How Fashion Affects Our Confidence and Self-Love
-Judith Rasband, President & CEO of the Conselle Institute of Image Management
This excerpt is light (and reads like an amateur piece from an open mic night) but it packs in some serious truth. Fashion has a significant influence on how others perceive us—in the workplace, in relationships, in public. But what we wear has an even more profound effect on our self-love.
The concept of ‘enclothed cognition’
There’s a reason you feel more confident when you suit up for those big meetings and presentations. It’s a scientific concept called “enclothed cognition”. Enclothed cognition confirms that the clothing we wear dictates our feelings, attitudes, and actions. It stems from a bigger research field called embodied cognition. Embodied cognition studies how specific actions influence our moods. For example, some people link purity with washing their hands. Enclothed cognition applies this school of thought to fashion.
A 2012 New York Times piece reported the findings of a significant cognition study conducted by Northwestern University professor Adam D. Galinsky. In the second part of the study, 74 students were randomly assigned to three groups. One group wore a doctor’s coat, another looked at it, and the third group wore a painter’s coat. Each group observed a pair of photos and was asked to spot four minor differences between them. The group wearing the doctor’s coats had the most heightened attention level. The other groups were less successful at spotting the differences.
Galinsky’s experiment was just one of several research studies that have explored enclothed cognition. University of Hertfordshire professor Karen Pine found similar results in her own study. In her book, Mind What You Wear, she shares how students wearing Superman t-shirts felt smarter and physically stronger.
How others see us
Just as our threads affect the way we see ourselves, they have a measurable impact on how others view us. Clinical psychologist Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner outlined some of the most prevalent clothing behaviors and what they project to the world.
Building a wardrobe based on only neutrals can indicate a psychological rut. Wearing clothing that’s too big communicates a lack of confidence in your body. Clinging to your work wardrobe at all times means your self-value is tied exclusively to work accomplishments. And excessive logos show a preoccupation with wealth and status (more on that in a few). Though the clothing we wear affects how we feel about ourselves and our lives, we’re not the only ones receiving the message.
Scientific American warns that informal clothing in professional environments can lessen your bargaining power in negotiations and cause others not to take you seriously. If you want to make progress at work, you must dress like someone who wants it. However, there’s a fine line between looking the part and trying too hard.
Wealth, status, and self-perception
For some gay men, lingering shame and self-consciousness from your younger years can follow you into adulthood. Psychotherapist Ryan Jacobs calls it gay shame. Gay shame manifests itself in several ways (i.e. drug and alcohol abuse, validation through sex). But perhaps the most notable coping mechanism is placing extreme value on possessions and symbols of wealth. Pulling on a Tom Ford suit may make you feel good for a meeting, but it could also be tied to covering up shame.
Sure, there’s some enclothed cognition at play here. But it could also work against you if you’re using it to distract from deeper feelings. The feel-good effects will be short-lived if this is the case.
Whether it’s the debt from luxurious purchases or less than favorable perceptions of others due to an air of falseness, you’ll eventually experience the other end of the spectrum. What you wear can improve your self-love, but if you have bigger issues, it’s only a temporary fix.
A major factor in the success of Pine and Galinsky’s studies was their participants’ understanding of the garment they were wearing. The positive effects were only felt if the wearer associated the coat or the t-shirt with strength or intelligence. The rising trend of dopamine dressing, or wearing bold colors and patterns to instill confidence, capitalizes on this.
Many fashion critics reasoned Emma Stone’s colorful La La Land wardrobe served as a distraction from the bleakness of Decision 2016. The brighter her dress was, the happier she felt. In turn, designers started marketing new collections steeped in bold color choices. They aren’t just selling well-made garments—they’re selling happiness.
But the effects of that happiness aren’t universal. It all depends on what you believe.
“It’s a simultaneous wearing and believing that has been found to have significant results,” argued psychologist Carolyn Mair in an interview with The Guardian.
So, if you’re down in the dumps, it’s true that pulling on a killer outfit can lift your spirits. All it takes is a little style and a lot of belief.