May 28, 2008

Aristocratic vs. Meritocratic Fashion

In days of yore, fashions in clothing started primarily with the aristocracy -- in the Victorian era, the British aristocracy. Since these glamorous folks were glamorous not because of their looks -- they came in all shapes and sizes -- but because of their pedigrees, fashions emerged to flatter the figure of the average sort of man and woman. The Prince of Wales, for instance, was often a rather unprepossessing fellow on whom the finest tailors of Bond Street devoted their wiles to make look presentable. (To be precise, aristocrats did tend to be taller and better looking than the peasants of the time, of course, but not compared to the models in today's Vogue.)

The now-fading business suit and its cousin, the sports coat, is an adaptation of the army officer's tunic of the Napoleonic wars, with the lapels folded back. Officers were aristocrats (the British didn't want a military coup, so the British Army leadership, unlike the more meritocratic because less threatening Royal Navy's officers, came from the insiders who already owned Britain; the British Army intentionally didn't fulfill the Corsican adventurer Bonaparte's ideal of "careers open to talent"), so tailors evolved a garment with padded shoulders that would do a pretty good job of making even a rather pear-shaped officer look like a natural leader of men.

Today, however, we have more of a fashion meritocracy where the charismatic individuals who spread fashions aren't more or less average looking aristocrats, but people who are chosen specifically for their physical superiority -- models, entertainers, and athletes. If you're Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie or Giselle Bundchen or Tom Brady, a winner in the genetic lottery, wearing the old aristocratic styles that would make the average person look better is silly. Indeed, the point of meritocratic fashion becomes to mercilessly expose the physical flaws of the wearer.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff, particularly why it is the British Army developed along aristocratic and not meritocratic lines (a vestige of which is seen in the US Army's commissioning college grads as officers and not promoting from the ranks).

Completely off-topic, just saw a Sex and The City movie ad, good God-- the Golden Girls were more attractive.

Anonymous said...

Going all the way back to Victoria, the British royals have been a rather unattractive bunch.

Diana wasn't bright, but I think a large part of her appeal was to get some of the good looks genes, which had long eluded the royal family.

Anonymous said...

...a vestige of which is seen in the US Army's commissioning college grads as officers and not promoting from the ranks

Huh? Are you serious? I suppose you never heard of OCS?

Officers should be smarter than the enlisted. They also need more theoretical training. ROTC is a fairly good way of selecting for/developing those traits.

agnostic said...

There's something to this, but not as much as you'd think.

When the Dandies introduced most of modern male clothing in the 1820s, their coats were actually very nipped in at the waist, not at all like a business suit. Check out the Wikipedia entry on History of Western Fashion, and go to the 1820s. They did have tails to hide a big ass, but suits didn't get very loose until the popularity of the sack suit in the 20th C.

As for pants, breeches and trousers were pretty form-fitting through the first half of the 19th C., so they would hardly flatter a portly man.

Women's clothes of the early 19th C. were pretty form-fitting on the torso and were flowy and gauzy, in imitation of Greek gowns. That would hardly flatter the average woman's figure. Then there was the prominence of the bustle toward the end of the 19th C. -- and most women prefer to hide their rumps, not make them look poofier.

It seems like fashion has always been based on flattering the good-looking people, although tailors have also been there to adapt current styles to those for whom it was not intended.

Anonymous said...

I don't know the history and what I say may well be dead wrong, but I have a few things to say. I'll be happy to be corrected by someone with definite knowledge, but I have some vague recollections. The British army was never the "Royal Army", because historically nobles would have their own armies, and the King's own army was small, and to fight a big war the King would have to pay the nobles for use of their armies. Concerning officership I'm sure that the situation evolved with time. One had to have both A) vetting and B) qualifications and C) the money to buy a commission. It wasn't enough to just to have the money. For instance naval officers had to pass naval officer school, even when officerships were purchased. Furthermore in times of war price of commissions were sometimes heavily slashed or even eliminated. In short there was some meritocracy going on, even if the then practice wouldn't satisfy the modern ideal.

About uniforms. Modern uniforms are increasingly dowdy. The jacket and tie business-man look was never appropriate as a military uniform. I wonder if it will end with soldiers dressed in the boiler suits that the happy workers were shown wearing on Marxist propaganda bill-boards in Europe.

Anonymous said...

Muswell Hillbilly,

How many OCS candidates does the army take without a college degree?

