Partially, in defense of high fashion

From Seth Roberts -an unlikely source- comes this observation:

…the denizens of The Devil Wears Prada appear slightly defensive about the social value of fashion. They seem to believe that fashion is less useful than “curing cancer” (by which they mean doing research to learn how to cure cancer). Actually, high fashion, with its hard-to-make skirts, belts, and accessories, is the same as curing cancer – they’re two ways of increasing the human skill set. Art is the old Science.

Seth is an interesting person, I thought I’d mentioned him before but an F-I search returns nothing. He’s an associate professor of psychology at the UC Berkeley who invented a diet. Kind of a weird diet, effortless, but it seems to work. It’s called the Shangri La diet, “the no hunger, eat anything weight loss plan”. He’s a very humble, self effacing person, down to earth, not a “personality” of any sort. I haven’t tried his diet but I suspect it’s genuine judging from the character and integrity of the entries on his blog. His entries don’t flog his whiz-bang diet which I think gives him more credibility. Also, we’ve corresponded so I feel certain that he’s not someone with an agenda, but I digress. Returning to his entry:

…Humans are the only animals with occupational specialization – we specialize, and trade. It started with hobbies. Hobbies became part-time jobs. Part-time jobs became full-time jobs. To support full-time jobs – to generate enough demand – there has to be enough expertise, which builds up slowly. To build up expertise, our brains changed so as to cause creation of special events like Christmas, Japanese New Year, Spring Festival (in China), and a thousand other examples around the world. Such events increase the demand for high-end craftsmanship, thus helping the most skilled craftsmen – the ones most likely to advance the state of their art – make a living.

I don’t know that I entirely agree with his summation, that holiday gift giving traditions have effectively created market conditions favoring the development of high end craftsmanship but it is an interesting idea. A factor in favor of his argument is that we tend not to buy fanciful things for ourselves (most of us anyway), the acquisition of luxury items stems via gift giving from loved ones. Also, kind as his words are toward the fashion industry, few of us will let ourselves off the hook as gently as he has.

A related discussion of gift giving comes from Jon Miller’s entry Holiday Shopping is Wasteful -an argument for leveling- which although I agree with, I tongue in cheekly describe as another in the grinch series preceded by my friend Tyler’s intimation that gift giving -particularly by the elderly- is wasteful. Are left leaning sustainability anti consumption activists appalled to find themselves in league with libertarian economists? I’ve always been curious about that. I know I shiver all over when I find myself agreeing with Eric :).

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  1. Carissa says:

    Okay, I guess I’ll share my Christmas story on this note. (I was intimidated to say on the last post.) Everyone asks “How was your Christmas?” We just smile and say “great!”. The truth is, we don’t tell our kids about santa- because we don’t ever want to lie to our kids. We don’t do the nativity thing because we know this really isn’t Jesus’ birthday. (He was born around the time of the passover by most estimations.) And we don’t exchange gifts until New Years day. That way we can get what little we do buy on sale. We chose to go ahead and exchange gifts before the end of winter break, so that way when our kids are school age, they won’t be “weirdos” or feel left out when all the other kids talk about what they got for Christmas. We give gifts to loved ones all throughout the year just because we love them. We don’t want to give gifts because we feel like we have to or because everyone else is doing it.
    But… I hope everyone had a merry Christmas anyways! It is a great time for getting together with friends and family.( I’ll duck behind my desk now- so someone can throw an egg at me!)

  2. J C Sprowls says:


    I am not a practicing Catholic; but, there are some elements of the european tradition I do like. The feast on the eve of Christmas is a celebration of family and friends, with a birthday cake served at midnight in celebration of a divine birthday.

    Families brought up in this tradition do not break themselves with rampant consumerism. They exchange one gift after the cake is served. Some say the gift is a symbolic gift to the christ spirit within each of us.

    Some europeans also celebrate the concept of Father Christmas or Santa Claus by delivering one toy into a shoe or stocking for the children, the morning after Christmas. Americans, compared to any other Santa-type culture, have re-interpreted (or, mis-interpreted depending on your perspective) the original intent of this gesture.

    The Celts (from which I draw most of my traditions) celebrate the Yule all season. We light candles in the windows at sundown to welcome the return of Spring (Oestara), which occurs during the Spring Moon (aka Easter). The wreaths on our doors serve to remind us that life comes full-circle; and is open to catch the goodness and well-wishes from our friends and community.

    Solstice, on the other hand, is the close of the productive year where all debts are cleared and we pause to celebrate the fruits of the year’s labors. In these modern times where debts are too great to be literally cleared, a gift symbolically closes the karma of the debt by expressing our gratitude toward our benefactors.

    Traditionally, gifts tend to be from our cellars, like: fruticakes, fruit preserves, nut assortments, etc. Fruit, especially, is an extremely generous gesture during the Yule season because it is in such short supply. The willingness to give such a highly prized treasure from our families’ stores has a significant symbolic (and, karmic) value.

