Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

11 SEPTEMBER, 2013

How Antidepressants Affect Selfhood, Teenage Sexuality, and Our Quest for Personal Identity


“Though antidepressants are effective at managing negative emotions, they don’t in themselves provide the sense of meaning and direction that a person equally needs in order to find her way in life.”

“Great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them,” Anaïs Nin famously wrote. But what if it doesn’t balance out? What if the emotional excess, believed to be essential to creativity, was of the negative and crippling kind? One need only look at such tragic heroes as Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, Marilyn Monroe, and Kurt Cobain to grasp the gravity of the proposition. And yet we remain ever so culturally ambivalent about alleviating the anguish of mental illness with the same arsenal we use against physical pain: drugs.

In Coming of Age on Zoloft: How Antidepressants Cheered Us Up, Let Us Down, and Changed Who We Are (public library), Katherine Sharpe explores the heart of this ambivalence through an intersection of her own experience, conversation with medical and psychiatric experts, and in-depth interviews with forty young adults who grew up on psychopharmaceuticals. Having spent a fair portion of my own life on antidepressants, and having recently resumed treatment, I was instantly fascinated, both as an observer of culture and a living sample size of one.

Sharpe begins with an anecdote from her college days, in which she and her six roommates arrived at the accidental and highly self-conscious realization that each one of them was, or had been, on one form of psychoactive drug or another — an incident emblematic of the pervasive and profound cultural pattern at the heart of Sharpe’s book. She writes:

It is strange, as a young person, to realize that you have lived through something that can be considered a real historical change, but that’s exactly what we had done. When I was a child, in the early 1980s, taking psychiatric medication was decidedly a fringe phenomenon. Prozac came onto the market in 1987, the year I was eight. The first member of a family of drugs called SSRIs (for “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors”), it quickly became the leading edge of a psychopharmaceutical revolution. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Americans grew ever more likely to reach for a pill to address a wide variety of mental and emotional problems. We also became more likely to think of those problems as a kind of disease, manifestations of an innate biochemical imbalance. Depression, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the like went from being strange clinical terms or scrupulously hidden secrets to constituting acceptable topics of cocktail party conversation — talk that was often followed up by chatter about the new miracle drugs for despair.

Artwork by Bobby Baker from 'Drawing Mental Illness.' Click image for more.

But more than a mere statistically swelling phenomenon — less than two decades after the introduction of Prozac, SSRIs had outpaced blood pressure medication to become America’s favorite class of drugs, popped by about 10% of the nation — Sharpe points out a troubling corollary: In permeating everyday life so profoundly, antidepressants also embedded themselves in youth, with an ever-growing number of teenagers taking psychopharmaceuticals to abate depression, ADHD, and other mental health issues. And while relief from the debilitating and often deadly effects of adolescent depression is undoubtedly preferable over the alternative, it comes with a dark side: Antidepressants confuse our ability to tell our “true self” from the symptoms of the disease, and from the effects of the medication, at a time when the search for selfhood and the construction of personal identity are at their most critical and formative stages. And given the teenage brain responds so differently to life than the adult’s, the implications are even more uneasy:

Rightly or wrongly, antidepressants command powerful emotions; they can lead people to examine their deepest assumptions about themselves and the world.


The notion that depression distorts the true self and that antidepressants merely restore what was there all along has often been invoked against the fear that by taking antidepressants, we might somehow be betraying our true natures. But that belief in particular is one that people who start medication young cannot fall back on. Worries about how antidepressants might affect the self are greatly magnified for people who begin using them in adolescence, before they’ve developed a stable, adult sense of self. Lacking a reliable conception of what it is to feel “like themselves,” young people have no way to gauge the effects of the drugs on their developing personalities. Searching for identity — asking “Who am I?” and combing the inner and outer worlds for an answer that seems to fit — is the main developmental task of the teenage years. And for some young adults, the idea of taking a medication that could frustrate that search can become a discouraging, painful preoccupation.

