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Megan Payne

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Colloquialisms like ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ have been present in the English language for decades, and although rather wise and largely true, psychology would suggest that to an extent, what we wear is in fact a reflection of who we are. 

Style is undoubtedly a significant part of our society; the fashion industry is thriving with its regular coverage in magazines and the media, globally-celebrated ‘fashion weeks’ and attention on social media through the work of online influencers. People are style-conscious; we take great pride in what we wear and where we shop, suggesting how we look must stand for more than just vanity. In fact, psychology has indicated it can boost our self-esteem, create a personal identity and reinforce a sense of belonging.

Perhaps the most prominent use of clothing is to build a sense of style and consequently, identity. In doing so, it has been argued that we build relationships between ourselves and our clothing. These can express three views of the self: the ideal self (‘the person I want to be’), the actual self (‘the person I am most of the time’) and the ‘person I fear I could be’. These self-concepts can be translated to our peers, colleagues and even strangers we pass in the street; before we even speak to another person it is likely we have, consciously or not, already built an idea in our minds about who they are. 

Although this may seem somewhat abstract and rather trivial, research has proved the significance of this sense of ‘self’. For example, it has been found that our self-esteem is lowered when we experience a large difference between our perceived actual and ideal self (Self Discrepancy Theory; Higgins, 1987). We feel frustration and disappointment if the person we see in the mirror isn’t the person we are aspiring to be. However, clothing can be used as a way to reduce this discrepancy and enhance self-esteem, if successful. Women have reported that through their clothing they are able to maintain an identity. They feel valued and liberated when their clothing successfully conveys to others ‘the person they want to be’. By developing and refining a personal style, it can be empowering, creating a feeling of control over our bodies; we can enhance aspects of ourselves we like, and conceal those we are more insecure over (Guy & Banim, 2000). Having a sense of style is, therefore, more than just an obsession with one’s image – it is a way to boost confidence, express creativity and empower. 

While we may use personal style to independently build an identity, it is also often a successful and arguably beneficial way to prescribe identities to others. This may seem domineering but having some externally-appointed identities can also boost our self-esteem; it encourages the formation of in-groups and consequently a sense of belonging. For example, in Cape Verde, fashion is known to be used amongst the ‘youth culture’ to construct both individual and social identities (Saucier, 2015). A key style worn by teenagers is inspired by hip-hop culture. They often describe it as ‘the blackest of cultures’ therefore, ‘to be young and black is to dress within the confines of hip-hop culture’ (Gilroy, 1994). The styles adopted by a teen can communicate who is authentic and sincere racially and culturally, which shaped personal and group identification. Other more widely-used ways clothing is used to construct identities is through the use of uniforms. Not only does it ensure students, employees and group-members are dressed appropriately but it encourages a feeling of responsibility and belonging between pupils, colleagues and friends. Therefore, although our old school-uniforms may not have been the most comfortable nor stylish outfit, they would have held significant symbolic meaning, shaping the people we are today and those we surround ourselves with.

Clothing most poignantly provides a medium for self-expression; colours, tones, textures and shapes can be used to experiment and explore what we like, feel good in and find enjoyment in wearing. Whether we choose to follow seasonal trends, take inspiration from celebrities and time periods or just do our own thing, what we wear has something to say about us as an individual, our group memberships and society we live in. Although perhaps more importantly, psychology has suggested that there’s more than meets the eye; style can support our self-esteem, empower us as individuals and aid the relationships we create. 

Having a sense of style most certainly isn’t the cure to all our problems, but there’s no shame in holding pride and autonomy in what you choose to wear as it could contribute to improving your quality of life and psychological well-being. 

Header Image Source: Big Bud

Instantly embodying the positive or professional persona you envisage isn’t always easy. But what if something as simple as the colour of your clothing could turn these visions into reality?

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Staring at a wardrobe over-flowing with tops, trousers, skirts and shirts can be daunting on a day-to-day basis. While as humans we have excelled in the art of decision-making for the most part, these first-world problems can cause us great confusion. This is where psychology can help. Have you ever considered eliminating your options by choosing a particular colour of clothing to wear? Perhaps you have an important job interview or feel fatigued due to a poor night’s sleep. By strategically selecting certain colours you can enhance your mood, improve your confidence or reduce anxiety – all whilst answering that recurrent question of: ‘what do I wear?’

For decades, research has been investigating how colours can be used to manipulate our mood and help us work at optimum performance. These effects seem to be embedded in our emotions and behaviours from as young as four years-old, with findings showing that when playing in a pink room, children displayed more strength and had a more positive mood, compared to a grey-coloured room (Hamind & Newport, 1989).  The warm tones of the colour pink reflected a welcoming, safe environment, so increased stimulation and arousal to make children more alert and interactive. Therefore, colour seems to play a significant role in our learning and interaction with our environment. Perhaps by popping on some pink shoes in the morning can set you up for a productive, positive day.

Later research looked at emotional responses to colours in adults by assessing the colour they wore and emotions towards and reasons for their choices. Bright colours elicited positive emotional associations and dark elicited mainly negative emotions (Hemphill, 1996).

However, these colour-emotion associations aren’t as straightforward as they seem, as they appear to change with age. In 7-year-olds, colours were meaningfully related to emotion preferences. However, the associations can become increasingly more evenly distributed with age, meaning we can create new meanings and attach multiple emotional associations to colours throughout our lives (Terwogt & Hoeksma, 1995).

Here are some ways you too can use coloured clothing to boost your mood and perhaps prevent the floor-drobe from making an appearance every time you can’t decide what to wear… 

Job Interview

Reiss: Shimmer Suit £185
Reiss: Shimmer Suit £185

While many opt to wearing black to a professional occasion, it may not necessarily always be the most effective option. While wearing black can make someone seem respectable and powerful, it can also indicate aggression (Linhartová et al., 2013). Therefore,  wearing a slightly softer shade such as grey can reduce the aggressive intent whilst giving you an equal amount of perceived respectability. Don’t be afraid to add a pop of colour though – a pair of blue heels or a yellow tie can give add a little personality to your appearance and make you all-the-more memorable.

Date Night

Fashion Psychology
House of CB: Mareena Dress £109

If you’re hoping to dress-to-impress that someone special,  research has recently suggested that wearing something red can make you appear more attractive due to associations we have built up overtime with the colour. Biologically the colour red indicates sexual receptivity; non-human primates display red body parts at times of ovulation, which indicates fertility and meets the evolutionary desire to reproduce (Guéguen and Jacob, 2013). Socially, the colour red represents sexuality, with associations to places like Amsterdam’s red-light district and sexy lingerie. However, a successful love life isn’t purely this shallow – an emotional connection is equally as important – by opening up to partners it allows trust and rapport to build in a relationship (Joinson & Paine, 2007).

Time to Relax

Topshop: Khaki Washed Cycle Loungewear Set £22

When it’s time to wind-down, whether it be in the evenings or on the weekends, the colours you surround yourself with can help relieve tension and encourage relaxation. Green and blue are highlighted as being the least stimulating and most pleasurable colours (Wilson, 1966; Valdez & Mehrabrian, 1994). The connection of these hues with nature may encourage positive attitudes and a sense of tranquillity which in turn helps us disconnect from the day.

There’s no denying that the challenges of daily life can become somewhat overwhelming – and proposing that the solution lies in something as small as the colours of our clothing, may seem overly-optimistic. However, it does appear that anticipating the demands of the day ahead can help to narrow-down outfit options by selecting shades that will encourage an appropriate mindset – and put you in a positive position for the day.