why are americans less stylish than europeans/japanese?

From Bob Unwin:

i mean style in clothing, but the same question could be asked about taste in architecture, interior design and other domains. (blog post by a fashion person: http://bangsandabun.com/2010/03/europeans-dress-better-than-americans-fact/)

1. greater average distance to a major fashion center. both physical and cultural distance.

2. less urbanization [these points 1&2 were maybe more important in the past]

3. distance from europe and few of the relevant european style-leaders emigrating

4. different signaling aims (more internal cultural diversity and weaker class distinctions; male clothing needing to be less ‘gay’ and more conventional).

5. any relation to the late blooming of US visual art and music on the world scene?

6. american is more informal in style and has been an influential exporter of informal styles (this doesn’t undermine the general point about the style difference)

related question: are there any fashionable american economists? i’d be especially interested in any that dress like artists or literary intellectuals.


As for stylish economists, Chris Blattman looks pretty damn sexy in his blog photo

From someone who has lived on both sides of the Atlantic
7 (different from 4). Lower Gini coefficient in Europe leads to harder-to-signal status and pulling women. Thus dress is much more important as a signal, including brand and style. I am able to place Europeans immediately into their class based on dress. This is much more difficult in the US. You can see the same in car brands, where in Europe, cars are an endless source of conversation and the car you drive defines you. In the US, at least where I live, a car is usually just a means of transportation.
8. Variance in the US is much higher in dress style, but also in architectural style. Are we not discussing aesthetic variance or homeogeneity here instead of aesthetic quality.

But most important I think :
9. Much greater European deference to authority and leaders. European intellectuals have a much greater influence than US intellectuals, and the same is true for dress leaders.

So are Europeans also going way into debt to buy land rovers and such (like Americans)? Clothes and cars seem like very poor signals because they're what poor people spend all their money on. Of course I guess the question is what is a better signal and I don't know.

Hmm ... I am not sure I agree with the comment on cars. At least not for certain immigrant groups. The car you drive is a huge issue among Desis and West Indians. Even in NYC. You do not want to be a desi male looking for a wife without a ride that signals high professional accomplishment and you certainly don't want to be using the bus in a metro area where the norm is to drive to work. I suspect it is the same among Middle Easterns and Hispanics. Perhaps the first three groups are too small to affect the national tendency and too many Hispanics are unable to afford a car.

let me second the dissenting opinion on car signals in the US. i dunno where ad*m lives but pretty much everywhere i've lived in the us the car you drive is a pretty big indication of your economic status/taste. im sure in certain immigrant groups it's a thing too, but i really do believe us culture is a huge 'car snob' culture, even if the majority has awful taste in cars.

9 is an interesting point that sounds right to me

I guess I have no real evidence, but I always see poor people driving expensive cars, so unless it's a ferrari I really have no clue if someone with a nice car has money or not. And anyway, can you tell what model year it is? What if the person bought it used?

As an American (who's lived in Europe):

in the US, obesity is a huge signal of the ever-expanding (in both senses) lower/lower-middle/proletarian class. Being obese makes it inherently hard to dress stylishly.

You have a lot more physically fit (hence attractive) lower-class people in Europe. So I find it harder to tell class in Europe for that reason.

10. People have many other domains to compete on.

The US is a protestant puritanic country. Protestanism stresses the inner values of a person more than catholicsm.

Um...no. Go to any bar in America on any given night and you'll find women dress far from 'Puritanical'.

Might Fred be alluding to some unobserved variable which explains both a proclivity toward Protestantism and a tendency to be less fashionable?

Nick, you may be right or you may be wrong, but citing some exceptions does NOT refute a generalization.

Sure, but the same holds true for the original statement. I'm taking a leap, but it seems the original implication is Protestants dress less fashionably because it goes against their religion. I see very little evidence of that in America.

hrm, as a Catholic I will accept this thesis. I suppose I am much more attractive than you Proddies. :P

Only your dress.

In my experience, "Yankeeland" (that is, New England, and the parts of the US settled by the New England diaspora such as the (pre-silicon valley) SF bay area), has a kind of Protestant dowdiness, i.e. beat-up old clothes, that I always assumed was Calvinistic.

However, I also noticed it in the "Lutheran belt" of northern Germany, Scandinavia and Estonia. I guess those are both varieties of Protestantism.

The parts of the US settled by non-Protestants -- Italians and Jews for instance -- i.e., the Mid-Atlantic, New York, South Florida, and the Persians and Armenians of today's L.A., and the Russians in New York -- are much more flashy and label-conscious, what I would call tacky (speaking as a Protestant).

Traveling in Italy I saw Italians as flashy and label-conscious, yet somehow not tacky. They could teach their American cousins a lesson. Never been to Russia, Armenia, Iran, Israel, etc., for comparison.

American culture -- at least in the 20th century (Westerns, Rock-n-Roll) -- ranks coolness above stylishness, and while they sometimes go together, stylishness always risks seeming gay (particularly if you're not cool enough to pull it off), and "gay" is the antonym of "cool". When an American woman (no matter how politically liberal she may be) wants to insult a guy's style, she often says "that looks gay".

Actually, American women usually think that gay men dress better than straight men. I think you're confusing "an American woman" with "a high school hockey player".

What does "style" ("in clothing") even mean here?

Just fashion-following?


The concept of style is not all that controversial. To what degree do individuals consciously assemble outfits and wardrobes to create an attractive appearance. It may be consciously cutting edge, consciously counter cultural, consciously attractive-casual or consciously professional. Conscious decisions and tradeoffs that suggest that the contributions of clothing to appearance are in some way of value.

Looking like Steve Jobs, or like a rap star.

I totally agree. I'm sure Bob has a concept of what style is, but so do a lot of Americans. Many people can tell the brand of a plaid shirt from 40ft away by the buttons or subtle differences in the pocket. That old t-shirt someone is wearing may have taken them countless trips to vintage stores. You can often guess what kind of bars a person likes from their shoes. How many of these European designs originated from a blend of Seattle grunge and New York art scene?

