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« Goltzius and Authorship | Main | If Big is Bad, Is Small Good? »

October 13, 2003

Sexual Selection and Fashion Redux

Michael:

Okay, I’ll admit it—occasionally I blow a posting. I think I’ve got a nice little idea all ready to roll out, but when I pop it up there on the blog, and look at it I think, wait a minute, you got way too cute with that, who could possibly tell what you were getting at, you bozo?

Well, I want a do over and I’m going to take one.

My recent posting on fashion derived from a very interesting essay by Geoffrey F. Miller called “Sexual Selection for Cultural Displays.” This is one chapter in a book called “The Evolution of Culture,” which, as you might expect, is written from an evo-bio perspective.

One of the major problems in trying to link evolution and culture is that most cultural activities don’t enhance survival. In fact, by chewing up a lot of time and calories that people could be spending hunting or gathering, it would appear to actively reduce their survivability. So the development of culture seems unlikely to have been pushed forward by the processes of natural selection—the so-called survival of the fittest mechanism.

However, as Darwin noted, natural selection isn’t the only evolutionary mechanism. There’s also sexual selection, which operates when individuals seeking to reproduce decide with whom to pair up. They don’t want to invest their time and genes with a partner who will produce sickly or otherwise inadequate offspring, or who won’t be a good parent or partner. In fact, to the extent they can pull it off, they want to go for the very best. (The widespread social role of “Most Popular Guy/Girl in High School” isn’t an accidental cultural construct.)

Of course, people don’t have their reproductive fitness quotient tattooed on their foreheads; such fitness must be inferred from somatic (face and figure) cues or must be demonstrated by behavior. In other words, sexual selection involves signaling.

The tricky part with signaling is that it is easier, evolutionarily speaking, to cook up a fake signal of reproductive fitness than it is to actually deliver the goods. I think you’ll understand the pressure to “cheat” when you consider that reproductive fitness isn’t an absolute quality, but a relative one. Reproductive fitness is graded on a curve, and only a certain percentage of the population will get an “A” no matter how well everyone does on the final.

So the natural tendency among individuals evaluating such signals is to look for ones that are hard to fake. In 1975 Amotz Zahavi realized that traits that actually inflicted a penalty or a handicap to the signaler fit this bill perfectly. He used this handicap theory to explain why peacocks grew such enormous tails, despite the fact that this reduced their odds of survival: the fact that the peacocks are still around and functioning despite their grotesque tails signals to peahens that these guys were extremely reproductively fit. Such a signal can’t be faked; if you’ve got such a tail then it will handicap your individual survival whether or not you’ve got the genetic resources to bear up under this burden, so it's insane to fake it.

Now, because for women child bearing and rearing involves a greater share of their available resources than men, it behooves women to be careful about their reproductive partners. As a result, most demonstrations of sexual fitness are by men. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, women are—by and large—choosy, and men—by and large—compete for their attention. But as humans have evolved, men have become more and more involved in child rearing, and thus have had to get choosy as well. (The previous masculine strategy of trying to nail anyone who was available, the more the merrier, doesn’t work as well when successful reproduction involves sticking around and investing time and energy in child rearing.) When faced by choosy men, women must also compete to demonstrate reproductive fitness.

Of course, face and figure signals for reproductive fitness can (and constantly are) gamed by women (think cosmetics, perfumes, push-up bras, high heels, control-top pantyhose, etc., etc.) So other signals had to be developed that involved a greater investment of resources and, even better, required investment of resources that only the fittest women bring to the table. Here is where fashion (among with many other signaling mechanisms) comes in.

How a woman dresses, for it to work both as a successful signal and a handicap in Mr. Zahavi’s sense, has to go beyond the fairly utilitarian matter of successful self-presentation. That's too easy. As a result, the notion of fashion has evolved, which forces a woman to look good while simultaneously not violating a rapidly changing set of arbitrary rules. With fashion in the game, a woman not only sends out face and figure cues—which are fairly easy to fake—but she also signals her knowledge of the rules of fashion and her strategies for coping with them—which requires a set of inputs that are much harder to fake. With fashion layered into the mix, men can now tell something about a woman's alertness to social conventions and the world around her, about her problem-solving skills and about the financial resources she brings to the game. (If those financial resources are earned by the woman herself, that directly signals a certain degree of fitness; if the financial resources are provided by the woman’s family, well, that at least strongly implies that some fairly fit genes in her family tree, as well as potentially valuable social connections.)

