I always smile when someone tells me that clothing is superficial and unimportant because what they’re really saying is that they’ve never experienced the benefits of proper dress. If they had, they’d know just how large a role clothing plays in their behavior – and they’d probably be making a lot more money. Alas, ignorance is bliss. It’s also VERY expensive.
If our eyes are “the window to our souls,” as Shakespeare said, then how we dress is like a wide-screen TV to our self-esteem. You can tell a lot about others by how they dress and present themselves, and a look around any crowd today tells you that most people are NOT happy campers. Depression, anxiety, self-loathing, a need to fit in – it’s all on display, 24/7. Freud would have a field day; he was always a fastidious dresser.
So was German philosopher Hermann Lotze (1817-1881). He was the first person to link behavior to dress in his book Microcosmus: An Essay Concerning Man and His Relation to the World (1856), where he said that a person’s bearing and attitude are a direct reflection of the sensations he gets from his clothing. Men feel more manly wearing suits and women felt more womanly wearing flowing garments, but whether they wear stiff or soft garments, both genders feel as if their bodies take on the garment properties.
“The Father of Psychology,” William James (1842-1910), built on Lotze’s premise in his own ground-breaking book, The Principles of Psychology (1890). In his “Theory of Self,” James hypothesized that we have two selves, one that we show to the world, the other that we keep to ourselves.
One of the parts we show to the world is our material self, which consists of things we own or are a part of. For James, the core of the material self was the body, then clothes, then immediate family, then home.
Meaning that what shape you’re in, how you dress, who you marry, and what type of home you live in are a direct reflection of your self-esteem and how you feel about yourself.
Why did he put clothes before family?
Because, like Lotze, James concluded that what you wear next to your skin determines how you act. How you act then creates your habits, and your habits shape your life.
“We are what we repeatedly do,” said Aristotle. “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
One hundred twenty-five years later, James’ research still holds true.
In a report published in Social Psychological and Personality Science in 2015, scientists from Columbia University and California State University conducted a series of five tests to see whether wearing formal clothing (like suits) helped or hindered abstract thinking.
In all five studies, they discovered that it helped.
What’s more, the test subjects who wore formal clothing reported feeling more important and more connected to their group – like they were working toward a global good – than those who wore less formal clothing.
That study isn’t unique.
In The Clothing Makes the Self Via Knowledge Activation published in 2002, researchers asked study participants to come in either formal or casual clothes. Once they got there, participants were given a list of adjectives and asked to check off the ones they felt best described them. Those who dressed formally checked off words like “cultivated” and “accurate” while those who dressed casually felt they were “easygoing” and “tolerant.”
A later study, The Impact of Workplace Attire on Employee Self-Perceptions published in 2007, had similar findings. Researchers asked employees how wearing various styles of clothing affected their self-perceptions. Respondents said they felt most authoritative, trustworthy, and competent wearing formal business attire, but friendliest when wearing casual or business casual attire.
Still other studies revealed that wearing formal clothing is associated with perceptions of more professionalism but less approachability, whereas wearing casual clothing is related to intimacy and familiarity.
So what does all of this mean?
It means that if you want to feel and be perceived as powerful and competent, wear formal clothes. If you want to feel and be seen as approachable and friendly, wear casual clothes. This will help you determine which is right for your industry.
We often talk about the importance of making a good first impression in the image industry, but as you can see from all the research, dressing to impress others is kind of a backward approach. You should dress to feel however you need to feel in any given situation so that your body language and sense of self align with the image you’re trying to present. So whether you’re conducting hard business, socializing with friends, or snuggling with your honey, you need to dress accordingly and not wear the same clothes for every situation.
The problem today is that most people tend to put more emphasis on being comfortable than on anything else. They only want soft materials next to their skin, which has made their bodies – and behaviors – soft. Casual clothes lead to casual habits.
Sixty years ago, formal clothes and formal behavior were the norms. We addressed others by their formal titles until invited to call them by their first names, and we showed manners and respect to everyone we met. Profanity and crude behavior were condemned.
Leave It To Beaver (1957-1963)
Formal dress leads to formal behavior. Notice June’s
posture and how everyone’s hands are in their laps.
Photo courtesy of CBS
Today, casual clothes and casual behavior are the norms. We assume familiarity by calling people by their first names, and showing manners and respect are the exceptions rather than the rule. Profanity and crude behavior are commonplace.
Blue Bloods (2010-present)
Casual dress leads to casual behavior. Notice slumped
posture and arms on the table.
Photo courtesy of CBS Productions
So if you want to jump-start a stalled career, consider adding more formal attire to your wardrobe. If you want your business to excel, take a good look at how your employees are dressing and amend the dress code accordingly. You’ll be shocked by the results.
What’s the bottom line?
While dressing to impress others is fine, dressing to create a habit of excellence in yourself is more impressive. It’s also a lot more profitable.
So now that you know how much clothing impacts your behavior, in Part 2 we’ll look at how your clothing impacts others’ behavior toward you. I think you’ll be surprised.
Meanwhile, if you’re ready to take your career to new heights now and learn the styles, colors, and fabrics that will transform you from so-so to fabulous, study and apply this resource and watch your bottom line explode.
Diana Pemberton helps women dress better and make more money. Ready to use the psychology of clothing to get what you want at work? This resource can help.