I think our heritage of greater military success compared to, LOL France & Italy, plays a part, in that military personnel wear uniforms and abjure individualized styling.

Your aware that both France and Italy had been racking up "military succesess" for hundreds of years before we even existed right?

You are aware that 'Italy' did not exist until 1800's? Romans perhaps?

There is some truth to this about style.

I am aware of an Italian graduate PhD marketing student in the US who studied style diffusion based on foreign and US magazine pictures and traced changes across the style conscious network in the US. Diffusion went both ways, particularly with young urban styles being copied from the US. The person looked at it from clothing, handbags, and shoes. He also looked at Asian influence that impacted European design--that is, European style makers designed for Asian and European markets, and were sensitive to Asian trends or sensibilities as well.

Why or if Europeans are more stylish may be a factor of what alternatives exist for being a peacock. In the US, we have a car culture; in Europe, less so because you have to find parking and there is greater urban density with less urban car infrastructure (narrow roads, less parking, old cities). In Europe, men dress more impressively than US men; consequently, potential mates (women) escalate their dressing as well as this is the mode of competition and attraction.

But Europeans argue that their cars are more stylish.

How many European men use cars to attract women?

Ted, There cars can be more stylish. The point is that male competition does not center around cars, but rather clothes and appearance.

Well, a Porsche works in europe as well

What proportion of men in Europe can buy a Porsche? Of course some men in Europe can buy Porsches, but is that the modality of competition among men for women if few men can buy Porsche's. How many more are well dressed relative to how many use cars to compete? And, where do you park it.

In Europe men who drive BMWs get more action than men who drive Porsches. Men who drive Porsches are prissy. My mom drives a Porsche, I consider it feminine.

To give an example in the differences in male dress style, our firm's European office had a difficult time introducing casual Friday in its Brussels office. (They could not be seen by a client in shirtsleeves and without a coat.) It had to be explained that this was an option, not a requirement, to the relief of the well dressed who carried on their traditions.

Another difference is male watches.

Heh - if I met a customer while wearing a suit & tie, I'd be afraid that they wouldn't take me seriously as an engineer. Silicon valley is definitely its own universe in that regard, I guess - Shorts, t-shirt and checkerboard Vans means nobody will second-guess your qualifications.

It's beyond me as to why anyone would wear a watch in 2012.

Easier than always pulling out your phone.

Seriously?! That's an engineer for you, I guess ;)

You wear a Patek Philippe or whatever to signal to the ladies, "I can afford to spend $$$$$$$$$$$ on this watch".

Plus, those watches are damn fine pieces of engineering, which you ought to appreciate.

Watches are also great for checking out the time inconspicuously, specially when
dealing with boring people, specially when you don't want to offend them by pulling out your phone which is so obvious and
cumbersome at times.

Nobody who has seen the average Renault could possibly take that argument seriously.

The Avantime makes the Pontiac Aztek look sexy. The Twingo is ass-tastic. The Clio is craptacular.

The Peugot 100 and 200 series cars look like low budget Hondas of yore. You know, the ones that Motor Trend mocked mercilessly (e.g. Honda Quaalude).

There are some good looking cars at the top end, but I'd say that once you get into the Cadillac price range, you'd be hard pressed to European car that's more stylish, at least for a +/- 15% price range.

On the cars bit, you could not be more wrong. In certain E countries, the car is paramount, In eastern Europe the most. And yes, for a few decades now, European cars have been more stylish, because there is a market for that.
Europe does not have a car culture? You're thinking Europeans way to "enlightened", just like many Americans assume they are more cultured. After all, Top Gear went to the US from Europe, not the other way around.

Where do you park a car in a big European city when you live in an apartment and there is the metro outside your door?

In the garage below the building.

AT, I am not disagreeing that cars are not a method of male competition, but, given urban density and alternative methods of transportation, I still doubt this is a primary method of competition, and thus competition would proceed along different lines.

So, help me a little to understand:

Question 1: In Paris, London, Berlin or Madrid, if you are going out on a date would you: 1) arrive in your car to pick up your date to drive her to the destination where you would park the car; 2) meet at her place and take public transportation or a cab to the event; 3) meet her at the event, after both of you took a cab or public transportation.

Question 2: How frequently do you take your date out into the country on a joy ride as opposed to staying in the city and not using a car.

Question 3: How much of your living expenses (rent, food, etc.) is a car and do you use public transportation or a car for commuting to work.

One more question: What is the median age of the first time male car purchaser and what is the income level of that purchaser.

What's the passing score on this exam?

You get to take it twice and pick your high score, and I will issue a certificate upon completion.

You are right, in dense cities, cars are not used as often as in rural areas. However, both exist in Europe. Urban people often resort to other ways of signaling status than having an expensive car. Instead, the flat you live in normally serves as indicator.

Btw: related to cars, the Swiss have an interesting way of signaling status. Instead of buying an overly expensive car, they buy an overly expensive license plate. The fewer digits, the better. A good license plate (four digits in a populated area-code) easily costs over 10'000 CHF. It's like short domain names in the internet. When you see a three-digit or even two-digit license plate, you can assume that it was more expensive than the car. The nice thing is that this fits nicely with Swiss culture, because you can signal status in a way that does not waste resources (nothing luxurious is consumed), and it offers deniability of bragging as the license plate might have been inherited and already been in the family for a long time.

The Swiss were not the only people to conceive of such a scheme! Low-number license plates also figured in the status wars of older Massachusetts, as in the contest between (Irish) James Michael Curley and "Brahmin" i.e. Anglo-Protestant Henry Lee Higginson.


Plus, don't get a New Yorker started on the value of having a 212 (telephone) area code...

In the US, "style" is the unique and personal, mass produced and sold in high volume.

After all, anything done with lots of local American labor is too expensive, so contract it to Asia or Africa to drive down costs to $1 per, then sell it for $100, but then mark it down a week later to $50, because a million units need to be sold, then down to $20 in a box store, then down to $10 in an outlet, then down to $5.

