“It has long been known that clothing affects how other people perceive us, as well as how we think about ourselves”, Adam Galinsky, one of the foremost researchers on enclothed cognition, has said. While as a concept, wearing certain items or looks to affect others’ perception of us is nothing new, it’s the latter part of this statement that is less often discussed, but that has more profound beneficial implications for humanity.
It’s unsettling that everyone from consumer psychologists to laypeople explain a desire for higher-priced investment items, logos, certain brands, It-bags and the like, within the scope of trying to impress others or to communicate a level of class, status or achievement to others.
From years of observations of what and how things sell in the luxury fashion industry, and as someone who dresses for herself, I find this largely inaccurate and overly simplistic. For example, I didn't spend £1,250 on a Saint Laurent bag to prove to my friends that I’m raking it in. I spent that saved-up cash on the bag because of how it makes me feel. Every time I look down at it, it reminds of me who I want to be. Not a fake, dishonest portrayal of myself, but as part of a vision of the person who I am working towards becoming. By dressing like this future-best-self, I live into her. I end up embodying her. When I don’t feel like working, am discouraged, or when I’m lacking motivation, I am reminded of my need to hustle by a glance at that shiny logo. That’s why we spend so much on fashion. These aspirational pieces provide a tangible touchstone for qualities we are lacking, but want more of. It’s the same reason we are drawn to minimalist vs decorous architecture, lively vs remote travel destinations, or gregarious vs strong-and-silent type of partners. This thing outside you that you can look at and experience helps you develop in the direction that you seek.
Enclothed cognition is real. Like many other people who frequently experience anxiety, I am also drawn to neutrals – beige, sand, stone, grey - because they calm me. Freelancers who work from home know that wearing pyjamas or sweats all day doesn’t foster a focused mindset. It helps to put on some “real clothes” to get into productive mode. Our pilot study, although in early stages, is beginning to demonstrate clear correlations between mood, personality and aesthetic preference, which will hopefully serve to help create a better fashion psychology framework.
But sometimes enclothed cognition fails. The heartbroken girl who dresses overly sexy for a night out to heal her profound sense of rejection only beings to feel worse, as this look is too out of alignment with her inner state. During my own low periods, certain days where everything went wrong and I felt abandoned by friends and family, I had a tendency to go full-out fashion Darth Vader, an all-black armour-like Carine Roitfeld-esque look with a belted jacket and black boots, which in all fairness looks cool, but is too out of alignment with my baseline aesthetic. In the morning this look gave me a quick boost of emotional protection. I felt fierce. But by lunchtime, after some mundane chatter with my colleagues dulled my emotions, I felt like I was wearing a costume.
When to wear what to help us feel better, or more like we want to feel, is sometimes difficult to navigate. Should you dress how you want to feel, or simply dress how you feel? Here are three rules to make enclothed cognition more effective.
You have to do it for yourself. Dressing to manipulate others without at least partially authentically embodying the quality you want to convey doesn’t work. You’ve got to work on your inner reality, self-talk and actions too. If your presence doesn’t work, neither will your outfit.
You’ll need good self-awareness. You have to choose the right quality to compensate for the said inner need or lack. If you feel sad, a loud flower-print dress may seem like the right thing, but actually feel grossly jarring, and you may be better off in a beige cashmere sweater for the tactile comfort.
The disparity can’t be too large. Much like my all-black Darth Vader look, you can’t veer so far that your therapeutic outfit is just not you. If you feel profoundly sad, you may just have to wear those sweats on the couch for a day and heal yourself first. If it’s a hot summer day, and you’re burned out because you’ve been working long hours back-to-back, donning a business suit isn’t going to help you focus much. You may need a break.
As we continue to develop a framework around fashion psychology and enclothed cognition at The Psychology of Fashion, we hope to empower consumers with awareness about how to really dress their best in order to feel how they wish. Clothes to help dampen anxiety, uplift depression, inspire focus, foster ambition, slow anger and achieve calm. We also hope to demonstrate to brands that using this framework as a lens when designing and putting together collections, and knowing the psychological profile of their consumer will help them commercially. A win-win, and a new crossroad of fashion and well-being.