Something puzzles me about fashion design and the brain.
Coco Chanel was undoubtedly one of the greatest designers of the past century, if not the greatest. She liberated women from constraints and allowed them to be both comfortable and elegant. The classical Chanel suit looks good on women of all ages and sizes. More than any other design, it has stood the test of time.
Yves Saint Laurent took this a step further, and used fashion to symbolise the growing power and independence of women, and at the same time make them look good.
But fashion and elegance, it seems to me, have another and perhaps more important purpose – to feel good, something that Coco Chanel especially understood well. This presumably correlates with activity in some reward centre of the brain.
And here comes the puzzle. Chanel and Saint Laurent both used beautiful women for their designs and shows – one might even say “ideal” women, chosen for their grace, and beauty, and sex appeal. Such women, by definition, are “exceptional” in their appearance. Yet many women who pay a fortune to be dressed by couturiers such as these are not in the same league of beauty or appeal. So what is it that makes them spend so much money on clothes designed with “ideal” women in mind?
I suppose that donning such clothes makes them feel good by changing their image of themselves, which must involve a considerable nervous apparatus. I recently saw a woman dressed in the latest, expensive, fashion. Her general physiognomy suggested that she felt good and did not lack in self confidence. Yet to an external observer, the latest designs she was wearing were very ill suited. Never mind, she felt good in them – a subtle change must have occurred in her brain!
I was therefore interested to read a recent paper entitled “I am not as slim as that girl” by HC Friederich and others [Neuroimage, 37:674 (2007)], in which the authors asked female subjects to compare their own body shapes to that of “idealized” women shown and rate their level of anxiety as they viewed these pictures. It turned out that, in addition to brain areas concerned with body-shape processing, there were activations in brain areas whose activity correlates with anxiety, the activations in these areas being proportional to the declared level of anxiety.
This is interesting, but also surprising. I certainly could not tell from my observation of the lady referred to above that she was suffering from any anxiety, far from it. So, perhaps splashing all this money out on a Chanel suit or Saint Laurent trousers really works by reducing the activity in the anxiety centres in the brain. Clearly worth further study.