Dear Economist,
Why do most of us iron our clothes, when we are untidy in so many other ways?
Judith Oliver, Singapore

Dear Judith,

There is an obvious difference between an immaculate shirt and an immaculate sitting room: you get to enjoy the aesthetic benefits of tidying your living space, but not - unless you spend a lot of time in front of the mirror - the aesthetic benefits of your own clothes.

After all, how many of you can honestly say you haven’t sailed through the day only to discover that you have spinach between your teeth and you forgot to brush your hair? The horror is apparent to everyone but you.

So why do we care more about other people’s enjoyment of our tidiness than our own? It is not a matter of selflessness: we try to make a good visual impression because it will bring us wealth, status and, we hope, a bit of sex too.

But a second question arises: why are we judged on appearances? It might be intrinsically satisfying to have a well-dressed boyfriend, but there is nothing fundamentally less productive about a scruffy accountant. Evidently, the tie is important because employers believe it is correlated with diligence and talent.

If this is true, we would expect to see the largest premium on snappy dressing in professions where there are few other effective ways to evaluate performance. Estate agents and management consultants are sharply dressed in the absence of more convincing guides to their competence.

In professions where talent is more obvious, this facade is not needed. That is why when I look around the Financial Times office, neatly pressed shirts and blouses are hard to find.

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