If there is one thing that South Korea will teach you, it’s an appreciation for outdoor sports. I have been steadily expanding my boundaries, trying outdoor running first, then biking, and finally, real hiking. My knowledge of what acceptable hiking attire is was close to none, so I decided that terry-cloth sweatpants, a matching hoodie, and a pair of everyday sneakers will do. In Russia, this set would cover you for a wide range of outdoor activities. But when I arrived at the foot of the mountain, I noticed that almost everyone was wearing North Face hiking jackets, special boots, complete with stuffed-to-the brim backpacks with trekking poles sticking out as though they were preparing for the end of the world.
In this sea of equipped hikers, my outfit felt so out of place that my first reaction was to turn around and go home. I reasoned, however, that it would be too neurotic, even for my standards, and set off on the trail. The hike was spectacular - crisp air, autumn foliage, mild sunshine, but I couldn't stop feeling self-conscious about my outfit. With every step, the desire to shop for new gear grew, and this feeling haunted me for the next several weeks. But as the painful memory of my failed outfit faded and the thought of spending a three-digit sum on brand-new hiking gear seemed no longer sensible, I tried to make sense of what had happened. Why was the fact that I looked different so frustrating, nearly ruining the whole trip? And do I really need to buy a separate wardrobe for each sport I enjoy to avoid the perils of looking like a clueless foreign tourist who accidentally found herself on a Bukhan mountain trail? As a recent graduate student on a budget, I needed to know.
First, let’s try to uncover the psychology behind the allure of matching clothes to what you’re doing. Any type of activity that requires specialized clothing has its own rules, codes, aesthetics, set of characteristics and personalities associated with it, which are symbolically represented. For instance, running can be synonymous with lean muscles, physical and emotional endurance, patience, and ability to stay alone with oneself for a prolonged period of time. Clothing then becomes a medium that communicates this complex set of ideas to others, as well as signifying that they identify with this community, and most likely possesses some or all the qualities found among the adepts of that sport. I.E. “I’m a runner, I’m fit, and I take my health, lifestyle and appearance seriously”.
Specialized clothing also communicates the idea of athletic ability and commitment. Although growing pervasiveness of fitness culture has made it possible to dress the part without having to go through the painful and tedious training process, this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Subconsciously, we still equate a head-to-toe athletic outfit with an exceptional physical ability that comes as a result of hard work and discipline.
Secondly, psychologically speaking, it is natural to feel anxious when your outfit stands out in a place where a specific dress code is implied. It immediately signals to others that you are not one of “them”. And since we as humans are inherently social and seek group-acceptance for our very survival, being an outcast feels unpleasant. Conformity in clothing, i.e., dressing in a way that follows norms and rules accepted within a certain group, then becomes a tool that helps to alleviate that sense of “otherness”.
While this desire to own specialized gear seems to be natural, the key question, however, remains – is it really necessary? From an industry perspective, the answer is, unsurprisingly, “yes, absolutely”. Marketers go out of their way to make you believe that getting the right gear and dressing the part is an essential part of the experience. And they might be right. The enclothed cognition concept suggests that clothing has a profound influence on a wearer’s mental state. Following this logic, it can be assumed that wearing running clothes when running or hiking clothes when hiking will drastically improve how you feel and perform.
And yet, from a more sustainable perspective that leans toward anti-consumerism, we are told that clothing is always secondary to the experience. In other words, if you feel you need new clothes to enjoy a sport better, you are being brainwashed, and it is unlikely you will feel better about running just by a virtue of acquiring new shoes.
It seems that the answer lies somewhere in between these two extremes. It is also heavily dependent on one’s personality type, as well as a particular trait that really seems to divide us when it comes to fashion choices: neuroticism. If you are someone who is high in neuroticism, fitting in and conforming to accepted dress codes might be more important for your psychological well-being compared to those whose personality is dominated by a trait called ‘openness to experience’. The objective reality will not change - your outfit will still be "off" - but depending on your traits, you will be bothered to a different degree. If you are someone who knows that they can tolerate the out-of-place look well or isn't bothered by it, then you would be better off spending your money elsewhere. Unless you have a particular understanding of how new gear will help your performance, you most likely won’t benefit from switching your sweatpants to expensive hiking tights. But if looking different is preventing you from being present in the activity, then it is a sign that investing in the appropriate gear is well worth it.
It is important to remember that merely buying the gear is not a panacea for one’s insecurities. As mentioned earlier, the power of sportswear lies in the idea of the physical and mental strength of an athlete that it represents. When, however, we use sportswear as a substitute for and not a supplement to hard physical and psychological work, what we are left with is just a nice-looking pair of expensive leggings.