What Your Clothes Say About You

It's no news that your wardrobe says a lot about you.

What you wear can inform passersby of your type of employment, as well as your ambitions, emotions and spending habits.

And now it's even launched a whole new type of psychology.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner literally wrote the book on this phenomenon, which she calls the "psychology of dress." In "You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You," she explains not only how psychology determines our clothing choices, but how to overcome key psychological issues your wardrobe might be bringing to light in your everyday life, or even at work.

"Shopping and spending behaviors often come from internal motivations such as emotions, experiences and culture," says Dr. Baumgartner. "You look at shopping or storing behaviors, even putting together outfits, and people think of it as fluff. But any behavior is rooted in something deeper. I look at the deeper meaning of choices, just like I would in therapy."

We spoke with her to figure out why clothes are so revealing (of our personalities, that is), what messages they're sending and how you can use your wardrobe to change how others perceive you—and even how you think about yourself.

Win a Copy of the Book!

One lucky reader will win a free copy Jennifer Baumgartner's book, "You Are What You Wear."

To enter: Answer the question, "What's your go-to outfit?" by commenting on this story!

How We Use Clothing as an Aid ... and a Weapon

Americans rely on clothing as an economic and social indicator because there aren't official marks of rank such as a caste system or aristocracy, says Dr. Baumgartner.

"When you don’t have a specific system, people come up with their own," she explains. It's what "helps you figure out where you fit in. Especially now, with the economy, with people losing status, maintaining a sense of who we are becomes even more important. Our clothes help place us where we think we want to be. "

She cites the Real Housewives TV series as an example: "Look at the way they focus on money. When they fight, they use logos and designers as a way to put each other down. They're using clothes and accessories both as a tool to know where they fit in and as a weapon against others."

Clothing That Projects a Good or Bad Image

Have you ever been told that you can judge a man by his shoes? Unfortunately, it's not that simple.

There's no one piece or style that makes a person look successful. Dr. Baumgartner recommends the basics when trying to project a positive image: the little black dress, the blazer, the pumps. "With classics, history has done the work for you. It has lasted throughout time, so you already know it works," she says. And what is it that makes a classic a classic? "It has multiple functions, and it's appropriate for different age ranges and body types. It became a classic because it works no matter who you are."

(To help you choose the best wardrobe items to use and reuse, LearnVest created the Essential Outfitter.)

On the other hand, there's no one piece or style that makes a person look unsuccessful. "Anything where it looks like you didn’t take the time or make the effort comes across badly," says Dr. Baumgartner. "The worst clothing is the kind that tries to undo, ignore or hide where or who you are, or the kind that shows you didn't pay attention to your body/age/situation ... Any clothes that prohibit you from doing your job well send the wrong message."

What Your Clothes Say to You, Not About You

study this year from Northwestern University examined a concept called "enclothed cognition." Researchers define it in their report as "the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer's psychological processes," meaning what your clothes are saying to you, not about you. And how they make you feel.

The researchers distributed standard white lab coats to participants, telling some that it was a doctor's coat and some that it was a painter's smock. All participants performed the same task, but those wearing the "doctor's coat" were more careful and attentive. Their actions were influenced by their clothing.

The same may be true of you. When your friend dragged you out of the house and told you, "Get dressed up! You'll feel better!" after your last breakup/failed interview/lousy day, she was onto something. "When you dress in a certain way, it helps shift your internal self," explains Dr. Baumgartner. "We see that when we do makeovers, and even actors say that putting on a costume facilitates expression of character. That's just as true for everyday life."

Enclothed cognition gives scientific proof to the idea that you should dress not how you feel, but how you want to feel. Which clothes make you feel powerful? Sexy? In control? Wealthy? The clothes you choose are sending a message to those around you, but also to you, yourself.

In "You Are What You Wear," Dr. Baumgartner features some of the most common wardrobe and perception problems. Do you recognize yourself in any of the below?