She relays her own experience:

When I first began to use Zoloft, my inability to pick apart my “real” thoughts and emotions from those imparted by the drug made me feel bereft. The trouble seemed to have everything to do with being young. I was conscious of needing to figure out my own interests and point myself in a direction in the world, and the fact of being on medication seemed frighteningly to compound the possibilities for error. How could I ever find my way in life if I didn’t even know which feelings were mine?

This inner torment makes perfect, if tragic, sense in the context of developmental psychology, the commonly accepted credo of which is that establishing an identity is adolescents’ primary developmental task. When that process is disrupted by folding in the effects of medication, or the adopted inner storytelling that mental illness renders one somehow handicapped or fundamentally flawed, the consequences can be serious and far-reaching:

Though antidepressants are effective at managing negative emotions, they don’t in themselves provide the sense of meaning and direction that a person equally needs in order to find her way in life.

And even though modern psychology does away with the notion of the immutable self — something Nin herself so eloquently articulated more than half a century ago — Sharpe reminds us that despite what we may rationally believe about our scientific selves, we hang on to the romantic ideal of their metaphysical manifestation with emotional fervor:

For the last twenty years, the dominant academic theories of personhood have focused not on the idea of essence but on performance and changefulness, the sense that we don and doff identities at will as we move through our lives. Intellectually, we all know that the true self is more of a metaphor than a literal reality — we don’t really believe that there is some perfectly realized version of each of us hovering out there, just waiting to be discovered like a vein of gold.

But no matter how well we understand the academic critique of the essential self, or how much we feel disposed to dismiss “Who am I?” … most of us still want to feel, in some way, like ourselves. We may never achieve the highly concrete answer to the question of who we are that we first imagine possible as a young teenager — but a notional sense of self is something that we rely on from day to day. … A feeling of authenticity is, admittedly, an intangible thing to lose — but in a society that still prizes a notion of authentic selfhood, however problematic, it can be a significant one.

Artwork by James Thurber from 'Is Sex Necessary?' Click image for more.

Among the facets of selfhood most deeply affected by adolescents’ and young adults’ use of antidepressants, Sharpe notes, is that of sexuality. Every SSRI warning label cautions that the drug might — meaning, to decode the big-pharma-euphemism here, most likely will — produce “sexual side effects” ranging from loss of interest in sex to performance difficulty to inability to reach orgasm. For teenagers, most of whom are only just beginning to experiment with and understand their sexuality — whether parents approve or not — the repercussions can have an additional layer of gravity over the frustration these “sexual side effects” present for adults:

Just as teens don’t have a sense of their baseline adult personality with which to judge whether and how antidepressants may be affecting them, teens also lack a baseline impression of their own sexuality. Adults who are familiar with their own sexual norms will have an easy time knowing when those norms have been upset. But for adolescents who are just growing into their sexuality, the picture can be more mysterious. … Because SSRIs influence not just performance but also a person’s thoughts and desires, these side effects are relevant for teens who aren’t having sex as well as for those who are.

Artwork from 'An ABZ of Love.' Click image for more.

Coming of Age on Zoloft is fantastic and pause-giving in its entirety, embodying the rare bravery of asking important, complex questions in a society that fetishizes simplistic, sensationalistic answers. In a culture where just about the most embarrassing thing is not to have an opinion, Sharpe invites us to form one that is truly our own, however inconclusive and full of what Keats called “negative capability,” rather than a borrowed one that is easier to don but devoid of true understanding. Sharpe herself puts it beautifully:

This book won’t settle those debates, but it does speak to them. Twenty-five years after the introduction of Prozac, we are still collectively attempting to figure out what an appropriate use of medication would look like, in our culture and in our individual lives. We are trying to figure out what our sadness and pain mean — if they mean anything at all — and when they attain the status of illness. We’re trying to figure out when to turn to pills, when to go another route, and how we might be able to tell. … Good answers to the big questions about medication are likely to proceed from careful attention to the actual experiences of the people who have faced them.

For more on how psychoactive drugs affect the romantic and sexual lives of adults, see biological anthropologist Helen Fisher’s excellent analysis of the neurochemistry of desire and SSRIs.

