Fashion Trends and Primal Urges

The quest for dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin leads to grandma's closet.

Posted Jun 21, 2018

Sierra Trading Post
Source: Sierra Trading Post

High fashion looks eerily similar to the stuff we wore when I was young. It’s not a coincidence.  It’s the circle of life:

  • Grandma’s clothes end up in a thrift shop
  • Hipsters patronize thrift shops
  • High-end designers imitate hipsters

Haute couture gets inspired by grandma’s closet without conscious intent. The urge for something new sparks excitement over things that haven’t been seen for decades. You hate what your parents wore, but what your grandparents wore is ripe for re-discovery. 

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

You may hate fashion. You may try to ignore it. But if look at a painting from any historical period, you see that everyone is wearing the trend of the day. Whether it’s a big collar, small collar, big sleeve, small sleeve—people dress like those around them and you probably do too. Even hunter-gatherers were adorning their bodies with fashion statements when contacted by early explorers. The impulse is so deep that we need to understand it instead of just sneering at it.

Social animals strive to stand out and also to blend in. These urges compete and we want both! We want to blend in because the animal brain sees it as protection from predators. And we want to stand out because the animal brain sees it as the key to reproductive success.

You are not consciously trying to reproduce or hide from predators. But natural selection built a brain that rewards you with the good feeling of oxytocin when you find safety in numbers. We are constantly looking for ways to feel special while also enjoying the safety of a group.

The happy chemicals are quickly metabolized so we try to stimulate these feelings again and again. Fashion is one way to do it.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It’s hard to feel special when everyone else has the big collar, so you are tempted to seek an even bigger collar. You may hate fashion trends, but if you are honest, you will find that you are seeking specialness in some way. We have inherited a brain that seeks specialness because serotonin makes it feel good.

We seek oxytocin opportunities just as eagerly. Our mammal brain fears “sticking out like a sore thumb.” You feel safe when you adorn yourself in ways that connect you to the group that you feel safest with. Trends exist because of the competing drives to be special, and yet to fit it.

Dopamine is stimulated by novelty because novel resources helped our ancestors vary their diet. Dopamine is stimulated when you scan for new resources because it helped our ancestors forage. Dopamine is stimulated when you anticipate meeting a need, including an oxytocin and a serotonin need. Foraging in a thrift shop feels good because it stimulates dopamine.

Someday I will be gone, but my clothes will still be here. They might end up in a place where young people can see them with fresh eyes. It’s painful to think about a future that you will not be part of. This makes it easy for old people to sneer at the young, but you can remember sneering at the old when you were young yourself. This is the circle of life. Fashion trends are just a visible manifestation of it. 

When you know how your brain works, you can be at peace with our mammalian social impulses instead of being angry about them. People are competitive, and you are competitive too. Other people’s competitiveness annoys us because of our own urge to be special.

When you know how your brain works, you have power. Will you research old people’s closets and market the data? Will you hold on to your old junk to sell when it appreciates? Probably not, but you will surely use your new power to be more accepting of our neurochemical impulses instead of getting upset about them.