Are Humans Fashion Animals?

Mar 08, 2013, 03:00 ET from HypeDirect

LONDON, March 8, 2013 /PRNewswire/ --

Fashion can be the boldest expression of an individual's style, personality, mood and behaviour, and yet we obey some fashion rules intuitively. For instance, some instinctive fashion rules might see us choosing a bright colour or a sexier outfit for a romantic dinner, wearing sober attire or minimal make-up at a funeral service, or ensure we don't turn up to a wedding in beachwear. Additionally, we have an acute awareness of fads and gender 'norms' in fashion. From early childhood we're instilled with an understanding of which type of clothing signifies which gender, and in later life one can make an audacious statement by transgressing against or subverting these gender rules. For some, choosing the right shoes and nail varnish is as important as choosing the right life-partner, while others won't be seen dead without a designer watch!

Fashion is a uniquely complicated social phenomenon which drives our everyday emotional and social states and intrinsically alters how we react to the world, and how the world reacts to us. In this article, we examine the basic question of why humans are drawn to fashion in evolutionary, behavioural, psychological and neurological contexts.

Is survival of the "fashionably" fittest an essential trait?

The evolution of fashion, from a time when basic clothing was merely used to protect the skin from heat or cold, is incredible. Ten thousand years ago Neanderthals were the first pre-humans to wear clothes, which allowed them to run faster, stay outside longer and hunt more easily, resulting in a better quality of life. Custom-made clothing (designed for their pleasing aesthetic qualities, rather than just practicality) only emerged relatively recently, around the 16th and 17th centuries. Two hundred years later, the first 'fashion designer' - Charles Fredrick Worth - officially labelled his clothes. Ever since, the fashion industry has undergone several revolutions, in correspondence to the passing of the decades.

Might, then, the 'evolution' of fashion be linked to the evolution of humans? Does the Darwinian principal of the survival of the fittest ring true for those with style? Our human society is largely monogamous. The choice of mates for procreation is primarily governed by signs of fertility and virility: a healthy body, youth, and myriad other highly desirable traits like intelligence. So in this system, where the most desirable are most likely to reproduce, surely the sharper dressed amongst us are more likely to turn some heads! There is, however, no evidence that fashion has evolved to be an 'essential trait', for selecting a viable mate to propagate the human race! If this were the case, swathes of people deemed 'unfashionable' would fail to reproduce, leaving only a well-dressed populous short of scruffy farmers and geeky scientists.  At the most, unfashionable men and women might be less favoured as mates; nevertheless, this does not brand them any less capable of procreation.

Does your dressing sense dictate your behaviour?

The importance of fashion in a general behavioural sense, aside from mating-specific behaviour, cannot be ignored. Human society is largely inclined to following prescribed social, moral and ethical conduct. Unlike the pre-20th century fashions, set by the royal families, the 21st century fashion is quite experimental, evolving and accessible to everyone. We have started expressing our creativity and individualism through fashion, by either wearing someone's creations or instigating our own trends. Despite this move towards fashion freedom, however, when it comes to dressing for specific occasions, certain principles continue to exist and evolve in the fashion world. There will always be agreed dress and accessories for events, and this will differ depending on culture, ethnicity and gender, as discussed in the introductory paragraph. Thus, every fashion era draws upon a baseline (normal) behaviour while adding its own unique features.

There have been studies indicating differences between male and female behaviour with respect to fashion appreciation. If you ask impeccably dressed, single straight women why they like to match colours of their dress with make-up, accessories and shoes, you are likely to hear a response that they wish to look attractive to men. Now, how many straight men think of colour-synchrony as an important criterion for a woman to look attractive? Surprisingly, not many men really bother if the woman has colour-coded her attire or not. They mostly look for figure-accentuating clothing; highlighting what the men see as being their attractive bodily features and hiding their unattractive one. Interestingly, it has been shown that it is in fact other women who are most likely to be critical of a woman's colour-coding standards! Lloyd explores similar behavioural differences in his article:

Fashion in the brain

How do we perceive people and gauge their personalities? Flügel's The Psychology of Clothes (1930) and Bergler's Fashion and the Unconscious (1953) have explored some psychoanalyses in light of fashion. Although the homosexual undertones in their work are conservative and out-dated by modern standards, they have drawn important correlations between clothing and eroticism. It is quite possible that certain aspects of clothing can trigger sexual arousal. What we now know is that this experience is very subjective, due to differences in visual salience, mood and preferences; and it cannot be generalised for the all people or even specific groups. Recent cognitive psychology studies have shown that the interpretation of what people wear might differ in context, based on different ethnic groups, cultures and sub-cultures. The meaning conveyed might also differ on the purpose of fashion like conveying a wearable art, maintaining unique identity, identifying body image or providing a commentary on the body. Based on these intentions, we might gauge others' personalities, tallying it with our own preferences. The psychological bases of fashion is wonderfully explored in the following article:

How quickly can we judge personalities from their external appearance? Malcom Gladwell's non-fiction best-seller 'Blink!' talks about the rapid cognition we carry out within the first few seconds of meeting a new person.  He discusses a speed-dating scenario in which one could make a snap-judgement about a stranger's personality type. In our opinion, judging if a person might be of your 'type' can be attributed to fashion and body image, because when you have just few seconds to judge, external appearance is the first thing that you tend to observe. Indeed, if what they are trying to convey harmonises with what you are drawn to, it is likely that you will make a successful match. Nevertheless, it is no rocket-science, and not guaranteed that a simple alteration in attire can project a different personality type and create different first-impressions. Think about 'criminal' stereotypes; one might expect to see someone wearing a balaclava wielding knives. However, in reality, thieves and criminals often dress deceptively normally and attract little to no attention. Actors, models, business-heads and politicians often hire fashion / image consultants to advise them on the way they dress in order to project a body image best suited for their profession, and gain them popularity. Thus, fashion and psychology have a strong association in terms of projection and interpretation, but unfortunately, misinterpretation can still be a big problem.

So, what is the brain's mechanism for fashion-induced behaviour? Dopamine (or the 'happy chemical') in the brain is a major component of the reward and motivational system. Recent studies have shown that anti-social behaviour might be caused due to over activity of the dopamine system. Other studies correlate anti-social behaviour with a decrease in adherence to fashion trends; where persons do not care to 'fit-in' the accepted morality standards of the society. What remains to be studied is whether the apparent correlation between the dopamine system and fashion sense in causal or coincidental. If we obtain a significant evidence that it is linked, we might actually uncover a mechanism to explain if and why being fashionable is such an important factor for our emotional well-being.

Anthropomorphic Fashion

Amidst all the talk of human love for fashion, we wonder what your pets think to be dressed in pretty, pink frocks and scarves! The next time you walk your dog, observe that attention attention she gets from potential mates; are they complimenting her dressing sense? You can't rule out the possibility of your dog's fashion echoing your own; if you've dressed your dogs in such a way to attract each other, what's not to say you two owners might hit it off?

Article produced by HypeDirect.


  1. Lloydian Aspects (
  2. Alison Bancroft's Think with a Twist (
  3. Malcom Gladwell's 'Blink!'
  4. (
  5. Psychology Wiki by Wikia (
  6. NIH News (

Samir Ullah,, +44(0)845-075-6025

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