Many fashions and artworks originate as copies of practical objects. Why? Because any form of optimized design is intrinsically esthetically-pleasing, and a great starting point.
Countless genres of art start in appropriating objects long incubated in subcultures for originally practical purposes, often becoming fashionable and collectible because no longer practically relevant, such as fancy watches. This seems a little odd, and leads to weird economic situations where brands bend over backwards to try to maintain ‘authenticity’ by, say, showing that some $5,000 pair of sneakers sold to collectors has some homeopathic connection to a real athlete.
With an infinite design-universe to explore, why does this keep happening and why does anyone care so much? Why, indeed, is l’art pour l’art not enough and people insist on the art being for something else, even when it blatantly is not?
Because humans respond esthetically to not simply complexity or ornamentation, but to the optimal combination of these in the pursuit of some comprehensible goal, yielding constraint, uniqueness, and comprehensibility. A functional goal keeps artists honest, and drives the best design, furnishing an archive of designs that can be mined for other purposes like fashion.
For that reason, the choice of a goal or requirement can, even if completely irrelevant or useless, be a useful design tool by fighting laziness and mediocrity.
In Memoriam, Christopher Alexander (1936–2022).
Many fashionable esthetics are derived from unfashionable traditions developed by small groups for practical purposes. Indeed, whether “dark academia” or gyaru (“gal”), many fashions are simply named after the groups they were copied from (as opposed to their properties). Hence such oddities as ‘American workwear’ as a fashion, resulting in flannel-wearing hipsters in Red Wing boots aspiring to look like Paul Bunyan, who have never swung an axe; or Japanese military enthusiasts hunting for the most authentic WWII-vintage-style bomber jackets or aviator sunglasses, the better to look like the American pilots who killed their grandfathers. And why did we adopt the Western business suit & necktie from… “hunters and military officers”? The endless talk of ‘authenticity’ betrays a certain anxiety over the extent of this borrowing and hipster LARPing.
Drunkard’s walk. Fashion being fashion, these seeds are only the starting point. The fashion will keep evolving on its own, as the cool kids endlessly find new ways to separate themselves from the uncool kids, buffeted by external factors and chance, like a famous actor wearing a watch.
Lost purposes. What was originally functional and explicable, like the rivets on jeans at stress points, having lost their purpose & selection pressure for functionality (in part driven by fashion’s version of Dutch disease—collecting), can drift to strange places the original users would consider dangerously deviant—Levi Strauss had to add rivets to keep the pants together, but today’s jean designers will spangle them anywhere one pleases, no matter how awkward, if that is the fashion at the time. In the case of jeans, the use is clear enough, and the history well-documented, but in many cases of design, copies are inferior because the new ignorant designers just did not understand the value of the features that were present, or absent (eg. the American copies of the German WWII jerrycan were grossly inferior, and the British used captured German jerrycans while waiting for exact duplicates), illustrating cases where blackbox evolutionary design using replication-variation-selection can beat intelligent design. As designers know, often the most important parts of a design cannot be seen and are not even part of the design, but were what was learned in the long series of iteration as they groped towards a design that seems, in retrospect, inevitable; unfortunately, as Perlis notes, “You can’t communicate complexity, only an awareness of it” (which is why I maintain a list of discarded Gwern.net features).
Mutational decay. After a while, a fashion is an erroneous copy of a misunderstood copy of an inferior variant of a copy of an original a fashion designer once saw; the original passes away: passable, then pastiche, then parody, as the concrete physical objects themselves have long since been forgotten in a haze of signaling “I did X” or “we are Y” or “you should like Z” or “I am more authentic than thou”. It has become more important to seem good than to be good, and one uses cheap gimmicks like adding metal weights to headphones to make them feel more substantial; it has become l’art pour l’art. (By the time people are even talking about ‘authenticity’ and in need of special stamps & certifications & celebrity endorsements to assure them of their virtue, this process must already be far gone.)
“They don’t make them like that anymore.” This is, I think, why these fashion brands make such efforts to maintain contact with reality, no matter how bizarrely distorted their markets gets by things like scalping: ‘live by the fad, die by the fad.’ With no intrinsic backing, and having traveled fully up its rear orifice, a fashion can go bankrupt and become unfashionable overnight. A grounding in a real group, with practical uses, keeps the design honest.1 A hipster may be unable to evaluate the deeper qualities of stuff, but if they buy “professional” or “commercial-grade”, free-riding off that market discipline, they can assuage the anxiety that they are are being inauthentic or someone somewhere might be exploiting them (ie. making a profit).
But why care about those originals? All interesting, but not an answer to the question: where the seed goes may be fairly arbitrary and one may care about maintaining fidelity to the original seed by mechanisms like policing authenticity, yes, fine—but why is the chosen original seed so consistently a borrowed folkway or subculture or profession etc, drawn from any time or place, whether the military of a conqueror or fishermen centuries ago in the North Atlantic or the fads of young Manhattanites who your grandparents might have seen as a child? It could come from anywhere, or better yet, be brand new. It’s not as if no one’s trying to invent new looks!
