The Power of Clothes: What you wear affects your emotions and attitudes

Every morning when you wake up and begin your day, part of your routine will be to choose what to wear. If you work in an environment with a strict dress code or uniform, such as a hospital, then the decision will be made for you and how you are dressed will likely affect the way that others relate to you, e.g. a nurse dressed in a white coat will give patients reassurance. However, in professions where we have more flexibility with our work clothes and in our downtime where we have free rein to choose our fashions, the clothes that we wear will often speak volumes about our emotions. We may not realise quite how much what we choose to wear is dictated by our mood and, indeed, how much our choices have a subsequent effect on our behaviour and attitudes, both to ourselves and to others.

We’ve all got a favourite outfit — one that makes us feel confident and like we can take on the world. Many of us also have an outfit that no longer fits but we can’t bear to throw it away because of the emotional attachment, such as saving the dress from our first date with a long-time love. The connection between our emotions and the way we dress is integral to the way we behave and our identity.

The lab coat study

Emotions play such a significant role in our clothing choices because often it is not the actual clothes that we wear that determine our feelings and attitudes but the associations we have with them. This was demonstrated by a study conducted by Professor Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and his colleague Hajo Adam. The two groups of people who took part in the study were each given a white lab coat to wear — the first group were told it was a doctor’s coat, the second that it was a painter’s. The first group performed their tasks more sharply and with higher attention levels, as they unconsciously adopted the qualities typical of a doctor, such as a focused attitude. This process is called enclothed cognition and Galinsky describes it as “the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes.”

Understanding this process helps to explain why we choose certain types of clothing in different situations to, for example, empower us and give us confidence (a job interview, a first date), or — on the flip side — to just blend into the crowd and not be noticed (a child being bullied, a teenager suffering from depression). Our clothing also affects how others relate to us and determines the image that we wish to project to them. Robert Ridge, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University, explains this concept further: “There definitely can be a connection between how people dress and how they feel. The more you like your appearance, the more confident you can be.” This emphasises the importance of the short- and long-term impact of our clothing choices — if we wake up in the morning and choose an outfit that is ill-fitting and does not give us confidence, we will be self-conscious for the rest of the day. This will likely manifest in our behaviour — we may act awkwardly, avoid any unnecessary social interaction and become extremely introverted.

Style and shape

Professor Karen Pine of the University of Hertfordshire is an expert in fashion psychology and has conducted extensive research into this topic, culminating in her book “Mind What You Wear”. She has found powerful links between our emotional state and our choice of clothing. In an interview with MailOnline, she said: “We know our clothes affect other people’s impressions of us. Now research shows what we wear affects us too. Putting on different clothes creates different thoughts and mental processes… clothes can change [our] mood and thoughts.”

Professor Pine discusses a study in which one hundred women were asked what they chose to wear when feeling depressed. More than half chose jeans and a baggy top and 90% admitted that they neglect any clothing that made them feel confident when they were under stress. This shows that we choose plain clothing when we are in low spirits because we desire anonymity. Just 2% of the women surveyed said that they would wear baggy clothing if they were feeling happy. This can be related to common recommended treatment for depression, that focuses on self-soothing and self-care. While much of this is centred around keeping ourselves healthy and washing regularly, making a choice to wear outfits that we are confident in and that accentuate our appearance has also been proven to have a huge impact on our mood. The link between our mood, the effort we wish to make and our appearance is apparent. It is clear how much our appearance reveals about our mental state.

Many studies have shown that our “happy clothes” are typically well-fitted and well-cut with bright, strong colours. Professor Pine strongly believes that we can alter our mood by making an effort to choose clothing that we associate with happiness and that will give us confidence. “This finding shows that clothing doesn’t just influence others, it reflects and influences the wearer’s mood too,” she says. “This demonstrates the psychological power of clothing and how the right choices could influence a person’s happiness.” In other words, she explains that “not only that we are what we wear, but that we become what we wear.”

Colour chart

Colour plays an extensive role in research into this topic. Along with the shape and the style of our clothing, colour is one of the most important ways that we can express ourselves with what we wear. So what does it mean to choose specific colours? Colour specialist Leatrice Eiseman describes how the representation and role of colours in nature are strongly linked to the emotions that we draw from them. For example, she explains how: “the colour blue is almost always associated with blue skies… a positive thing. Evolutionarily it also means there are no storms to come. This is why it is reminds us of stability and calm.” She suggests that men should wear blue on a date as it offers an image to the woman of calm and stability — a quality many of us seek in a long-term partner. Equally, by wearing calming colours we will feel calmer ourselves.

Along similar lines, red is often the colour we choose because we want — subconsciously or otherwise — to stand out and to demonstrate our power and courage with a bright, exciting colour that is impossible to ignore. For example, prominent politicians and public speakers are often seen wearing a red tie (often coined “the power tie”). Psychologically, red is also commonly associated with blood and danger, meaning that if we wear red we are a force to be reckoned with.

Colour is also integral to the identity that we wish to convey through our clothing. The Goth/Emo style of dressing, for example, is based almost entirely around black. Research has shown that sports teams who wear black are typically more aggressive than those wearing other colours, which is interesting in its suggestion of a link between using black as a defence (the sports team) or a defence mechanism (the Goth). Dr Alastair Tombs is part of a group of researchers from the University of Queensland who looked into how we use clothes to enhance, express or hide our emotions. “Quite a few people talked about using clothes to change their mood,” he said. “If they get up and aren’t feeling great, they would put on something that would brighten them up. On other occasions they use clothes to mask their emotions.” We attach significant emotions to our clothes and colour is one of the most powerful ways that we can express these emotions.

There are many different research studies on this topic but one thing is clear: there is a direct link between our moods and emotions and what we choose to wear. This impacts significantly on our subsequent behaviour, our confidence and our social interaction. As image consultant Julie Zanes says: “I encourage my clients to dress as if they feel good. That impacts on their self-esteem and helps to shift them from a negative to a positive perspective.” And that is the power of fashion.

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