I’m always baffled when someone discusses fashion psychology and only uses references involving groups and the influence of others - such as someone wearing a sweater that reminds them of their grandma, or a necklace that expresses their heritage. Enough has been said about fashion and culture or social influences. To establish a solid framework of fashion psychology and aptly examine why we wear what we wear, the most important factor to measure is one’s personality traits. Your innate personality is the biggest determinant of your baseline personal style. More than culture or any kind of social influence, it’s crucial to look at yourself as an individual: who are you when these influences - friends, media, society - are stripped away?
For our first pilot study, I measured fashion preferences against personality traits, and decided to use the most agreed-upon trait model in psychology, known as the “Big Five.” Here’s a look at these traits and how they relate to the clothes you wear.
Openness to Experience
People who like novelty and are eager to experience many new things score high in ‘openness’. Openness includes traits such as being insightful and imaginative, and having a wide variety of interests, including travel, and enjoying a variety of food, books and films. People who score low on openness are practical, conventional, prefer routine, and don’t mind sticking to the same foods and sources of entertainment. A low score indicates a person who may find expanding their social network or career prospects difficult, while a high score would indicate a disorganized structure in life.
The fashion preferences of someone who would score low on openness are practical, conventional and routine. A high scorer would look like they raided a souk. Someone seeking to move towards more openness for the sake of expanding their horizons could trigger a small shift towards the middle by working in a little of something bohemian or unexpected in nature – such as a statement necklace to offset an otherwise basic outfit. Someone who may lack structure in their life and who wants to quell the temptation to book yet another random trip or indulge in too many successive nights of partying, may want to work in more conventional pieces. For example, a turtleneck sweater, or a classic white tailored shirt with its neat, structured appearance, and its association with responsibility and general togetherness, can help trigger a good dose of feeling grounded.
People who have a high degree of conscientiousness are reliable, prompt, kind, organized, and goal-driven. They enjoy following rules and demonstrate empathy to the needs of others. People who score low on conscientiousness tend to be impulsive, careless, rebellious, disorganized, and are often late and sometimes plain mean. While the benefits of being conscientious are quite clear, being too far on the high end of the spectrum may indicate that you appear inflexible, too eager to please, and lacking in spontaneity. Low scorers may seem irresponsible and may find achieving their goals, landing jobs and inspiring trust and ease in others difficult.
Conscientious people like traditional colors and clean design – conformist, classic brands such as Ralph Lauren and Tory Burch – nothing too complicated, nothing too dark. They can try to minimize the effect of blending in and conscientiousness and inspire individualism by working in some more interesting fashion-forward pieces, such as a military boot or leather jacket, to add contrast to their outfit and harness the effect of spontaneity. The impression those who score low may give can range from rebellious to downright sloppy. To not isolate themselves entirely from the social groups around them, which can lead to low mood and even depression, they can balance their devil-may-care looks by leaning into neat, tidy and simple pieces, such as a tailored jacket, a trench coat, or a basic white sneaker.
Extroverts are energetic, talkative, and assertive, and get their energy from interacting with others. Extroverts tend to prefer louder colors, statement pieces, sexier styles and mainstream designs. In contrast, introverts get their energy from within themselves, and often seem withdrawn, quiet, and reserved. They prefer darker colors and more cerebral, conceptual fashion. Many of us score somewhere in the middle or can even swing between extremes, which will also result in a middle score. An extreme score may mean that you find yourself consistently alone, or generally lack the ability to be alone, which can also affect the quality of your emotional life.
Extreme extroverts who aren’t used to spending time alone can try more cozy nights at home, and arm themselves by wearing thick plush fabrics for grounding, and to offset the anxiety that may come with this new unfamiliar experience. A good alpaca sweater brings less of a headache with it than that third glass of wine. Introverts can try to wear more conversation pieces. These styles can include a statement item, such as a shearling coat, or a slogan t-shirt with an opinion on it - anything that will allow introverts to fall more easily into conversation with others.
People who score high on agreeableness are friendly, cooperative, and compassionate, trusting, affectionate, and sympathetic. They tend to be modest and humble and never perceive themselves to be better than anyone. These tender folks dress as sweet as they seem. They like soft shades, pastels, colors in general, and a sort of happy aesthetic with embellishments and bows. People with low agreeableness may be more distant, critical, argumentative, mistrusting and uncooperative, but they also hold themselves in high regard. They’re inclined to adopt a more aggressive look: black leather, suede, studded pieces, jeans with rips, fierce boots, and so on. Low scorers tend not to trust others and may subconsciously utilize this protective armor-like look to create a sartorial defense mechanism, which prevents people from messing with them.
Being too high on agreeableness makes people appear to have poor boundaries – the classic “doormat”. Offset this extreme people-pleasing tendency and potential to look schoolmarm-ish by working in some tougher pieces such as the color black, a good pair of distressed jeans, or a thigh-high boot. On the other hand, you can’t go through life keeping people away and hiding your vulnerability behind the entire Givenchy collection, which will work overtime to repel people. Lower your guard a little and work in some color and softer pieces, even if those colors are a neutral shade, such as beige, khaki, or camel.
Neuroticism relates to one’s degree of negative emotions. From my research and observation, it is the trait that most divides people when it comes to fashion preferences. People who score high on neuroticism often experience emotional instability, are prone to worry, anger, melancholy, and negative emotions generally, such as anxiety, and find it difficult to stay in a good mood. As a trade off, they are also the most creative and sensitive to the needs of others. But they are self-conscious and often worry about what others think of them. As such, they dress in a way that provides the profound sense of emotional protection they need: preferring black, severe solids over cheerful prints, and generally, more directional fashion. These are usually non-mainstream styles that the average person finds weird or admires yet feels too intimated to try and pull off. Wearing these more out-there designs works to keep the neurotic at a distance from, and superior to, others. Fashion in this case, can work to stroke the fragile ego of the neurotic.
Those who score low on neuroticism don’t worry much. They are often happy, self-assured, calm and slow to anger. To them, fashion is either more functional or a means of expression. Instead of the neurotic’s gritty outfits, which they find way too dark and severe, these chill folks lean heavily into prints, bright colors, and easy, uncomplicated designs.
As a general principle, landing in the middle of the spectrum indicates the most balanced score, while extreme results make life a bit harder. If you score far from the middle, you can look at moving towards the center by incorporating more of the opposite aesthetic into your wardrobe to tap into the opposing quality.
If you would like to use a professional measure to determine your personality trait scores, I recommend the The NEO Five-Factor Inventory-3™, a professional self-assessment. Or, try this one online for free.