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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. 

Fashion psychologists suggest that the link between style and mood is stronger than we think

The subjective complexion of human emotions has made distinct sensations, like “happiness”, difficult to quantify. Happiness is generally contingent upon a person’s unique perspective, perception, or preference. The way we dress can flamboyantly express our preferences, but it can also attract superfluous perceptions. When we wake up in the morning, we have a divine power that no other species on this planet has. That power is called Choice. Unless you have an occupation that issues standard uniforms, when you begin your day, you have a choice of what you can (and should) drape over your body. If you’re happy, you’ll more than likely wear something that expresses your happiness. If you’re sad, you’ll more than likely wear something that expresses the feeling of sadness. The correlation between how we dress and how we feel have raised questions in the psychology community that researchers are in the midst of passionately pursuing. If how we dress commences the feeling of happiness, is it possible that being consistently happy can affect what we choose to wear?

While fashion experts continue to capitalize on the effects of clothing, psychology experts are examining the influence that clothing has on moods. Professor Karen Pine, a leading expert in fashion psychology, confirms that the more we know about enclothed cognition and how it can lift a person’s mood, the less we will need anti-depressant medication. In a current news release published by Goodtherapy.org, several Applied Psychology professionals conducted research on the link between clothing choices and emotional states.
 
A group of one hundred women, ranging from the ages 21 to 64 years old, participated in this informative study. The results of this study found that clothing choices such as jeans, sweatshirts, and baggier apparel, could all be associated with depressed or sad moods. Interestingly, 51% of the women in the study wore jeans when they felt sad or depressed, while only 33% of the women wore jeans when they felt happy or positive. Donna Stellhorn, a Feng Shui expert who contributed her professional thoughts on how we interact with our environment, agreed with these results.

“When we reach for jeans we want something familiar because things around us are stressful”

​​She believes that lazy attire, such as jeans or t-shirts, indicate where a person’s mental energy is focused. “When we reach for jeans we want something familiar because things around us are stressful”, Stellhorn explained. Other results of the study found that accessories, such as hats and jewelry, can also affect women’s moods. Hats in particular, on men and women, usually pinpoint a person of power. Hats warrant attention, and in some cases, it helps a person cover up an insecurity so that the person can feel confident enough to interact with other individuals. Interacting with the opposite sex has been another major point of emphasis for clothing choices as well, but limited studies have yet to secure concrete results in this area.
 
Although men weren’t included in this study, some results could be similar for them as well. “A separate study on men should be considered. Men are much more focused on functionality in their wardrobe than women, regardless of emotional state. So, I do think there may be some general similarities, but overall women’s results would probably be more dramatic”, explained Shauna Mackenzie Heathman, owner of Mackenzie Image Consulting.
 
Overall, the emphasis of the study explained fashion’s powerful ability to create a perception of happiness.  When we’re feeling happy, we generally wear clothes that have good quality, good fit, and bright colors. When we are feeling unhappy, we take the focus off of our appearance and put our mental energy on whatever is making us unhappy. While women tend to be more in tuned with their emotions, they’re more likely to express their moods through visual stimulations—a theory that adheres to how women attract men. Men’s emotional adherence to clothing tends to be associated with colors—colors make a person standout more. Dressing happy when we’re happy isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s just predictable!

Being predictable, based on your mood, isn’t what fashion is about. Fashion isn’t about making the effort to “look the part”. Fashion is about being the part. Fashion is about expressing who you are, no matter what mood you’re in. Daniel Gilbert’s concept of Synthetic Happiness suggests that we have the power to manipulate what makes us happy. In other words, we can either give clothes the power to make us happy, or we can use clothing as a tool to express how we’re feeling at any given time.