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Dress for Evolutionary Success

What makes us quintessentially human? Fashion!


Picture one of those ascent-of-man charts that depict a progression of profiles, from an ape walking on all fours to a slumped hominid to a modern human standing erect. What’s missing? The modern human is naked. No accessories!

We may not find a chapter on fashion in science textbooks but ornamentation and tailoring have played feature roles in our success as a species. On the prehistoric catwalks we creamed the Neanderthal competition on both functionality and style and went on to become the dominant hominid in virtually every climate zone on earth. 

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As I discovered through a host of interviews with paleontologists, anthropologists, evolutionary psychologists, and fashion historians, clothes don’t just make the man—they make us human. Clothes and body decoration evolved in a suite of human communication tools and behaviors that have shaped the runway of human evolution and culture.

Clothes don’t just make the man—they make us human.

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Fashion has been as “crucial to the emergence of the modern human as music and dance, art and humor, and language,” says evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, an associate professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico. “It’s a legitimate part of human nature.”

That’s hardly news to the well-dressed man and woman. Still, putting fashion and science in the same sentence can seem a little strange. So, to reassure you that the pride and excitement you feel when you put on an Armani suit or a pair of Manolo Blahniks is emotionally legit, let’s turn back to our evolutionary past. The dawn of clothes reveals that we were born to strut.

Since there are no prehistoric scraps of clothing lying around, scientists have had to get creative in their quest to pin down the point at which humans started wearing duds. They began to scratch their heads and realized that one approach might be an analysis of lice. Body lice, adapted to clothing, seemed to be key.

Indeed, a recent analysis of lice DNA by David Reed, associate curator of mammals at the Florida Museum of Natural History, found that humans probably wore their first clothing, body lice included, about 170,000 years ago, some 830,000 years after our ancestors lost their body hair.

Why we shed our body hair is debatable. One leading theory is that losing it allowed us to shed pre-clothing lice and other blood-sucking, deadly parasites, which infested our ancestral fur. Another theory is that when we emerged from the forest to the blazing savannah, we needed to cool our body temperature, and exposed skin sweats.

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In any event, says Ian Gilligan, a bioanthropologist at the Australian National University, who is an expert in the prehistoric development of clothing, the date of 170,000 years ago makes sense, as it roughly coincides with the penultimate ice age, 180,000 years ago. “Humans only began to wear clothing when they needed to keep warm,” he says. Gilligan says that a few degrees below zero Celsius represents “the limit of human cold tolerance without protection.”

Even before the widespread advent of clothes to keep warm, early humans decorated their bodies. “It is highly likely that we were adorning ourselves with body paints, plant materials, and animal skins for the entire history of our species,” says Nina Jablonski, a paleobiologist at Pennsylvania State University, and the author of Skin: A Natural History. “Adornment creates a visual shorthand that tells others instantly who we are, who we want to associate with, and who we wish to be,” she says.

In the fossil record, ornamentation began showing up roughly 75,000 years ago. Archeologists believe ostrich shells were used as beads and red ochre was probably used as body paint. By the time of the Upper Paleolithic in Europe, 35,000 years ago, evidence of bone needles suggests that people were making sophisticated, tailored clothing with multiple layers that shielded them from the cold.

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Neanderthals’ lack of sophisticated clothing contributed to their extinction.

Neanderthal clothing, in comparison, was shoddy. Gilligan argues that Neanderthals’ lack of sophisticated clothing contributed to their extinction, which happened during some sudden, severe cold snaps around 40,000 to 35,000 years ago. “Only modern humans equipped with tailored clothing managed to migrate into those most thermally challenging places, and only after they had invented eyed needles and other technologies for manufacturing sophisticated, multi-layered clothing—including the world’s first underwear,” Gilligan says.

During the Upper Paleolithic, our ancestors poured huge amounts of time into ornamenting their garments. In Sungir, an archaeological site east of Moscow from 26,000 years ago, around 12,000 pierced mammoth ivory beads were found in the graves of three individuals—a male adult and two children—that had been sewn onto articles of their clothing. Archeologists estimated that it would have taken an hour to make each bead with stone tools—thousands of hours of work. “It’s not just a little decoration,” says anthropologist Robert Boyd, coauthor of Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. “It’s a big investment. This is a display of wealth.”

So, you can stop fretting about being a clothes horse; showing off in your finest threads is not trivial but an innate part of human nature. Polly Wiessner, an anthropologist and professor at the University of Utah, has studied how hunter-gatherer tribes in the Kalahari Desert employ body adornment to enhance personal identity and social interaction. “The fact that all humans feel well when they know they look well, and feel badly when they look poorly, suggests that the quest to look well by socially stipulated standards is a biologically-based predisposition,” she says.

