Psychology is one of my favorite subjects, one that is closely tied to fashion. Much like body language (which studies show accounts for over 50% of our communication) style is a visual language, and so questions surrounding what clothes mean and how they affect the way we perceive ourselves and are perceived by others are an important part of larger discussions on psychology, society and culture.
This week the New York Times had an interesting article called Clothes and Self-perception, about a recent study observing how clothing affects thinking and behavior. To briefly sum it up, the study had some participants don a doctor’s white lab coat to test if they acted more doctor-like, with greater care and attention to detail, than participants wearing street clothes. Not surprisingly, they did. However other participants who were told the same white coat was a painter’s smock did not improve, indicating that perception of the coat’s meaning impacted the wearer’s behavior. Another important part of the study showed that the participant had to actually wear the coat to improve; it was not enough to just be near it and know what it meant.
We all know that in certain situations, clothing has a big impact. Dressing well for an interview affects our own confidence as well as the interviewee’s confidence in us. A police or army uniform affects the wearer’s sense of authority and how others behave. But what about everyday situations to which we don’t attach the same importance? Can this study extend to subjective fashion choices? For example does constantly wearing jeans, which is practically an informal uniform for the overwhelming majority of Americans, affect our tendency to conform? Does dressing a little more adventurously translate into more adventurous thinking and behavior? Do the psychological effects of wearing a particular type of clothing everyday eventually wear off and stop affecting us?
Are we at the mercy of whatever meaning society has attached to say, a dress vs. pair of pants, or can we define “femininity” and “masculinity” in our own ways (or not at all) and behave accordingly? It would have been interesting for this study to compare how the participants behave if they are told the lab coat is a painter’s smock, but are then encouraged to imagine it to be a doctor’s coat – would they be able to behave more doctor-like based on their own belief despite knowing that the coat’s social perception was different? When it comes to the meaning of clothes and personal style, the difference between what society says and what we ourselves believe can sometimes be very different, but I think that’s where taking risks and going with our own voices makes us stronger and more creative.
I could list 100 more questions related to the issues this study brings up. As the relatively new field of embodied cognition grows, I am excited to see what scientists find. There are no easy answers to these questions, but I think there’s value simply in the journey of exploring them, regardless of whether solid conclusions are ever reached. Feel free to share your thoughts!