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Feb. 25, 2009

High Heels and Peacocks: How Fashion Week is a Display of Darwinian Fitness

by Guest Blogger

By Nikki Saint Bautista

BRYANT PARK, NYC- As the stock market continues to plunge and daily news reports remain bleak, the 2009 Mercedes-Benz fashion week offers more than slight stimulation of the local economy- it's a study on the rules of attraction.

Headbands in the Alexandre Herchcovitch collection, Anna Sui's multi-patterned Bohemian dresses and Calvin Klein's symmetrical tight-fitted men’s suits all enhance our perception of the wearer’s good genes. Therefore, the runway at a time of economic distress is not a self-indulgent waste of resources; it is a display of Darwinian fitness in a dire environment.

In his paper “The Evolution and Design of Animal Signaling Systems,” biologist Amotz Zahavi writes: “For example, wasting money is a reliable signal for wealth because a cheater, a poor individual claiming to be rich, does not have money to throw away; the message of strength may be displayed reliably by bearing heavy loads; and confidence may be displayed by providing an advantage to a rival.”

Zahavi, who coined the term ‘handicap principle’, argues that, “for signals, an investment is necessary, because it ensures the reliability of the message encoded in the signal. The larger the investment the more reliable the message.”

“For example, when a person spends inordinate amounts of money on a status symbol fashion item, especially on that is challenging to wear (like Christian Laboutin stilettos link: HYPERLINK "http://www.christianlouboutin.com" http://www.christianlouboutin.com/ ), then this is like the handicap principle because, like a peacock with it’s tail, the human is advertising that she has excess resources on non-survival things,” explains evolutionary biologist and science writer, Hilary C. Walton.

If Laboutin’s stilettos are described on the website as “highly fetishist shoe with his 14cm curve is a piece for museums...or for people who don’t use them to walk,” then why would anyone wear it?

“It shows that [the wearer] has the physiology and anatomy to move gracefully in such challenging footwear,” says Walton.

In evolutionary biology, the phenomena of advertising excess resources on ‘non-survival’ things, for instance, expensive handbags and colorful shoes, is referred to as ‘direct benefits’ or non genetic benefits that are realized instantly. Wearing the shoes in an environment that does not seem practical infers that the wearer’s good genes can handle the challenge is called ‘indirect benefits’ or genetic benefits that are not realized instantly.

What does it mean to have good genes?

“Development is influenced by both genes and the environment. Good genes facilitate the organism’s development according to [genetic] plan regardless of the environment,” says Walton.

How do organisms know the developmental stability of another organism?
According to Zahavi, an organism’s handicap communicate an ‘honest signal’ of good genes. This explains why a peacock would invest 60% of his life’s energy developing its signature fan of feathers when it would make him an easy target for predators or why a woman would wear stilettos to work when she risks spraining her ankle on the uneven NYC sidewalks and roads.

Zahavi says, “A high quality individual can develop a symmetrical body or any other perfect structure, which the decoration [high heels and peacock feathers] helps to display, but a low quality individual may face difficulties in doing so because it may not grow a perfect structure.

(NOTE: The difference between a peacock’s handicap of feathers and a high-heel-wearing woman is that a peacock’s growth is an interaction of genes and environment, whereas wearing shoes is a conscious decision.)

In other words, a peacock’s elaborate feathers flaunt its symmetry, thus signaling developmental stability. Similarly, high heels allow women to strut their stuff-- demonstrating their ability to move gracefully and with agility.

Walton continues, “Biologically speaking, we are programmed to detect asymmetry as well as symmetry. They both give us vital information.”

“Symmetry in a phenotype is indicative of good genes. tIt indicates consistency of development on both sides of the organism. For example, fish show symmetry by jerking around the water, an asymmetrical move. This is analogous to how an asymmetrical single-strapped dress actually show’s the model’s symmetry.”

What is the message behind fashion week?

“Fashion objects are social status symbols, honest indicators of the wealth of their bearers. But they are often more than that. They can also enhance our perception of the wearer’s genetic quality-- as demonstrated by symmetry and/or ability to flourish with a handicap,” Walton analyzes.

“Fashion is amazing because it can do both. Instead of being a random, extremely expensive thing {general handicap], it often follows the rules of attraction-- mimicking what sexual selection has driven animals to display..their good genes and developmental stability.”

The rules of attraction are essentially about advertising and communicating honest signals. First, an organism advertises to a potential mate its direct benefits, for instance wealth and resources. Second, an organism needs to demonstrate its gene quality, or indirect benefit.

Walton concludes, “A flashy car, private jet, or vacation home could accomplish the first goal of honestly advertising resource availability. However, only fashion worn on the body can accomplish the second.”

About Guest Blogger

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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