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.