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Op-Ed | In a Crisis, Looking Good Really Can Help Us Feel Good

Fashion doesn’t just reflect our inner selves; it can also have psychological effects that actually change how we think, feel and act, argues Carolyn Mair.
A person choosing outfit from large wardrobe closet | Source: Shutterstock
By
  • Carolyn Mair

The toll of the coronavirus has been measured in deaths and dollars. But often overlooked is the psychological impact of the pandemic that has forced billions of people to live under lockdown, isolated in their households and separated from their normal routines and social interactions.

Can fashion help?

Fashion is our second skin. What we wear says a great deal about who we are and how we want to fit into society. Our outfits can also signal how we feel emotionally. But fashion doesn’t just reflect our inner selves; it can also have psychological effects that actually change how we think, feel and act. During lockdown, it’s easy to sit around all day in pyjamas, but getting up, getting showered and getting dressed goes some way towards taking control, restoring a sense of normality and lifting mood.

To be sure, fashion impacts how others perceive us. Consider Facebook Co-Founder Mark Zuckerberg who is well known for his work uniform of a T-shirt, hoodie and jeans. When he testified before the US House Financial Services Committee, however, he wore a suit and tie. Why? Because he knew viewers would associate his formal attire with professionalism and conscientiousness. Clearly what we wear affects how others see us. But it also affects how we see ourselves.

Fashion... can also have psychological effects that actually change how we think, feel and act.

Evidence has shown that when we wear formal clothes, we also consider ourselves more professional and consciousness. Some studies have found that, as a result, we even perform better. A study published in Nature reported that the need to wear glasses is associated with higher levels of intelligence. By association, people wearing glasses may be considered more diligent and conscientious by others, and the simultaneous acts of wearing glasses (even cosmetic only) and believing the association, can also make the wearer feel more productive. In turn, the sense of being more productive can actually result in greater productivity.

This demonstrates the power we have as individuals to make our clothes and accessories work for us. By engaging with what we’re wearing and consciously considering its symbolic meaning, we can change how we feel and even how we perform. Many people are now familiar with the findings of a study conducted in 2012 which found that simultaneously wearing a garment that was believed to belong to a doctor, as opposed to a painter, significantly increased the wearer’s attention to detail. The symbolic meaning attributed to the garment was that doctors are associated with attention to detail. We can bring this power of belief to our clothing by creating powerful associations between an item and its symbolic meaning. This may be an association of the item’s essence, its intangible inherent value or characteristic, or an associated memory. Either way, when we wear the item and simultaneously recall the symbolic meaning, our performance can be influenced.

In another study demonstrating the power of clothing on others as well as on ourselves, researchers showed images of an individual wearing different coloured T-shirts and asked raters to choose the most attractive. The image showing the wearer in a red T-shirt was selected most. This is not surprising as socio-cultural associations of red and attractiveness, passion, sexiness and love are common, but what is exciting is that when the researchers presented raters with monochrome images, the wearer who was originally in a red T-shirt was still rated as most attractive. The researchers argued that the wearer felt more attractive and this came through in the monochrome image.

How can we use this knowledge to help us manage our wellbeing during lockdown? It's simple really. Acknowledging that there are many things we can't control and focusing on the aspects of our lives that we can control, for example, by building structure and routine into our days can be uplifting. When we work from home, it makes sense to maintain the routine of dressing "appropriately" for our role. This enables us to take some control, which in turn reduces stress and can help us feel confident and motivated. When we wear clothes that also make us feel good, our stress levels are further reduced. The benefits of this are both physical and psychological.

Professor Carolyn Mair PhD is a behavioural psychologist and the author of 'The Psychology of Fashion.' She was Professor of Psychology for Fashion at London College of Fashion, where she developed Masters and Bachelors programs in the psychology of fashion, and is now a consultant.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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