Jun 26

Psychology of Clothing

Why talk about the psychology of clothing? I always smile when someone tells me that clothing is superficial and unimportant. 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. This article reprinted from Fashion for Real Women by Diana Pemberton-Sikes explains why the psychology of clothing is important.

In Part I we look at how clothing shapes your behavior, based on how you dress. In Part II we look at how your clothing shapes others’ behavior toward you. Once you understand how you can influence others with your appearance, you can use it as part of your image arsenal to get what you want in life.

Part I  Psychology of Clothing – How Clothing Shapes Your Behavior

unhappy peopleIf 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.

lady in car clothes before familyOne 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.

clothing makes the selfIn 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.

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 norm. 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 beaverLeave 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 norm. We assume familiarity by calling people by their first names, and showing manners and respect are the exception rather than the rule. Profanity and crude behavior are common place.

Blue Bloods - leasds to casual behavior

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.

Part II  Psychology of Clothing – How Clothing Shapes Others’ Behavior Towards You

So where do we start?  With research.

In Dress and Identity (1992), dress scholars Mary Ellen Roach and Joanne Eicher determined that dress serves two basic functions: as a modifier for body processes and as a medium for communication.

Meaning that while we originally used clothes to protect ourselves from the elements, we also learned that we can use clothing, accessories, and grooming products to alter the way we look, feel, and smell.

Moreover, because we’re taught from a young age to assign meaning to dress based on our culture, we use appearance as a form of communication to determine everything from status and wealth to character and mood.

That’s what researcher Mary Lynn Damhorst discovered back in 1990 by analyzing 109 impression formation studies. She determined that in 81% of the studies, dress communicated someone’s competence, power, and intelligence, while nearly 67% said it also communicated character, sociability, and mood.

So we make snap judgments on whether someone’s approachable, important, or promiscuous based on how they’re dressed. We also ascribe intelligence and competency – often with just glance.

In their article Influence of Dress on Perception of Intelligence and Expectations of Scholastic Achievement (1991), researchers Dorothy Behling and Elizabeth Williams wanted to determine whether how students dressed at school impacted their classmates’ and teachers’ perception of their intelligence and academic ability.

So they showed photographs of a male and female model who were unknown to students and teachers at six different high schools in Ohio. The photographs were varied so half the students and teachers saw pictures of the models dressed in suits while the other half saw pictures of the same models dressed in a t-shirt and cut off shorts. Those dressed in the t-shirt and shorts were consistently rated lower in intelligence and academic ability than those dressed in suits.

While this echoes what I wrote in Part I above, it also sounds alarm bells.

do teachers write off dyudents who dress poorlyDo teachers “write off” students whom they perceive as lower in intelligence and academic ability?

If so, how much of an impact does this have on children growing up?

Kind of a scary thought.

What Others Look At

So which aspects of dress convey this information? For most, it’s style of dress. But other things that impact impressions include:

  • Baldness
  • Body type
  • Beard
  • Cosmetics
  • Eyeglasses
  • Facial Jewelry
  • Fragrance
  • Tattoos

Each element conveys information that is seen as favorable – or not.

Ever steer clear of someone who looks a little scruffy? Ever roll your eyes at teens who refuse to wear a coat or wear flip flops in cold weather? Then you know this behavior first hand. You’re using appearance as a short cut to determine danger, level of intelligence, competence, etc.

There’s a scene in Up In The Air (2009) where frequent flier Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is showing new hire Natalie Keener (Anna Hendrick) how to find the shortest airport security line using these sorts of clothing cues. It’s insightful.

Yes, it’s offensive.

But we often think things we never say. Ryan Bingham’s saying them in an effort to train the new person. When you fly as often as he does, you learn a few things about the fastest way from Point A to Point B.

Getting back to research, studies show that clothing cues can often be very subtle.

