Why is traditional clothing important

The Effect of Clothes: Psychology in Fashion

Clothes make the man - it has been said for centuries. But the actual effect of clothing that certain styles and textiles wear on the outside goes far beyond obvious social signals. Since fashion and clothing are such an important part of our lives and play a large role in social coexistence, it is absolutely important to scientifically investigate the actual effects on us humans.

Several studies have found connections between the wearing of certain clothing and profound psychological effects - both on the wearer himself and on the person opposite.

Clothes and their effect

Our individual appearance in everyday life is mainly determined by clothing. Hairstyle, hair color, facial hair and makeup can also be used to noticeably control the appearance, but a large part of what is visible from the outside is made up of clothes.

Already in the story of the poet Gottfried Keller, from which the saying "Clothes make the man" originates, the effectiveness of clothing is discussed as a (at least apparently) decisive factor in the external impact of people. Without a doubt, the appropriate outfit can trigger clear reactions and unconsciously influence other people. But how do these effects arise, what psychological aspects are they related to and what does that mean for the role of fashion in everyday life?

We know, of course, that clothing, or rather the conscious selection of certain items of clothing, play a major role in our lives, but most of the time it is mainly subconscious.

  • You either dress smartly or something so that you feel as comfortable as possible.
  • Others, on the other hand, want to impress others with their outfit, or if possible adapt their appearance to a certain occasion.

Why all of these interpersonal factors can be influenced by a particular choice of clothing, however, is a question to which there is seldom a clear answer. What is certain is that we associate something with certain textiles, clothing styles, outfits or items of clothing. There are of course a great many different studies, findings and theories on this. The truth is probably somewhere in between, or a combination of all of these factors.

Conscious or subconscious prototypes and stereotypes associated with clothing

One factor that certainly influences the meaning of certain pieces of clothing or styles is our tendency to associate them with cultural phenomena. This can show up in different ways:

  • Subculturally shaped: The corresponding dress codes are always part of young subcultures. The black ruffles belong to the Goths, baggie jeans to the hip-hop fans, printed band shirts to the rock fans, ripped trousers and jackets with patches to the punks. What we associate with these subcultures is automatically our first impression when we see people wearing these clothes.
  • Iconically shaped: Some pieces of clothing are directly attached to the thought of a very specific image. James Dean made it a cult - the black leather jacket still exudes its masculine coolness thanks to its formative appearance in the 50s. The same thing happened a few years later with the aviator sunglasses that made Tom Cruise a hit in Top Gun. These associations are then difficult to get rid of - subconsciously people who carry them are immediately associated with them. This can be, for example, famous personalities or icons who are known for a certain look. At the same time, notorious people or subcultures perceived as unpopular can of course also attach negative associations to a piece of clothing.
  • Socially shaped: Expensive or cheap, no-name or branded goods, evening wear or jogging suits - with all these different forms that textiles can take on nowadays, certain social drawers automatically appear, to which the wearer can be assigned. Items from certain brands can also be associated with individual social groups. An example of this would be the articles from the fashion house "Ed Hardy", which were worn by so many people that the short popularity in this in-crowd suddenly turned into a negative image. Suddenly it felt embarrassing to show yourself in the printed T-shirts, as they became a symbol of an uninspired taste.

There is also another social factor, namely conventions. In every life situation there is a certain expectation of the appropriate or suitable clothing. Depending on how exactly a person meets them, we perceive them differently.

How exactly these expectations turn out is very individual and depends on many factors, including:

  • Occasion: With an evening dress at a vernissage or with casual clothes at the regulars' table? Depending on the type of encounter, the expectations of the respective clothing are very different.
  • Social class: In the higher social classes, certain styles of clothing may be associated with negative stereotypes. But also the other way around: Anyone who expose too much luxury and “chic” in down-to-earth circles can also lose recognition.
  • Branch: Bank employees are usually expected to wear suits and ties, teachers shouldn't wear something that is too polarizing or flashy, while a tailor-made jacket would probably be worn as a trainee in retail.
  • Personal relationship: In any social interaction, the acceptable or expected clothing is also determined by how well you know each other. Receiving good friends in a bathrobe is okay, while first-time encounters might shy away from it.
  • Culture: Basically, cultural differences are responsible for large parts of the acceptance and expectations of clothing. In India, for example, there are still strict conventions, especially for women, while in California, for example, there hardly seems to be a taboo for clothing in public.