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09 SEPTEMBER, 2013

How to Do the “Step-and-Slide”: The Rules of Avoidance, Alignment, and Attraction for Deft Urban Walking


The intricate art of the pedestrian jig, essential for maintaining personal space in a public place.

Just like the most oft-employed metaphor for the human body is that of a machine, the city is most commonly and comfortably likened to a living organism. But nowhere does this metaphor spring to life more viscerally than on the busy sidewalk of a densely populated metropolis, where people, as if controlled by the strings of an invisible and highly skilled puppeteer, manage to move in a giant, self-correcting swarm without colliding with one another. It is a remarkable sight to behold, a daily miracle in which we find ourselves participating as sophisticated automata, without stopping — not literally, of course, which would be disastrous for this whole invisible dance — to appreciate the astounding mechanisms that make this phenomenon possible.

In On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (public library) — the same magnificent read, my favorite in ages, that demonstrated how much what we call “reality” is framed by the limitations of our selective attention — cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz examines the special skill of the urban pedestrian: a deft and intuitive maneuver known as the “step-and-slide,” which turns out to be the secret to urban swarm management.

One of the eleven experts with whom Horowitz strolls around a city block to learn new ways of seeing is Fred Kent, who founded the Project for Public Spaces thirty-five years ago after collaborating with the great William “Holly” Whyte on understanding the social life of urban spaces. Thanks to Kent, who has been observing the step-and-slide for years, Horowitz breaks down this necessarily mundane yet infinitely curious move, which researchers identified after innumerable hours of watching people walk past one another in the street:

If sidewalk traffic is dense and collision seems imminent, we pull this two-step pedestrian-dance move. While striding forward, the walker turns ever-so-slightly to the side, leading with his shoulder instead of his nose to turn the step into a side-step. We twist our torsos, pull in our bellies, and generally avoid all but the mildest brushes of other people (and if we do brush against someone else, we keep our hands close to our body and our faces turned away from one another.)

But how and why are we able to perform the step-and-slide so effortlessly? Horowitz explains:

One reason all of our step-sliding, pedestrian-jigging works is that we are regularly looking — ahead and at each other. We do not just look to see who is there; we constantly, steadily look to calculate how we need to move relative to those around us. We regularly turn our heads back and forth, to the left and right, surreptitiously peeking at who is behind us or to our sides. When our heads face forward, we survey the scene ahead of us. Our eyes make small saccades. Within a long oval projecting forward from our feet to about four sidewalk squares ahead, we quickly note the direction and pace of anyone headed our way. We also glance at others’ faces, which tell us if they are likewise looking forward into their own long ovals (and whether they are reacting to something surprising or alarming that might be behind us). There is information in the angle of others’ eyes and the turn of their head. Most of the time, people are looking where they are going: gazing straight ahead. But they begin actually inclining toward their destination when it is in sight. Should someone seem to peer over to the doorway of the building down the block, more likely than not, he will walk there directly. Or just follow his head: we all make anticipatory head movements when we are going to turn a corner. Our heads lead our bodies by eight degrees and as much as seven steps, as though all in a hurry to get around the bend. Watch a walker’s head and you can predict his path down to a single step. We learn this without anyone teaching us, and without knowing we know it.

This, of course, begs the inevitable question of what happens when our voluntary modern-day relinquishing of looking — those glowing rectangles that mesmerize us so with their siren calls of email, Facebook, Instagram, tweets, texts, and the like — hinders the very ability to notice the body language and indicative eye gazes of others, which are so critical to the performance of this collective dance. In other words, for every person who walks into a pole while staring at her iPhone, there are several sidewalk peers whose personal step-and-slides have been set off balance by her inability to master her own. This pattern, Horowitz agrees, is an especially malignant form of contemporary social ill that cripples a central convention of urban life:

The importance of this “looking” in the success of the dance comes into play with the relatively new species of pedestrian on the street: phone talkers. Their conversational habits change the dynamic of the flowing shoal. No longer is each fish aware, in a deep, old-brain way, of where everyone is around him. The phone talkers are no longer even using their fish brains: they have turned all their attention to engaging with the person on the phone. They block out their sense of someone walking too close; they fail to look into their walking ovals and step-slide out of the way. They no longer follow the rules that make walking on a crowded sidewalk go smoothly: they do not align themselves (they swerve); they do not avoid (they bump); and they do not slip behind and between others (they blunder). They stop minding the social convention to stay to the right, and weave across lanes of traffic. Texters are as bad or worse: they fail to even move their heads before turning, since they are slumped over to monitor their texting thumbs.