Hence, to fulfill its role in sexual selection as a sincerity-testing handicap, fashion cannot be about simply making women beautiful, despite the fact that designers always portray their craft in this light. Fashion (as opposed to the rag trade) is about creating a rapidly changing set of rules for dressing which are intentionally subtle, complex, and difficult-to-decode. To make fashion work even better as a sincere (i.e., hard to fake) signaling device, designers must create a hierarchy of rules from introductory to expert while also charging increasingly more for the garments necessary to play the game at advanced levels. Making women beautiful (providing positive face and figure cues) is actually a task that fashion deliberately makes more difficult and expensive.

Granted, fashion design at the grandmaster (couture) level can take this process so far that the rules generated are incompatible with sending positive face and figure cues, at which point the vast majority of women bail out of the game, sincerity be damned. Hey, who said it’s easy designing hard-to-fake signaling systems! But just because the system’s elite often are shooting in the dark at the most rarified levels of their craft, doesn’t mean that the system doesn’t hum along in the middle and lower ranks. Fashion is there to make dressing well more, not less, difficult—and thus more, not less meaningful.

I hope I’ve been clearer this time.

Best regards,

Friedrich

posted by Friedrich at October 13, 2003




Comments

This is where you go off the rails - "But as humans have evolved, men have become more and more involved in child rearing, and thus have had to get choosy as well."

Posted by: j.c. on October 13, 2003 09:42 AM



The stereotype, at least, is that men are much less sensitive to women's fashions than women are. I can believe that men generally prefer women who dress as though they're part of the culture, and I occasionally hear a man say that he prefers well-dressed women or women who wear punk or whatever, but I do think it's rare.

Alternate theory: people have a lot more brain capacity than they need to survive, and especially in civilization, don't get as much mental input as their built for. Boredom is bad for us, so we make up winner/loser games to have something to do, and possibly for less savory reasons.

They recently found that social exclusion activates the part of the brain that produces physical pain. I'm curious about what part of the brain is involved in excluding people.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on October 13, 2003 10:04 AM



Well spoken. I've been telling my colleague Tyler Cowen this for years, and his blog pointed me to your nice summary.

I do agree with the comment that one of the puzzles to explain is why fashion seems to be targeted more at female rather than male observers of females. I think that in general people compete for within gender status, and then the other gender cues off of that status level.

Posted by: Robin Hanson on October 13, 2003 10:40 AM



J.C.: Maybe I got carried away, as I personally am quite involved with my kids, but I meant that as men have evolved to stay within one family group, it behooves men to be choosy. And I think it is quite evident from looking at any magazine aimed at young, single women that the women are very aware of the need to compete for choosy men.

Nancy & Robin: I am suggesting that the stereotype is wrong--that in truth fashion is designed to provide highly valuable information for men--i.e., information about female sexual fitness that can be relied upon. (This may offer an explanation for the fact that almost all the top designers are men--gay or not, they understand the need to produce such information for the reproductive guidance of their hetero brothers.)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 13, 2003 11:52 AM



Freidrich,
Does the woman in your life know that you are exposing these secrets?

Very dangerous. Men who do this have been known to disappear.

Posted by: vanderleun on October 13, 2003 01:14 PM



Dallas Lynn has a hailarious, half-satirical take on sexual selection at:

http://www.intellectualwhores.com/masterladder.html

Posted by: Nate on October 13, 2003 03:11 PM



Friedrich,

I think Robin's explanation is more plausible than the claim that men use fashion signals directly. I don't think many men keep up with the details of current fashion trends enough to know whether women are adhering to them correctly. But, perhaps men can rely on the female peer review process to help them make informed choices.

Posted by: Gil on October 13, 2003 07:50 PM



Just to add a little to the excellent analysis: Fashions are generally inaugurated by women who have a lot of confidence in their physical looks. There's a positive correlation between confidence in their looks and objective measures of looks, so men react positively to signs on feminine confidence in how they look.

Similarly, consider hair styles: ridiculous hair styles are easiest to pull off if you are young and have lots of healthy hair. The 1962 bouffant look was only capable of being carried off by young women with long, healthy hair, and lots of time and energy on their hands, time and energy that could be redirected to raising the child you'd have with her.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on October 13, 2003 09:39 PM



I'll add just a bit more to this very interesting discussion.

I would expect that the purpose of cultural activities such as fashion, and therefore the phenomenon itself, change depending on the larger cultural atmosphere. In particular, fashion is influenced by the sexual mores of the culture.

When the general tendency is toward monogamy or lifetime pairing, high status women will need to signal their status and compete with other high status women to win the commitment of the best available men, pretty much as Friedrich describes.

They don't have to worry all that much about low-status women, except to distinguish themselves from them, since the higher-status men will avoid these. Fashion under these circumstances will seek to be "elegant"--that is, signaling high status.

