of wisdom from Wendy Gordon:

Providing status marks with anti-dilution protection may increase the perceived legitimacy of spending one’s life pursuing a competitive ranking. In the real world, the amount of status competition isn’t fixed; I fear legally protecting status encourages real people to invest more than they should in its pursuit.

Photo: Will Ferrell’s great character Mugatu, deuteragonist of the definitive filmic treatment of the fashion world, Zoolander.

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