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Psychology of clothes: what you wear changes the way you think

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Do your clothes affect your psychology? TLDR; yes – read on to find out exactly how

How much thought do you really put into your clothing choices?

Most of us think about clothing into silos – casual threads, formal clothes, Friday night outfits – but did you know that the innocent act of donning a pair of white sneakers can initiate a series of psychological processes, literally changing your moods, feelings, behaviors and even your cognitive abilities?

That’s right. The psychology of clothing is complex and taps into culture, symbolism, neuroscience, sexuality and many more aspects of the human experience. Fashion and clothing influences behavior in multiple ways; our perception of ourselves, how others react to us, our confidence and self-esteem.

The psychology of clothing also touches upon notions of self and identity including;

  • conformity: do you dress to fit in with social norms or to resist and challenge the status quo?
  • self-expression: are your clothes a signal to others about your values and beliefs?
  • cultural identity: do you choose what to wear as an expression of your cultural identity?
  • gender roles: do your clothes reinforce traditional gender roles and expectations, or  do they challenge and subvert them?

Science even has a name for these phenomena. It’s called “enclothed cognition” and it describes how the clothes we wear affect our behavior, attitudes, personality, mood, confidence, and even the way we interact with others.

What is enclothed cognition?

The term enclothed cognition was coined around 10 years ago to describe the effect our clothes have on various psychological processes like emotions, self evaluations, attitudes, and interpersonal interactions.

In the original study scientists asked participants to wear a lab coat, and then performed a series of experiments. When told it was a doctor’s coat the participants did better on cognitive tests. But when they were told it was a painter’s coat, they did worse. The scientists concluded that clothes systematically influence wearers’ psychological processes.

But also these psychological changes depend on the symbolic meaning that we ascribe to different types of attire. So, if we wear clothes that symbolize intelligence, we feel smarter. If we choose to power dress, we feel powerful.

We even evaluate people whom we have just met based on their clothes and the occasion.  It would seem that we also evaluate ourselves and our roles based on what we are wearing at a particular time; because of the way they make you feel. This means that the experience of wearing something subtly affects our attitudes and our choice of behavior.

So here are some scientific findings about the psychology of clothing, psychological facts about different clothes and how your wardrobe choices affect your thinking and behaviour.

The psychology of wearing a suit

Tailored jacket - enclothed cognition

There’s a reason tailored jackets are associated with being ‘dressed for success’. It seems that wearing formal office wear and structured clothes puts us in the right frame of mind to conduct business.

A recent study split men into two groups, suits and sweatpants, resulted in the suited participants winning over $2million in a simulated business deal experiment, compared to the sweatpants groups who ended up losing $1.2million.

The scientists found that the psychological benefits of wearing clothes that convey a high social status increased dominance and job performance in competitive tasks, and amazingly also

Wearing a suit or power clothing makes us more feel more confident and even increases hormones needed for displaying dominance. This in turn helps us become better negotiators and abstract thinkers.

Casual Friday

Casual Friday clothes

While a good suit works wonders for our performance in the boardroom; wearing formal wear isn’t a great idea when we want to socialize. Studies have found that people tend to be less open and find it more difficult to relax when they wear formal clothes.

On the other hand,  a casual and relaxed dress code at work helps us become more friendly and creative. These findings bolster the idea of wearing business casuals on a Friday; since colleagues are most likely to take out time to socialize and let their hair down on the last work day of the week. I mean, who wants to hang out with the squares in their suits?

The psychology of gym clothes

Psychology of gym wear

Not motivated enough to exercise daily? Wear some of your gym clothes, or at least carry them with you. Wearing gym clothes / active wear makes it more likely that we will actually exercise. This may happen because wearing our workout gear acts as a reminder to make healthy choices. And for many, having the clothes on eliminates the step of ‘dressing for exercise’; and reduces one of our excuses.

Uniform thinking

Cosplay cop
Flickr/Doug Kline

Any kind of clothing that is associated with a specific role activates all our knowledge and expectations about how people from that profession should behave. For example, wearing uniforms and coats can make people more conscious of their duties and encourage them to pay more attention to their jobs. Just wearing a lab-coat during an experiment encourages people to pay more attention (since lab-coats represent serious, attentive professions like scientists and doctors) and make fewer mistakes.

And this is not just for the adults. School children in Kenya attended school more and performed better when they were given uniforms to wear – perhaps because the uniforms made school work that much more real and valuable to these children and their parents.

Luxury good and politics

Armani Label

Most of us think of our political affiliations as rock solid. But not only can clothes affect our perceived social status, they can even change our political views and attitudes. In one study women who were asked to carry a Prada handbag identified more with conservative, capitalist values than a control group who were given a non-luxury handbag.

These ladies were also less likely to help others in general; but were more likely to help if it improved their status. The researchers believe that this could be because people unconsciously attempt to behave in ways that are congruent their look. So essentially, if we dress for the role, we will start to live it.

Uppers and downers

Brightly coloured trousers - enclothed cognition

Feeling low / cranky / upset / sad? While our mental state most definitely affects the way we dress; the reverse may also hold true. What we wear could affect how we cope days when we are depressed, anxious and stressed. Research says the quickest little fix for a bad day is to wear brightly colored clothes. Cheerful colors work as a mini pick-me-up; and thus boosting our mood and energy. Also, we associate bright colors with happiness, sunny days, and carefree times (like the summer vacations when we were kids).

On the other hand, we associate deep and dull colors with low energy, being tired and a more somber mood. So the next time you feel like donning a dark hoodie to hide a bad day; reach out for the bright pullover instead! It may just make you feel a little happier.

Hidden secrets

Underwear and self esteem

Amazingly even our underwear affects the way we feel about ourselves. Hidden clothes like our socks and underwear can exert a powerful influence on our self-perception and confidence levels. Wearing something we perceive as sexy can make us feel more self assured, more powerful and more confident.

To improve self image, even copying someone’s style may be a good idea. Research shows that when we emulate the dress code of people we consider smart and powerful, we feel infused with these qualities as well. That’s certainly an argument for owning clothes that bring out the best in us.