An economist’s guide to dressing well
Captain Samuel Vimes, denizen of Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld”, posited the “Boots” theory of socioeconomic unfairness: the rich were rich because they could afford to buy boots that cost $50 today but lasted a decade, while poor Vimes (with his copper’s coppers) was stuck buying $10 boots that wore through in a year. The seemingly cheaper boots would cost him twice as much in the long run, and leave his feet wet most of the year to boot (if you will). Banerjee and Duflo might phrase it differently, but the general concept of capital constraints preventing long-term optimal spending is familiar to any economist.
In theory, then, buying costlier clothes might be prudent in the long run. After all, the actual value of an item of clothing is the purchase price divided by the number of times you wear it: an expensive jacket that you wear every day is ultimately better value than a sale-rack shirt that you only wear once. However, that logic depends on whether your $50 boots are truly going to last a decade. The savings evaporate if you’re liable to lose them, or if you’ll be embarrassed to wear them once fashions change, or if, heaven forbid, some expensive items of clothing are not actually better quality, but just charging for a logo.
That said, a further consideration is whether by dressing to impress you can, for example, acquire a better job that will get you to a higher salary bracket, far exceeding the cost of your fancy threads. “Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy…For the apparel oft proclaims the man,” advised Polonius, a figure of noted acuity. Many economists have similarly suspected that, in the world of business, a fine wardrobe and bland opinions will get you further than the inverse.
However, this is the kind of tricky signalling question where causality is very hard to establish. Do people do well in business because, to quote the economist J.K. Galbraith, they successfully “articulate the currently fashionable cliché”, or because they’re the kind of person with the social and financial capital necessary to climb the greasy pole and to stay on top of fashion trends (without getting too much grease on their outfit)? If you buy a $1,000 dollar suit, will your bosses be impressed, or mortified that you paired last-season’s shirt with the wrong brand of cufflinks? As Marge Simpson once discovered, a $28,000 suit can get you invited to the country club, but once you get there someone will notice that you always wear the same suit. Almost by definition, the kind of class-based signalling that expensive clothing aims to achieve is hard to get right; if it weren’t, it wouldn’t be an effective signal.....MORE
Somehow related at Going Concern, February 2014:
Turns Out Your Non-Diverse Wardrobe Probably Makes You a Better CPA
Guys in public accounting, how many blue shirts do you own? For the ladies, how many of the same cardigan in different colors do you own? I get it, I rotate the same few suits when I actually have to appear in public for work in Washington, with the scarf I tie around my neck the most exciting and varying part of my sensible outfit.
As it turns out, those of you with fewer wardrobe choices might actually be at least as smart as our own president, at least according to this Fast Company piece:
As he told Vanity Fair:
"You'll see I wear only gray or blue suits," [Obama] said. "I'm trying to pare down decisions. I don't want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make."This is because, the Commander in Chief explained, the act of making a decision erodes your ability to make later decisions. Psychologists call it decision fatigue: it’s why shopping for groceries can be so exhausting and judges give harsher rulings later in the day....MORE