In Europe, they just don't understand how it is better to outsource everything to Asia and Africa and insist on unique local low volume production, letting it be copied by Americans who mass produce it in high volumes after reducing costs, because after all, style is disposable and should not waste money on quality.

1) the cost of European labour is more or less the same as US labour (if not higher due to higher taxes and regulatory compliance costs)

2) most European brands have outsourced most production to Asia as well

3) there are lots of cheap mass produced clothes in Europe as well

What is style?

My vote is for an American preference for 'practicality' and a consequent rejection of stylishness.

I work in the design field (architecture), and I can say for certain that even wealthy successful americans and business persons are just against style in the abstract. It has no value, and is consequently not worth the expense. These are people who are sophisticated enough to know good style and are well-traveled.

The typical American perceives no value in style or art. And it seems to be a conscious choice from where I can see it. And I have worked in many regions of the US.

That's what former Consumer Reports editor David Champion, an Englishman, said about cars. Europeans are more concerned with style than functionality.

'Europeans are more concerned with style than functionality.'
Like the style of driving 150mph an hour on the autobahn - though maybe this a case where form follows function?

How many people drive 150 mph on the autobahn?

But note that British people are also less stylish than Europeans, and most of the proposed explanations are false for Britain.

I think Doc Merlin has it right.

Yes. Latins are much more stylish than Germanics, it is true.

A 25-year-old lower-middle-class Italian on a motor scooter is infinitely more stylish than his counterpart in Germany or Britain, to say nothing of the US (shudder).

I offer a number of proposals:

1. TV

2. The conviction that America is the greatest nation in the world and has nothing to learn from other countries. This was actually true after World War II and has been slow to fade. Americans don't imitate European styles. Europeans and other peoples imitate American styles, it has been American mass culture that has spread around the world, though this seems to have been less the case in recent years.

3. An anti-aristocratic bias in American ideology, which hardened after World War II due to factor # 2. Communist countries that celebrate the proletariat are not noted for their stylishness (I realize the Soviet Union at certain times was an exception). To the extent the American ideology differs from that of Communist Russia and Communist China, it celebrates the kulak. But the idea is basically the same, the nation is centered culturally around the "middle class" and these people are fine as they are and don't need to change their style, its the elites that must cater to them.

I'll note that before World War II, American tastemakers paid far more attention to what is going on in Europe. There was a drive to build American cities so they were as beautiful as Paris. Walk around the parts of cities that were built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and where the architecture survives, and you can see this.

Also, stylistically, Latin America seems to take much more after Europe than after the US, though most of my experience has been in the larger cities.

Most Soviet "style", where it wasn't actively ugly, or very dated-appearing (socialist realism), was military fashion. Which, to the post-WW2 generation, reads "Nazi". So despite our glorification of things military, we did not make our military look more stylish, nor did military styles permeate broader culture until camouflage escaped into mass culture.

" This was actually true after World War II"

After WWII America had "nothing to learn from other countries"?!?!

Those who think "Europeans" have more style than Americans (by which I assume they mean the US) don't appear to have been to: England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Czech, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Serbia, Slovenia, Albania, Romania, Poland, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine...


And Japan???? Has the author ever been to Japan? The clothes are bland, and the exterior architecture may well be the worst in the world.

This was my first reaction as well. Japan?!

I live in Eastern Europe, and had an American friend be amazed at how many people buy expensive cars they can't afford and how women don't go out to a simple errand without make up and a nice outfit.

1. Buying a more expensive car than you can afford makes you stupid, not stylish.
2. Dressing up in a nice outfit to go out does not make a person stylish. If it did, America would be the most stylish nation every Sunday.

"Buying a more expensive car than you can afford makes you stupid, not stylish."

Those aren't mutually exclusive attributes. Puritanical American that I am, I've always kind of assumed that they're positively correlated.

Or even most of rural France

The term "Americans" when referring to nationalities always refers to people from the USA. The only time this could possibly be confusing if you are referring to people from both South and North America simultaneously which hardly ever happens.

Clearly Norman Pfyster has never been to Germany, Austria, Poland, Russia, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands or Serbia. I suppose this comes down to a question of taste.

But I have been there (lived in Germany and Switzerland and traveled elsewhere). Sorry to bust your assumptions. And if it is all a matter of "taste," then the original post is meaningless.

For most stylish economist, I nominate Sam Peltzman. Hands down the most careful dresser in the profession over the last fifty years.

That is the elephant in the room.
Well is it relevant to assume
that a man who wears perfume
is automatically matically fay?

But look at his quoft and crispy locks.

Look at his silk translucent socks.

There's the eternal paradox.
Look what we're seeing.

What are we seeing?

Is he gay?

Of course he's gay.

Or European?

Gay or European?
It's hard to guarantee
Is he gay or european?

Well, hey don't look at me.

You see they bring their boys up different in those charming foreign ports.
They play peculiar sports.

In shiny shirts and tiny shorts.
Gay or foreign fella?
The answer could take weeks.
They will say things like "ciao bella"
while they kiss you on both cheeks.

for hair length and color, clearly justin wolfers
for corporate midtown manhattan sensibilities, probably dombisa moyo
for 19th-century british-bureaucrat-chic, jeff sachs
for down-home mr rogers / sunday best, paul romer
for facial hair...well that's a colossal sector-wide failure, i'm stumped.

Because Americans are all proles?

Kevin Tsui down at Clemson for most stylish economist.

Um, not that I am an economist or anything, but don't economists sometimes look at... prices? Does price play a role here at all? I am not saying it DOES, just asking if anyone has price data. When I lived in London, and later in Milan, and I asked this question, I was told by women (so I have maybe 8 data points, which ain't hardly enough, of course) that European women's clothing is fairly expensive relative to American women's clothing, leading them to buy fewer items that "looked nicer" rather than rafts of "cheap stuff." Beats me if this is even remotely correct, but I am trying to make the general point that one might want to at least investigate pricing...

