The Scarlet Robe

Why we buy more stuff than we need, and how to stop.

The Scarlet Robe

When Angélique Diderot was due to marry her long time fiance, her father’s dire finances threatened to ruin the day. Despite being Denis Diderot — the great French philosopher and co-founder of the Encyclopédie, one of the most comprehensive Encyclopedias of the time — he had lived in poverty for the majority of his life, and sadly  could not afford to pay for his daughter’s wedding.

Hearing of his plight, Catherine the Great of Russia, who enjoyed Diderot’s work, gifted the family the equivalent of £1,000 in exchange for his humble library — an extraordinary amount, reaching the equivalent of $150,000 today. Angélique was thus able to happily marry leaving her father with funds to spare.

With his newfound fortune, Denis Diderot decided to discard his old dressing-gown and treat himself to a new scarlet robe — a modest purchase.

This was his first mistake.

Diderot soon found that the robe looked out of place amongst the rest of his possessions, and the contrast was painfully striking. To address the discord, he began by  replacing his Bergamo rug with a Damascene hanging. Then came two expensive paintings, because his existing pictures looked too drab. But these drew attention to the shabbiness of his straw chair, so he had it replaced by a fancy new seat made of leather.

And so the sequence went, replacing old items to live up to the standards of the new, until Denis Diderot found himself once again deep in debt.

When we buy something new a similar effect can often ensue. Let’s say you purchase a TV. Despite it being an upgrade from your previous decade-old set, something doesn’t sit quite right. Your surround sound system is starting to look aged, the TV cabinet no longer fits and now that you have a spectacular OLED screen maybe you should buy a next-gen games console and, of course, upgrade your Netflix subscription to UHD. The initial outlay of hundreds slowly creeps into the thousands as you repair all the minor irritations you’d never before even noticed.

The same thing can happen for all kinds of items — clothes, furniture, or cars to name a few — but why is it that we’re so susceptible to an avalanche of consumption once we begin?

In 1988, Grant McCraken took inspiration from Diderots’ tale and coined “The Diderot Effect”. At its core, it explains that people’s purchases don’t depend solely on the utility or practicality of the item, but more importantly on how they impact a person’s identity.

We construct an image by buying goods that complement one another. If we obtain a new item that doesn’t quite fit in with other parts of our image we can either discard it or make it represent a part of ourselves building upon it with other possessions. The result is often spiralling consumption, one item leading to the acquisition of another. Rarely do we look to downgrade or eliminate; life becomes perpetually filled with more “stuff”.

The dressing-gown, the like of which Denis Diderot was using before he got a fancier robe, has had a long and tumultuous history. Based on the court dress of Persia, it eventually made its way to Europe as the “banyan”: a flashy, long and loose lounging jacket. This was in the 1700s, a time when mens’ formal wear consisted of stiff suits and starched ties; when shirts and t-shirts were considered underwear. The loose-fitting banyan provided a way to be comfortable at home and still be presentable to guests and family. Later, they evolved into being dressing-gowns: stylish and fashionable.

These were adopted by women as well, giving them respite from their tight-fitting corsets while at home.

Then came the Industrial Revolution — and suddenly, instead of being fashionable, dressing-gowns came to symbolise lazy rich people who didn’t do any work. After years in the limelight, it was suddenly relegated to “before getting dressed” and “while getting ready for bed” hours, almost at par with the underwear it was originally meant to cover up.

The clothing we wear contributes to our sense of identity. We’re social animals, and society constantly feeds us cues that drive us to think about how we should dress to fit in with our peers. It feels important for us to appear novel and special, to be noticed.

This is especially true in the age of social media, where curated Instagram profiles do little to make us feel normal, and everything to ensure that we feel drab and behind the times. But is this really reality? Does anyone actually notice that you’re wearing the latest fashion item, or are they more preoccupied with the same thoughts in their own heads?

Taking things further, clever marketers bombard us with image enhancing messages to make us feel like we’re missing a part of us … a   part solved by their brand. Luckily, this is a problem that can be alleviated: just reduce your exposure to these messages. Use ad-blockers in your browser; unsubscribe from newsletters pushing products you don’t need.

A lot of what makes us buy is not the product itself, but the hype created around it — so if we ignore the hype, we can more clearly see the product for what it actually is.

The rise and fall of the dressing-gown goes to show how the value of an object is tied not just to the object itself, but also to the context in which you find it. This happens not only at a cultural level but also on a smaller scale: a cute little table might be the perfect size for your tiny TV, but when you get a fancy OLED screen the table begins to look small and shabby in comparison.

While it could be an impulse buy that triggers a Diderotian spiral, it’s normally related more to a sudden increase in income. Let’s say you finally get that raise or unexpectedly win the lottery — or sell off your library, as the case may be — and decide to treat yourself with the windfall. At this point beware! There’s always the temptation to buy luxurious things, to one-up your neighbours or perhaps yourself. But once your standard of living has gone up, it’s unlikely to come back down.

Suddenly, you realise that while you have more money, you can’t save it because you’re also spending more money to maintain the comforts of your newfound lifestyle.

To make things worse, you can’t compare yourself with your neighbours to make yourself feel rich. People with higher incomes tend to move to larger houses in wealthier areas, where everybody has a higher level of income. Even if you’re better off than your old neighbours were, when you compare yourself with your new neighbours you’re again pretty much average.

It’s all very well to say “beware” and “buy sensibly”, but the truth is that most people are under the control of forces much larger than they are. I am talking about, of course, marketers. In modern times, even the most wholesome, life-affirming, traditions have been co-opted by industry to sell us more stuff.

In Western culture both Christmas and Thanksgiving — supposedly times  of reflection, kindness, and generosity —  have become fetishes of over-consumption or have been overshadowed by massive retail sales.

Similarly, in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, during the Tamil month of Aadi, it is traditional to feel gratitude for what you have and to not chase new wants. Due to this, shop sales used to slump throughout the period. In an effort to recoup profits, however, retailers in the region began to offer discounts during the season, to encourage people to ignore the sentiment and to spend their hard-earned money. This has reached a point where Aadi has now become a season of selling, rather than thankfulness — the polar opposite of its original, pure, intentions.

Fortunately, there are still things we can be thankful for. A useful trick to avoid pointless purchases is to wait 48 hours before buying something. That gives you time to reflect; to see if it’s actually worth the investment and to consider whether, maybe, your current setup isn’t so bad after all.

Environmental and political writer George Monbiot has an interesting take on financial security.

In seven years working in the poor world, I managed to keep my expenses down to three thousand pounds a year. This is a good discipline for any freelancer, however well you’re doing. If you can live on five thousand pounds a year, you are six times as secure as someone who needs thirty thousand to get by.

While this advice is aimed mainly at freelancers, it can prove useful to anyone. It calls for conscious purchases, and most importantly to buy things that fit into your current setup so that you’re not upgrading everything else to live up to that standard. Purchase within your means, and, satisfied with the money you have, you won’t have to worry too much about how to get more of it.

Although, as Denis Diderot learnt to his peril, you must never, ever, forget to save up for your daughters’ weddings.