- Review of Virginia Postrel, The Substance of Style (2004, Harper Perennial, Paperback)
Virginia Postrel’s The Substance of Style is a book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. Postrel has a rare combination of talents: her writing is fluid, vivid, and memorable, her writing is informed by careful economic reasoning, and despite her expertise she doesn’t assume that her aesthetic and cultural choices are self-evidently better than anyone else’s. In a quote from a review in The Guardian in the inside cover of the paperback edition, Steven Pinker writes: “In this delightful book, Virginia Postrel invents a new kind of social criticism, one that is economically literate, brimming with psychological insight, and deeply resepctful of ordinary people.” Pinker’s assessment is accurate. For people interested in design, aesthetics, and social change very broadly, The Substance of Style takes its place next to her earlier The Future and Its Enemies as a must-read.
Postrel makes several contributions. First, her discussion of what she calls “the aesthetic imperative” attacks aesthetic and cultural elitism on every margin. She engages both those who think that style and fashion are superficial and unnecessary, and she engages those who think that the unwashed masses are making incorrect aesthetic decisions. Second, she argues that even though they are increasing in importance, aesthetic values are not reflected in conventional measures of living standards. Finally, she shows that there isn’t really a tradeoff between substance and style. If you’re familiar with a cliche about selling “the sizzle, not the steak,” as aesthetics get progressively more important the sizzle becomes an integrally important part of the steak-eating experience.
Postrel hooks the reader almost immediately with a discussion of the sudden change that occurred in Afghanistan after the Taliban fell:
Afghan men lined up at barbershops to have their beards shaved off. Women painted their nails with once-forbidden polish. Formerly clandestine beatuy salons opened in prominent locations. Men traded postcards of beautiful Indian movie stars, and thronged to buy imported TVs, VCRs, and videotapes. Even burka merchants diversified their wares, adding colors like brown, peach, and green to the blue and off-white dictated by the Taliban’s whip-wielding virtue police. Freed to travel to city markets, village women demanded better fabric, finer embroidery, and more variety in their traditional garments. (p. ix)
Throughout the book, Postrel revisits this theme and argues that, contrary to the claim that style is a ruse cooked up by manipulative advertisers, it actually touches a deep and fundamental human appreciation for beauty. Simply put, people value pleasant aesthetic experiences as such. If you need a cosmic justification, consider what it says about our ability to cooperate for the production of truly beautiful things. The writer of Proverbs asked the sluggard to consider the ant. I ask the elitist to consider the iPod, which combines incredible functionality with beauty that is difficult to articulate. The iPod is the product of countless hours of effort among countless people. They cooperated to produce something that is visually stunning and that allows you to carry the great artistic achievements of humankind in your pocket.
There are important takeaway points for critics, entrepreneurs, and managers. For critics, Postrel’s book draws on classical liberal and libertarian respect for people with self-evident and inalienable rights rather than as members of a churning mass waiting to be managed by moral, intellectual, and aesthetic elites (see the quote from Steven Pinker, above). She disputes the claim that fashion and style are only about status. Through a number of examples, she argues that while people try to keep up with the Joneses on some margins, a more plausible explanation is that people actually value aesthetic pleasures.
The Viking Range, for example, which some critics denigrate as a wasteful status symbol, is considered by some to be an aesthetic addition to the kitchen. Some buy them for the same reason they buy artwork (p. 76). Is it to my taste? Not really, but the fact that I’m an economist should tell you everything you need to know about my fashion sense. My disagreement with and puzzlement about others’ aesthetic choices is an invitation for me to practice a little humility and maybe see if I can learn something. My confusion isn’t a license to exercise veto power over others’ choices.
Postrel emphasizes again and again that “People are different” (cf. pp. 150-152, emphasis in original). In a recent episode of The Simpsons, Marge criticized the new “ultimate punching” MMA fad by saying “call me a killjoy, but I think that because this is not to my taste, no one else should be able to enjoy it.” Unfortunately, this is exactly the sentiment a lot of critics express when the call for design restrictions that (for example) prevent people from building houses certain ways.
The takeaway point for entrepreneurs and managers is that they ignore the aesthetic imperative at their peril. Style and beauty aren’t superficial. They are yet another margin on which people create meaningful value. You can serve great food, but the quality of the food itself is only one aspect of what people want when they go to restaurants. Businesspeople who forget that the aesthetic imperative matters can manage their businesses into bankruptcy (pp. 164-165).
And so we return to Steven Pinker’s assessment. The Substance of Style helps us think about individual decisions and social problems in new ways. This is a book that is seven years old but that has aged well: if anything, it is more relevant now than it was then.