“I love your top”… “Oh I got it in the sale”

Why do we respond in the ways we do to a conversational pleasantry like, “I love your top”, or any other compliment directed at some accessory or item of clothing? One of Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up routines mocks the way some Americans will smugly accept such a compliment as if it were a reflection on some inherent virtue at the very heart of their being: “nice tie”, “well thank you, thank you very much”. By contrast, a less individualist language like German will not allow such a blurring of praise for the object with praise for the individual without using a slightly creepy syntax ill-suited to banal chit chat: “deine Jacke gefaellt mir”, “your jacket pleases me”. Among a certain strata of the English meanwhile, one is more likely to have snapped back in reply something along the lines of, “oh, I got it in the sale”, “it was only £15”, or the perennial mock-embarrassed one-word answer: “Primark”. Usually, the person being complimented cannot explain why they felt this impulse to so quickly respond in this way.

Clearly we are dealing with an update of the 1920s coquette’s “what this old thing” reply when an elaborate Parisian gown has tributes paid to it. But this particular iteration of doing-down what has been complimented also has a more confused set of cultural codes behind it. The first explanations are all covertly narcissistic. It is embarrassing to be seen to have put too much effort or cost into one’s appearance, or indeed to just accept compliments without offering some polite qualification of them. The claims on the flipside of these embarrassed ones are more explicitly self-congratulatory: “I can even make these cheap clothes look good”, or “I’m connoisseur enough to spot the quality items among the high street dross when they do come along”. So far, so coquettish. But what makes the contemporary English version of “what this old thing” distinctive is the way it responds to two quite contradictory moral associations we attach to cheap clothing. On the one hand, in times of austerity any conspicuous enjoyment of expensive luxuries looks morally suspect, and so – by the same logical ‘genealogy of morals’ Nietzsche once observed – spending little comes to be thought a moral good in itself. At the same time, we all know that cheap clothes (and rather a lot of expensive ones) are usually manufactured in third world countries where sweatshop conditions can be adopted with impunity. Two contradictory moral positions in relation to cheap clothes sit side by side in English discourse.

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In this respect, the urge to affirm that an item of clothing was inexpensive is rather like the hurried explanations of the man in Freud’s joke who has returned to its owner a kettle which is now broken: “it was fine when I gave it back to you, it was broken when you gave it to me, and besides… I never borrowed the kettle!” When we impulsively affirm the inexpensiveness of an item of clothing we are simultaneously saying: “I know it’s tacky to buy such cheap clothing, but we all do it after all”, “I’m proud to spend little on my clothing”, and “I know it’s wicked to buy clothes probably made in sweatshops, but at least I know to be embarrassed about it”. The frequency with which we encounter the self-deprecatory response to such compliments – and the frequency with which we are at a loss to explain it – can only point to a disavowed awareness that our habits of moral thought are not up to the demands of the particular capitalism we live under today.

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