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You Are What You Wear: Decoding the Psychology of Style

You Are What You Wear: Decoding the Psychology of Style

At some point in our lives, many of us have heard the adage “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” 

While this advice might sound like a vague over-simplification, it has its roots in a growing psychological field. The psychology of fashion is an exciting area of research that can tell us a lot about why we dress in certain ways and the impact fashion can have on our mood, behaviour and attitude.

 In the world of fashion, where trends come and go at ever-increasing rates, personal style has been left by the wayside. The perpetual trend cycle has created a culture that dictates what you wear rather than empowering your personal choices. 

At The DOM, we believe that fashion is so much more than just the latest trends. What you wear is an expression of who you are, and there are real psychological drivers that lie underneath the way you choose to dress. You are what you wear, after all.

There’s a reason why your favourite outfit makes you feel confident and powerful, and why lounging around in dirty sweats can lower your motivation. The clothes we wear have power because of the way we perceive them and the connotations we place on them. 

Scientifically speaking, this phenomenon is often called ‘enclothed cognition’ – a term coined by Hajo Adam and Adam D. Galinsky in a 2012 scientific experiment. The study used white lab coats to explore how our perception of specific clothes influences the way we feel and behave while wearing them. 

Because lab coats are associated with attention to detail due to the professions that typically wear them, the study suggested that wearing a lab coat would help participants do better in activities that required attentiveness. Participants that wore a lab coat during the experiment showed greater attention to detail than those who didn’t, reflecting the symbolic meaning given to something as simple as a coat. 

We assign these traits to all sorts of clothing – power suits mean confidence and success, an artist’s smock means creativity, and workout clothes mean motivation and energy. 

Because of these subconscious perceptions, we can also prompt different moods or attitudes in ourselves based on the clothes we wear. Changing your outfit can change the way you feel about yourself, and therefore the way you act and present yourself to the world. 

The DOM team believes it’s time to unhook ourselves from the perpetual cycle of trend and embrace dressing for ourselves – to reflect who we are on the inside. To uncover and understand the psychology of style, we caught up with Dr. Dawnn Karen a world-leading expert in the field. 

She’s the founder of Fashion Psychology Field, the first black female psychology professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology and the author of Dress Your Best Life. She specialises in how fashion can be used to understand and influence our individual and cultural identities. 

Her psychology-based approach to styling and consulting focuses on styling from the inside out and creating a more connected relationship between attitude and attire. 

Summarising her field, she says, “I work with clients to get to the root of why they wear what they wear, and the science behind what they wear.”

In her work, Dr. Karen has coined two terms to describe the different ways we can use fashion to influence our attitude: Dopamine Dressing and Serotonin Dressing. 

 Dopamine Dressing (scientifically called mood enhancement dressing) is all about dressing yourself to happiness, wearing bright colours, or a more out-there outfit in order to kickstart a positive mood and guide how you’ll feel that day.

Serotonin Dressing (or mood illustration dressing), on the other hand, is about listening to your mind and emotions, then dressing in a way that’s true to how you already feel. That might look like wearing sweatpants on a day when you’re not up to wearing a suit, for example, and just letting yourself ride that feeling out. 

Dr. Karen believes that it’s easy to get into the habit of dressing in a more authentic, attitude-centric way, even without a trained stylist on call. 

“My prescription is a morning check-in where you literally just ask yourself, ‘Okay, how am I feeling?’” she explains. “Then you decide, do you want to mood illustration dress – AKA serotonin dressing – or do you want to mood enhancement dress – AKA dopamine dressing.”

By making that one choice each morning, you’re not only influencing how the rest of your day goes, but you’re also practicing mindfulness around the way you feel. Understanding your emotions and how to either embrace or alter them is the first step to understanding your identity as a whole. 

Like many things in the fashion world, trends are also driven by psychology on both an individual and societal level. 

As Dr. Karen says, “People follow trends to feel accepted. During the pandemic, people jumped on the tie-dye trend or the ugly Crocs trend because they were socially isolated and wanted to feel like part of something. But finding your own style is about dressing from the inside out, placing more emphasis on mood and how we want to feel.”

Another term used a lot in Dr. Karen’s work is Fashion Incongruence, which describes a disconnect between your ideal self and your perceived self. This disconnect is created when we try to dress in ways that don’t reflect our true selves. Like an introvert wearing sequins to a party, dressing to fit a trend or someone else’s expectations tends to leave us feeling uncomfortable. 

Comfort comes in understanding who we are inside and using fashion to embrace, reflect and enhance what makes us individuals. Being true to yourself and dressing to reflect your authentic, individual identity is the key to being truly fashionable, and great style doesn’t have to be dictated by the latest trends or cost the earth. 

Need more inspiration? Check out this month’s edit with fashion creator, Yasmin Suteja, on the items she loves from The DOM.com.