When I recently asked students to put on a Superman t-shirt it wasn't because I didn't like what they were wearing. There was a scientific reason behind my request. I wanted to know if wearing heroic clothing would change the students' thinking. I had become interested in something called 'enclothed cognition', the idea that what we wear can change our minds. An idea that was borne out in the tests the students completed.
When wearing a Superman t-shirt the students rated themselves as more likeable and superior to other students. When asked to estimate how much they could physically lift, those in a Superman t-shirt thought they were stronger than students in a plain t-shirt, or in their own clothing. This demonstrated that our inner mental processes and perceptions can be primed by our clothing, as we internalise the symbolic meaning of our outer layers.
Clothes change how we think and feel
It is easy to think of clothing as mere covering, or the means by which we project our image to other people. But studies have shown that clothes really can change how we think and feel. If you have ever been a hospital patient forced to wear a shapeless, pale, garment like a baby's gown that gapes at the back, you may remember how it made you feel docile, trusting and helpless. Or you may have felt the anonymity that comes from slipping into a uniform, or the power of wearing a sharp suit.
Research has confirmed that these clothes actually change our thinking. In the 1990's Barbara Fredrickson found that women who were given a maths test performed worse when wearing a swimsuit than in a sweater. Researchers from the US found wearing a white coat improved people's mental agility, priming their brain to take on the mental capacities they associated with being a doctor.
Our clothes reflect our mood - and can change it
What we wear has cognitive, social and emotional consequences. My previous research discovered a link between women's mood states and their clothing choices. The women were more likely to wear jeans when feeling low or depressed. More recently I found another clear link between mood and clothing, discovering that when women are stressed their world narrows down resulting in them wearing less of their wardrobe, neglecting 90% of it. This led me to speculate whether we can change our mood when we wear something different and to come up with the following list of 'happy' clothes likely to induce a more positive mood in the wearer:
1. A favourite well-cut dress in a beautiful fabric will lift the mood. A flared peplum shape, for example, creates the ideal hip-to-waist ratio that is feminising and comfortable.
2. A piece of statement (bold) jewellery that marks you out as an individual will make you feel special like wearing a badge of honour or medal.
3. Colours that are found in nature (sky blue, leaf green, sunshine yellow) link us to the natural world, protecting us from negative emotions and giving that extra burst of energy.
4. Playful patterns such as polka dots or abstract prints can resurrect the carefree feelings we experienced in childhood.
5. Mismatched items, e.g. a leather jacket over a floaty dress, formal with informal, vintage with new, give us a buzz because the brain enjoys novelty and surprise.
6. Loose clothing and flat shoes allow free unrestricted movement, associated with adventure and travel. Tight clothes and high heels do the opposite.
7. Vintage accessories, like bags or belts, are often better quality than we could buy today and, just like old movies, reconnect us with stories from the past giving a warm inner glow of reassurance.
8. Natural fibres like linen, cotton, silk and wool, nurture more than man-made fabrics by capitalising on our affinity with nature.
9. Flowered prints, lacy tops and floaty fabrics are associated with spring, making us feel ultra-feminine and glowing with health.
10. Any trend that harmonises with who you really are and is in tune with your inner self will boost your mood. Your smile is your best accessory, so if you smile whenever you wear an item of clothing, you've probably found the right piece for you.
These are fun suggestions featured in my book Mind What You Wear. They are based on theoretical knowledge about positive feedback, positive psychology and enclothed cognition - so try them out with an open mind.
I believe we can feel happier and more confident in the right clothes. And now science confirms that not only are we what we wear, we can actually become what we wear.