As long as I can remember I’ve heard the saying “Never judge a book by its cover.” And of course, I can attest there is some wisdom in this. However, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’ve also had the very same pundits, who hammered this into my developing brain, hypocritically turn around and tell me “You are how you dress,” or some crap like that.
Here’s the truth: though we’d like to pretend that the world is hunky gory and fair and just peachy keen, the reality is people really do shamelessly judge you based on your appearance. The fit of your clothes, your sense of style, even your fashion price tag, are used as qualifiers to box you into predefined social categories that dictate the levels of interaction your jury has with you.
Shucks, in business school we had a whole class on how we should dress to fit-in to American culture. Talk about confusing. There you are fighting to memorize p-values, the McKinsey Matrix, NPD processes, and a host of other business mumbo jumbo, and still having to study the culture of dress and occasion expectations. Geesh! Whatever happened to dressing comfortably but appropriate – whatever that means.
I must say, no one better demonstrates this unfortunate reality than vlogger NorniTube. In a short video appropriately titled “The Importance of Appearances Experiment,” a young man dressed to resemble a homeless guy, collapses in the midst of people and begins to beg for help. However, despite his deafening cries, commuters shuffle by unmoved, refusing to even look at him.
Optimists and well-read psychology enthusiasts might elicit this to nothing more than the bystander effect – where the presence of others encourages an individual to avoid assisting in an emergency situation. Sure, diffusion of responsibility might occur, but this argument is quickly voided when you witness the very same guy, now dressed in a suit, reliving the situation. Unsurprisingly, within seconds, many individuals respond to his cry for help. After all, he’s a business man, he’s important right?
The reality is sad, but it is what it is. How you dress really does say something to others about you. Matter of fact, how you dress says something to you too.
No. I’m not crazy. Your clothes really do speak to you – unconsciously. Stay with me here, I’ll make sense soon. Promise.
When I was younger, I had an overpowering need to change the world – through fashion. I wanted to design beautiful clothes, for women like myself, who suffer from the “too long to be short, too short to be long” syndrome, typically activated by highly disappointing shopping excursions. But my fascination with fashion didn’t stem from a love of fabric, or psychedelic styles, or even my love of sketching. Nope! My love for fashion came from a little revelation I pleasantly stumbled across.
I was an introvert, so I was much more in-tuned with myself and my feelings than I think I am today. I noticed that my mood, my confidence, even my personality tended to change depending on my outfit. There was an overbearing sense of empowerment and fearlessness that came whenever I dressed fiercely. It wasn’t intentioned either. But there was something about looking real good that unconsciously made me feel great. So I thought, “Hey, maybe I can affect the lives of tall women, by producing clothes that fit them so well that they felt empowered to confidently take on any challenge before them.”
If you disagree, consider a child on Halloween, or at carnival. Have you ever noticed how the shyest of kids come to life when dressed in a costume? And I’m not talking about the over-the-top transformations, but the subtle ones that subconsciously affect the perceptions of others. Tell me you haven’t noticed that the timid little girl, who usually slumps in the corner, walks a bit more upright when she becomes the beautiful ballerina, decked out in her pink tutu.
The phenomena is real; so real that it’s been scientifically labelled as Enclothed Cognition. Yes, scientists at Northwestern University actually researched it after watching a rather exaggerated example of it on the Simpsons. Through a series of three differently structured, but related experiments, they systematically tested the effects of wearing clothes on our selective and sustained attention.
To a third of the participants they gave doctors coats. To another third they gave the very same coat, but referred to it as a painter’s smock. The final third didn’t receive a coat, but had a doctor’s coat placed in the room with them. Each of the participants in the three tests were asked to do basic tasks, like spot minor differences from identical pictures. The results were enlightening. As predicted, the participants, who wore the doctor’s coats all recorded significantly less error rates and were much more attentive and careful than the other participants in each experiment.
Here’s the thing. People ascribe symbolic importance and form emotional attachments to items they encounter. The doctor’s coat was symbolic of the function of a doctor, and the extreme care that those in the profession exercise. By wearing the doctor’s coats, participants felt an unconscious need to embody the functions of a doctor, and in so doing, unintentionally exercised more care.
So, I wasn’t crazy after all. Your clothes do actually speak to you. They have systematic psychological and behavioral consequences on you. In light of this, maybe those pundits weren’t wrong after all, just a little off in perspective. As it turns out, you really are what you wear, or at least you can become what you wear by dressing how you want to feel and not how you feel.
So, next time you’re feeling unnecessarily frumpy and headed to an interview, don’t draw for your comfortable trousers. Pull out that power suit you’ve hidden in the corner and accept the power and confidence it unconsciously brings.
Give it a try. Then tell me what you think.