“Every task involves constraint,
Solve the thing without complaint;
There are magic links and chains
Forged to loose our rigid brains.
Strictures, structures, though they bind,
Strangely liberate the mind.”
I would suggest the formal reason is that those seeds are highly-optimized for multiple3 things, and that being optimized is intrinsically esthetically pleasing. To borrow from Christopher Alexander’s ideas, his “quality without a name” (C2) could in this context be given the name “end-to-end optimized”.
Thoughtful vs thoughtless. A building with the quality without a name is a building which glows with its inner logic: it has learned over time and, with great care, tailored to its surrounding in every way, from blending into the local architecture vernacular to its repair cost to how the sun shines on it in the morning in mid-winter to how long it takes to find the bathroom when you need to do the needful, a delightful surprise around every corner; aspiring to perfection, it can reach excellence. Contrast to the slovenly cookie-cutter dysfunctional buildings, constructed by organizations which largely do not care (assuming the architect is not outright misanthropic and deliberately manufacturing anxiety), which, being suits cut to fit all sizes, suit none, and aiming no higher than mediocrity, lands at failure, with each surprise more unpleasant than the last.
Qualities emerge. When we look at natural objects like rivers finding the most efficient path to the ocean, or aerodynamic birds, or bones in a skeleton, we may have no idea what a fractal dimension is or what variational physics are, but we still recognize that the object is in some way intrinsically simple, its form driven by function. It will have desirable properties like symmetries, a hierarchy of features repeating but with local variations, and many rules with violations when a deeper rule is followed.
Qualities converge. When we look at a minimal surface, or Buddhist sand mandala or some engineering problem like a metal beam optimized by genetic algorithms to maximize stiffness while minimizing weight, we may struggle to understand why it bulges in one place and has a hole punched in another; but we say, “how organic-looking!” A powerline is as esthetic as a painting, and a computer chip as miraculous a work as any authored by human hands. Indeed, any optimization is enough: much computer art, and human art, takes the form of minimizing or maximizing some entirely arbitrary constraint. (What computer languages are called ‘beautiful’? The single-paradigm languages like Smalltalk or Haskell, which take the premise “what if everything was X?” as far as possible; done well, such languages are “a mistake carried through to perfection”.)
Perception & learning of qualities. When we look at such an object, we may have no idea what purpose each part serves, but we respond to the whole.4 And the longer we spend with the object, the better we appreciate it, keeping the object interesting by being novel but not too novel. We gradually learn to compress it, understanding why each part is the way it is (because there are in fact reasons, even if only as decorative spandrels), yielding esthetic pleasure.
It takes a village (and city, and country…) A bomber jacket, or Red Wing boot, or aviator sunglass, or guernsey/Aran sweater (or…), is the product of lengthy evolution and design optimizing for many properties, under many competing constraints. An ecosystem of traditions can percolate novelty upwards in a multilevel design, balancing exploration and exploitation.
Good artists copy… Few humans can design such objects from scratch; they optimize only a few constraints, because the designer intended only one thing, or ran out of time, or ideas, and do not reward long-term use—what you see is only what you get. Cast adrift on the sea of possibilities, they will do only a few iterations. They will not build up a unique design language, driven by real needs. They will not deeply explore a design space, and come up with unobvious but right results, or refactor each component until they all hang together in a logical way. If you sat down and tried with a blank sheet of paper, you’d never invent that A-2 bomber jacket in a single go; no Japanese collectors will care a century later about it. It is too specific, too idiosyncratic—it can only be the product of a long line of earlier jackets starting at the dawn of aviation by repurposing tweed jackets and motoring apparel, driven by the needs of flying. But when you copy from a tradition with a whole pattern language, you stand on the shoulders of giants.
Pick a tradition. It does not matter what tradition, if the alternative is a collage of careless incompetence & cargo-culting & lowest-bidder work & myopic choice. Pick one as a guide: “At least it’s an esthetic.”
I wear Red Wing boots because I like their look, not because I need them; my cousin wears RW boots, because he fights wildfires—and tells me that the RW Museum in RW, Minnesota has a wall of half-destroyed boots sent in from RW wearers worldwide, such as firefighters in Japan, in exchange for replacements.
If RW boots degrade, presumably they’ll let RW know. Because I won’t.↩︎
Does one need to machine a stainless steel Rubik’s cube? No. Would one want to use it for playing Rubik’s cube, much less speedcubing? Also no. Does the arbitrary objective of “Rubik’s cube but steel” drive the design & creation of an object far more beautiful than he would’ve created with the remit “a beautiful steel object”? Heck yes.↩︎