So how does one master the step-and-slide and avoid collision? Horowitz offers three simple, research-backed rules — known as “avoidance,” “alignment,” and “attraction” — for honing your acumen at this pedestrian jig, essential for balancing personal space against public space, personal pace amidst public pace:

  1. Avoid bumping into others (while staying comfortably close). What counts as “comfortably close” — an animal’s “personal” space — will vary by species; what is similar for all animals is that if you follow only this one rule, it forces you to attend and react to the behavior of those in your vicinity. And that is the essence of what is called swarm intelligence: everyone must make movements that are sensitive to everyone else.
  2. Follow whoever is in front of you. “Whoever” need not know where she is going: she may herself be following another. And so on and so on, until you reach the very head of the pack. Even there, the animal at the leading edge is neither leader nor sovereign. In flocks and schools, the role of leader is constantly changing hands. For only a moment will she determine the group’s direction.
  3. Keep up with those next to you. Everyone must speed or slow with attention to those around them. This seems like an impossible calculation, until you realize how little effort you have to pay to walk next to someone else down the street, never once considering how you will be able to keep at the same pace.

These rules of “avoidance,” “alignment,” and “attraction” — keeping apart while staying together — are sufficient to explain all herd, school, flock, and swarm behavior. Artificial intelligence scientists have created animations of mindless “boids” programmed with just these rules: their behavior matches that of swooping sparrows and swarming ants.

On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes is absolutely fantastic — necessary, even — in its entirety. Sample more of the book’s wisdom and mesmerism here. For more on the curious dynamics of city-dwellers, see Whyte’s timelessly insightful The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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06 SEPTEMBER, 2013

How to Build a Universe: Philip K. Dick on Reality, Media Manipulation, and Human Heroism


“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

Philip K. Dick is as well-known today for his era-defining science fiction as he is for the series of unusual experiences he had in the spring of 1974, which he dubbed his “exegesis”. Occupying the intersection of the scientific, the philosophical, and the mystical, the exegesis shaped Dick’s work for the remainder of his life as he contemplated the grandest and most granular building blocks of existence.

In a 1978 speech titled “How To Build A Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later,” found in the altogether mind-bending 1995 anthology The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings (public library), Dick turns his exegesis-driven inquiry to the nature of reality, the mechanisms of media manipulation, and the most steadfast — the only — defense we have against the indignities of manufactured pseudo-reality.

He begins at the very beginning, by examining what reality actually is:

It was always my hope, in writing novels and stories which asked the question “What is reality?”, to someday get an answer. This was the hope of most of my readers, too. Years passed. I wrote over thirty novels and over a hundred stories, and still I could not figure out what was real. One day a girl college student in Canada asked me to define reality for her, for a paper she was writing for her philosophy class. She wanted a one-sentence answer. I thought about it and finally said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” That’s all I could come up with. That was back in 1972. Since then I haven’t been able to define reality any more lucidly.

But the problem is a real one, not a mere intellectual game. Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups. . . . So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing. It is my job to create universes, as the basis of one novel after another. And I have to build them in such a way that they do not fall apart two days later.

This, however, is where things get particularly interesting: Dick argues that reality becomes less real the moment we begin discussing it, for the discussion itself precipitates a dynamic manufacturing of what we perceive to be real, rather than a static contemplation of what is, producing a series of “pseudo-realities” that in turn produce pseudo-humans:

As soon as you begin to ask what is ultimately real, you right away begin talk to nonsense. Zeno proved that motion was impossible (actually he only imagined that he had proved this; what he lacked was what technically is called the “theory of limits”). David Hume, the greatest skeptic of them all, once remarked that after a gathering of skeptics met to proclaim the veracity of skepticism as a philosophy, all of the members of the gathering nonetheless left by the door rather than the window. I see Hume’s point. It was all just talk. The solemn philosophers weren’t taking what they said seriously.