When the general tendency is toward polygamy or temporary pairings, high status women find that they must compete with low-status women because the optimal sexual strategy for men in this situation involves being less "choosy." This means the optimal strategy for women must involve not just status signaling but attention seeking. Fashion under these circumstance will involve an attempt not just to signal status, which remains important but not quite as important, but to catch the attention of men.

As we move away from monogamy, fashion becomes less elegant and more attention grabbing. This seems to be the case, in fact.

Posted by: anonymous on October 13, 2003 10:09 PM



I'm way over my head here, am probably not getting many of the points raised, and probably won't be able to follow further explanations, but ...

What about the notion (which I favor, for no good reason whatsoever) that high fashion has no real survival value? That guys and gals, sure, have lot of these preferences and urges built in. But that, what with consciousness and what with a little leisure time and spare cash, we aren't totally (98% sure, but not 100%) slaves of evolutionary pressures. So we get to toy with what interests and tickles us. We get to amuse ourselves Straight guys get to watch sports and play with computers. Gals and gays (some, of course) get to play with women's looks and clothes.

Of course, even I can see how all this can be sourced in evo-pressures (why are so many guys interested in machines; why are so many women interested in fashion), and how it can be tied back into them (computers and sports and fashion turn into activities where people do go to demonstrate fitness and prowess). Even so, and perhaps it's sentimental of me, it seems to me that some strange and weird outgrowths (high fashion being one of them) might be explained as consequences of people with some free time and spare cash on hand bashing their pleasure buttons over and over, just for the pleasure of it. Why? Less because evolutionary pressures demand it, and more simply because they can.

(I've read the Geoffrey Miller, by the way. Which was very impressive, but --perhaps my failing -- I wasn't completely convinced...)

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 14, 2003 01:34 AM



Michael:

Your comment is a bit amusing to me as it was a previous comment of yours (a response to Version #1 of this post) that led me to rethink what I was saying there and write this post! In that comment you described high fashion as a form of pornography for women. That got me thinking, what is pornography for men? In evolutionary terms, porno is a fantasy of having such high sexual fitness that all women want to have sex (i.e., reproduce) with you. Hence, if your observation about high fashion being porn for women is true, then high fashion must put women into a mood where they can fantasize about demonstrating ultra-high reproductive fitness. Which in turn suggests that fashion is concerned with signaling reproductive fitness. Yet in my previous post I had provided illustrations of how high fashion manages at least on occasion to make even very attractive models look bad. It then dawned on my that the whole notion of fashion--at any level, couture to Target--is about adding a layer of complexity onto the basic problem of dressing to be attractive: the problem becomes not just trying to look good, but to look good in a currently fashionable way--a trickier problem. So this sense of fashion as being about signaling reproductive fitness seems tied up along with the notion that fashion is a way of upping the bar in the reproductive fitness high jump. Hence the notion that fashion might be a "handicap" system analogous to the peacock's tail--the higher the level of fashion attempted, the more difficult the task of looking good becomes, and the greater the degree of "un-fake-able" reproductive fitness demonstrated (at least when you are successful.)

BTW, the Miller essay doesn't discuss fashion at all, so if I'm not being convincing here it's my fault, not his.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 14, 2003 02:26 AM



I've always wondered about fashion. After reading your piece and these valuable comments, I still don't get it, but my wondering is now focused. The point that fashion is like porn for women is extremely suggestive; just as men who try to live out their porn fantasies are, if anything, going to repel women, it seems that the deeper a woman immerses herself in high fashion, the more she is going to repel men. To ignorant males (most of us), high fashion signals high maintenance (if we even recognize it), a need to disguise underlying fertility problems (compared to a Hooters outfit, for instance, which advertises fertility without distracting frippery), and, at worst, a conscious attempt to look like crap (see, e.g., heroin chic). Both male and female porn-extremes pervert the sexual selection process, serving as evolutionary dead-ends for those who allow themselves to get sucked into them. Thanks for shedding a little light on this puzzling cultural artifact.

Posted by: Anonymous Male on October 14, 2003 10:51 AM



How does your theory square with societies where there isn't fashion, but cultural costumes? Societies like India, the Arab world, in fact, most traditional societies outside the Western world, before the advent of the fashion industry?

Posted by: Diana on October 14, 2003 12:49 PM



I still don't think the theory holds up--there isn't any evidence that men prefer women who are doing high fashion, or even something close to high fashion. Female peacocks presumably prefer male peacocks with big tails, men prefer women with some high-maintenance traits (rare/difficult fat percentage), women (or at least young women) frequently have a taste for young men who do dangerous things, so the theory of high-cost display makes some sense...but unless you can turn up some evidence that significant numbers of men care about women doing the more challenging sort of fashion, I'm just not believing the theory for this particular case.

