Have you ever purchased or been given something, something you really wanted, only to find that this new acquisition made the rest of your stuff seem a bit old and dated? Rather than discarding the new acquisition or accepting some disunity in the style of your possessions, have you then been tempted to upgrade your old and dated stuff?
In the 18th century, the French philosopher Denis Diderot wrote an essay entitled, ‘Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown,’ in which he described exactly this phenomenon. The essay can be summarized as follows:
Diderot’s regrets were prompted by a gift of a beautiful scarlet dressing gown. Delighted with his new acquisition, Diderot quickly discarded his old gown. But in a short time, his pleasure turned sour as he began to sense that the surroundings within which the gown was worn did not properly reflect the garment’s elegance. He grew dissatisfied with his study, with its threadbare tapestry, the desk, his chairs and even room’s bookshelves. One by one, the familiar but well-worn furnishings of the study were replaced. In the end, Diderot found himself seated uncomfortably in the stylish formality of his new surroundings, regretting the work of this ‘impervious scarlet robe [that] forced everything else to conform with its own elegant tone.’
Today social researchers call such striving for conformity the ‘Diderot Effect,’ and in a consumer society of growing personal incomes, the pressure to enter and follow the cycle of upgrading can be overwhelming, as Juliet Schor explains:
The purchase of a new home is the impetus for replacing old furniture; a new jacket makes little sense without the right skirt to match; an upgrade in china can’t really be enjoyed without a corresponding upgrade in glassware. This need for unity and conformity in our lifestyle choices is part of what keeps the consumer escalator moving ever upward. And ‘escalator’ is the operative metaphor: when the acquisition of each item on a wish list adds another item, and more, to our ‘must-have’ list, the pressure to upgrade our stock of stuff is relentlessly unidirectional, always ascending.
What is even worse, however, is when our stock of stuff has been upgraded and we come to realize that our old stuff was just as good, if not better. ‘Why didn’t I keep my old dressing gown,’ Diderot lamented. ‘It was used to me and I was used to it. It molded to all the folds of my body without inhibiting it… The other one is stiff, and starchy, and makes me look stodgy.’
Diderot even realized that his new scarlet robe placed new constraints upon him. If one of his books were covered with dust, he used to wipe it clean with his old dressing gown. But he didn’t want to get his new robe dirty. If ink used to thicken on his pen, his old dressing gown was waiting to wipe it clear. But, again, his new robe seemed too beautiful for this task. Whereas his old robe was marked in these ways, with dust and ink, reflecting a life of ‘the litterateur, the writer, the man who works,’ his new gown gave him ‘the air of a rich good for nothing. No one knows who I am.’
Diderot had been master of his old robe, but became slave of the new one. ‘Poverty has its freedoms,’ he wrote. ‘Opulence has its obstacles.’ May we all learn from Diderot’s mistake!
Have you ever experienced the Diderot effect? Have you anticipated it, perhaps, and managed to resist the initial upgrading?
 Diderot’s essay, ‘Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown,’ can be found online at: http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/diderot/1769/regrets.htm
 See Juliet Schor, ‘Learning Diderot’s Lesson: Stopping the Upward Creep of Desire,’ in Tim Jackson (ed), Sustainable Consumption (2005) 178.
 Diderot, ‘Regrets,’ above n 1.