This post was originally written for Thoughts & Ideas.
Note: I’m using the word ‘scruffy’ in this post to mean ‘dressing without any regard for the impression it creates for other people; not thinking much about self-presentation; dressing without the awareness of the observer.’ I’m not using the word strictly in its conventional sense
My wardrobe fits in a single suitcase. Not a large one, either. It’s mostly old freebie t-shirts from jobs, the single pair of jeans I buy each year and wear to the point where the lycra gives up, my partner’s old hoodie, a few UO summer dresses shrunken from lazy care, faded plaid shirts, my grandfather’s jumper.
Most days, if I’m not going anywhere, it’s pyjamas or gym clothes. (My partner: “Make sure you mention that you do 90% of your work wearing pineapple booty shorts.”) When I’m out I alternate either the same brown slip dress or floral jumpsuit, both formerly my mother’s. For anything of vague formality, a stand-by black blazer (also my mother’s) and white linen shirt that somehow give me a put-together vibe.
For most of my adult life, I’ve avoided investing much time or money into my appearance. Clothes always fall somewhere near the bottom of my list of financial priorities. Nor do I prioritise dressing nicely time-wise.
I don’t look scruffy much of the time because I can’t afford to dress smartly.
I don’t dress particularly smartly because I can afford not to. I can afford to move through the world without constant awareness of the impression I create upon others, without the knowledge of the assumptions they make.
Scruffiness is not always a matter of disadvantage. It is a form of privilege.
To dress in a scruffy way when you have the financial means to look smart is a subtle luxury. It is the privilege of those who do not need to worry about being taken seriously, about being looked at and dismissed. It is the privilege that accompanies wanting to be dismissed, a twisted form of confidence.
In biology, signalling theory refers to the idea that some animals convey information about themselves to others of their own species and animals of other species through ‘signals’; anything that is meaningful on account of the fact that it is costly.
A classic example of this is birds that have elaborate, colourful, unwieldy plumage. Growing and maintaining this kind of plumage requires a huge amount of energy, but doesn’t directly contribute to helping the bird, say, find food. It also makes them more visible to predators. Only a strong, healthy bird can survive with that kind of handicap, being able to both get away from predators fast enough and find enough food to sustain its impractical feathers.
Prospective mates are instinctively aware of this and opt for the most extravagant looking birds because they must have the best genes. This signal has value because it’s impossible to fake — the cost of the signal is the information.
Much of the way we dress is about signalling.
You don’t wear a suit (or similar classic formal attire) to a job interview because it confers some practical utility during the interview. You wear it because it signals to the interviewer that you are taking this seriously, you’re professional, you’re making an effort and so on.
Countersignaling is signalling by not signalling. Primates do it and possibly some other animals, but this seems to be mostly confined to humans. We countersignal when we are so confident in a given area that we feel no need to signal about it.
A well-qualified person in a high-demand field, such an experienced programmer, doesn’t need to wear a suit (or equivalent) to a job interview. In the same way that the most intelligent people don’t feel the need to flaunt their qualifications and the most confident people don’t talk about how great they are. Restaurants with high hygiene ratings are less likely to display them.
Dressing in a scruffy manner when you have the means to do otherwise is countersignaling. It shows that you don’t need to convey a particular impression through your clothes. A Quartzy article by Annaliese Griffin applies this to the way parents dress their children:
‘But letting my child look like a slob also says something else: that I’m not particularly worried that anyone is going to judge my parenting or my home because of what my child is wearing or how clean his fingernails are. That’s a privilege, in a society that broadly stereotypes poor parents as lazy, drug-addicted, or inattentive — one with a child welfare system that treats low-income families with tragic indifference… My son’s rag-tag appearance conveys just as clearly that I’m benefiting from my white, middle-class privilege as if I dressed him in a bonnet or a designer bomber jacket.’
Most of the time, I do not need to think about what people I encounter think of me. Mostly, I prefer to be invisible. If people judge me in a negative light for how I dress, their judgement is not dangerous to me.
I am young, white-passing, not overweight, and able-bodied. I present in a stereotypically feminine way. I’m not attractive enough to draw attention on the basis of my appearance in most contexts.
For the most part, I work from home and encounter few situations where it’s necessary to create a particular impression. My work is not customer facing. I don’t mind people assuming I’m poorer than I am (as they often do) because that assumption carries little weight and can indeed be safer. All of this means that my appearance is fairly neutral. If that weren’t the case, I would need to put far more thought in.
Looking scruffy because doing otherwise is unnecessary is the reverse of conspicuous consumption.
It is the choice, made by default more often than not, to opt out of that game. But not everyone gets that option. There’s evidence to suggest that white people spend a small proportion of their income on visible signs of wealth (including clothes) than people of colour. The difference is probably not a matter of preference; it’s about one group being stereotyped as of a lower socio-economic status than the other. Meaning a greater need to signal and compensate for that.
We present ourselves in the ways we can afford to.
The point here is that it matters that we’re aware of some of the more indirect forms of privilege and disadvantage, and how they affect our lives. It’s easy for those of us with the luxury of scruffiness to pour scorn on those who don’t, viewing their concern for appearances as frivolous. But doing otherwise is not always an option.