But I consider that the matter of defining what is real — that is a serious topic, even a vital topic. And in there somewhere is the other topic, the definition of the authentic human. Because the bombardment of pseudo-realities begins to produce inauthentic humans very quickly, spurious humans — as fake as the data pressing at them from all sides. My two topics are really one topic; they unite at this point. Fake realities will create fake humans. Or, fake humans will generate fake realities and then sell them to other humans, turning them, eventually, into forgeries of themselves. So we wind up with fake humans inventing fake realities and then peddling them to other fake humans. It is just a very large version of Disneyland.

In a statement with which Mark Twain would enthusiastically nod in agreement and George Orwell would second, Dick admonishes against the way media manipulators deliberately create pseudo-realities by engineering words:

The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.

Ultimately, the only antidote to reality-manipulation is good old-fashioned human heroism, that timeless vaccine of courage and resistance, of freedom from fear, of tirelessly enacting “the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care — with no one there to see or cheer” — in other words, of moral wisdom:

The authentic human being is one of us who instinctively knows what he should not do, and, in addition, he will balk at doing it. He will refuse to do it, even if this brings down dread consequences to him and to those whom he loves. This, to me, is the ultimately heroic trait of ordinary people; they say no to the tyrant and they calmly take the consequences of this resistance. Their deeds may be small, and almost always unnoticed, unmarked by history. Their names are not remembered, nor did these authentic humans expect their names to be remembered. I see their authenticity in an odd way: not in their willingness to perform great heroic deeds but in their quiet refusals. In essence, they cannot be compelled to be what they are not.

The rest of The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings is full of similarly soul-stirring, neuron-stimulating meditations on the burdens and blessings of being human — highly recommended.

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06 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Conspicuous Outrage: Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf’s Nephew, on Sartorial Morality, the Art of Fashion, and the Futility of War


“In sociological studies fashion plays the role which has been allotted to Drosophila, the fruit fly, in the science of genetics.”

In 1923, Virginia Woolf collaborated with her young nephew, Quentin Bell, on their charming illustrated family newspaper, which also precipitated Woolf’s little-known children’s book. But little Quentin, the son of Woolf’s talented sister, the Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell, grew up to be a man of letters and a formidable mind in his own right — an author, historian, and his aunt’s official biographer.

In 1947, when he was thirty-seven, Bell published On Human Finery (public library) — a brilliant meditation on the psychology, sociology, and history of fashion, exploring how the art of dress both bespeaks our greatest human aspiration and betrays our deepest contradictions.

In the opening chapter, titled “Sartorial Morality,” Bell writes:

The study of fashion does not quite lie within [the economists’] province. It is a borderline science, important to the historian in that it exhibits in a pure form the changing impulse of social behavior; to the artist in that here, if anywhere, we can trace a direct relationship between economics and aesthetics.

The charm of the study lies precisely in the ephemeral nature of the subject; in sociological studies fashion plays the role which has been allotted to Drosophila, the fruit fly, in the science of genetics. Here at a glance we can perceive phenomena so mobile in their response to varying effects, so rapid in their mutation that the deceptive force of inertia which overlays and obscures most other manifestations of human activity is reduced to a minimum.

The evidence is moreover abundant, not only without but within, for we have all experienced in our own persons the pains and pleasures of attire. … In obeying fashion we undergo discomforts and distress which are, from a strictly economic point of view, needless and futile. We do so for the sake of something which transcends our own immediate interests.

There exists, Bell argues, a relationship between social morality and sartorial morality, one reflected in the very language with which we describe attributes of clothes and attributes of character — something cognitive scientists have since shed light on in explaining the evolution of metaphors. Bell observes:

Our clothes are too much a part of ourselves for us ever to be entirely indifferent to their condition; the feeling of being perfectly dressed imparts a buoyant confidence to the wearer, and it impresses the beholder as though the fabric were indeed a natural extension of the man. … So strong is the impulse of sartorial morality that it is difficult in praising clothes not to use such adjectives as “right,” “good,” “correct,” “unimpeachable,” or “faultless,” which belong properly to the discussion of conduct, while in discussing moral shortcomings we tend very naturally to fall into the language of dress and speak of a person’s behavior as being shabby, shoddy, threadbare, down at heel, botched, or slipshod.