- Higher average body fat % in America (both mean and median) compared to Europe and especially Japan.

- Europeans and especially Japanese are "seen" by a lot more (mostly new) people every day traveling on public transit to school/work vs. Americans driving to the office and seeing the same group of people most days. You want to put your best face forward, especially when those other people are as well.

- In Japan and Korea, there is a sort of honor code that says "if you are wearing a suit to work, you care about your job/are a conscientious employee" and you are also signalling that you have a decent, white-collar job. A significantly higher % of jobs REQUIRE (formally or de facto) you to wear suit + tie than Europe, which in turn has more REQUIRED suit+tie jobs than the U.S. as % of total jobs.

Really? So blacks are less stylish? (that is your first point - this is the "fat" demo in the US)

Excellent point.

Or to use the stylish (and guffaw-inducing) equivalent:


It's bimodal. The "urban" (i.e. black) underclass is morbidly obese and completely without interest in self-presentation in an unparalled way -- i.e. wearing big baggy gray sweat suits to any and every occasion.

But one notch up from that, you start seeing much higher spending on fancy clothes and shoes.

The premise of the question is false. Americans are not less stylish than Europeans. More people follow the styles of Americans (such as, e.g., Jay-Z) than follow the styles of Europe (e.g., Yves Saint Laurent).

"When I shop so much I can speak Italian" — Kanye

It is all down to the space one has to store stuff, including clothes. Americans are used to living in wide open spaces with lots of room for their stuff. Human beings be they American or European fill whatever space they have with stuff. This is true regardless of how much money or room they have. Having more space requires that Americans spread their consumption dollars a little bit more thinly across all categories of consumption. To accommodate this natural nesting instinct, Americans define "value" as the ratio of physical amount of stuff to the cost of that stuff. Europeans, having less space, define value using more non-volumetric qualities of the stuff, e.g. how something looks. An American would sooner buy 10 ugly shirts with some sort of crazy fruit pattern on them than 2 stylish shirts at the same total cost. Likewise, an American would sooner buy a big plate of food that tastes like horse manure than pay the same amount for a tastier, much smaller yet still adequate meal.

Because Americans outside of a select few cities don't give a shit what the rest of the world thinks of them. Literally most of America doesn't care about "fashion"

America is the tallest building in the world. FACT

Many americans care very little about 'style' and are more concerned with other qualities. Perhaps this is a good thing?

Some cities like Milan just ooze style. So many little details of life are just effortlessly stylish. But many cities in Europe, particularly eastern Europe aren't remotely stylish and are completely tone deaf to any kind of fashion sense.

Yes Warsaw is horrendous. Germans razing the historic distric to the ground will tend to do that.

Is it just the U.S. or the whole Anglo-Sphere? I don't think Canadians, Britains, Australians, and New Zealeanders dress much differently than us. (excluding climate differences)

I think younger Brits are certainly fashion conscious. It only when they discover that --no matter what they do -- their teeth will give them problems and that they age badly, that they give up.

I do think it's slightly more interesting to limit the question a bit more though: why are Europeans over the age of 30 more stylish than Americans over the age of 30? Most teens and young adults are all stylish according to whatever culture they're a part of. But why do so many middle aged Americans just sort of give up and default to a low quality, less flattering sort of a uniform? I *think* that it might be influenced by the whole cult of busyness theory - I'm too busy to keep up with something as unimportant as fashion. Stylishness requires some leisure time to do properly. You have to be knowledgeable about what is stylish, where to get it, and what's a good price. You then have to know what is a good option for you. All of this takes time. If you think how you present yourself visually is trivial, you won't take the time to do it. You might in fact start to be proud of your mom jeans and your pleated front dockers (sorry guys, no love more those)(also, they don't allow for a narrower waist, they add bulk where you need it least) since they're a sign of your commitment to more important things.

Or you just get busy, fall out of style and then are too intimidated to do the work to figure out what you need to do. Or you gain weight and the research gets stressful so you avoid it (and often weight gain can be traced back to the busyness problem too).

One theory among many. I agree with most of the ideas in this thread.

+1 for spotting the age issue.

For an example of "i'm too busy/important to care" see Steve Jobs's uniform. Paul Graham has written about this iirc (if he hasn't he should).

I would add that there is substantial conformist pressures both in former English colonies (US/Can/Aus/NZ) and the Continent. The difference is that in Paris and Rome one tries to emulate elite tastemakers; in Des Moines one strives to not be a tall poppy, fashion-wise.

alternate spin on age issue: at some point, many Americans grow up and realize that fashion is a silly game of 'Simon says'.

I think this is a major explanatory factor. I would say the age issue is a combination of what you describe (which I would summarize as, if I work in an office where my peers poorly, and even my supervisors and/or clients mostly dress worse than I do, why should I spend time and money on fashionable workplace attire? And with the convergence of the business and casual wardrobes, unfashionable work clothes lead to unfashionable attire overall), and marital status.

I also think that the lack of proximity to the metropolitan fashion centers is a major factor. I used to live in DC, and I had all sorts of options downtown, or in Georgetown, or in the nicer suburbs, and DC isn't even particularly fashionable, as cities go. Now that I'm in grad school in a more rural area, as my clothes start to wear out, I'm not even sure where I can get fashionable clothing, unless I either buy online (risky with many clothes) or allot significant proportions of my scarce time on rare trips to major cities to shopping for clothes.

Well I think the major issue is sampling and trying to compare like with like. Europeans who travel and have money dress to a certain standard and aesthetic and many would say that that style/aesthetic is preferable to a "American" well off aesthetic. Luxury European brands tend to about fit and materials versus more business or smart "preppy" style. Plenty of good reasons suggested above why that might be the case and I think fair to say that it in general for similar status groups "Style" means more to Europeans. Not to be put together, say with a baggy suit, old man jeans etc... is a statement about you, your status and how much you care. Changing in US but still behind.