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Having a biologically based fashion sense, you might say, is not limited to humans. Other animals are into adornment. Decorator crabs attach seaweed, sponges, and anemones onto their shells for camouflage. Bowerbirds decorate courtship areas with artful piles of flowers, iridescent shells, bits of colorful fungus, and other objects from the forest floor. Most famously, of course, the male peacock fans out his magnificent tail feathers to attract female mates. And it’s true, evolutionary biologists tell us, when we dress to impress, we’re not so different from the proud peacock or dancing bowerbird.

But most animal display tactics serve basic survival and mating purposes. We can use fashion to express a wide range of human emotion and intention, thanks to the organ beneath our hats. Fashion can be seen as a form of symbolic communication (“a simplifying stand-in for something complex,” says primatologist Robert Sapolsky), standard operating procedure of the evolved human brain. Paleontologist Ian Tattersall, author of Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness, says fashion is an example of our unique cognitive ability to manipulate meaning and information. “Body decoration and clothing, and the significance that we impute to them, are intimately tied into the kind of creature that we are,” Tattersall says.

Wiessner goes further. Echoing the groundbreaking work of developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello, who claims that humans alone are able to sense the intentions of one another, she says that because we can “read the minds of others … we can attach a whole range of meaning to certain bodily decorations that animals can’t.”

“Fashion is about showing that you have creativity or taste that others don’t have,” Miller says.

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To evolutionary psychologist Miller, expressing and understanding a whole range of meanings is a trait bestowed on us by evolution, as a means to attract sexual partners. In his 2001 book, The Mating Mind, Miller argues that “our minds evolved not just as survival machines, but as courtship machines.” He writes that human traits that seem to have no direct survival benefits—“humor, storytelling, gossip, art, music, self-consciousness, ornate language, imaginative ideologies”—evolved to entice and entertain sexual partners. It’s a provocative thesis that has its critics, who maintain that Miller overplays the role of sexual selection amid the complex biological and cultural forces that have molded us as a species. Nonetheless it’s a view that underscores the importance of fashion in expressing a richness of personal and social traits.

Fashion “is all about signaling and display, it’s about showing that you’ve got some resources or creativity or taste that others don’t have,” Miller says. “You gain higher status in your group and among your rivals, and that status translates into better access to food and shelter, friend networks and social support.”

Mark Twain, known for his natty white suits, once opined, “Naked people have little or no influence in society.” The great wit was more profound than he may have known. “If other people favor you, you really have an advantage in human society,” says anthropologist Wiessner. “If you can present yourself positively and look attractive—even if you’re not particularly attractive—it can show wealth, it can show social connections. You’re more likely to get people to invest in you.”

Today, in a consumer society with endless fashion choices, we have more power than ever to craft our own identities and signal the groups and subcultures with which we associate. “With mass-produced fashion,” Miller says, “you’re showing off not what kind of fashion you can afford, but what kind of person you are, what your personal traits are, what your interests and values are. The difference between somebody wearing a black, $20 heavy metal T-shirt and another wearing a $20 polo shirt is not wealth—it’s about lifestyle, personality. It’s about showing that you’re a member of a certain subculture.”

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Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, agrees that contemporary fashion allows people to wear what they want and not be fixed in place in a social order. People of all means, for instance, she says, “wear blue jeans.” Steele also reminds us that fashion allows us to enhance our physical characteristics. “Clothing can make the body do things that it wouldn’t be able to do otherwise—like my eyeglasses can make me see better, my shoes can protect my feet,” she says.

And technology makes human identity even more fluid. “The whole idea of the cyborg is related to fashion,” Steele says. After all, she adds, prosthetics can be seen “as another kind of accessory that you put on your body to enable you to do more things.” Soon enough, eyeglasses will double as wearable computers. Currently a new wave of designers is employing computer-aided design to create 3D-printed garments for individual customers, based on a body scan. And scientists are creating materials, with microelectronics, that can change patterns or colors at the whim or mood of the wearer.

As ever, fashion is tapping into our innate ability to express who and what we want to be, opening new doors to self-expression and social influence. Look again at our chart of the ascent of man. This time, imagine Homo sapiens properly clothed and accessorized. How could it be otherwise? Without fashion, we would not be human at all.

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Jeanne Carstensen is a writer in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, Modern Farmer and other publications.

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