In many ways, he contends, fashion is a mechanism for exorcising our inner contradictions, that eternal tension between rational needs and irrational wants:

A conflict must always exist between the utilitarian needs of the individual and what we can only call the futile demands of sartorial morality.

In that regard, the history of fashion shares a great deal with the history of sexuality, both riddled with legislative attempts to control human desire and mould it to socially constructed standards of acceptability:

Attempts were made, first to restrain the consumer, and later, when that proved ineffectual, to regulate production. … Nothing was spared in the effort to curb the fashion. But the history of sumptuary laws is the history of dead letters.

The spectacle presented by the history of dress in Europe is therefore one of conflict between two inimical forces existing not only within the same societies but within the same persons (the legislators were frequently among the worst offenders). In that conflict the written sumptuary law and the unwritten laws of public opinion have usually been based upon all that we usually hold most precious in our civilization: our religious and moral standards, our sense of decency and dignity, our concern for public health, our desire to see the lower orders keep in their proper place, our common sense, and our humanity. Nevertheless both public opinion and formal regulations are invariably set at naught; while Fashion, whose laws are imposed without formal sanctions, is obeyed with wonderful docility, and this despite the fact that her demands are unreasonable, arbitrary, and not infrequently cruel.

In the following chapter, Bell goes on to examine precisely what sumptuosity is, proposing that the history of fashion is defined by two forms of context: those aforementioned questions of morality, and matters of specialization, where period and occasion dictate the style of dress. He frames this with a central definition:

Sumptuous Dress [is] that which, whether fashionable, unfashionable, or out of fashion, has in one way or another provoked the respect and admiration of mankind.

He then expands on legendary economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen’s famous theory of fashion, which divided the modes of pecuniary taste into Conspicuous Consumption, Conspicuous Leisure, and Conspicuous Waste, by adding a fourth category: Conspicuous Outrage. He then outlines the defining features of each mode:

Conspicuous Consumption — The simplest and most obvious manner of displaying wealth is to take the greatest possible number of valuable objects and attach them to the wearer’s person… [T]his method of displaying wealth is comparable to the large-scale advertisements that are set upon hoardings; the intention is to astonish and to impress the world at large. … Conspicuous Consumption persists in the ceremonies of the older Churches, on the music-hall stage, the cinema, and in military evolutions of a very public character.


Conspicuous Leisure — The mere demonstration of purchasing power is the simplest device of sumptuosity; much more important is … the demonstration of an honorably futile existence, one that is so far removed from menial necessities that clothes can be worn which impede physical labor. Dress of this kind marks the wearer at once as member of the Leisure Class, one who can exist without working and who is, therefore, demonstrably in receipt of a certain income. We admire such clothes almost instinctively, feeling them to be elegant and dignified, belonging, as it were, to a world in which the wolf has been kept far from the door.

Bell offers some particularly stark examples of attire representing the category:

Collars … have frequently been devised so as to give the wearer an elegant appearance of being strangled. The ruff of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is one example, the epicene choker collar of the early twentieth century another.


The constriction of the waist, which has at various periods included a substantial deformation of the thorax and the hips, is clearly not only a substantial impediment to useful work but to the health upon which such work depends. Corsets, at their most violent, crush in the ribs, constrict the vitals, deform the spine, and by interfering with the digestive processes, induce that eminently genteel disorder, the vapors.


In themselves, when extended to the ground, skirts provide an excellent guarantee of immobility; but their effect is increased by the train, a peculiar symbol of dignity, by lateral extension as a further impediment to free movement, and by constriction as in the hobble, which binds the legs together.

Perhaps the most effectual guarantee of social standing is obtained by means of unpractical footwear.

