Do fashion-savvy moms dopplegang their daughters?
Mimicry is powerful—it activates neurons involved in perception and behavior. It strengthens bonds when babies light up to a parent’s smile. And according to consumer behavior research, it drives women to buy those too-tight jeans and ankle-breaking stilettos worn by fashion icons.
Yet unlike family and friends—who compliment, borrow and sometimes steal our favorite clothes—celebrity role models don’t mimic in return. In fact, the actors who grace best dressed lists probably wouldn’t say “hi” if they passed you on the street, much less “nice jeans, where did you get them?”
This is why researcher Ayalla Ruvio is fascinated with the fashion relationship between mother and daughter. “I want to compare how teens mimic someone they don’t know as opposed to someone who reciprocates,” says Ruvio, of Temple University in Philadelphia, Penn.
Kids learn to eat, drink and shop all while observing their parents, and surveys show that teens consider their mom and dad to be role models. When it comes to fashion, does this mean adolescents are more inclined to mimic their parents than a celebrity stranger?
The answer is as unexpected as the horizontal zipper in a pair of hot pink Emo pants. After surveying 340 teenage girls and their mothers, Ruvio learned that moms are far more likely to mimic their daughter’s style. When buying personal clothes, moms confessed to seeking out items their daughters would wear. They looked to their teens for fashion advice and even copied their teen’s style.
“This creates a situation where the daughter mimics the celebrity and the mother mimics the daughter, and there is a chain of social pressure to look hip, cool and young,” says Ruvio, who coined the phrase “consumer doppleganger” to describe those who consciously mimic another’s purchasing style.
This sort of problem is the reason Santa Cruz stylist Tina Brown started her consulting company Ilka. “Some women do share their 17-year-old’s clothes, but just because you can get into their tight tank tops doesn’t mean you should wear them,” says Brown, who could not persuade one client to give up the faded, ripped skinny jeans her daughter wore.
Women who like trendy clothes should avoid cheap, over-decorated jeans, and opt for well-made brands like 7 for All Mankind and Adriano and Goldschmied, says Brown. “Go for dark washes and classic cuts. I also avoid revealing clothes—some of these fashions aren’t even appropriate for teenagers,” she adds.
Yet if anti-trends and too-sexy teen fashions are a sign of the times, many teens like dressing “inappropriately.” And those who once pierced body parts, dyed hair pink with Kool Aid, or wore too much makeup wonder how many mothers would enjoy these rebellious and sometimes awkward experiments.
Kate Fisher, who designs the Santa Cruz-based clothing line Synergy, says her mother had no intention of dressing like Madonna during the ’80s. “As a pre-teen my taste started changing right when Madonna was getting big, and I wanted to wear clothes that had a punk influence,” she says. “My mom gave me the space to experiment, but she did not want to adopt my style.”
Fisher now designs more wearable clothes. Her organic-cotton dresses are adorned with appliqué birds and cherry blossoms, and these sell across the U.S. to all ages. “It’s not that I think women need to dress conservatively, but teenybopper fashions are not flattering,” she says.
Ruvio didn’t estimate the number of mothers who copy their daughters, but she admits not all women are guilty. Some moms surveyed said fashion wasn’t a priority, and they were not prone to mimic their teen.
“There were a lot of mitigating factors,” says Ruvio. “Mothers had to view their daughters as fashion role models before they would copy, and if teens weren’t considered fashion savvy, they were less likely to be mimicked.”
Of the mothers who looked to their daughters as fashion examples, 25 percent admitted to dressing like their teen. In contrast, most girls listed their mothers as role models, but only 9 percent mimicked their mom’s look.
“Numbers like 25 percent are meaningful in this context,” says Ruvio. “Who knows, maybe the women’s sections in department stores would do even better if they were located near the teen clothes.”
The study is in press at the Journal of Consumer Behaviour, and is among the first to show that teens directly influence their parents’ personal purchases. Researchers know that adolescents influence the cereals and games families buy, and now it seems they may also influence their parents’ cosmetic and clothing choices.
“It seems consistent with general trends of baby boomers making consumption choices that help them look and feel young,” says Rosellina Ferraro, a marketing professor at the University of Maryland who is not affiliated with the study.
According to the findings, mothers who felt comfortable with their actual age were less likely to adopt a youthful style. Those who felt 10 years younger were more likely to mimic their daughters.
Many of the teens surveyed also acted according to their desired age rather than their true age. Those who reported feeling more grown up mimicked an older celebrity.
This makes sense to Anandi Heinrich, whose mother purchased the Santa Cruz-based Pacific Trading Co. in 1985. Heinrich spent her teenage years exploring lines geared toward women, and she says this had a big impact on her personal style.
“I was into alternative and vintage styles, but I also liked to dress a little more sophisticated,” she says. “I tried to mix in the more fashionable clothes that my mom bought for the store.”
Heinrich might not be a full-fledged doppleganger, but according to Ruvio, this process of working another’s style into your own image is often overlooked by researchers.
Instead of focusing on intentional mimicry, past research has focused on automatic copycatting. For example, people may eat less food when their lunch date eats less food. In this case, the person mimicking might not be aware of their behavior.
Ruvio’s study shows that consumers consciously selected the role models they mimic. The women she surveyed also intentionally re-constructed another’s image.
In her next study, Ruvio will focus on the social impacts of this process. “I want to find out how moms are received when they successfully master their daughter’s image—do people resent them? I also want to know what happens when they fail, and maybe embarrass themselves,” she says.
Some moms may not experience social pressure—for example, copying their child may be a pragmatic short cut, as home and work leave little time for fashion.
In any case, Ruvio hopes that women will have fun with their own personal style. “After all, we are 40. We aren’t dead,” she says.