The dress codes in our society deserve special attention. Most widespread in the world of work, but also in certain social circles such as those at high society parties, there is often a very strict dress code. Anyone who violates this will attract attention and thus attract a lot of negative attention. A business meeting in a T-shirt that is printed with dirty slogans is a clear faux pas.

Clothes make an impression on people

Why there are so many different expectations and thus rules for clothing is basically answered in a simple manner - they are often the first and most obvious thing that people notice in their counterpart. This impression then triggers a certain reaction.

One example of this is the well-known color theory. Colors are conspicuous in different ways and are associated with certain character traits or emotions. Yellow often stands for a positive, bright mind, while red can appear more aggressive but also more erotic.

Regardless of this, clothing can also act as a status symbol. Very expensive clothing, which can also be recognized as such, signals access to exclusive luxury goods and good taste. On the other hand, worn, tattered or apparently no longer fashionable clothing is combined with correspondingly negative socio-economic aspects.

Particular attention should also be paid to certain clothing with a definite function: sportswear makes people look healthier, uniforms have an official aura. As a result, people are more likely to be respected due to this optical factor alone, since the clothing also reflects the importance of the position they have completed - be it a soldier or a firefighter.

The clothing of our fellow human beings already has an effect on us in every everyday situation that we cannot ignore. But what is it all related to and what is scientifically proven?

Clothes make the man

Especially in working life, where certain implicit or explicit dress codes prevail, clothing plays a very important role, which to a large extent is also related to psychological effects. A suit that fits well is very important for many people in a professional environment. The right cut and a fit that is adapted to the body shape of the wearer make a decisive contribution to the external perception of the garment and can make even simple models look particularly high-quality and elegant. This, in turn, can be an important factor in the wearer's confidence.

In preparation for a business meeting, sales, customer or job interviews or similar situations, the choice of clothing can have conscious as well as subconscious effects. This can affect both the wearer himself, but of course also the counterpart.

1. Effects on the wearer of the clothes

The promotion of self-confidence, which can result from an appearance that is perceived as good, is completely natural and everyone knows the feeling. But at this point the effects don't stop, they go far deeper. In several studies, measurable differences in the performance of the test persons have already been found, which can be related to their own clothing:

  1. Adam, A. D. Galinsky, 2012: The two psychologists used experiments to test their theories on controlling perception with clothing. Test subjects should do a Stroop test - that is, demonstrate concentration under distractions. They did better in cases where they wore a lab coat. The effect of feeling smarter with a white coat is directly reflected in performance. These findings led to the “enclothed cognition” theory (clothed perception), which has become an important basis for psychologists in research into cognitive processes.
  2. L. Slepian, et al., 2015: At Columbia University, the researchers performed several tests depending on clothing, which varied in formal terms. The result: In three out of five sub-studies, advantages for abstract thinking and solving certain tasks were found when the test subjects wore more formal clothing. Casual outfits performed worse in these categories even when other factors were eliminated.
  3. Adrianos, 2017: The American College of Greece psychologist conducted a similar test in response to Adam and Galinsky’s study, but the parameters were slightly different. The test subjects had to solve a standardized intelligence test (Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices, APM) and either wear their own street clothes, a painter's smock or a business suit. The subjects were able to achieve higher scores in the painter's smock. From the results Adrianos concluded that performance in creative and abstract tasks could be enhanced by clothing associated with creative work.

2. Effects of clothing on third parties

In addition, clothing has an effect on people's emotions and mood. The effect of clothing on our emotions is just as important as that on measurable performance. There are also important studies on this that have been able to provide many clear results. With all of these, it should be noted that the methodology, as is customary in psychological studies, leaves the test persons in the dark about the background of the study. So it is always about unconscious assessments that arise in addition to other impressions.