It iss possible for a (college graduate) enlisted man to be promoted from the ranks, but the general career track is service academy or ROTC program. My point is, the college requirement is a vestige of the British class system.

In contrast, the Israeli army only takes officer candidates who've down a tour as a draftee enlisted man. And in law enforcement, college graduates don't get to start out in the police department as a Lieutenant (or Detective), they start as patrolman like anyone else and work their way up.

Anonymous said...

Some of Queen Victoria's daughters were beauties and several of her granddaughters were very beautiful indeed, such as queen marie of Romania. Her grandson (or maybe he was her great-grandson), Lord Mountbatten, was one of the most handsome men that ever lived.
My impression of the brit royals is that they run to extremes in looks--very good (rare), or plain (more common). Two of the current queen's kids were v. handsome when young, while the two older ones were pretty plain by conventional standards, though they actually had a lot of charm and appeal when younger.

AmericanGoy said...

If I am not mistaken, the oh so spiffy and glamorous tie, obligatory use of torture on us poor males to strangle us and make us docile in the office, is a fraud.

It's a Croatian invention, and was originally a... bib. When you ate, you used it as a napkin.

Why this s**t is still around today, in the modern age, is beyond me.

Excuse me gents, my monocle has fallen out; let me get my top hat out of the way and check the time on my pocket clock...

agnostic said...

Here's another thing to consider re: Brad Pitt and Gisele: we've talked before here about how rare it is to find someone who we'd consider as hot as Brad or Gisele from before 1900, certainly as far back as 1800.

Maybe the clothing of the 19th C was made for people with the same z-score as Brad and Gisele now have, but since the mean was a lot lower, it appears to us that the clothing was geared toward much plainer and uninspiring physiques.

Since then, nutrition has improved, there's likely been more assortative mating based on looks, and the population is just a lot bigger. All of these make it easier to find genetic freaks compared to before.

There's also been more inter-European mixing. There's probably some "sweet spot" degree of mixing that makes a group look better. Especially in the case of the English -- one of the least attractive races on Earth, certainly a contender for ugliest agricultural people.

Since then, they've mixed with French, Germans, Italians, Poles, and other better-looking groups.

By way of comparison, was fashion in the better-looking nations more unforgiving -- say, in France or Italy? Yup. In fact, those unflattering women's clothes I mentioned before all came from Paris, the capital of women's fashion (though for men it's London).

Truth said...

Now what do you bourgeois beer drinkers profess to know about high fashion?

Anonymous said...

At one of the season's gala balls at one of the Newport mansions, "Rosecliff" I believe, men had to wear 19th century naval uniforms as that was considered the most flattering costume ever designed for men: knee boots, tight white breeches, a waistcoat, and cutaway jacket with epaulets could do something for the most unprepossessing physique.

The bustle, I think, is an excellent device to hide a large posterior on a woman, as it equalized bottoms of various sizes.

If you go to a Renaissance fair, you'll notice a lot of fat girls. Evidently they feel the laced-up bodice and generous expanse of exposed boob plays to their best advantage. Probably rightly.

We're going to have to do something in this country. I can't believe how fat people are getting--even the high school girls. Sweatpants aren't the answer.

Anonymous said...

how's the business suit fading?

Anonymous said...

OK, that explains the Britney Spears stomach-revealing outfit that was all the rage until recently and looked appalling when paired with the flabby white stomachs of 99% of British women and girls. I could never work out why they would wear a fashion that made them look so bad. I guess apparently they didn't have a choice?!

Steve Sailer said...

Yes, that's pretty much it. Britney Spears is a good example because she's no smarter than the average so she gets trapped in the same self-defeating logic as her fans.

Britney Spears circa 2000 could wear the kinds of styles that Britney Spears helped establish as styles. Britney Spears circa 2008 should be wearing something less revealing, more flattering, but then she wouldn't be wearing fashionable clothes.

Anonymous said...

"Since then, they've mixed with French, Germans, Italians, Poles, and other better-looking groups."

The French mostly aren't good-looking, except for some fringe areas like Brittany. Italian men are naturally good looking, women, not so much. Germans mostly seem pretty good-looking in a square jawed sort of way. The Poles on the streets here in London have incredibly grey, wan complexions, reminding me of folks back home in Belfast; unlike most Germans they seem to have no hint of a natural golden/tan complexion. Overall they seem pretty average. Although men who visit London from other parts of the UK often comment on how good looking the women here are, so there's probably a higher standard.