  3. Carissa says:

    As usual, I find the idea of those traditions to be simple and beautiful. I usually find Celtic traditions to be so. My Grandmother told me we were Irish and I have beautiful lace and tatting and other various and sundry delicate handiwork that’s been passed down to prove it.

    I also play the Celtic harp (AKA folk, or lever harp)and mine has green and gold celtic knots on it. (But, unfortunately that will be sold after the new year- I NEED a dining room set. Our table is literally falling in.) I don’t know much about the Celts, but someday I would love to study up on them. Thanks for the History lesson!

  4. Jan says:

    I’ve been reading Jeff Guinn’s “The Autobiography of Santa Claus”, which is absolutely delightful. He weaves a lot of historical information and facts into the story that gave me a much greater appreciation for how Christmas got to be what it is today. Okay, it’s a novel, I know. But still interesting.

  5. Eric H says:

    I’m not sure I agree with myself on gift-giving. On the one hand, if you are going to give a gift, you should want this to be exactly what the other person wants, right? But all too often we project our own values and get them what we think they want (or want them to want). Gift certificates are safer in terms of efficiency (as in “minimizing waste”), but we are constraining their choice of store. So the safest gift is to give cash.

    I have two problems with that approach. First, a gift is a signal that you care for someone and would spend the time figuring out what they want. The signal is more important than the execution (it’s the thought that counts, right? well, not always. Give Kathleen a ham and see where that gets you). Second, a gift may occasionally be what they needed, but not what they wanted. It might be, perhaps, something that starts them on a new hobby that they never would have considered, much less spent their own money on. That, I think, would be even better than getting them what they wanted, but probably only works with children and open-minded adults.

    Incidentally, Mark Twain wrote little about St. Nicholas in A Tramp Abroad:

    There are some unaccountable reputations in the world. This saint’s is an instance. He has ranked for ages as the peculiar friend of children, yet it appears he was not much of a friend to his own. He had ten of them, and when fifty years old he left them, and sought out as dismal a refuge from the world as possible, and became a hermit in order that he might reflect upon pious themes without being disturbed by the joyous and other noises from the nursery, doubtless. …. St. Nicholas will probably have to go on climbing down sooty chimneys, Christmas eve, forever, and conferring kindness on other people’s children, to make up for deserting his own.

  6. We still buy a number of things for the nieces and nephews – always including at least one book. In my husband’s family, the adults draw names and Mike and I have started putting on our “wish list” a contribution to Mercy Corps, Oxfam, NARSAD, or other charity that means something to us. That way we avoid having another thing around the house, and feel like we’ve shared our Christmas. The person who has drawn our name also learns about the charity. With online donations being so easy, it’s a compromise that we like.

  7. La BellaDonna says:

    Eric, I certainly agree with what you wrote (including the not agreeing with myself part). What makes me berserk about the blithe retort of, “It’s the thought that counts, not the gift!” is that I agree with that sentiment – which is why if I were Kathleen, I would be peeved about the gift of a ham, because it’s a clear indication that the giver certainly wasn’t thinking about me. Or if I were me (and, as it happens, I am), I’d be annoyed about being given a gift of wine (as has happened a couple of times), without the giver even bothering to find out if I drink – which I don’t. Christmas, too often, is the time of year where people’s gifts say, “I was thinking, but not about you.” For that reason, I also don’t appreciate gift certificates to stores I never patronize – and that includes the new fad for those “gift cards” and “limited amount charge cards.” Cash is really handy in a pinch; I don’t have to phone anybody if I need to purchase something with it, it’s not limited to a specific store, I can use it to pay a bill, instead of trying to apply, say, part of it to a bill, or all of it to part of a bill, and pay the rest of the bill in some other way. I genuinely appreciate cash; I appreciate it almost as much as I do a gift that someone takes a lot of thought and trouble over. Gift certificates? Gift cards? Not unless you know where I shop, and usually the people who give them (to me, at least), haven’t bothered to find that out. There are numerous gift cards that I’ve been given that have simply expired – a waste of money to the giver, and worse than a waste to me, because it leaves me angry and peevish, which is not the spirit of the season at all. It particularly annoys me, because I’ll spend the year watching and listening, and try to get gifts that are what the recipient really wants. Give a gift (and cash does count), or don’t give a gift, but don’t give something that’s going to sit in a drawer or a closet or go to the Salvation Army on December 26.

    Carissa, if it’s of any help to you, I understand that the date has actually been narrowed down to April 17, 6 B.C. (because the people who first made calendars had a bit of a math problem calculating what year was what). The April 17 date has been pretty solidly identified by astronomers because of a particular convergence of stars which occurred on that date; the Star of Bethlehem was apparently Jupiter.

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