Enclothed Cognition and the Psychological Importance of What We Wear

The notion that our physical appearance, and specifically our clothes, can affect the way we feel or act has permeated in culture for quite some time. You’ve likely heard the phrase “dress for the job you want, not the one you have” or “the clothes maketh the man (or woman)”. You yourself might have a favourite jacket for interviews or first date jeans. The idea that what we wear has some psychological impact on our behaviour has been thrown around a fair bit, and whilst the relationship is frequently dismissed as a persons’ particularities or merely pure superstition, over the past decade researchers have applied scientific methods to explore if clothes affect how we feel and act, finding that there is indeed truth to the notion.

In 2012, Northwestern University researchers Hajo Adam and Adam D. Galinsky aspired to uncover the power of clothes and accessories. In their original experiment, they studied the associations of lab coats and behaviour. The first step was to research which adjectives were commonly associated with lab coat wearers. The results pointed to attentiveness and carefulness. Researchers then gave identical coats to two groups of people; one group were told they’d be wearing scientific coats, whilst the other received information that these were painters’ coats. The experiment showed that the subjects who were told they were using ‘lab’ or ‘medical’ coats performed better on tasks related to attention.

Adam and Galinsky named this phenomenon enclothed cognition, a term that describes “the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes”. Following the logic of their experiment, the pair proposed that certain clothing items may help in knowledge acquisition which we can extrapolate to other scenarios, like the idea of a lucky jacket, as I mentioned above. The study, which you can read here, argues that enclothed cognition has two essential and independent factors: the symbolic meaning of garments and the actual physical experience of wearing a particular clothing item.

The symbolic meaning is related to the characteristics wearers attach to a particular garment for social or psychological reasons. When people use a clothing item they relate to specific features (painter coats and creativity, scientific ones and intelligence), they associate themselves with some of the ‘traits’ associated with that piece. Clothes were shown to influence the way wearers behaved, and is it surprising? I mean, isn’t that what fashion lovers have felt about getting dressed since the beginning of time?

On one level, the clothes we wear can be a way to showcase status. For example, luxury brands across the world have always marketed their products as being directly associated with a particular lifestyle, inferring certain characteristics. Selling not just their products but also scenes of travel, romance, or leisure. The implication being that owning those items, is part of being part of that lifestyle. Still, there’s so much more to the clothes we wear than status: ultimately, each of us buys clothes and accessories to reflect who we are or want to be. That notion doesn’t stop at looking ‘expensive’, and it can be as straightforward as wearing a dress that favours your skin tone, or as complex as the symbolic power of a necklace passed down through generations.

Being aware of the power that clothes have on our mindsets can help us become more aware of how to use them to our advantage. When we’re mindful of the impact of what we wear, enlisting our wardrobe as ancillary seems like an easier task, allowing us to choose pieces that speak to us. For example, enclothed cognition can be an exercise in motivation, like the popular phrase above: dress for the job you want. Of course, the power of clothes is limited, and wearing a particular item to summon a specific emotion can backfire if the disparity is too high with the way you’re feeling.

Anabel Maldonado from The Psychology of Fashion has a few tips regarding how to navigate enclothed cognition without overstepping other psychological processes. For starters, she says it’s best to always focus on oneself when choosing clothes, instead of attempting to reflect something specific to others. She also claims that self-awareness is critical when it comes to building outfits, knowing how particular garments can affect your mood. Most interestingly, Maldonado suggests that there cannot be a vast disparity between how we feel and how we’re dressing, as it can create a broad dissonance. If you’re profoundly sad and trying to feel better by wearing a bright-patterned dress, you may feel disguised and out of yourself.

Whilst the term ‘enclothed cognition’ is less than a decade old, there’s always been a persistent notion that clothes affect how we feel and behave. There’s an entire branch of psychology dedicated to fashion: broadly speaking, fashion psychology studies the impact of clothing on how we self-identify and perceive others. However, this science doesn’t just focus on the way we connect clothes to moods and emotions. Cognitive psychologist Carolyn Mair, Ph.D., created the Psychology of Fashion department at the London College of Fashion at the University of the Arts London. She now works as a consultant for fashion brands. A lot of her work has revolved around working alongside fashion brands to create programmes that can help consumers realise the direct consequences of fast fashion’s worst practices and be more mindful of their buying habits. You can listen to her talk at length about her work on the American Psychological Association’s podcast, Speaking of Psychology.

As my work will lead you to believe, fashion is one of the great loves of my life. I believe in the power of clothes to make a stand, showcase strengths and communicate culture, and even the ways we see the world. Wearing sustainable fashion has been a way for me to translate my deepest beliefs into how I look, empowering me to make the best decisions towards the industry I love, helping to create new paradigms in fashion. And that’s the kind of power I’d like to see everyone recognising, in every choice they make when they build their wardrobes and decide what to wear.

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