But you only need to travel within Europe to see that different socio economic groups do not confirm to a "European" style as we understand it. Lots of very loud and bad clothing is seen in every small town and village. Be it their own unique take on cheesy eurotrash clothing or very bad versions of American style - can I have the polo player logo a little bigger and on both arms please.....?

One of the biggest consistent differences I witness is the use of color in different countries.

I'm from California, my wife is from Germany, and we live in New Jersey and met in Pennsylvania. Neither of us are afraid to use color. However, my palette is much more saturated than hers; hers was much more pastel. There's a great photo of our families when we got married, and the color differences were vividly clear. However, we could both laugh at the East Coast uniform of brown/gray/black (or dark blue for Penn Staters).

Back in the 90s, my wife complained that all the American businessmen wore dark suits, white shirts, and red ties. I turned around and pointed out all the Germans wore blue shirts and yellow ties. She grabbed a German magazine to prove me wrong... and failed.

But, yes, I've traveled around in the hometowns of lots of Europeans, and sure enough, there is plenty of bad fashion. It doesn't get airplay, because, hey, who wants to look at that?

Are there any stylish heavy people, American or European?

Oh no, why are suburban wal-mart shoppers less stylish than the 20-somethings walking about in Paris when I visit? I'm so confused.
Also, why are middle-aged Americans in the suburbs where I live so much fatter than the young people hanging out in nightclubs in London?! How is this possible?
I am so confused why the most interesting attractions in a foreign country are more impressive than my everyday suburban environment in my home country. I can only conclude that my home country is radically deficient in some manner.

You just won the thread.

Well, that and the lack of dryers. And an increase in ironing.

The map is not the terrority.

It's not just selection bias. I walk past CBS Studios in the San Fernando Valley and the production assistants and aspiring starlets who work there wear relatively bland, utilitarian clothes compared to the fancifully dressed Japanese high school students at the Japanese boarding school nearby.

Your comment just made me think that a lot of folks are talking past each other here because they're mentally defining "stylish" in two very contradictory ways.

1. Possessing a deep understanding of and confidence in who you are and an innate understanding of which clothes, cars, buildings, etc. will enhance your innate and individual strengths. This sort of "stylish" is both timeless and effortless. A person who possesses it will look different than others in his society, even those of the same age and class, but almost exactly the same as his past/future self.

2. Adapting ones appearance and purchasing choices quickly and repeatedly to reflect rapidly changing trends in dress, technology, architecture, etc. –even if those trends to not flatter them (i.e. skinny jeans on anyone fatter, or more muscular, than a pixie). These folks strive not only to spend real money and make real effort on appearance but also to make it very obvious to all observers that money has been spent and effort made. These people will look almost identical to friends who live the same life but utterly different ten years from now (or perhaps even one year from now).

I know the sort of modish Japanese teen/twentysomething you're talking about and they are clearly stylish in the second sense, so half the readers will be nodding right along with you while the others will be wondering why you think them stylish at all.

A lot of the comments are like that. We need to define terms.

Japanese schools kids wear all kinds of crazy stuff (like "Goth Lolita" style)- when they are out of school. In school, they wear uniforms (seifuku and gakuran).

But all Japanese office men wear a uniform of sorts - dark suits (navy or black) with white shirt and subdued tie from October - April and gray suit from May - September. Clean white dress shirts are available at 7-11's for when you karaoke all night and miss the last train home.

Is this a bogus question? I thought matters of beauty and aesthetics are not within the domain of economics?

Incorrect. Economics treats everything as if it was a matter of aesthetics (see subjectivism).

Then you are wrong. Economics is the study of "value". That's why it's so hard. Far too many people, and economists, forget that.

Americans are more individualistic, and individualists are less concerned with impressing others; less likely to play by or put up with arbitrary rules; and less likely to spend time, effort, and money on things that aren't personally important to themselves. This is consistent with the observed gradual evolution in the U.S. from a European sense of style to a utilitarian American sense of style. "Form follows function" is consistent with utilitarianism and the American style in general, and is seemingly irrelevant in European style, at least when it comes to clothing.

There's something to be said about the bad guys' sense of style in the Hunger Games here and the heroes' response: we choose not to play by your arbitrary rules.

Americans are pressured to conform to a mediocre standard. See also American anti-intellectualism.

"Pressured" into wearing comfortable, utilitarian, reasonably-priced, simple clothing? Why would that require pressure? Pressured by whom? For what reason?

I think you are mistaking anti-authoritarianism for anti-intellectualism.

Yes, americans are fairly utilitarian.
The "tactical pants" style craze in the US is a good example of this. Although, my friends tell me that 5.11's are less durable than they used to be.
Blue jeans are another example of this.

Americans are more individualistic and so dress uniformly blandly?

Makes little sense.

The same reason they are more likely to ride unadorned normal bicycles than unicycles, tricycles, or 10-ft tall bicycles. You can call two wheels, handlebars, and seat-height-not-far from-butt-height uniformly bland if you want, but sometimes it just turns out that what works for you also works for other people. And for people who don't have a desperate need for attention, that's just fine. Others can add streamers to their handlebars if that makes them happy, and that's fine too.

Prima facie, the claim seems counterintuitive. I agree that Americans are more individualistic, but I'd never cite homogeneity evidence to support that. On the contrary.

To me, it's rather, "Why are Americans less individualistic in this particular arena." Sadly, you seem disinclined to debate this dispassionately, instead joining the kindergarden jeering.

Echoing a comment I made about punks way back in the day (and update it for other "alternative" styles through the years): all these non-conformists expressing their non-conformity in the same way.

Agreed, but is this really the mechanism behind America's lack of style?

I came to comments in hope of some economic mechanism in the vein of this (http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=1963), not namecalling. So far, little luck.

Knickers and striped knee socks are fashionable so that's what I wear.

