A few months back, I read Rob Henderson‘s seminal work on signalling and anti-signalling. To use a online community term, I’ve been “unable to unsee”. Wherever I see, I see signalling, and anti-signalling. Recently, I thought that some things work as signals to one community but anti-signals to others. And so on.
I was reminded of this a couple of weekends back when we were shopping at FabIndia. Having picked up a tablecloth and other “house things”, my wife asked if I wanted to check out some shirts. “No, I have 3 FabIndia shirts in the washing pile”, I countered. “I like them but maintenance is too hard, so not buying”.
The issue with FabIndia shirts is that they leech colour, so you cannot put them in the washing machine (especially not with other clothes). Sometimes you might get lucky to get a quorum of indigos (and maybe jeans) to put in the machine at a time, but if you want to wear your FabIndia clothes regularly you have no option but to wash them by hand. Or have them someone wash them for you.
That gave rise to the thought that FabIndia shirts can possibly send out a strong signal that you are well to do, since you have domestic help – since these shirts need to be hand washed and then pressed before wearing (the logistics of giving clothes for pressing near my house aren’t efficient, and if I’ve to do it consistently, I need help with that. I end up wearing Tshirts that don’t need much ironing instead).
On the other hand, the black T-shirts (I have several in various styles, with and without my company logo) I wear usually are very low maintenance. Plonk them into the washing machine with everything else. No need of any ironing. I don’t need no help to wear such clothes.
And then I started thinking back to the day when I would wear formal shirts regularly. Those can go into the washing machine (though you are careful on what you put in with them), but the problem is that they need proper ironing. You either spend 20 minutes per shirt, or figure out dynamics of giving them out for ironing regularly (if you’re lucky enough to have an iron guy close to your house) – which involves transaction costs. So again wearing well cleaned and ironed formals sends out a signal that you are well to do.
I think it was Rob Henderson again (not sure) who once wrote that the “casualisation” of office dress codes has done a disservice to people from lower class backgrounds. The argument here is that when there is a clear dress code (suits, say), everyone knows what to wear, and while you can still signal with labels and cufflinks and the cut of your suit, it is hard to go wrong.
In the absence of formal dress codes, however, people from lower class are at a loss on what to wear (since they don’t know what the inherent signals of different clothes are), and the class and status markers might be more stark.
My counterargument is that the effort to maintain the sort of clothes most dress codes demand is significant, and imposing such codes puts an unnecessary burden on those who are unable to afford the time or money for it. The lack of a dress code might make things ambiguous, but in most places, the Nash equilibrium is most people wearing easy-to-maintain clothes (relative to the image they want to portray), and less time and money going in conformity.
As it happened, I didn’t buy anything at FabIndia that day. I came home and looked in the washing bin, and found a quorum of indigo shirts (and threw in my 3-month old jeans) to fill the washing machine. My wife requested our domestic helper to hand-wash the brown FabIndia shirts. While watching the T20 world cup, I ironed the lot. I’m wearing one of them today, as I write this.
They look nice (though some might think they’re funny – that’s an anti-signal I’m sending out). They’re comfortable. But they require too much maintenance. Tomorrow I’m likely to be in a plain black t-shirt again.