There are magazine columns, websites, and television shows built around the practice of examining fashion choices and making fun of them. They focus mainly on celebrities, but regular people get caught in the crossfire, too, occasionally. And while constructive criticism is an important tool for learning, most of these people and outlets aren’t interested in teaching style lessons.* They’re interested in generating clicks and gaining viewership by tearing down people who aren’t present to explain their choices or join the discussion. And at this point, judging others for their clothing choices has become such a commonplace activity that it seldom registers as anything other than normal. If it is normal, it shouldn’t be.

I have said here – and in many other venues – that comportment, dress, grooming, and overall appearance constitute the first levels of information about ourselves that we offer to the observing world. They may not be the most important, but they are the first, which makes them worthy of effort and attention. And I stand by that assertion. However, I don’t condone the blanket assumption that anyone whose appearance doesn’t meet your personal standards of stylishness is fair game for scorn. Here’s why.

Everyone has different standards

If you see a woman whose dress looks out-of-date to you or whose handbag is scuffed up or whose shirt is too tight, you are seeing her through the unique lens of your own perspective. Any judgment you pass is based on your own tastes, experiences, and preferences. And that means what you think is unlikely to be universally agreed-upon. Just because you believe certain things about her choices doesn’t make them fundamentally true. The rest of the world may look at the same woman and have completely different thoughts and opinions. And more importantly, she may look at herself and have completely different thoughts and opinions.

You never know what’s going on in someone else’s life

If someone looks disheveled or odd to your eye that’s bound to register, but to then leap to negative judgment means making vast assumptions. While dressing is a social act and can be used to communicate our tastes and preferences, it is also something we have to do to keep from getting arrested when we go out in public. You cannot tell from looking at someone if she is miserable or ill or scared or stressed or mourning or battling demons too varied to name. She may be dressed a certain way because wearing anything else hurts or because she hasn’t been able to do laundry in three weeks or because her heart is broken. She may be dressed a certain way because she’s got an interview or a date or an audition. You may never know, so you have no real information about her dressing choices, just your own opinions.

It’s 100% unproductive

What do you gain by judging others for their clothing choices? A momentary feeling of superiority? Are you going to find some diplomatic way to convey your critiques to others so that they can learn and “do better” next time? (Not recommended, especially with strangers.) How would you feel if you overheard someone making fun of your outfit? Talking with your sister about trying a different style of pants or talking with an employee about sticking to dress code can be productive. Snarking on a stranger or celebrity’s style choices never will be.

Humans observe the world around us, and it’s natural to draw conclusions about the things and people and occurrences we see. But when it comes to the style choices that others have made, I’d encourage you to be curious, not judgmental. It’s a big, wide world and there’s room in it for people who dress like you and people who dress a little like you and people who will never dress anything like you. Style is not a hierarchy or a contest to be won, so you don’t get points for ragging on someone else. Live and let live. Observe and reserve judgment.

*Tim Gunn’s “People Style Watch” column, pictured, rides the line, in my opinion. It aims to use visual illustrations to teach readers basic figure-flattery practices, but the text is so minimal. It doesn’t convey much information, yet still manages to sound exasperated and snippy much of the time.

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