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How Romantic Rivals Impact the Way Women Dress

Why attractive acquaintances can inspire attractive attire.

Key points

  • Intrasexual competition occurs when resources such as high-value mates are limited or in high demand by one sex.
  • When women are assessing potential rivals, they use both attire and attractiveness to assess competitive threat.
  • Women tend to choose friends who are similar in terms of attractiveness and social status—thus befriending potential romantic rivals.

Many people, men and women alike, view social events as an opportunity to dress to impress. This may be especially true when anticipating the presence of a romantic “crush."

A woman who is planning to attend a party with a new boyfriend where there will be plenty of other attractive women likely doesn’t just wear anything; she chooses her outfit carefully. A man would probably do the same thing if the roles were reversed. But how are decisions made when attending a party with a friend and anticipating the presence of a crush, as well as competition? Research has some answers.

nastya_gepp on Pixabay
Source: nastya_gepp on Pixabay

Party Planning

Emily S. Olson et al., in an aptly named study called “Friend or Foe?” (2021) [i], examined the way mate presence and same-sex rivals impact competition through clothing. They began by recognizing that intrasexual competition occurs when resources such as high-value mates are limited or in high demand by one sex, causing competition for access. They note that among intrasexual competition strategies, self-promotion is one of the most common; this strategy includes creating apparent value through altering appearance. They note that this type of competition can be complicated by the fact that women tend to choose close friends who are similar in terms of attractiveness and social status—thus befriending potential romantic rivals, in theory.

Olson et al. also note that when women are assessing potential rivals, they use both attire and attractiveness to assess the competitive threat. They note that women tend to be less inclined to pursue a friendship with another woman who wears revealing clothing, and perhaps not surprisingly, are also less likely to introduce a woman so attired to a romantic partner. Olson et al. also note that within friendships, research indicates the less attractive companion perceives greater competition than the more attractive companion, making the respective difference in appearance significant as well.

Clothes, Companionship, and Competition

In two studies, Olson et al. experimentally controlled contextual factors related to intrasexual competition, such as the presence of a potential mate and type of rival, and examined competitive behavior through choice of clothing. They had study participants read a vignette about an upcoming party, then select an outfit. The vignette contained details regarding the expected presence of a crush, as well as the attractiveness and familiarity of a female party companion.

Olson et al. found that women who imagined wearing a dress to attend the party with a more attractive acquaintance when they knew a crush would be present chose more attractive selections than women who imagined attending with a less attractive acquaintance. They note that they found no such pattern for women who chose separate clothing items as opposed to dresses, or women who imagined attending with a close friend.

In a second study, they found that women who planned to attend the party with an acquaintance rather than a close friend chose more attractive outfits only when they expected a crush to be present. Olson et al. thus note that methods of female intrasexual competition appear to be cost-sensitive and only inspire competition when rivals are perceived as particularly threatening.

Apparently, party dress selection depends on who will be at the party and who you are going with.

Beyond the Wardrobe

Clothing has long been recognized as having value both in terms of utility and versatility—depending on context. Indeed, other researchers agree that self‐promotion is one of the most commonly used strategies of intrasexual competition for mates, and includes enhancing characteristics such as physical attractiveness to outdo same-sex rivals. [ii]

Everyone recognizes there is much more to compatibility than clothing. Initial attraction is either enhanced or eroded by behavior, bonding, and all of the ways in which chemistry impacts relational development. But apparently, at least initially, there may be strong reasons to dress to impress.

References

[i] Olson, Emily S., Ella R. Doss, and Carin Perilloux. 2021. “Friend or Foe? Mate Presence and Rival Type Influence Clothing-Based Female Intrasexual Competition.” Evolutionary Psychological Science 7 (1): 1–10. doi:10.1007/s40806-020-00260-y.

[ii] Fisher, Maryanne, and Anthony Cox. 2011. “Four Strategies Used during Intrasexual Competition for Mates.” Personal Relationships 18 (1): 20–38. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.01307.x.

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