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Fertile Fashion

All women have a range of clothes in their closet: oversized sweatpants, stuffy business jacket, slinky sundress. We see these incongruous vestments as symbols of our feminine mobility—beaded, boatnecked, buttoned-up proof that we can sashay from the laundry room to the board room to the Viper Room with the mere tug of a curve-hugging zipper.

Leave it to science to burst our bubble. It turns out there’s another reason we favor diversified wardrobes—a biological one, in fact. A recent study showed that women’s style of dress changes throughout our menstrual cycles: We opt for more attractive outfits as we near ovulation, the time of the month when we’re most fertile.

Published last month in the journal Hormones and Behavior, the UCLA study photographed 30 young women during ovulation, and again during the least fertile phase of their cycle. Then, in what the university’s publicists are calling “a kind of scientific version of the Web site ‘Hot or Not,'” a panel of men and women were asked to choose the photo in which each woman looked more “attractive.”

Sixty percent of the time—a majority researchers insist is “well beyond chance”—judges chose the photo taken during ovulation. The subjects tended “to put on skirts instead of pants, show more skin, and generally dress more fashionably” at their most fertile, according to lead author Martie Haselton. It’s not clear from the name or the study whether Haselton is an ovulator or an inseminator, but the good professor said the research proves “our evolution, our biology is showing up in even the most modern of behaviors.”

One woman wore loose-fitting jeans and clunky boots during her low-fertility photo, and a skirt and cardigan during ovulation. Other subjects wore lower necklines, fancier jewelry, lace trims, and, um, fringe while ovulating. I can’t remember the last time fringe was considered “fashionable” but, hey, different strokes for different evolutionary beings.

Other animals flaunt their fertility in a variety of ways. Cats release pheromones. Chimpanzees experience an obvious swelling of the genitalia when in heat. Certain dairy cows will winkle their noses and curl their lips or, strangely, try to mount other cows. Women, it seems, simply accessorize. Scientists have long believed that humans “conceal” their ovulation, but if perfect strangers can pick up on fertility cues just by looking at a couple snapshots, Haselton’s research may have proven otherwise.

On one level, I applaud the research. If Darwin’s Galapagos finches can have a sweet mating song, why shouldn’t we ladies have a frisky mating wardrobe? Besides, it’s fun watching scientists try to quantify abstract notions like “fashion,” and translate concepts like “bling” into journal-worthy language. (Haselton told the Washington Post that ovulating co-eds engage in “self-ornamentation through attentive personal grooming.”)

On the other hand, the results are troubling. Women have worked so hard to leave our breeder image back in the cave; it’s disconcerting to learn that even as we demand professional tenure and storm the political landscape Xena-style, biology would still have us flirting shamelessly, even subconsciously—and with fringe, no less.

Scientists aren’t certain that ovulating women dress nicely merely to attract male mates. It could just be the result of a biochemical mood change.

But what if it is done purely to woo studs to our mating ground or, in this case, dorm rooms? If women are programmed to don frillier frocks on the days when we’re most likely to conceive a child, what other man-pleasing behaviors might we engage in halfway through our menstrual cycles? Taking the day off work to fry up bacon and watch Robocop in our underwear? Picking a barroom fight with the Jagermeister girl?

Forget it, ladies. I say watch your calendar and keep your sweatpants handy. We’ve come too far to let a few tiny genes dictate when and how we switch into come-hither mode. Biology may be powerful, but it’s no match for a modern gal with a closet full of options. And free will—unlike evolution, but very much like my favorite hoodie sweatshirt—is entirely reversible.

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