Fashion Psychology: a new dimension to street style

Do your clothes have superpowers? Are they triggering psychological change? Maybe Edith Head was right to tell us; “you can have anything you want in life if you dress for it”.

It’s well acknowledged that our minds affect our decisions when getting dressed. No matter how uninterested in fashion you think you are, every choice made when dressing, consciously or not, is determined by thought and emotion. It’s also well known that our clothes affect the ways others perceive us. But is the relationship between the mind and dress more powerful than this? Can the external affect the internal, clothes themselves changing our psychology? Research suggests this could well be the case. This could be seriously valuable for using fashion to improve our wellness, performance and success in our personal and professional lives.

Science lesson:

Theorists have long considered the relationship between clothing and the mind, famously explored by philosopher William James in ‘The Sartorial Self’ (1890). Now scientists are increasingly interested in the psychological influence of clothes. This is ‘Enclothed Cognition’. “I love the idea of trying to figure out why, when we put on certain clothes, we might more readily take on a role and how that might affect our basic abilities,” said Joshua I. Davis, assistant psychology professor at Barnard College.

The cognitive experiences we have when wearing clothes are determined by two factors – their symbolic meaning, and the practice of wearing them. What clothing represents depends on how you define different pieces and wearing these provokes corresponding psychological experiences. In basic terms, if you put on Usain Bolt’s trainers, you’ll run faster. This is a bit of an over-simplification, and while you’re unlikely to beat Bolt’s records, the key to his trainer’s power is knowing he’s the fastest human on earth.

In 2012, Adam Galinsky, professor at Northwestern University led a study investigating white lab coats, symbolic with scientists with rigorous attention to detail. Undergraduates participating in a test that measured selective attention to detail performed better if they wore a white lab coat described as a ‘doctor’s coat’ than when wearing the same coat described as a ‘painter’s coat’. Galinsky explains the clothing was invading the brain, changing participant’s psychological ability.

So how exactly can we use these ideas to fashion real-life changes to our wellness and performance?  

  1. Colouring in… We’re familiar bright colours enhance mood, and in How to Not Wear Black Jules Standish looks at the health benefits of wearing the rainbow. She says seeing certain colours, “triggers neurological responses in the brain, and causes the hypothalamus gland to release hormones.” Warm tones release dopamine; so red, pink and orange could invoke a ‘feel-good’ reaction. In contrast, cool blues are linked to releasing oxytocin, helping you to feel calmer.
Image: Pinterest
  1. P.E Kit… Another unsurprising suggestion is that wearing gym clothes make us keener for exercise. Given the astronomical rise in athleisure and obsession with the fitness industry, perhaps gym gear should not always be associated with happiness and health. Though when balanced, we cannot deny the benefits of mood-boosting endorphins.
  1. What lies beneath is important too… Evidence suggests underwear shapes our self-confidence and self-assurance. According to academics Joanna Brewis and Christiana Tsaousi, this is particularly the case for women, who often use their underwear as a basis for identity construction.
Image: pinterest
  1. Making friends… Casual dress evidently makes us more likely to be open and relaxed in social situations. This puts some science behind ‘dress down Fridays’ and wearing jeans and a t-shirt could make you feel more inclined to socialise and join after-work drinks.
Pinterest: Pinterest
  1. Suit up for your graduate job… Formal workplace clothing is more of a convention than a choice and, when it comes to careers, ‘dressing for success’ and ‘looking like you mean business’ is common advice. Although this is more about how bosses perceive you, formal attire could improve mental performance in work. Tailored jackets make us feel powerful, changing our perception of the world. This makes us see it in more broad and holistic ways, increasing abstract thinking. This is crucial in a range of careers, where problem-solving and ideas are enhanced by thinking outside of the box.
Image: Pinterest
  1. Use what you’ve got… You don’t have to start buying loads of new clothes and enclothed psychology shouldn’t be confused with the idea that shopping makes us happy. Take time to look at your clothes and ask yourself how they make you feel, then dress accordingly.

When it comes to psychology, clothing does not just reflect but has the power to affect. While psychic garments may seem implausible to some, scientific evidence is compelling. Perhaps enclothed psychology could democratise the fashion industry, encouraging consumers to take personal control of their choices and reclaim agency from the influence of marketing? One thing seems certain, being interested in what you wear could mean a lot more than narcissism.

Sarah Mortimore

Image: FASHION Magazine