The little black dress is the solution. But what’s the problem?

Salman Rushdie's wonderful children's book Haroun and the Sea of Stories is based on the premise that there is some evil mechanism that is taking away the vital stream of stories that course through the veins of our world. My paper is based on a kind of adult equivalent to this story. During my lifetime I have been witness to a similar dreadful loss and in this paper I want to don the mantle of the anthropologist as detective and see if I can locate the culprit. The crime is evident all around us. There has been a gradual leaching out of colour and print from the world of Western women's clothing.

So begins a web page titled "The little black dress is the solution. But what’s the problem?" by University of London anthropologist Daniel Miller. It describes how he came to write a paper of the same name about why people today dress so drearily.

Miller says that as a child, he worked in a Carnaby-Street-style boutique and was "enthralled by the coral sea of clothing, while festooned in my own purple flared trousers, beads and floral shirt". When he started lecturing as an anthropologist, he was still wearing a bright orange jersey and a necklace of shells retained from his fieldwork in the Solomon Islands. But even then, this was making him look anachronistically hippy-ish, so he gradually drabbed down, adopting "the general conventions of male clothing based around indigo and black, which is constructed along a vague polarity with `classic' Armani emulating cuts for more formal wear, and jeans materials for the more informal to today's customary indigos and blacks".

Now, indigo can be a blazing, dazzling, glaring colour, as in this indigo coat of mine:
Bright indigo coat I suspect, however, that Miller doesn't mean he's wearing this kind of indigo, but the sort that gives jeans their colour — or lack thereof. As he says, "About the most existing possibility left to me is to discover a new shade of grey."

But while resigned to the dreariness of day-to-day wear, Miller did still expect to see more adventurous clothing on holiday, a 'Hawaiian shirt' lifting of the gloom:

Well for a while this seemed true, but then I was starting to find that my fellow tourists were bringing out the same dull drab clothes on holiday that they were wearing at home — just more interesting messages on the T shirts. But at least I felt that if holiday clothes had also become drab, the last refuge of colour would indeed be the beach and the swimsuit, with at least some desire to 'fit in' when snorkeling over a coral reef. So the decision to write this paper can be precisely timed. It came when taking a family holiday on a beach in Mexico. I had my novel and my drink and was relaxing under a beach umbrella. This was quite a European resort and the people around me were probably Dutch, Swedish and English with a few Americans. Anyway, after a while, I started looking around me and what actually caught my eye was that every single bikini or swimsuit as far as my eye could see was — you guessed it — black. At that point I decided that surely if the anthropologist could turn detective, I might not be able to stem this tide, but might at least find the culprit."

So what was the culprit. Very disappointingly, Miller doesn't have his paper on open access. There's a database entry for it linked from the 2004 section of http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/view/people/DMSMI78.date.html. But even though this service is called open access, it says the full text is not available. However, he does summarise it in his web page. He starts by discussing four possible causes. These are:

  1. The fashion industry. Is it promoting drab colours because they’re more profitable?
  2. Historical precedent. Have there been past turnings toward drabness? If so, could their causes throw light on the current turning?
  3. The rise of modernism and modernist minimalism. Have these caused the recent decline in colour?
  4. How people behave when buying.

    Miller dismisses the first three causes. Regarding the first — the fashion industry — he argues that if the world has gone black, one can't merely assume designers who promoted the trend are responsible. Clothing is one of the most diverse industries. In order to survive, companies will always be seeking new niches. Some may go black, but this will drive others to seek alternative, and therefore more colourful, niches.

    Concerning historical precedent, Miller says that that have indeed been previous turnings towards drabness. In his 1995 book Men in Black John Harvey discusses the Victorians. Victorian dandies wore black, adopting an ascetic and minimalist appearance which favoured elaboration in style rather than in colour. The middle classes also adopted black: probably not because of influence from the dandy elite, but because the Church had for centuries associated black with sobriety. What really cemented this association, Harvey says, was the Victorian Cult of the Dead. To me, this is exemplified by any number of gloomy images, such as the splendid picture heading Essie Fox's Virtual Victorian blog.

    But all the above shows is that there were other periods when "clothing leached and bleached". It doesn't prove that the reasons for this were the same as today. After all, Miller writes, a girl picking out a little black dress for a party is unlikely to think of herself as dressing for a funeral.

    The third possible cause Miller considers is the rise of modernism and modernist minimalism. Have these caused the recent decline in colour? I'll say more about these next time, but Miller concludes that they have not.

    This leaves the fourth possibility, people's behaviour when shopping. Miller and his colleague Alison Clarke observed shopping habits in North London. They found that "there remains a considerable desire to wear different colours and prints, and yet at the moment of purchase women seemed unable to bring themselves to fulfil their own desires".

    This appeared to be because of anxiety: "One of the extended examples presented in Clarke and Miller 2002 was a woman — Charmaigne who sets out to buy a floral dress, in a deliberate attempt to expand out of her conventional wardrobe and to try and associate herself with this other genre of clothing. By following her around the shops we can actually watch her increasing anxiety when it comes to making a choice that will lead to her expressing a more distinct sartorial identity in public outside of the arena of what are experienced now as simple and safe minor variants upon the core of printless and colourless clothing."

    So women get anxious, and this inhibits them from choosing interesting clothes. But why do they get anxious? We need to ask, because: "Finding anxiety at the root of this refusal of distinction does not tell us anything about why women are so anxious, and why this might be more the case now, than say thirty years ago."

    Miller argues that: "what we have uncovered is the combination of two forces; one long term and one short term. The long term trend could be identified, not so much with modernism, as with modernity. The condition of modernity as analysed by Habermas (1987) is one in which we become decreasingly convinced by the authority of institutions and rules that previously determined how we should act. We can no longer say simply that this is our 'custom' or our 'religion' Instead we have to face up to the degree to which we are making up our own moral rules. We become, as individuals, increasingly burdened with the task of creating normativity for ourselves. This is even more difficult given our increasing self-awareness, that this is what we are engaged in. All of this pressure to create our own normativity in turn produces a tremendous desire for self-reassurance (for details of this argument see Miller 1994: 58-81)."

    That final reference is to Modernity: an Ethnographic Approach by Miller (1994), Oxford: Berg. I haven’t read it yet, so I can't go any further in explaining the above. But the consequence is: "This is why the shoppers are less and less confident about making a clear choice. They want to buy something strong and bright, but they just can't bring themselves to do it. We live not in a risk society, but in what we might better call the no-risk society. What we do is pretend that choosing shades of grey is more subtle and sophisticated — an intelligent choice. We say to each other we are all very cool and sophisticated. But of course this is nonsense. We would much rather be making bold choices, but (speaking now as a man), we just don’t have the balls to actually do so, because of the burden of freedom. Because we are defensive about being held responsible for the sartorial statement we have thereby made."

    Miller concludes that "Contrary to the expectations of the 1960's and 1970's we have excavated a logic which explains why a free world is likely to be a drab world."

    Daniel Miller, "The little black dress is the solution. But what's the problem?". In K. Ekstrom and H. Brembeck, ed., Elusive Consumption, 1st ed. Bloomsbury Academic, pp.113-127, 2004.

    John Harvey, Men in Black, Chicago, 1995.

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