In The Influence of Clothes on Firsts Impressions: Rapid and Positive Responses to Minor Changes in Male Attire (1996), researchers in England and Turkey conducted an experiment where they showed 300 study participants two pictures, one of a man wearing a bespoke (custom made) suit, and another wearing a similar, off-the-rack suit. They viewed the pictures for just three seconds each, and were then asked to rate each man.

clothes give first impressions

        Off-the-rack vs Custom Made
The difference is obvious

The man in the bespoke suit was consistently rated as more confident, successful, flexible, and a higher earner than the man in the off-the-rack suit. Why? Because the custom suit obviously cost more, so the assumption is that in order to afford it, you have to be very good at what you do.

customer friendlyStill another study conducted in three department stores  (1989) sought to determine whether salespeople provided faster and better service to their better dressed customers. They did. In fact, the difference was so significant that researchers recommended that retailers train their staff to be friendly to all customers, regardless of how they dressed.

None of this is new information.

John T. Molloy wrote his classic Dress for Success book (1975) by watching how others responded to clothes. He’d dress two men nearly exactly the same except for one element – like different color, pattern, or width – then observe how others responded to them. After thousands of experiments, he determined which clothing styles, colors, fabrics, etc., got the most respect. His research paid off. Millions of men were able to climb the corporate ladder using Molloy’s advice.

Looking back at the time line, I firmly believe the “dress for success” movement of the late 1970s created the yuppie movement of the 1980s. Learning how to dress well propelled all those middle class baby boomers into upper management and gave them access to the world of the 1% where they were introduced to lifestyles of the rich and famous. Limousines. Penthouse apartments. Yachts. Helicopters. All the trappings of success. If you’re ambitious and want cool toys, you’re going to work your buns off to get them. Hence, the yuppies – young, upwardly mobile professionals – appeared. It was the first time in recorded history that the “average Joe” felt he really had a shot at an elite lifestyle. All possible because they “dressed for success”.

But that was forty years ago. Is the information still relevant today?


Like Molloy, I’m a big people watcher. What I’ve discovered is that since most people dress so sloppily these days, it’s really easy to step to the front of the line.


Let me give you an example:

I was staying at a busy hotel recently that had a free continental breakfast. Most of the people who showed up were pretty rag tag – no shower, no makeup, wrinkled clothes, etc., basically however they rolled out of bed. Several even wandered down in their pajamas.


But one morning, a large family came to breakfast and every last one was dressed beautifully in casual clothes. Children, parents, aunt, grandparents – all dressed impeccably, and judging by their body language and mannerisms, it’s clear that’s how they usually dressed.

The breakfast buffet featured things like toast, bagels, cereal, etc., that you could just grab and sit down and eat. But it also had two DIY waffle makers. You had to pour in the batter, close the lid, and wait for your waffle to cook. Each waffle took about 3 minutes.

Once the well-dressed family was settled at two tables, the mom took their orders. Everyone wanted waffles, of course. Nothing fast or easy. So she parked herself by one of the waffle makers and started cranking them out. After about the third one, the kitchen girl – who usually just restocked items and then went back to the kitchen – told the mother to go sit down so she could take over her waffle-making duties. For the next 20 minutes, kitchen girl made it her mission to make waffles for that family, delivering each one to their table. It was the only time I saw her do that during my stay.

Was she friends with the mom? Did they know each other?


The well-dressed family looked more affluent than anyone else there, so kitchen girl responded accordingly. In the hospitality industry, good service usually means good tips. Now I don’t know whether they tipped her or not, but her service went above and beyond and certainly warranted it. Sad that it only happened with that one family.

So what’s the bottom line?

well dressed couple

The psychology of clothing means something. People pass judgment on you based on how you’re dressed. Whether you’re in school, interviewing for a job, or getting free waffles, others decide if you warrant their attention based on how you look. So use that to your advantage.

Want to look smart? Wear formal clothes.

Want to impress others? Wear quality fabrics.

Want better service in retail stores? Dress better than average.

Want to blend into the crowd? Dress like everyone else.

If you begin with the end in mind and determine the response you want to get from others in any given situation, knowing how to dress becomes a snap. Just use psychology – and enjoy your success.

Tasi’s notes for using the psychology of clothing for the transgender woman or crossdresser: