Sunday, August 3, 2008

Coco Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and the brain's anxiety system

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.


Anonymous said...

I think the woman wearing that kind of dress knows somehow that the social pressure derived from the simbolic weigh of the dressing code will force somehow the "other" to see or focus the atention only on the good(physical or psychical)features of that women, and not the bad ones. And everyone has and knows that at least has one good feature.. But also it's important to have in mind that the closest the social circle is (like it's in "haute couture"), bigger the effect will be!

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that I think that this is as complicated as described (though the mechanism by which it happens is, most likely). It seems (to me) to be a matter of projecting oneself into an image, maybe a kind of aspirational empathy.

For example, when I think of Givenchy (or slim capri pants with ballet flats, for that matter), I think of Audrey Hepburn. When I wear a Hepburn-esque outfit, I feel like, or maybe see myself in my mind's eye as, Audrey Hepburn. Just as someone driving a fast car might feel like Steve McQueen, even if they look nothing like it.

This could easily hold true for models, style icons or even people on the street who seem well-put-together.

Anonymous said...

It may be that those who don't feel enough self-confidence just follow another path, but still with the intention of obtaining the same benefits.

I explain myself..

This alternative path would be in fact the opposite one, because that person would not want -unconsciously- to force the situation by making use of that mechanism proposed in my previous post. In relation to the idea that in general people have a tendency to situate themselves (in respect to others) over or underneath socially speaking.

So I believe those persons that fit into the second classification would prefer instead that "other" way, in which projecting oneself into an image -as an aspirational empathy (I agree)- would be the best way of obtaining that objective; due in this case to the sympathy that generates this more natural and elegant attitude.

And of course, as a result, we will have a happy or rewarded person. In this sense ¿Who can deny that living another’s life could not be as plenty as living ours?

Now. This other mechanism is -to my eyes- even more complicated.. because the person is forced to change even more its personality in spite of its desires. Or, in other words, to cheat oneself better..

The question and key point then is that he/she has to choose somehow between this two options :

a)Being admire or respected by domination.

b)Being admire or respected by submission.

In this classification those who put themselves underneath will tend to follow option (b) which is the way of submission, reflecting more clearly what we all know.. that a smile or a friendly attitude could be as effective as any other action or position based on fear or domination.

This way people that have facility to project oneself into a loved image will also be loved or accepted, but by other means…

Everybody is subject to that classification, but in a different way or intensity, so I focused my attention thinking on the most visible cases, those positioned in the extremes, associated to more dependent personalities.

For this reason I hope my explanation don’t invite to think that the answer to this question is simple and has to be applied to the public in general, or even that it’s not worthy further study. Just the opposite.

Also I have to say that I somehow made a mistake answering to the first attitude and not the second one, which seems richer and is what the article talks about. But in the first post I just wanted to highlight also the existence of that dominant attitude.