There is an old (rather sexist) saying that “Clothes don’t make the man – the man makes the clothes.” This has been taken to mean that what we wear doesn’t define us. Instead, our characters come out regardless of which outfit is selected.
Nothing could be further from the truth, as borne out by recent scientific research: The majority of us make snap judgments about others constantly, often with no verbal exchange at all. That’s why we tend to dress up for church or a business meeting but put on old clothes for gardening or backyard football.
If you showed up to play basketball at the neighborhood hoops sporting wedding attire, would the gang take you seriously or laugh you off the court?
Certainly, an able ballplayer could prove the scoffers wrong despite the constrictions imposed by a good suit or gown. But such demonstrations are the exception and not the rule, would you agree?
Not only do the clothes we wear send signals to everyone else to use as grounds for judgment but the fashion choices we make influence the wearer, too.
Five experiements conducted by Michael Slepian, Simon Ferber, Joshua Gold, and Abraham Rutchick discovered that well-dressed study participants were better able to think abstractly.
The researchers wondered if formal clothing had a similar effect to formal language by enhancing “social or psychological distance between people.” They gave, as an example, people who often address an unfamiliar person by title, rather than by first name, even when they share the same social status.
The bottom line of the multiple clothing studies was that social distance in the form of politeness can increase abstract thinking. Distancing events in your mind leads you to think about them in a more abstract way, whereas events you hold psychologically “near” produce more concrete thoughts.
Formal clothing serves the same purpose by imposing social distance and, therefore, lead to the wearer’s increasing use of abstract thought. As the research team wrote:
“Specifically, as formal clothing is associated with enhanced social distance, we propose that wearing formal clothing will enhance abstract cognitive processing.”
Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner explored the psychology of dress in her book, You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You. The clinical psychologist looked at how people choose what to wear and what those choices reflect about the wearer’s state of mind and self-image.
Dr. Baumgartner wrote:
“Shopping and spending behaviors often come from internal motivations such as emotions, experiences and culture. You look at shopping or storing behaviors, even putting together outfits, and people think of it as fluff. But any behavior is rooted in something deeper. I look at the deeper meaning of choices, just like I would in therapy.”
According to the professional psychologist, Americans use clothing to identify socio-economic class or ranking. When you see a well-dressed person, do you assume they are also wealthy?
“Our clothes help place us where we think we want to be,” said Dr. Baumgartner.
The author gave some insightful tips about how others perceive our clothing selections:
“Anything where it looks like you didn’t take the time or make the effort comes across badly. The worst clothing is the kind that tries to undo, ignore or hide where or who you are, or the kind that shows you didn’t pay attention to your body/age/situation.”
Remember the basketball player in wedding attire? “Any clothes that prohibit you from doing your job well send the wrong message,” confirmed Dr. Baumgartner.
A team of researchers from Northwestern University approached the subject of clothes-make-humans-or-is-it-the-other-way-around by delving into a new idea called “enclothed cognition.” This is scientific jargon for “the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes.”
Enclothed cognition is all about how you feel and think about yourself based on your clothing choices. For their experiment, study participants received standard white lab coats. Some were told that the garment was a doctor’s coat and others were informed that it was a painter’s smock. Participants who thought they were wearing a physician’s lab coat performed the same task as the others, but with more care and attention.
The same psychology explains why some people can chase away the blues by donning nice clothes or getting a beauty treatment. As Dr. Baumgartner shared:
“When you dress in a certain way, it helps shift your internal self. We see that when we do makeovers and even actors say that putting on a costume facilitates expression of character. That’s just as true for everyday life.”
The lesson to learn here is to dress not as you perceive yourself to be but as the person you desire to be. Dress formally to be taken seriously at a job interview but go for sexy to hit the dance floor.
Make those clothes work for you, not against you.