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What Do Your Designer Clothes Say About You?

What you wear is more than a fashion statement–it may signal your mate value

Why do we consume luxuries? Research has found that expensive brands say more about us than we realize–they may be an advertisement of our mate potential.

Studies have demonstrated that both men and women engage in the “conspicuous consumption” of luxury goods, and use them as a means to compete in the mating market. By now, a substantial body of research has shown that the male penchant for premium or exclusive brands isn't so much about quality or function–it's a signal to attract mates. The thinking goes that material goods like flashy cars or expensive watches are a lot like the peacock's colorful plumage, which conveys their fitness to peahens. They are attention-getters that say, “Pick me, I'm a highly desirable partner.” In other words, the owner of luxury goods uses them as way to advertise his access to resources, thereby signaling that he is a highly-valued potential mate.

Women also consume luxury goods, but seem to have something different in mind when strutting a pair of Christian Loubitin boots. A new study playfully titled “The Rival Wears Prada,” led by Liselot Hudders of Ghent University, sought to further clarify women's motives for consuming high end brands. The authors build on previous studies revealing that women eagerly embrace expensive goods, exalting them for their uniqueness, pleasure, and status that they are perceived to offer. Women also spend large sums of money on lavish vacations, designer clothes, and costly cosmetics.

But unlike their male counterparts, it appears that women aren't using luxuries to communicate their worth to a potential mate. Rather, the investigators advance the argument that they are signaling their mate value to other women. In other words, they are engaging in what's known as intrasexual mate competition, in which members of the same sex compete for limited resources, including highly coveted mates. The authors also note that this mode of nonverbal communication is consistent with women's tendency to employ indirect aggression when competing with each other. The reasoning goes that as primary caretakers, women don't want to invite injury or death since that would risk their children's survival.

Hudders and her colleagues predicted that women consume luxury goods as a self-promotion strategy when they compete for a desirable male. They propose that women's use of luxuries could convey two types of possible signals. First, they may be an ostentatious display of their mate value to other potential female rivals, advertising their wealth and status. In this instance, luxury consumption may serve as an intimidatory tactic, in which the flaunting of wealth and status is a warning to rival women that they shouldn't attempt to seduce potential mates. Alternatively, it may be that the luxury items are used to bolster their appearance relative to their female competitors in the mating market, boosting their chances of partnering with a high status male.

In order to test their predictions, they had women under the age of 50 (i.e., still fertile) participate in an computer-based task. Participants were divided into groups and queried about how much they liked luxury and non-luxury products under two conditions: mate competition and no competition.

In the mate competition condition, participants were asked to view four photographs featuring different women and rate who was most attractive. They were then explicitly asked to keep this woman in mind while reading a scenario. This fictitious sequence instructed the participants to imagine that they were attending a class reunion where they had met a handsome, intelligent, good-humored man with a winning personality to match. Yet the attractive woman in the picture also had a designs on this fellow, and struck up a conversation with him while the participant was getting a drink. The scenario concluded when the participant returned with the drink and tried to join the conversation.

By contrast, the women in the noncompetitive competition were let off easier–they simply looked at images of landscapes, and rated which ones they found most appealing. They were asked to keep the most attractive landscape in mind while reading a scenario which asked them to imagine that they strolled through the landscape they selected, and took delight in this environment, weather, and views.

What did they find? The participants in the mating competition condition preferred luxuries, but only those that would enhance their attractiveness (i.e., they liked extravagant dresses over smartphones). In other words, the findings support the prediction that women consume luxuries as a means to increase their ability to compete with female rivals for mates.

This finding begged the question of how women view other women who use luxuries. In a follow up study that also used fictitious scenarios, the participants were presented with a female character who was shopping for luxuries vs. non-luxuries to either enhance her attractiveness vs. a neutral motive; they then assessed her along various personality traits. The results were provocative. In these scenarios, women who consumed luxuries were seen as more attractive, ambitious, sexy and of high status in comparison to when they consumed non-luxuries.

In "The Wild Night", a song about dancing and romancing, John Mellencamp sings: “All the girls walk by dressed up for each other.” It seems he had a sense of the deeper evolutionary forces at play.

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More about the Blogger: Vinita Mehta, Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in Washington, DC, and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. Dr. Mehta provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults. She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse.

Dr. Mehta is also the author of the forthcoming book Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.

You can find Dr. Mehta's other Psychology Today posts here.