Friday, June 3, 2016

The law of large numbers and the "Gambler's Fallacy"

Silk organza fabric from Rosen & Chadick

Repost - originally written 6/3/16

A few years ago, a bridal client contacted me, and asked me to make a bolero for her wedding dress.  As is often the case, this bride was second-guessing herself, feeling self-conscious about the exposure her strapless dress would require. Pale-skinned,tall and statuesque, she felt she needed a bit more coverage. Going back home to the deep south, her artsy-New-York-self battled with the traditional, sleek look she had chosen. She showed me a highly stylized photo of a model in a frilly, high-end, artsy bolero, and, using that photo as inspiration, I fashioned a length of silk organza into this bolero.  I draped the body on the dress form, with only two seams (one at each underarm), and then cut strips of raw-edged spiral bias to sculpt this look.  Pleased and confident with my creation, I took it to the bride for her approval.

And she hated it.

Per her wishes, I reworked and exaggerated this bolero to meet her requirements, and a much more over-the-top (with feathers!) version was born. While I didn't personally care for the exaggerated version, it was HER opinion and her wallet governing this transaction.  That's just true, and it is a painful lesson for me, or any creative person. I had made what I thought was better.  And that's not what she asked for.

Since then, I've shared this version on Facebook and elsewhere, gaining "likes" that support my belief that this is the best version of this bolero... but you know what?  I was looking to the law of large(r) numbers to support my claim, in a circumstance where its application is, frankly, irrelevant.

While working for an insurance company in a completely different capacity recently, I had a light bulb moment when the Law of Large Numbers was used to explain to an unhappy client why a decision had not been rendered in his favor.  "I know you are upset," he was told, "but do you think if we had put 1000 different people in your exact circumstances, that they would have all reacted in the same way?  Some would have chosen left/right, up/down, black/white.  Any different decision could/would have produced a different outcome."

Here's the definition:

In probability theory, the law of large numbers (LLN) is a theorem that describes the result of performing the same experiment a large number of times. According to the law, the average of the results obtained from a large number of trials should be close to the expected value, and will tend to become closer as more trials are performed. The LLN is important because it "guarantees" stable long-term results for the averages of random events. For example, while a casino may lose money in a single spin of the roulette wheel, its earnings will tend towards a predictable percentage over a large number of spins. Any winning streak by a player will eventually be overcome by the parameters of the game. It is important to remember that the LLN only applies (as the name indicates) when a large number of observations are considered. There is no principle that a small number of observations will coincide with the expected value or that a streak of one value will immediately be "balanced" by the others. See the Gambler's fallacy.

- Definition, as offered by Wikipedia

I had spun and lost.

When we shop for clothing, what appears in stores is a result of what has already been proven to sell, or expected to sell based on market data.  The fact is, while the bolero I made is fun, and many people have "liked" it, not a SINGLE person has ever sought to purchase a duplicate from me.  Would I wear it to a formal event?  Absolutely. 

My inner "gambler's fallacy" theory wants to scream,  "If other people love what I make, so will you!"  Not true.  That's not what custom clothing is.

Here's the thing.  That thing you love doesn't exist unless you create it. Fabric stores open up endless possibilities for us. Beautiful ideas abound.  Find your creative voice, and answer its call.  And not for anyone else.  Do it for yourself.

One thing I must convey here, is that whenever I make something a bit different, not driven by anything but my own creative urge, it is generally about three years before anyone says A SINGLE WORD about it.  Just two weeks ago, I took a long walk in Manhattan, appreciating the diversity of this city, and the complete lack of conformity among the people I encountered, and I must have gotten at least 8 unsolicited compliments from complete strangers on my shirt (now 4 years old).  

I say all this to lead to the bigger point.  I love to go to fabric stores and pick things, often without knowing what those fabrics will eventually become.  This is why a stash is not only important, but necessary for me.  Only today have I cut a fabric bought about three years ago, and now, it's time has come.  Shall I wait three years before I show you? No.  I will wear it when it is done.  Not for your sake, but for mine.

Trust your gut.  Make (or commission) what you love. That's all.


  1. As a statistics teacher and seamstress, you've married my passions into one wonderful essay! Thank you!

  2. Thank you Mimi--beautifully written and very meaningful!

  3. Yes! I especially relate to the 3-4 year comment gap, although the Internet has changed that response time. ;)

    1. I am SO glad someone agrees with me! I made a shirt years ago, that I called the Ombre Hombre (one of my favorite jokes only I found funny) I wore it after making it, and my own mother said to me, (quote!) "What the hell are you wearing?" I wore it last weekend, she looked at me, and said "Great shirt". I simply thanked her for the compliment, and left it at that. She started to follow it up with ... "Maybe you should sell those... like make a bunch... and" I left the room.


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