The Science-Based Reasons Why Our Outfits Influence the Way We Act and Think

IMAGE Red Hour Films

Big-brain time: it was Mark Twain who once said that "clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society.” It's the kind of quote we use to justify (or use as a caption on Instagram) when we wear the most formal attire we can think of. Clothes have as much to do with individuality as it does with the status or general vibes we want to represent. Our looks are directly shaped by expression, conformity, cultural identity, and gender roles.

Dressing up (or down), most of the time, boils down to these factors, together with the event we're going to, the people we're seeing, or sometimes even just the general mood for the day. But our fits tend to do more than just make us look good or reflect our personalities. And it's not just because of the confidence either. Apparently, science has concluded that clothes, and their symbolic meanings, can influence the way we think, too.

The most identifiable black-turtlenecked man of the 21st century was quite the innovator

Photo by Tim Mosenfelder.

Formal wear People Versus Casual Friday-Type People

study conducted by researchers from Columbia University proves this exact point. In 2015, the university published the paper, "The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing." Here, it details the relationship between formality and thinking facilities. The article suggests that clothing formality is "associated with abstract processing, with greater formality associated with enhanced abstract processing.”

“The formality of clothing might not only influence the way others perceive a person, and how people perceive themselves, but could influence decision making in important ways through its influence on processing style,” the paper says.

This falls under the "enclothed cognition" theory, which illustrates how clothing "impacts human cognition based on the co-occurrence of its symbolic meaning and the physical wearing of the attire." It analyzes various psychological elements, including emotions, attitudes, interpersonal interactions, and more. This phenomenon was coined by Hajo Adam and Adam D. Galinsky back in 2012.

Wearing formal clothes is also related to psychological formality and social distance while more casual fits is a lot more about intimacy and familiarity. Individuals who go for formalwear often think of themselves as rational or competent in a way. Those who go casual are more, well, chill. Casual dressing indicates an openness to interaction. So yeah, we're friendlier when we do a Casual Friday on a random Tuesday or something. We may argue the same for streetwear, too.

Given a smaller sample size (roughly 60 participants), these things can still be subjective. After all, someone like Mark Zuckerberg still looks weird in anything other than his textbook gray shirt and jeans. Steve Jobs always had his black turtleneck, jeans, and New Balance on, too.


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Designer Clothes, Conservative Sensibilities? Uniforms, Focus?

Interestingly, in a separate study, those who indulged in designer or luxury goods exhibited changes in their political leanings and general attitudes. For instance, in one study, women who carried a Prada handbag usually had more conservative and capitalistic values compared to those who carry non-luxury items. The participants in the former were also less likely to be helpful to other people. They would only do so if it would improve their social status somehow.

Uniforms, on the other hand, can help us focus more on our jobs, according to one research. A uniform suggests to us that we should be more conscious of our duties. The study discovered that dressing in a uniform helps us commit lesser mistakes and sharpens our focus on the task at hand. That's one way work-from-homers can be more productive, we guess.


What About Athleisure or Gym Clothes?

We've all seen how gym clothes transcended the gym and streetwear. Athleisure is its own industry now for a reason. Interestingly, there's a psychology to them that is tied with real fitness. Jamie Wiebe, in a piece written in The Atlantic, claims that active wear can actually make us exercise more. That kind of gear reminds us of the healthy choices we ought to make for ourselves. It's also a way to say, "What's your excuse this time, you little sh*t?"

R.I.P., Old Kanye

Photo by Getty Images.

Of course, there's always some relativism to factor in. But yeah, at the very least, maybe it's time to revamp what's inside our closets now.

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About The Author
Bryle B. Suralta
Assistant Section Editor
Bryle B. Suralta is a Filipino cultural critic, editor, and essayist. He writes about art, books, travel, people, current events, and all the magic in between. His past work in film and media can be found on PeopleAsia Magazine, The Philippine Star, MANILA BULLETIN, and IMDB.
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