Sta Hungry Stay Foolish

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

A blog by Leon Oudejans

Clothing, Colours and Sexuality

20 November 2015


In nature unicolour (ie, having only 1 colour) is mostly for protective purposes, either as a predator (for hiding in an ambush) or as its prey (for blending into nature). This same predator-prey reasoning for unicolour may also apply to humans – apart from the genetic (changes in) melanin pigmentation (Scientist). The use of multicolours in animals has long been explained as a result of sexual selection.

A 2015 study amongst 6,000 tropical songbirds by James Dale, an evolutionary ecologist at Massey University in Auckland (NZ) revealed some serious surprises: Sexual-selection pressures drive females to evolve dull feathers more strongly than they drive males to become colourful. (Nature)

In monogamous species, however, females are more likely to be brightly coloured, perhaps because they need showy displays to compete for resources (including male mates), or because it may assist their social interactions with other females. (Nature)

In polygynous (ie, males have more than 1 mate) species, by contrast, males may be less choosy about their mates, Dale suggests, so that there is little benefit to females displaying a colourful plumage that is energetically costly for them to maintain. (Nature)

This finding gives rise to an interesting thought: Is it possible that unicolour in humans is also related to 3 million year of polygynous (tribal) behaviour? In 2014, polygamy was even legalised in Kenya and African women do not dispute that the African culture is polygamous in nature (BBC). 

Polygynous societies may well have evolved due to a continued lack of men as a result of (tribal) wars. In October 2015, a Chinese Economics professor basically proposed to introduce polygamy due to a lack of women as a result of the Chinese one-child policy since 1978 (NYT).

Globally, acceptance of polygamy occurs commonly. According to the Ethnographic Atlas, of 1,231 societies noted, 186 or 15% were monogamous; 453 or 37% had occasional polygyny; 588 or 48% had more frequent polygyny; and 4 or 0% had polyandry (Wikipedia). Clearly, monogamy and polyandry (MFM) are the exceptions despite popular thinking. Wikipedia: “There are numerous examples of polygamy in the Old Testament but it is generally not accepted by modern Christianity“.

The Western Christian societies are predominantly monogamous in nature. Clothing and the use of (bright) colours clearly relate to establishing a unique identity (eg, gothic) and is definitely a feature in sexual selection. To some extent, the use of (bright) coloured clothing may even be a “substitute” for our unicoloured skin. Perhaps the use of coloured clothing even marks the transfer from a polygynous to a monogamous society in our evolution. Much later Christianity codified this.

The women in some US polygamous societies “dress in a distinctive way — in drab, 19th century pioneer-style outfits, and with their hair up, in braids and buns. Many experts say the polygamist women’s attire is restricted as much as it is because, if all the women dress the same, there’s nothing individual about any of them, and they’re just part of a whole. Others say polygamist women are made to adhere to dress codes to exert control over everything in their lives.” (CBS News).

PsychologyToday: The sources of the link between sexual attraction and red colour are not entirely known. In the more recent historical context, it is likely that the effect is learned through conditioning, social traditions, and acquired habits. In the more distant context, most researchers believe that the source of the connection lies somewhere in our evolutionary past. After all, the colour red is commonly used in the animal kingdom to express sexual power and readiness. Among many species, the prominent, dominant male will manifest the brightest red colours.

Among our relatives the primates, red often signifies fertility and sexual readiness. Female baboon and chimpanzee, for example, make public their ovulation by displaying the redness on their genitals and chest. Among humans, sexual excitement is often associated with redness in the body’s erogenous areas, and with facial blushing. Robust physiological processes such as strong blood flow and high testosterone levels (in men) are required to produce a reddish skin appearance. Thus, the colour itself may have become over evolutionary time a proxy signal for reproductive potential. (PT)

I have stumbled on a topic that is far too broad for this A4 blog. Nevertheless, it seems worthwhile to share it with you. I’ll pursue some of these angles in new blogs. To be continued.


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