Counter-signalling or signalling: it's all about status

Rory Sutherland

When is rebellion not rebellion? When it's really a way of showing off your social status.

Narrowing down the best things Jeremy Bullmore has ever said will never be easy – but among his finest aperçus belongs a single sentence he dropped in passing during a lunch 10 years ago, so the least I can do is record it here in print.

"There is a world of difference," he remarked, "between turning up at a black-tie function in your day clothes because you have chosen not to get changed and turning up to the same event in a suit because you can't afford a dinner jacket." The first creates a kind of self-satisfaction from an act of mild defiance, the second may arouse unavoidable feelings of shame or humiliation.

How easy is it to ignore dress codes? That depends on who you are. If Sir Martin Sorrell turns up in a suit, no-one will assume for a second that this is the result of a clothing shortage. If you are a creative person or a planner, again people will generally assume you are doing so through choice. For a junior account executive, however, the decision isn't quite so easy.