Study 1: Perceived performance of applicants

Based on a study by Sandra M. Forsythe published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, the effect of the respective clothing in such pressure situations has already been proven. Employers were examined as to how they classify applicants depending on their clothes at the interview.

The main focus of this study was on women's clothing. The applicants were young women whose outfits ranged from very classically feminine to androgynous to traditionally masculine. Then the interviewees - without knowing the background - should determine how they assessed the applicants' management skills.

The result: regardless of the statements, they were sometimes viewed as more and sometimes less suitable for a management position depending on their clothing. The more masculine the clothing, the higher the assessment of skills such as assertiveness or appropriate aggressiveness - and ultimately also their suitability for the job. In short: With more masculine clothing, the likelihood of being hired also increased.

It should be noted that the four different outfits do not differ in quality, timeliness or adaptation, but only in colors and cut. In addition, it was explicitly about leadership qualities that would be required for a management job. However, the fact that the clothing style had an influence on the assessment of these aspects shows how specific the effect can be on other people.

Study 2: Doctors' trustworthiness

Another study, which looked at the classic problem of the "gods in white", was carried out at the University of Michigan. Doctors presented patients to patients in either a suit, surgical tunic, white doctor's coat or slacks. Then the patients were questioned and had to evaluate the doctor regarding his trustworthiness and the feeling towards the treatment.

In normal conversations, the respondents clearly preferred professional suits or white coats, while in acute treatments they tended a little more towards the more practical looking tunics. However, there were some minor differences in the preferences among the respondents, which also show that individual preferences can have an equally large influence on the effect of the respective clothing. (Source: C. M. Petrilli et al., 2014)

Study 3: Presumed Academic Achievement of Students

The fact that such connections can also be a social problem becomes apparent at the latest when studies on the effect of clothing shed light on scenes outside of professional life. Dorothy U. Behling and Elizabeth A. Williams carried out a study in 1991 that assessed the intelligence and academic performance of high school students.

Again, pictures of students in four different outfit styles were presented - a street look, a casual, more avant-garde outfit, a formal suit and a typical casual look with jeans. Teachers should use this to give their impression of intelligence.

The sobering result: the assessment of both factors was clearly dependent on the clothing of the young people. Teachers rated the performance of the formally and creatively dressed students somewhat higher than those in casual clothing - and significantly higher than those in the "hood" look with tattered jeans and untied shoes.

It is true that the study was also carried out in reverse - with similar results - by evaluating teachers in the various outfits. But the really problematic implications concern the study on the student side.

If children are judged by their teachers to be less productive and have a less promising future without being able to help them and for no good reason, this can have serious consequences for everyday school life in the classroom. Even through the subconscious classification, this can change the attitudes of teachers towards their students, which in turn can bring them academic disadvantages. This means that clothing would have potentially long-lasting consequences for life in key times of youth. Quite a good argument for school uniforms.

Study source: Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, Volume 9 Issue 4, 1991. Sage Journals.

Psychological strategies in the world of fashion

The fact that clothing has an effect on the subconscious is certainly not a particularly new finding. Psychology has long been used in fashion marketing. For example, there has been a course on applied psychology in fashion for a long time at the recognized London College of Fashion. The focus of the courses is on human behavior in relation to fashion and the application of this knowledge. However, it is not only about clothing, i.e. the product of the fashion industry itself, but also about possible solutions for internal industry problems.

The founder of this course, the psychologist Dr. Carolyn Mair, published a book on Psychology in Fashion in 2018 discussing all of this. “The Psychology of Fashion” makes it clear how interesting the connection between the psychological effects of clothing and the possibilities for action in the fashion industry is.

This can be illustrated using the example of the increasing recognition of people in noble suits: The effect is real and empirically measurable, but the concept that triggers it - i.e. a tailored suit itself - is basically a social product that we get from the Industry is portrayed as chic and desirable.

So how much the various effects of clothing on us are ultimately controlled by campaigns and strategies of the industry is a very interesting question. Hence, Dr. Mair that the companies therefore not only have a certain degree of social responsibility towards people with regard to sustainability.


December 28, 2019

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