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Enclothed Cognition: You Are What You Wear?

It’s widely understood and accepted that what you wear affects how others perceive you – a business suit engenders a different perception and reaction than board shorts and flip-flops. But have you considered how what you wear affects how you perceive yourself and how you behave? Research shows that the psychology of clothing is relevant not just to those looking at you, but to how you yourself feel and act.

A growing scientific field called “embodied cognition” focuses on the reality that we think not just with our brains, but our bodies. In essence, this field explores how the body influences the brain: our physical experiences affect our thinking. As an extremely basic example, consider how you feel and act when you are lying relaxed on the beach, versus standing at attention.

“Enclothed cognition” takes embodied cognition and focuses on how the physical experience of the clothes we wear, tied to the symbolic importance we ascribe them, influences our thinking. Wearing a tracksuit feels different from wearing a tuxedo at a very simple cloth-on-skin level, and it also has very different social and symbolic connotations that make a difference in how you act. 

The foundation work in enclothed cognition (Hajo and Galinsky, 2012) focused on how wearing a white coat affects behavior. A white coat has a particular physical feel, but it also has a variety of possible symbolic meanings. It can be the white lab coat of a doctor, for example, or a painter’s smock.

Research demonstrated that people behaved differently depending on if they were wearing a white coat or not, and if they thought of it as a lab coat or a painter’s smock. Those who wore what they considered a doctor’s lab coat actually behaved with greater attention to detail as well as professionalism. In contrast, those who believed it to be a painter’s smock did not show a comparable increase in attention to detail. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science)

Why does this matter? As professional stylists I seek to understand the psychological, social and behavioral impact of clothing so I can best advise my clients. As a person getting dressed in the morning, being aware of the science behind how clothing makes us feel and behave empowers you to make smarter choices.

Practically speaking, understanding the ideas behind enclothed cognition gives you the ability to make smarter choices, and also helps me guide you. For example, you might choose to wear a really sharp suit for a telephone interview – because even though the interviewer can’t see you, you will behave differently than if you were in sweatpants. Or, in reviewing your wardrobe, your stylist may advise you to keep clothing that makes you feel like Superman when you wear it, whether or not it’s in line with current fads.

Our final bit of advice: Consider every piece of research like you would evaluate a fashion trend. Ask “How is this useful for me? How does this knowledge influence my choices in getting dressed for a particular event?” Take what works for you, and leave the rest: that’s the essence of style.