Understanding fashion

Why fashion? Why spend all that money on silk and sequins? Could it have to do with sexual selection?

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.)

…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.

The discussion can be found on www.2blowhards.com, one of my favorite blogs.

The standard economic story suggests that we should tax costly signaling. Note that an evolutionary perspective can overturn or modify this conclusion. If we have evolved to enjoy such signalling (this is surely one plausible mechanism for how we are led to do the signaling, and surely many people love fashion), the signaling suddenly looks more productive. Signaling has sorting benefits as well; fashion makes sure that the right people marry each other. We likely still have too much signaling, relative to a “first best optimum,” but practicable improvements are suddenly harder to find.


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