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Psychology: How the self influences dress choice

A dress is an assemblage of modifications of the body and/or supplements to the body

Using Fashion Psychologist’s, Eicher, and Roach-Higgins definition of dress, “it is an assemblage of modifications of the body and/or supplements to the body such as coiffed hair, inked skin, pierced ears, and scented breath, as well as an equally long list of garments, jewelry, accessories, and other categories of items added to the body as supplements.”

According to their research, what we wear and how we dress send non-verbal cues to other people, and despite what some people might think, fashion has very little influence over it. The climate, work, hobbies, environment, culture, faith, film, music, can all have an influence on a persons’ dress; but a garment is just a garment until someone gives it a story. That’s when it becomes desirable and loaded with meaning, it’s also the reason some brands and styles succeed over others, recur, or just disappear. When you think about the garment in your wardrobe that you love the most, it’s emotional, before practical. It’s the color, the cut, the feel, the association with something other than fashion, perhaps it’s something you have inherited, a gift, or a memory of transformation, of belonging or departure.

Our choices are strongly driven by our perception of ourselves and others’ perceptions of us. We use dress to define who we are by using social cues from our immediate environment to convey our message in the hope that it will be received as intended. It’s a tool we use to construct our identities and to conceal and reveal ourselves to others. It protects us when we feel vulnerable and liberates us when we feel free. In the pandemic, we have seen a shift to dress that brings comfort, we chose garments that hold us and keep us feeling safe, textures that are soft to the touch and unrestrictive. But now, as we optimistically look forward to a new normal, with face covering of course, we are once again searching for a dress that will convey the social cues that says we’ve got this.

Insightful new research has found that the clothes we wear can change the way we think. “The formality of clothing might not only influence the way others perceive a person, and how people perceive themselves but could influence decision making in important ways through its influence on processing style,” the researchers, Slepian et al. write in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Results of the research experiment found that just by wearing a white lab coat, both the symbolic meaning (as a doctor’s coat) and the physical experience of wearing it, lead to a change in the performance of attention-related tasks. They conclude that “Specifically, as formal clothing is associated with enhanced social distance, we propose that wearing formal clothing will enhance abstract cognitive processing,”. Thus, advocating for more formal attire as it has been found to enhance abstract thinking.

Results of another study indicate that perception of basic intelligence and potential academic achievement is also influenced by dress. This is an important finding and very relevant to online learning environments when students are not in uniform, that the element of dress can influence one’s perception of the intellectual capabilities of others. It is particularly important considering the role of the teacher. The study revealed that dress and attractiveness also appear to have a cultural/subcultural dimension, and socio-economics appears to play a role too. There is, however, a need for further study on dress and perception of intelligence and expectations of individual potential that can extend the research beyond the classroom to investigate virtual working environments. If those in power judge others on their dress, in the zoom era, it becomes increasingly important to be dressed to impress. And if that influences how we think, it becomes imperative that we all democratically share this knowledge to ensure equal opportunities for everyone.

Roach-Higgins ME, Eicher JB. Dress and Identity. Clothing and Textiles Research Journal. 1992;10(4):1-8. doi:10.1177/0887302X9201000401

Slepian, M. L., Ferber, S. N., Gold, J. M., & Rutchick, A. M. (2015). The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing. Social Psychological and Personality Science. doi: 10.1177/1948550615579462

Behling, D. U. and Williams, E. A. (1991) ‘Influence of Dress on Perception of Intelligence and Expectations of Scholastic Achievement’, Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, 9(4), pp. 1–7. doi: 10.1177/0887302X9100900401.×9100900401

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