And yet, Bell argues, fashion necessitates a baseline amount of discomfort in order to establish its hold — but its true grace is in the elegant mastery with which one bears this discomfort and restrains it from excess:

Clothes must always be a graceful encumbrance; to exhibit awkwardness argues an inability to deal with the paraphernalia of polite existence suggestive of a plebeian lack of experience. … A train two yards long is impressive, a train forty yards long is grotesque.

He then moves on to Veblen’s third category:

Conspicuous Waste — A further mitigation of the law of conspicuous leisure is obtained by the existence of certain diversions and occupations which are socially acceptable, which brings us to the consideration of Conspicuous Waste. [It] is in truth a refinement of Conspicuous Leisure. … as it were, the overflow of energy from the simpler forms of sumptuous display; it is not a characteristic of dress, but an important determinant in their fashioning.

Bell gives the example of elaborate funerals, a notable item of expenditure even among the very poor, observing:

The charm of expensive mourning is that it is money thrown away, no return can be expected, it is one of the most conspicuous forms of waste.

But while the rituals of mourning are only a morbid special occasion, similar forms of Conspicuous Waste permeate the everyday fabric of society. Here, Bell makes a remarkable observation about the futility of war beyond its moral and political perils:

For those whose lives are entirely or largely divorced from productive labor much more is required. They must contrive to kill time in occupations which, however active, are patently futile. Economically their lives must be a perpetual burial thereof and their clothes a decent mourning. Thus we have the noble occupations, those which are completely non-profit-making and, from the point of view of the well-being of the community, wholly futile. Of these the chief, and to the historian of fashion the most important, are war and sport.


The importance of war and sport to the student of dress lies in the fact that these occupations have at various times been the chief and almost the only active employment for an entire caste or class, and that they have the double advantage of being not only largely unprofitable but also very expensive. No pains have been spared to make them more so, and although some of the items of expense are of course utilitarian, in the sense of being intended to promote the more efficient prosecution of the campaign or chase, others are purely futile and exist only “that the thing may be done in style.” … It can hardly be denied that in many armies sartorial and ceremonial observances, the practical utility of which have long been forgotten, have been accounted of greater moment than the quality of food or weapons, so that one is at times led to doubt whether the primary object of armies be not to provide a magnificent setting for conspicuous waste rather than to implement the policies of nations.

Bell summarizes Veblen’s trifecta:

Conspicuous consumption is but the putting of wealth upon the person, conspicuous leisure the demonstration of a wealthy ease, and conspicuous waste of wealthy activity.

He then turns to Conspicuous Outrage, his own addition to Veblen’s categories:

Conspicuous Outrage — … It is the aim of fashionable people in certain social conditions to show their indifference, not only to vulgar needs, but also to vulgar ideas. It is a thing that we recognize more easily in manners, language, and morals of the fashionable world than in its dress. We may discern two elements therein: (1) the esoteric, (2) the defiant. The esoteric element is commonly expressed in the form of a special jargon, slang, or pronunciation, as for instance in the use of “pink,” “scarlet,” “brush,” “hounds,” etc., in the hunting field, in the use of French or the dead languages in conversation, of Christian names or diminutives for socially reputable people,and of certain methods of pronunciation in such proper names as Derby, Bertram, Leveson-Gower, etc. The defiant note is struck by the use of obscene language, by the abandonment of refinements of speech which have been vulgarized, by the affected cynicism or piety, and by the rejection of vulgar standards of morality, particularly in matters of sexual behavior.

In clothes conspicuous outrage usually takes the form of an affront to prudery. … Clothes, in so far as they are an instrument of modesty and not of climatic protection, would seem to have originated as a banner or advertisement of the pudenda. … Clothes generalize the shape of the body, reduce it to a more geometrical form and suggest a classical perfection of outline which is rare in nature, and thus is eminently a property of many forms of sumptuous dress.

The relationship between vulgarity and elegance, much like in design, is what defines this aspect of fashion:

Fashionable exposure begins by shocking the vulgar, but it ends by establishing itself as a custom and thus ceasing to shock; its failure is implicit in its success. But so long as there is a development of the mode the quality of outrage is maintained.

Though, sadly, long out-of-print, On Human Finery is very much worth the used-book scavenger hunt or trip to the library.

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