I think you're right that high fashion requires some explanation, but I'm not betting that everything people do is evolutionarily effective.

Here's a different but possibly related question--why do women generally lose status points for making *too* blatant an effort to be attractive to men?

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on October 14, 2003 02:57 PM



If we assume usernames indicate gender, it looks like women understand the issue in context and men are completely adrift...

Posted by: j.c. on October 14, 2003 04:30 PM



Diana:

I don't know a great deal about fashion in more traditional societies, but the Indian and Arabic women I know in the U.S. don't seem to have any trouble keeping up, so I'm assuming the notion of "fashionable dressing" isn't a foreign one to them. I suspect they would actually find the notion that dressing is completely dictated by custom or utility in their native societies a tad condescending.

Nancy: My theory isn't predicated on men preferring women who do high fashion. But I can vouch for myself as a man who prefers women who do, or at least, can do, upper-middle fashion--and in my experience, few of the women who seem able to master that seem to lack for masculine companionship, and they usually find such companions with an elevated socio-economic background. High fashion, I suspect, is exactly what Michael called it, pornography for women--meaning, it is a trend that, while originally rooted in biological reality (like men being intrigued by looking at naked women) develops a life of its own in fantasy land. An analogy might be young men becoming highly invested in extreme sports--up to a point they're demonstrating reproductive fitness (athleticism, daring) but beyond that point they are getting lost in their mental feedback loops.

But the essence of my response is that most of the biologically useful info detectable from fashion is communicated at the low-to-medium-to-upper medium levels... although the outfits on Hollywood red carpets and on the society pages of the NY Times often seem to have designer names attached.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 14, 2003 06:04 PM



I'm still sticking with Nancy Lebovitz's comment. She gets the gold star.

That said, haven't blowhard topics past covered the gay men designing clothes for young boys aspect of women's fashion? We can't leave that out. Not these days.

Posted by: j.c. on October 15, 2003 10:41 AM



I don't know a great deal about fashion in more traditional societies, but the Indian and Arabic women I know in the U.S. don't seem to have any trouble keeping up, so I'm assuming the notion of "fashionable dressing" isn't a foreign one to them.

That's not my question at all. I thought you were making a point about human biology. which would presumably be constant around the world. So I am asking how does your theory fit in with a society where women are obsessed with being beautiful, like India, but where they wear a culturally-dictated form of national dress and do NOT change their clothing according to fashion.

I suspect they would actually find the notion that dressing is completely dictated by custom or utility in their native societies a tad condescending.

Condescending or not, it is.

Posted by: Diana on October 15, 2003 01:06 PM



The second quote should have been in itals.

Posted by: Diana on October 15, 2003 01:06 PM



The second quote should have been in itals.

Posted by: Diana on October 15, 2003 01:06 PM



Diana:

I don't believe, in my heart of hearts, that there is a society without fashion. But if there is, then local males would be making choices on the evidence that is available to them, such as it is. Do the women look healthy? Do they have symmetrical facial features and body proportions? Of course, such visual cues don't help them much in evaluating aspects of women, (like their brains) that aren't visible on the outside...unlike their luckier brothers in countries which do go in for fashion.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 15, 2003 01:42 PM



As a result, the notion of fashion has evolved, which forces a woman to look good while simultaneously not violating a rapidly changing set of arbitrary rules. With fashion in the game, a woman not only sends out face and figure cues—which are fairly easy to fake—but she also signals her knowledge of the rules of fashion and her strategies for coping with them—which requires a set of inputs that are much harder to fake.

Since I'm clearly not getting through, let me rephrase the question.

How does this theory square with a society in which women wear saris, a form of dress that hasn't changed in thousands of years?

Posted by: diana on October 15, 2003 01:55 PM



This whole thing is baffling to me. Because if mean are choosing women who have a good fashion sense, as a way of separating the wheat from the chaff, this would imply that men know anything at all about women's fashion. And I know no straight guys who do. They just sort of generally know if a woman looks "nice" or not, or "hot" or not, which typically ties into how much skin she's showing. Not that that has anything to do with what's "in" or not.

Posted by: annette on October 15, 2003 04:07 PM



I'd like to repeat my Oct. 14 post - "If we assume usernames indicate gender, it looks like women understand the issue in context and men are completely adrift..." No idea what biological/social constructs/eating of wheaties underpinnings are responsible for the phenom.

Go on, Blowhards and men, try to find a flaw in Diana and Annette's comments!

Posted by: j.c. on October 15, 2003 05:05 PM



When did I claim to understand fashion?

