Fashion Psychology: What you wear matters more than you think

Clark Kent reveals his Superman costume - dreamdolove.comWhen I launched Soul Ambition back in 2007 I went to a local TV company and pitched an alternative to the biggest fashion makeover show at the time – Trinny and Susannah’s What Not To Wear. I detested that pair’s condescending format of humiliation followed by style “salvation”, and wanted to create a show where participants would get coaching from me to boost confidence and self-esteem, and then a fashion makeover from an image consultant (my good friend Lynsey Hakin). It would be about developing outer style as just one tool in the box for becoming happier and achieving their personal goals.

It was a good idea, but too late – the Powers That Be had vetoed commissioning any new makeover shows as there was a glut of them on air at the time. (They weren’t wrong!) Happily, Gok Wan hit our screens soon afterwards with exactly the kind of motivational, supportive approach to re-styling that I’d been thinking of, with How to Look Good Naked. He did a brilliant job of encouraging people to update their self-image and their wardrobe, with knock-on effects on their social and professional lives.

Whilst we’ve always known that clothing affects how we feel and how others see us, scientific evidence is growing about how much of an impact our clothing choices make. So, whether you’re a dedicated follower of fashion, a practical dresser, or someone who doesn’t care two buttons about what clothes they throw on, here are some findings from the psychology of clothing that might change the way you see your wardrobe.

Dress like a Superhero

No, I’m not suggesting wearing your pants over your tights, but an interesting study on clothing and performance found that wearing Superman t-shirts gave participants some positive boosts1. Professor Karen Pine, from the University of Hertfordshire, said: “When wearing a Superman t-shirt the students rated themselves as more likeable and superior to other students. When asked to estimate how much they could physically lift, those in a Superman t-shirt thought they were stronger than students in a plain t-shirt, or in their own clothing.”

But it wasn’t just how wearers saw themselves that changed; they actually experienced a boost in performance. On mental ability tests, participants wearing the superhero t-shirts scored an average of 72%, whereas those wearing plain t-shirts scored an average of 64%. Pine attributes the results to a ‘priming’ effect whereby our mental processes and perceptions are affected by us taking on the symbolic meaning of our clothing. (Interestingly, a 1969 study found that people wearing hoods and capes were more likely to administer electric shocks to others2. So Superman trumps Batman in this case.)

In a 2012 study at Northwestern University, researchers ran three experiments to uncover the effects of clothing on performance, telling some participants that the white coats provided to them were doctors’ lab coats, and telling others they were painters’ smocks. They found that wearing a white coat increased attention – but only when the coat was worn (rather than being looked at) and associated with a doctor. When it was worn but associated with a painter, it had no effect3.

Therefore, for the clothes to have influence, participants had to both wear them and attribute some symbolic meaning to them – a phenomenon the researchers named embodied cognition. So, when you need a boost of some kind, wear clothing that really symbolises the effect you’re after – creative, professional, sexy, asexual, serious, fun. Look for style heroes who could inspire you.

Professional v Casual

Uniforms have a powerful effect on employee conduct and performance – this is why many offices insist on formal attire even for employees not in a customer-facing role. Studies published in Evolution and Human Behaviour found that people wearing high-status clothing got cooperation from others more easily, received higher donations for charity and gained job recommendations and higher salary4.

In another study, researchers showed pictures of female models with pixelated faces to 129 female participants. Small changes were made to the models’ clothing, and participants rated the models’ intelligence, confidence, trustworthiness, responsibility, authority, and organisation. In all cases the clothing was conservative, but skirt lengths were varied slightly, and an extra button was opened on a blouse. The models were labeled with different high-status and low-status roles (senior manager and receptionist, respectively), and the images were shown to participants for a maximum of 5 seconds. Participants rated the senior manager less favourably when her dress style was more ‘provocative’ – still conservative, but with skirt slightly above the knee, extra button opened on blouse – and more favourably when dressed more conservatively. The same manipulations of clothing didn’t affect participants’ rating of the ‘receptionist’ images, suggesting that judgement varies by job role5.

The same researchers showed a group of over 300 male and female participants pictures of a man in a made-to-measure suit, and a high street suit. The main aspects of the suit – colour, style – were kept the same, and the man’s face was pixelated to rule out any small changes in expression affecting results. Participants, after seeing the pictures for 3 seconds, rated the man as more confident, successful, flexible and a higher earner in the pictures of the tailor-made suit than the high street equivalent6.

However, other studies have shown that our perceptions of people’s dress is influenced more by how similar they seem to be to us. An experiment in the ’70s sent well-dressed and poorly-dressed females out to an airport and a bus station, to ask males and females for a dime to make a phone call. The well-dressed females got more money at the airport; the poorly-dressed females received more money at the bus station7.

My work is hugely based on empathy, so matching my clothes to my audience is important. For example, I dress differently to give talks to students, where I’m aiming to build rapport and a sense of being on their level, than I do to network with investors, where I’d be focusing more on high professional credibility. Dressing ‘professionally’ can cover many different styles and levels of formality depending on the industry and your audience.

Give some thought to who your audience is and what you’re trying to convey. Whatever the style, go for well-fitting clothes, and maybe make small adjustments – wearing good-quality accessories, swapping cheap buttons for fancier ones, for example – if you want to subtly change perception. And if you’ve little freedom to choose your outerwear, remember that no-one – outside of a handful of quite specific professions – gets to see what you’re wearing underneath. So let loose with your underwear. (Superhero pants, anyone?)