I think there's a confusion here: americans do have style. They just aren't as trendy. My old roommate thought of me as a hipster because I had some semblance of contemporary fashion: I wear knock-off raybans and didn't wear baggy jeans (not: I wore skintight jeans. I wore nonbaggy jeans). He clearly looked down on my fashion choice. But he had his own set of fashion! Big cargo shorts and non-well-fitting shirts. And this is a style! A very common one.

The problem is, it's not a *trendy* style; it's an old one. Americans are stylish - they dress very similar to one another, actually - but they're not as trendy. So why aren't we as trendy? That's a better question to answer.

Also: why do people in America not have as much *individual* style? At least outside of NYC/LA/Portland/etc?

(Apologies for the repeated comments on my own thread, I'm thinking out loud here)

Perhaps as some have suggested it is that people are more individualistic and there is less need to stand out; one already feels individualistic enough. In large cities, or places with more collective emphasis, there is more of a need to stand out and it comes out through fashion.

Portland? So full beards and flannel shirts (shapeless full length dresses and ponytails for the ladies) is now 'stylish'?

It's the '90's all over again.

Flannel and full beards? I don't think you've been to Portland lately.

Whether you agree with the specifics isn't the point.

I think it has to do with how we (usually) have more kids. Those big cars we drive, that the Euros think are a crime against sense and style, are really safe and can fit a lot of ankle biters. Children are the reason our money goes to function rather than style. That car has a TV in the back to keep them occupied with sponge bob, rather than Italian design on the outside. All that more income we earn is going to college, braces, soccer camp, toys from China which we step on. Besides, when you have kids, why bother trying anymore.

I think by "stylish" he means "more conspicuous consumption in clothing."

The Triumph of the Nerds is farther along in America. In Silicon Valley, we just saw a gay guy up on stage making the announcement of the world's biggest product while dressed like a junior high school teacher.

There are far fewer high tech zillionaires in Europe to set fashions (or non-fashions).

There are areas in which it really makes sense to speak of "Europe" and then there are those in which it doesn't.

Sense of style: It may be, that Europeans are more stylish than Americans, but then the sense of what defines style differs greatly within Europe.

Take your central European university: Female students from eastern European countries can easily be recognized by clothing that might have been expensive but lacks any semblance of style.

But a well dressed British and an Italian in the same room and they will look like they are from different worlds.

And then of course girls from Scandinavian cities? Arrrrr!

So... Ignoring all the generalizations I just made I'd say one really shouldn't generalize this topic too much.

Can't agree with your point about eastern European women's dress style: unless they are simply poor or extremely new money, they dress much better than English women (not to mention the fact that they are much slimmer on average). Also, the way that one can tell someone's class by the way they dress is in the UK is extremely shocking. If you walk around Oxford, you will see plenty of well-dressed and slim pretty English girls. Go to Birmingham and its a different world. The gap is not as big between say Prague and Brno.

Italians have a natural sense of good taste, so agree with you on that one. And the lovely Swedes....

Again, these are just generalizations. As to American women, I think the fact that so many of them are overweight may mean they have little incentives to dress well: doesn't matter how nice you dress a piece of fat, its still a piece of fat. This is of course a crude generalization: there are plenty of pretty, well-dressed American women. Although one negative side-effect of widespread obesity in America is that even professional, smart and successful American women (dentists, doctors, lawyers, professors etc.) are chubbier than their European counterparts, so even if they dress well it doesn't look as good. I think its because they compare themselves to what they consider fat: a lady working in McDonalds Chicago will be much heavier than the one working in Moscow. Again, the difference in obesity between lower class and professional Americans is another shocker.

Final point: these are all crude generalizations.

Tyler says, "more internal cultural diversity"

Right. Here in America we saw very rapid stylistic change in clothes, hair styles, popular music and so forth up through the Baby Boomers coming of age, when the country was homogeneously white and others were encouraged to assimilate, so most conflict was generational (e.g., over hair length in the late 1960s).

Since then, the the dominant ideology has emphasized diversity and multiculturalism, which tends to work against generational change and freeze styles because loyalty to one's ancestors is so valorized today.

Whites aren't supposed to be loyal to their ancestors, of course, unless they are part of an identifiable victimized immigrant group such as the Irish, but it would be hard for whites not to respond to the spirit of the age. Thus, the hipster phenomenon looks much like a crypto-white pride movement: "The Dream of the 1890s is Alive in Portland."

Last year, I offered an explanation of why grown men in America today dress much more like slobs than they did before the spread of credit cards, using examples from "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" to illustrate the turning point:


Good read, thanks for sharing.

When American artists came into their own in the last half of the 19th, its pretty obvious that they preferred a more muted palette than their European counterparts. Could there be a connection?

I'm inclined to agree with the argument that it's mostly sampling bias. People walk the nicer streets in Paris or the central parts of Tokyo and think everyone in France or Japan walked straight off the runway, while everyone back home in Dallas or Atlanta is a super-slob. (I've seen similar arguments made by people who walk around the five-star districts of Beijing or Shanghai.)

OTOH, my guess is there's also a "republican" (lower-case r) bias away from needing to look like an aristocrat, which is strongest in the US. If you've ever lived in a country with a recent history of inherited nobility, you'll see how deeply republican Americans are versus people in nearly all the "Old World". Add to that Silicon Valley, where everyone wears polo shirts and khakis (at best) and often shorts, T-shirts, and flip-flops, and you've got a giant fashion black hole...

This goes far beyond fashion. Take Porn actresses.

Europeans are slimmer, less tattooed and less ... skanky. And more stylish.

Americans are more likely to be inked, have peroxide hair and look like they hang out with bikers.

Higher unemployment in Europe means that porn directors have a choice from a better class of skank.

It's all Eastern Europe.

The tendency of European males to wear light colored socks to work is certainly not one style I would like to see this side of the pond.

Or with sandals.

