Showing our true colours

Caroline Frost
November 08, 2008 12:00am

ONCE again this week, we've been treated to a feast of pin-stripes and petals, button-holes and bling as the high and low of Melbourne society mix at Flemington.

While it may have been beyond the means of most women to find a fascinator that out-shone Jennifer Hawkins' s little offering - diamond-studded to the tune of $120,000 - this didn't stop them making the annual pilgrimage to the wardrobe for a frock that will fit this year and shoes that might just last the day.

This means that even beyond the exclusive Birdcage, all the parasols and ribbons made it feel more like a gigantic wedding party, with all the resulting goodwill, good-humour and yes, good manners that emanate from the chance to put on one's own best clobber and then revel in the communal finery.

Behavioural analysts have long documented the connection between how we present ourselves on the outside and psychological benefits on the inside.

We can pretty much all testify to how much a good haircut (women) and clean socks (other) can influence our willingness to smile, stand tall and be self-confident.

Multiply this by the length of the whole-body style-check demanded by high society occasions -- then again by the number of people crammed into Flemington racecourse during the Spring Racing Carnival - and you have enough positive energy to power a small island.

Every day we accept uniform rules, but the sort of dressing up on display this week is unique and endearing, for it contains another aspect: the self-consciousness, the delight in dressing up for its own sake, to inspect and be inspected. This is the human version of peacocks fluttering their feathers, a competitive display also considered one of nature's most beautiful phenomena.

But in humans, it also requires exchanging this season's outfits for a more timeless code of elegance.

We voluntarily step into a public sphere that demands consideration for others and delight in other people's style. Of course, this particular form of plumage carries with it altered expectations of personal achievement: money gets waved around of an amount that would be unthinkable in a pair of thongs and Levi's.

The type of behaviour often shown during these extended sporting hours has led to the view that dressing up for many is a uniform for self-indulgence.

But the reason we're struck by the resulting furore is that it is such a deviation from what we expect from people who've made so much effort to dress themselves nicely.

But those generally polishing off the huge amount of alcohol on offer at such events are the ones who feel inadequate operating in this public sphere of heightened expectation.

The problem is that the same light bathing most people in a golden glow of feathers and finery also illuminates their inability to present themselves for public consumption and judgment. No wonder they often end up face down in the mud. It means they don't have to see all the people coping so much better than them.