Happy to venture a few observations from far, far away: creating and marketing it seems to be at least partly a matter of gals and gay guys making themselves and each other giddy; and looking at it seems to put many women into a zoned-out, blissful state that seems roughly analogous to the state many men go into when they look at pornography.

After that, though, I'm like any other straight-guy clod, looking on uncomprehendingly and hoping one of the girls will fall out of her dress.

Hmm, although a reflection is taking shape in my dim brain ... A lot of couture-style fashion seems to me to exist at the expense of straight guys. In other words, it seems to posit a world where fashion-conscious gals don't have to worry about pleasing cloddish straight guys and can instead just please themselves and each other. I don't have much evidence for this beyond gut feeling, but I do have one small story. A friend who's a fashion reporter told me that she once brought a straight guy colleague to a flashy bigtime fashion show. And, despite being pretty hip guy, he spent the hour feeling amazed, indignant and outraged; he felt like nearly every fashion paraded out in front of the crowd conveyed a kind of up-yours sign to heterosexual maleness.

Hey, I just report the news.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 15, 2003 05:23 PM



Diana - haven't saris changed? I'm far from an expert on them, but I remember once coming across on the web information about a display of historical saris, which included differences in how they were tied and in how the sari cloth is decorated.

Then of course there is all the jewellery to have fashions in.

Posted by: Tracy on October 15, 2003 05:36 PM



Diana:

First you posit societies in which there is no fashion. I continue to doubt the existence of such societies (note comment from Tracy.) I also point out that, speaking logically, if I grant you the hypothetical condition you seek, i.e., a society which has no fashion, then the men of such a society won't get any reproductively valuable information from fashion. You can repeat your (IMHO counterfactual) question all day. How many times do you want to hear this same answer?

Annette: I don't agree with your basic premise that men know nothing about fashion. Men stare at women all the time. (It takes up at least 1/3 of their available brain horsepower.) They note virtually all of the gross and probably more than you'd think of the subtle changes that they see in women's clothes. It doesn't take an ability to discuss the latest design trends by designer to extract the kind of information I'm discussing. They can figure out who's got the knack and who doesn't, probably from about the 3rd grade. And yes, men can tell who the hot women are, even if they're wearing burlap sacks...but they are sensitive to far more subtleties than lots of skin = good.

General point...the way you girls are portraying men's responses to female fashion suggests that a woman dressing in any fashion other than in a bikini would be hampering her reproductive chances. If this is true, what supports the entire high end female clothing industry--not just couture, but Bloomingdales, Saks, Donna Karan? You really think men look at clothes from these stores on their wives and girlfriends and think, gee, to bad she didn't wear the bikini?


Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 15, 2003 08:10 PM



OK---I stand corrected. There is at least one straight guy who really pays attention to fashion. My general point, borne out it seems by MB's comments and lots of others in every day life---men may know what they like, and they may know what they like on a given woman, but they pay no attention to what's "in." Most of them don't even know what tie width is in in terms of dressing themselves.

Posted by: annette on October 15, 2003 08:22 PM



PS---"If this is true, what supports the entire high end female clothing industry--not just couture, but Bloomingdales, Saks, Donna Karan?"

What supports it perhaps has nothing to do with signalling reproductive fitness. Particularly since a lot of the women who can afford these fashions are reproductively ancient. If your last name is not Kennedy, you may not be wearing much Donna Karan at 23 or 24.

Posted by: annette on October 15, 2003 08:26 PM



Annette:

So the hordes of under-30 women I see at stores like Nordstrom's are all Kennedys?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 15, 2003 08:42 PM



I dunno---I can't afford to shop at Nordstrum's too much!

Posted by: annette on October 15, 2003 11:29 PM



Agreed that there are no doubt fine points to saris--fabric, drape, exact folds, and who knows what else. Girls personalize parochial school uniforms according to local fashion, and there's got to be more possibilities for saris.

I don't hang out with normal people enough to say whether women who dress moderately fashionably can reliably get male companionship. If true, that's an interesting point, but not a proof--dressing reasonably fashionably may be an indicator of social skills which are also useful for getting male companionship rather than evidence that men are noticing the fashionableness.

As for "getting it"--I'm mostly working from theory here. The only time I look at high fashion, it's to say "what's wrong with those designers?" and "thank God I don't have to dress like that". Expensive clothing for fat women tends to be non-crazy. It could be because they aren't considered attractive enough to carry the added load of ugly clothing, but I think it's because so much less is designed for them that the designers don't have to push the envelope.

Just an impression, but didn't high fashion have a much closer connection to what women actually wore?

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on October 16, 2003 08:56 AM






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