Or maybe the problems of scale faced by this guy are just more pronounced in the U.S. than in Europe: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/09/magazine/whats-a-4000-suit-worth.html?pagewanted=all

This may be true for the median American, but any theory has to explain why places like Los Angeles pay more attention to style and fashion than other cities, such as New York.

Local standards?

Nah, couldn't be that simple. It's not sufficiently disparaging of the proles.

I completely agree (came to the comments to mention that since I live in NYC and see small if any advantage of Europeans over New Yorkers), but note that 1 & 2 do sort of explain that and are probably the most persuasive points. I came here to mention that.

3 is baffling since it's completely circular... Europe is fashionable since it's so close to fashionable Europe, Japan is also fashionable because, oh wait hm this doesn't work at all.

Wait, I just thought of an area where the US is more stylish. Our young people have more tattoos. We win.

Yes, it's shocking to me to say that if present trends continue -- go on, Hume, have a laugh at my expense -- every dang blasted person under 30 will be inked to the hilt.

OK, so I live in the Mission District of San Francisco. One of the hippest parts of the hippest city. OK, I'm a 50 something Englishman (insert joke about what do I know about style here). But I also lived in France for 5 years, and not in Paris. What I noted was that something would be fashionable in France. About 4 years later in Britain. And about 4 years after that in US. Like say color (green and purple was in when I arrived and came to the US later), or leggings (already passe by the time US was wearing them) etc. So I think it is definitional. What is stylish depends on era (look at some 70s photos if you don't believe me) and if the influence goes from Europe to US then the US will be perceived as unstylish. In urban/black culture it goes the other way, maybe, but I don't think the typical European person is influenced so much so it is not enough headwind.

This is a situation with multiple equilibria.

There's an equilibrium in which high-fashion clothing is used for signaling. In that equilibrium, people notice how well your suit fits, and use it to judge you; you, in turn, make an effort to wear the best you can afford, or better, so as to be judged favorably. This is self-reinforcing.

There's an equilibrium in which high-fashion clothing is not used for everyday signaling; indeed, in which it's viewed as weird to care about high-fashion clothing. In this equilibrium, to the extent that you even know how to read the language of Fine Suits, you might notice that your colleague is dressed different, shiny or something, and think this is weird. To the extent that you care about clothing, you make an effort to look "normal" to avoid sending the weird/shiny signal. This is self-reinforcing.

Once you're in one of these equilibria, of course you stay there for a long time. There's no point trying to explain why Americans dress casually right now, via some obesity/media/transit just-so story. We dress casually now because we moved into an office full of casual dressers; they were casual dressers because likewise; and so on to some equilibrium-breaking point decades ago involving James Dean.

Same with, say, perfume. In my workplace, a perfume-wearing woman would be sending a *weird* signal. More expensive perfume does not improve the signal, it's just more expensive weird. Same with watches. A $20,000 Breitling does not signal "powerful", nor does a $40,000 Vacheron signal "twice as powerful". They both signal the same thing, "uh, dude's got eight kilograms of jewelry or something".

Anyway, I like the casual equilibrium; jeans and button-downs are cheap, durable, machine-washable. I spend less than 0.1% of my income on hair care, dry cleaning, and cologne all together. So, that means I can't use clothes to signal my individual good taste, wealth, etc.? Fine---I couldn't signal that way if I wanted to, because nobody's listening.

A very good comment. It seems this subject spurs avid in-group/out-group reactions.

Next question, what initiated these separate equilibria? Was the style difference as pervasive in, say, the 1910s?

I think population density has a lot to do with this. People who live in cities tend to pay a lot more attention to what they wear than people who live in rural areas. This is probably because attention to dress/style is an easy way to make a first impression, and you make many many first impressions on a daily basis in a city, and very few in rural areas. And once this is the established social norm, then there's even more value in following it. If you compare the dress of the average resident of New York City to the dress of the average resident of London or Paris, is the European still much better dressed?

European architecture is a lot older than US architecture, and age gives character. I am not convinced new European construction is any better than new American construction. Chicago has a lot of beautiful (in my opinion) modern architecture, for example.

I don't feel strongly about these claims.

If you read the blogpost linked in the question, the author is specifically referring to the unstylishness of New Yorkers.

"When I lived in New York, I found it laughable that it considered itself to be a ‘fashion capital’. Everyone dresses the same. It’s like a uniform. You can even break it down by ethnicity. Most white people wear Gap or Banana Republic and where I lived in Spanish Harlem (a predominantly black and latino neighbourhood), I was pretty much the only one not in Rocawear or Baby Phat. And before you get your knickers in a twist, I do realise that not every white, black or latino person falls into these categories.

Every outfit is a variation of jeans and T Shirts. Oh except when they go to work. For work, men will wear what they call, ‘dress pants’ (which I think is a complete oxymoron, but whatever). Show me an American man that doesn’t own at least three pairs of these and I’ll give you the £5.72 in my bank account. They’ll team that with a ‘button down shirt’ – Americans make the distinction that the shirt has buttons, because they need to know up front that it will require some effort to put it on. Like I said, North American fashion is lazy, so wearing a shirt with buttons is a big deal.

And of course, everything is ill fitting. I think the concept of tailoring has completely escaped North Americans. Mens pants are always too baggy. Naturally, American men refer to European style trousers as ‘gay’ because they are what they consider to be ‘tight’. In actuality, those are how your trousers are meant to fit. Ladies clothing on those shores never seems to hug the form correctly. But, it would require time and effort to change those things and that would infringe on the time they get to spend in their jeans and T Shirts, so why bother?

In New York I was complimented on my clothing on virtually a daily basis, probably because I put some effort into my style. But there really is no excuse to dress badly in NYC – there are boutiques selling nice clothes (which, I’d like to point out, they import from Europe), but I guess JC Penney or whatever, is easier for most people. God forbid you make a little effort or stand out from the Gap uniform!"

And New York City is Milan or Kyoto compared to the rest of America's stylishness.