How much is too much?

Girl with a shopping bagSpending on fashion can arguably be an investment in our personal and professional wellbeing, but as with any kind of spending, we should only buy what we can afford. Emotional or compulsive shopping – oniomania – can be a cause of serious problems in people’s lives. Anticipating a purchase, then making it, gives us a dose of feel-good dopamine. We might buy clothes from addiction to that ‘high’, to distract us from what’s going wrong in our lives, from boredom or from feeling inadequate.

Social comparison theory suggests that we’re constantly comparing ourselves to others – either seeing ourselves as more fortunate (downward social comparison) or less fortunate (upward social comparison). In fashion, social comparison can lead to an urge to wear prominent logos or recognisable brands. If this sounds like you, think about what’s behind the urge. Do you buy luxury brands for quality and durability reasons, or are you feeling pressure to ‘keep up’ or hide behind a well-known brand? If the latter, what can you do to boost your self-esteem? If your shopping habits have got you into debt, seek help – and get savvy with how to save on shopping with guides like this one from

Faking it

If you want but can’t afford luxury brands, you might be tempted to shop for convincing knock-offs – particularly if you consider yourself a savvy shopper. But beware – whilst you think that you feel good in these seemingly luxurious items, wearing fake clobber can be detrimental to your wellbeing. Researchers Francesca Gino of Chapel Hill, Michael Norton of Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of Duke gave participants some pricey Chloé sunglasses, telling half of them the glasses were fakes. The participants were asked to carry out a couple of tasks which provided opportunities for cheating. The first was a set of mathematical puzzles, which couldn’t have been completed in the given time. They were asked to score themselves and take money for each correct score, unaware that the researchers were monitoring their performance and scoring. A whopping 70% of the participants who believed they were wearing fake Chloé sunglasses cheated, versus 30% of those who knew they were wearing the real thing.

In a second test, the same participants had to indicate whether there were more dots on the left or right side of the screen, and take half a cent when they chose ‘left’ and 5 cents when they chose ‘right’ – regardless of the correct answer. Participants who believed they were wearing fake glasses picked the profitable choice over the correct one more than the other group.

And finally, the participants were given a survey about ‘people they knew’, exploring their views of others’ ethics, to see if believing themselves to be wearing knockoffs made them more cynical about other people. The results showed a strong ‘yes’ – participants who’d been told their glasses were fake described people as more dishonest and more likely to act unethically in business dealings – suggesting that wearing ‘fakes’ affects our inner sense of ethics and authenticity8.

Clues in your closet

The clothes we wear – and the clothes we hang on to, even if we never wear them – can speak volumes about our self-identity. Do your clothes reveal your personality, or hide it? Do you hang on to clothes from your past for sentimental reasons, maybe because they’re tied to a happier time? Is your wardrobe full of clothes you’ve bought but never worn – hinting at a desire to shake up your life, or at confused or unexplored identities? Go through your wardrobe and describe each piece of clothing to yourself, to uncover hidden motivations behind your fashion choices. Use those motivations to start thinking about activities and experiences you might like to bring (back) into your life, and setting yourself some goals. Think about how you see yourself now, how you’d like to see yourself, and any changes you’d like to make. (Read Week 2 – Self from my 10 Weeks to Wellbeing series for ideas and exercises.)

Conscious choices

As with many things in life, there’s a huge difference between doing something automatically, and choosing to do something for a reason. Making a conscious choice to dress up because you can afford to and will enjoy the benefits is healthier than feeling you must have the latest X accessory to keep up with your peers. Likewise, you don’t need to dress to impress, but you might choose to in order to ‘play the game’ when seeking employment, investment, a date or whatever.

Knowing some of the psychology of clothing can help you make choices that work for you – whether it’s boosting the perception of others, boosting your performance or just boosting how you feel.

And there’s wisdom in the old adage that the most attractive thing you can wear is your smile.

This article first appeared in my wellbeing column in the Irish Sunday Mirror, in March 2015.


1Mind What You Wear: The Psychology of Fashion (Amazon affiliate link)

2Zimbardo, P. G. (1969). The human choice: Individuation, reason, and order vs. deindividuation, impulse and chaos. In W. J. Arnold & D. Levine (Eds.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation (Vol. 17, pp. 237-307). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

3Adam, H., Galinsky, A. D. (2012). Enclothed cognition. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(4).

4Rob M.A. Nelissen, R. M. A. & Meijers, M. H. C. (2010). Social benefits of luxury brands as costly signals of wealth and status. Evolution and Human Behaviour. doi: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2010.12.002

5Howlett, N., Pine, K. L., Cahill, J., Orakçıoğlu, I., & Fletcher, B. (2015). Small changes in clothing equal big changes in perception: The interaction between provocativeness and occupational status. (In press) Sex Roles: Journal of Research.

6Howlett, N., Pine, K. L. , Orakçıoğlu, I., & Fletcher, B. (2013). The influence of clothing on first impressions: Rapid and positive responses to minor changes in male attire. Journal of Fashion Marketing & Management, 17 (1), pp. 38-48. doi: 10.1108/13612021311305128

7Hensley, W. E. (1981). The effects of attire, location, and sex on aiding behavior: A similarity explanation. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 6(1), pp 3-11.

8Gino, F., Norton, M. I. & Ariely, D. (2010). The Counterfeit Self: The Deceptive Costs of Faking It. Psychological Science, 21(5), pp. 712–720.

[Images: (c) Warner Bros,]

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