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« Quote of the Day | Main | Goltzius and Authorship »

October 11, 2003

Sexual Selection and Fashion


Have you, like me, long been puzzled by certain aspects of feminine fashion? I never had any trouble with the kind of women’s fashions that are designed to emphasize the good bits and hide the more questionable bits and generally present the wearer as a prime candidate for reproduction—what I call, ahem, dressing for men. Then there’s a strange subsection of fashion that appears to have an altogether different aim, only dimly comprehensible to me (and, I suspect, to most men.) What I am referring to is hip ugly fashion.

(Perhaps I need to make a distinction here--hip ugly fashion in the sense I am using it is not slob fashion or the absence of fashion. It is intensely and often expensively designed to be...well...ugly. And hip.)

Examples of Hip Ugly Fashion from Jeremy Scott's Sexybition of September 2003

For years I racked my brain trying to figure out what was going on here. I formulated many hypotheses. Noticing that much of this hip ugly fashion is quite expensive (it is quite a bit more prevalent at the couture level than at WalMart, and far more visible in Vogue than in Allure) I wondered if hip ugly fashion was a weapon in a status war between women. The only problem with this notion is that I couldn’t see the value in winning such a status war, at least today—how rewarding can it be to boss the other ladies in the Junior League? Wouldn’t it be more gratifying to the power-hungry to be a Senior Vice President at Goldman Sachs? And hip ugly fashion doesn’t seem designed to help one get ahead in the corporate world. I also wondered if hip ugly fashion was intended as a form of self-expression or rebellion. But this seemed dubious when I noticed that the fashion establishment disseminates hip ugly fashion in a far more command-and-control method than it does attractive fashion. Hip ugly fashion always seems to be accompanied by commandments from on high: Thou Shalt Wear This Now! This would seem to limit the opportunities for using it to burnish your credentials as a free spirit.

However, I think I’ve made a conceptual breakthrough. I was reading an essay by Geoffrey F. Miller, “Sexual Selection for Cultural Displays,” in a fascinating book, The Evolution of Culture, when I came across this quote:

[In 1975] Amotz Zahavi stirred intense controversy with his ‘Handicap Principle’… Zahavi proposed that the only way to reliably demonstrate one’s quality during courtship is to display a high-cost signal such as a heavy peacock’s tail, an exhausting bird-song concert or an expensive sports car. Only these costly ‘handicap’ signals are evolutionarily stable indicators of their producer’s quality, because cheap signals are too easy for low-quality imitators to fake…

Suddenly it all became clear. Hip ugly fashion is intended to be a handicap! If you can still look even remotely sexy in hip ugly fashion, you are one hot momma indeed! Just dressing to be ordinarily attractive as a sign of sexual fitness, as Mr. Zahavi notes, is “too easy for low-quality imitators [like Allure readers] to fake…” No, it takes hip ugly fashion, the more expensive the better, to establish that the wearer bestrides the Mt. Everest of beauty, health and reproductive vigor.

Seriously, if you doubt this hypothesis, check out these pictures from (from the "Trends" section of which these pictures were taken, as you can see here.) (Remember, the women wearing these creations are all young, highly attractive, have perfect figures, etc.) The only possible goal of such designs is to demonstrate how heavy a load of ugly fashion the wearers can carry and still look like they might be marriage material, demonstrating that they are superwomen in terms of reproductive fitness:

Up-To-The-Minute (and Way Expensive) Hip Ugly Fashion from Emmanuelle Ungaro, Gianfranco Ferre, Jean Paul Gautier and Krizia

I rest my case.



posted by Friedrich at October 11, 2003


Hmmm, a puzzler, ain't it? So, a few halfbaked musings here from the peanut gallery:

* Perhaps the person whose sexual fitness is being advertised isn't the woman who wears the clothes (except to the extent that she's demonstrating how expensive she is to keep). Perhaps instead it's the designer's. Well, that wouldn't be reproductive fitness, given that most of them are gay guys. But ego and virtuosity have their own professional-fitness potency.
* A lot of runway-type couture fashion reminds me of the glittery, absurd, showoff perfume-bottle architecture we love poking fun at on this blog. In architecture, this kind of thing does damage -- it's public art, with which many people have to interact in big ways. Fashion on a runway ... I dunno, I take it as harmless fantasy. What the fantasy appeal of it is does perplex me, though. Those aren't my fantasies.
* High fashion seems to take place in a strange region of existence where skinny, chic girls and dazzlingly talented gay guys camp it up outrageously while hoping the quasi-lesbians who run the fashion mags will dig 'em and promote 'em.
* There's a grotesque element in a lot of high fashion -- the emphasis on skinny girls, the huge fleshy painted mouths, the S&Mish leanings, the am-I-on-acid photography of people like Penn, where you can see every last bit of facial fuzz, the angular marionette-ish postures ... A lot of it's like a horror movie to me, dumbass straight guy that I am. But the whole high-strung package seems to cast a kind of spell, at least over a certain kind of woman at a certain kind of age. Seems to make them feel giddy, defiant, thrilled ...
* I think some of it has to do with defiance of the dull, straight world, don't you? Gays and lesbians waltzing around in defiance of heterosexuality, girls so skinny they exist in defiance of gravity and reproductivity (if you will). So maybe it's just a fantasyland, where you aren't weighed down by the extra pounds, the obligation to worry about the other sex, responsibilities generally. You just indulge your own appetites, which then whirl giddily out of control.
* I've always thought that high fashion served at least a couple of roles for the female audience. One is as pornography -- it's sex-fantasy material for women. Seems to send them off into the same idle-cravings state of mind that porn-porn sends men off into. And it also seems to be some kind of equivalent of the way guys tinker with computers and cars (not that this straight guy would ever do such a thing). Maybe it's something that they do for their own sake. It's related to basic sexual fitness (the fun of self-adornment and presentation), but it then takes on its own compulsive power and life. Maybe we all need vacations from responsibility, and even from worrying about other people. So a guy might watch porn, or tinker with a new piece of software; a gal might look through a fashion magazine.

Idle musings, I know ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 11, 2003 5:36 PM

I've always wondered just what the point is of the fashions that you show in your photos. Based on the model's expressions,they dont even look comfortable.

At least you both demonstrate that I am not alone in that confusion.

Posted by: Deb on October 11, 2003 10:25 PM

Have you seen women (other than rebellious young teens allied with the Goth movement) actually wearing anything resembling such things outside of a fashion show?

I'm sorry, Friedrich, but I have trouble with your suggestion: those women just look too cadaverous to me to be prime examples of a robust reproductive capacity. Seems more like a flatout denial of sexuality than a flamboyant presentation of it to me, which could I suppose, represent an ironic kind of freedom from the very objectification of the feminine flesh which fashion embodies. For some, at any rate. Rebellion sells, after all.

Posted by: tonio on October 12, 2003 8:14 AM

There are lots and lots of fashion designers out there, they have to do something to get attention. Once all the pretty ideas are used up, attention turns to the ugly ones.

Plus, fashion is a big status game. Wearing the latest clothes shows 2 things (1) you are well-informed and at the centre of social networks, and (2) you are rich and can keep dashing out buying new clothes. Again, there is only so many ideas for good-looking clothes out there, so a lot of time fashion is going to spend on ugly clothes, just to show off the wearer's status.

Posted by: Tracy on October 12, 2003 5:20 PM

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Posted by: Maggie on December 23, 2003 5:47 AM

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Happy Holidays


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Posted by: John M. on December 24, 2003 5:53 AM

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