And that includes Los Angeles. I walked by the bars and restaurants next to CBS Studios this evening, and and the aspiring starlets and production assistants were almost all wearing bland, utilitarian, clothes. People in L.A. work out more than other places in America, but few wear the kind of fanciful clothes you see on young Japanese tourists.

Young Japanese tourists may dress stylishly, but the middle-aged ones tend to look hilariously unfashionable even compared to Americans.

Ah, thanks. Hadn't clicked the link; guess I'm part of the problem.

I came from a blue collar background in rural Tennessee. My observation is that fashion and signalling in general is increased the denser and younger the population. A while back, I secretly spied a rural neighbor using her lawnmower to ride to her mailbox instead of walk. Compare this to the area around the art schools in the nearest city, where people spend a fortune trying to act like they don't care.

America in general is older and less urban than other countries. Japan is old but I honestly don't know why its perceived to be stylish.

I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say it's because the average American does not give a rat's ass about what anyone else thinks of what they're wearing.

'cept all the hipsters in NYC, LA and Frisco, natch.

My job is writting very large, $100 million+, checks to private investment managers (hf, pe, re, etc.). My peers and i joke that the guys writting the checks wear jeans and the guys getting them wear suits.

Of course, the guys wearing the suits make a hell of a lot more than I do ... not sure where that leaves me ;)

I am guessing that others have pointed out that fashion has an opportunity cost and is generally a distraction in most circumstances.

Far from being more stylish, there are a lot of places in Europe where an American travel and be forgiven for thinking he's gone 2-3 decades back in time.

There are certainly places (Italy, France...) where people dress in more expensive clothes, though.

Part of the problem is, among people who can afford expensive clothes, there's a bias here against wearing them. To the people who cannot afford it, it looks like you're being snobby. To many people who can afford it, it looks like you're trying too hard. Instead of signalling that you're upper class, it either signals that you're nouveau riche or insecure or both.

This especially took hold in American society after the Great Depression (not just for clothes, but for flaunting wealth in general)--you don't want to rub the fact you're wealthy in other people's faces and, even to people who are wealthy, it appears more insecure than it does impressive.

This is so easy it's not even funny. Americans know that much better cultural expression can be had via using various drugs and spend accordingly. Spending on firearms is a close second in cultural expression utility.

After you've bought your pills and your AK-47 and your 1911 there's not much time left to shop for jeans.

Hard to be stylish when you weight 300 kg.

It's the German heritage.

Is it because more Americans are evolving into Fussell's "Class X"?

I think the answer to Tyler's question lies in his definition of "stylish." In the Europe he's talking about, "stylish" is associated closely with clothes that signals both wealth and the ability subtly to display it, i.e. "tastefulness," which, I think, in turn stands for the ability to rein in one's base personal desires. Showing self-control, and its fruits - wealth, born of hard, selfless work, and, in future generations, breeding - is "stylish." US elites - Tyler included - largely share this taste, which is why they find Europeans more stylish, or at least the urban, upper middle-class Europeans they meet on visits and see in New York Times photos, in between trips across the pond.

US trend-setters, in dress as in other areas, tend to come from a wider range of backgrounds, and "style" here can signal a wider range of things, to a wider variety of audiences. Conspicuous displays of wealth, and of association with non-elite activities and groups - wearing sports team shirts - is quite common, and strikes elites as crass. Don't kid yourself, though, that such styles aren't popular in Europe as well - go to any French cite and you'll see this stuff everywhere.

In a country where almost anyone can dress fashionable it becomes less of an issue. Also, high population density should correlate with more fashion signaling.

Compare Norway and Italy.

I think some of it is our suburb mentality as well. We have our own little castle with walls and a moat and while inside we don't have sartorial concerns. We only *need* fashion when exiting the walls of the suburbs into the real world.

I'm really fascinated by this, and by the fact that there are people for whom the grocery store requires full makeup and outfit and others for whom underwear and/or pajamas is acceptable because the store is an extension of their home.

You also missed that employers have realized that comfortable employees are more likely to stay longer than uncomfortable ones. Jeans and a t-shirt is much more comfortable at the eighth hour of the day than a suit. If I had a tie on I'd be GONE at 5pm.

I spent a year in Glasgow recently, studying at university. The women dressed horribly. Massive amounts of makeup, hair product, fake tan. Very ugly dresses, usually thigh length, ill-fitting, tight, paired with loud tights. 90% of Scottish women dressed like this. The Glasgow uniform. They may have spent more time and more money picking this stuff than my American classmates did picking a t-shirt and jeans, but the t-shirts and jeans looked soooo much better. (Also, most Scottish women seemed somewhat overweight too, to it wasn't an obesity thing.)
As for me, I can't find shirts in the US that fit. They don't sell shirts for tall skinny men, meaning I can't dress stylishly. The closest I can find is shirts for shorter men, then roll up the sleeves and make do.

How was the "stylish" variable measured?

I'm startled to see the disparity in style portrayed so matter-of-factly that Europeans and Japanese are more stylish than Americans. Given that some parts of Europe still think fanny packs are cool, I have a hard time accepting the argument as prima facie.

Vernon Smith always seemed pretty trendy to me.

As somebody who lives in Japan I think that Americans dress a bit better to be honest. The thing is, in Japan you often see something called Free size which is "one size fits all", the problem is Japanese women aren't the same size. Brands know this, so to be able to sell things better everything has an elastic waist OR is a shapeless bag. Also, tailoring is not very common in Japan, tailors exist, but mostly for suits. Getting tops and dresses tailored is very VERY rare. Oh, speaking of tailoring, Japanese wedding dresses have corset backs, so everything is laced up to your size, coincidentally enough mermaid and slender line dresses are VERY hard to find. The concept of a nice professional fit just doesn't exist here and if it does, elastic is involved.

I feel in America, some people dress sloppy, but when you go to the more expensive parts of town people dress very well and dress in a way that flatters their shape. Whereas in Japan, I feel like I don't often see women with a defined waist. They are usually covered and look bigger than they actually are.

Comments for this post are closed