The Psychology of Fashions

Franz Boas, a pioneer in modern anthropology, narrates this bizarre story about a tribal community: Canadian Pacific coast is inhabited by a tribe known as Kwakiutl. This coast has abundant supplies of sea food and berries. The wealthy village tribal chiefs try to outdo one another in competitive feasts which are followed by distributing costly gifts like oil, berries and blankets to the guests from a neighbouring village.  Humiliated thus(!), the guests would plot a revenge with an even bigger feast and gifts. They would go one step further and start a fire, stoke it with fish oil and destroy ostentatiously several costly possessions like clothes, blankets, food items etc.

The story highlights the psychology of status among humans. The same psychology explains why people spend so much time and money on fashion in the modern world. Google India estimates that fashion commerce will touch a whopping 35 billion USD by 2020. There are already a dozen social-fashion startups in India offering customised solutions using apps. Not surprisingly, social media is today the new fashion guru.

What drives the fashion industry? The answers are found in the studies made by Evolutionary psychologists. They say that people are driven by the psychology of prestige leading to conspicuous consumption and conspicuous waste. It’s a game of one-upmanship where status symbols are flaunted not because they are useful but because they are so wasteful and pointless that only the wealthy can afford them. Typically, this is how it plays out: People from upper class develop a certain lifestyle just to show off to the rest that they are different. But with increasing affluence all around, the upper middle class would catch up and adopt the new look.  The upper class cannot stand it when they see people belonging to a lower rank and status also look the same. So they must invent and wear a new look. This is again emulated by the middle class and the game of one-upmanship goes on. As one perceptive analyst of fashions observed: Try to look like the people above you. If you are at the top try to look different from the people below you.

Fashions are not necessarily limited to display of wealth and expensive clothes. It could also be a statement of one’s belonging to an intellectual class. For instance, a guy interested in classical music prides himself for belonging to a unique class. The message one gives in such cases is: Look, intellectually my tastes are different and I belong elsewhere.

Here is another variation of the game of one-upmanship. An upper class guy will try to mimic a lower class guy. To take an example, a guy from the US would come to India and would take a bus instead of a taxi to commute. He is basically conveying: Look, I may be damn rich as you know. It is not about affording. I place a great value on simple living and great thinking!

While many of us are familiar with fashion statements made by human beings, I was surprised to learn that this behaviour has animal origins. For instance, a peacock displays a colourful tail which attracts peahen. However, it’s a handicap. Its unwieldy tail hinders its movements and makes it a soft target for its predators. Further, a lot of nutrients are consumed in maintaining the tail. Psychologists say it has evolved its colourful and unwieldy tail precisely because it’s a handicap. Only healthy animals could afford them and females automatically choose the healthiest male to mate with.

Likewise a butterfly’s colors were developed to differentiate itself from the rest. The purpose is not to attract the female but to indicate to its predator that it’s distasteful and poisonous. This is basically a survival mechanism. However, the rest of the butterflies also copied them and the protection no longer worked. Then the older species evolved new colours and so on. The result is that one finds too many different varieties of colourful butterflies.

So, it’s clear that animals played these games of one-upmanship for the sake of survival or to increase their chances of spreading their genes.

So, it is evolution all the way from animals to human beings. The studies outlined here suggest that we are genetically programmed to behave the way we behave. The traits I have described in the post seem to be innate in a sense and have evolved over millions of years starting with animals.

 

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Published in: on May 22, 2016 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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