However, several of the above, especially French & Italians, put a lot of effort into looking good. This is particularly notable with French women, not naturally blessed with good looks, yet with a reputation for being attractive/sexy derived purely from their dedication to grooming. I guess soap isn't everything.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. My impression is more that the meritocratic portion of Western society (the business world) favors what is essentially a uniform, the business suit. My hunch is that this taps into the military instincts of the German-ish races, who seek the conformity of wearing identical clothing. It gives those people a feeling that what they are doing is "important" and "real" and the feeling of collective/impersonal power that goes with it.

"Fashion" per se seems more of a hot weather European thing. French, Italian, even some Jewish (for women more than the men it seems). Immigrants from Muslim countries tend to buy into the "fashion" clothing right away too, complete with gold chains and lots of cologne for men. These people would be embarassed to go out with clothing that is not brand name designer. It's a different aesthetic that goes to personal expression and being noticed, all that.

It's also part of the big difference between the coastal states (which are more Jewish, Italian, etc) and the "flyover country," where the English/German/Irish residents are not really into show-off fashions. It's Eddie Bauer versus Gucci.

As far as which Euro-look is the best, it's all a matter of taste. Usually people think the dominant look in their culture is less beautiful than "exotic" looks. Shorter, darker Brazilians go on and on about how good looking the taller, and lighter "Anglo Saxons" are, too.

Anonymous said...

I particularly like the theory which posits that World War II's high death toll is responsible for the famous beauty of contemporary Russian women. For those who haven't heard of it, the theory claims that only the better-looking women were able to find husbands in postwar Russia because so many of the men had died, and they passed along their beauty to their daughters and granddaughters.

Anonymous said...

Re the British Army/Navy. I dont think any system can endure for long without a degree of meritocracy.

Anonymous said...

I remember the youth clothing fad of surfing attire in the 'Seventies.
Lightweight floral short
sleeve shirts and shorts in the midwinter subzero temps of my native small town Frostbite Falls of northern MN was sort of silly. Decades later while rolling out a satellite data network for a drugstore chain in the inner cities of Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis I witnessed the advent of a new youth fashion trend, the baggy crotch, cocked baseball cap, belligerent pose and it rang a bell, having seen it somewhere before. It was a decade earlier when dispatched to solve a problem with the convicts' phone system at a federal penetentiary, crossing the prison yard.
The baggy pants, sideways cap, pose. It is one thing for clothing styles to be spawned on sunny southern CA beaches and spread nationwide through the youth culture. What it means to originate in the penetentiary system I don't know. Maybe aristocratic (top down) then meritocratic (lateral)
to now the penal system (bottom up.)

Like homeless or grunge,
you decide.

Anonymous said...

I experienced the Army's preference for college graduates first hand.

In the reception center on the second day the sergeants went among the new troops and called out for college graduates. There were no college graduates. Then the asked for those with three years of college. Still no.

When they got to two years of college I raised my hand (or sounded off). I was chosen for elite duty.

All the other troops got their dental X-Rays and then they spit them into my elite hand.

When asked, the sergeant replied that they had determined that college men were easier to train - even to act as a human spitoon.

Anonymous said...

"Wully",Sir William Robertson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff in WWI, was a village boy who went to work in the local Big House as a footman. They spotted his talent and recommended he find a career suited to it - e.g. the army. He joined up as a private and ended up as the boss. I wonder whether that marks the transition to army officering becoming a more intellectually demanding task. Anyway, it's because a Standing Army is a threat to liberty that we never had a big one, and its existence expires every year unless Parliament decides otherwise. And you're quite right; historically, bright boys joined the Senior Service.

Anonymous said...

Nicholas Wade in Before the Dawn explores the evidence of genetic continuity in the UK. About 75% of Britons are the same people, genetically, who were there in the Iron Age (i.e. Celtic peoples).

So much for genetic mixing.

Attractiveness probably has to do with nutrition and environment and wealth, rather than pure genetics.

Anonymous said...


You're so right, military uniforms are getting progressively worse. The Marine Corps clearly hasthe best uniforms. Not surprisingly, they're basically the same uniforms Marines wore in World War II

But for the Iwo Jima statute in the background, these drawings of present-day Marine uniforms look like they could be from a 1943 issue of Life Magazine.