If you …You might …Consider:
Keep every piece of clothing you've ever ownedBe clinging to the past through the sentimental value of your piecesAdopting the Golden Wardrobe Ratio: Get rid of 2 out of 3 items you own, including anything too big/small, ripped/torn or outdated.
Wear only neutrals, largely devoid of accessoriesBe stuck in a psychological rut, too comfortable to shake it up, or too afraid to draw attention to yourself.Deviating from your routine in small ways (a different route to work, a few new spring accessories--like these inexpensive ways to incorporate trendy polka dots--to jog your brain into feeling excited
Dress in clothing too large for your bodySee your body differently than others see it, or as a reflection of the way it once was.Bringing an honest friend shopping to find out what looks great on you, ignoring sizes and getting used to wearing clothes that really fit.
Have been told you're dressed inappropriately or too sexilyConsider the same outfit appropriate for every occasion (i.e. clubbing and family barbecue), or be looking for the wrong kind of attention.Consider the image you want to project in given situations (at work, on the town) and choose outfits based on cues from those around you
Dress too young (or too old) for your ageBe trying to express the age you feel you are, but getting caught between your actual and internal ageGearing your outfits toward your goals (like getting a promotion, meeting a significant other, traveling the world), rather than a specific age.
Are always in work clothesValue yourself primarily through your work and work-related accomplishmentsRecognizing your talents outside of work (great artist, compassionate, fun to bring to parties, etc.)
Covered in designer logosThink you need to broadcast wealth in order to be treated well by othersPractice wearing "blank canvas" pieces and only accenting with logos to emphasize that people value you for more than your labels
Live in your "mom outfit" of jeans and a hoodiePut the needs of your family before your ownTake more "me time." Remember: When mom isn't happy, nobody is.

GIVEAWAY ALERT: One lucky reader will win a free copy Jennifer Baumgartner's book, "You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You." To enter, answer the question, "What's your go-to outfit?" in comments below.

More From LearnVest

Why don't users trust Pinterest? Find out.
Quiz: Are you a financial Holly Golightly?
Corral those clothes with Priceless Style Bootcamp.

  • Jupiterhime

    My bright aqua and neon green Nikes, jeans, and a tank top.

  • Susan Miller Douglas

    black leggings, strappy short boots, boho dress/tunic

  • http://twitter.com/kerikaeindc Keri Kae Almstead

    My go-to outfit, whether for work or weekends, is a dress and flats. For work, it’s usually a simple sheath, several bracelets and a necklace with a pair of flats — I am currently loving my leopard print ones. Weekends are a little more casual. A less-structured dress with flat sandals and a cardigan in case it’s chilly.

  • Elaine

    My go-to outfit is a simple combination of flats, jeans, shirt, and cardigan. I can take the cardigan on and off according to the temperature and the outfit’s appropriate for work and outside of work. But I have 2 must-have accessories: watch and earrings. The earrings usually give my outfit a bit of a spark and color.

  • Lynn

    My go-to outfit, especially in warmer weather, starts with a light to moderate tan, achieved not by the sun but via tanner. I call it my “Jennifer Aniston tan”: the just-right, not too dark tan that, for me anyway, gives a relaxed, healthy appearance. Next will be well-groomed hands – a reliable and noticed accessory. I’ll try to dot all the i’s and cross the t’s. Clothing will be a pair of jeans with a simple belt, a very white short sleeved t-shirt, crew neck or v-neck, somewhat fitted, and a well made black blazer/jacket, appropriate to the temperature. I go for a longer length jacket that will be forgiving. Shoes or boots will vary but will be of good quality and classic in style. Minimal jewelry! Perhaps a watch and earrings OR a single necklace OR a bracelet and earrings, etc. A dependable look that will get me through most anything.

  • http://260daysnorepeats.blogspot.com Iris

    None of those common wardrobe problems speak to me specifically but, maybe dressing “inappropriately” not too sexy just not always as professional as possible for work… 

  • Amelia2ster

    I think its interesting what they say about designer labels.  I used to live with a women that would constantly wear designer stuff that looked like crap on her.  But I think she did it because she wanted to be above everyone else.

  • LJ

    My “go to” outfit is well tailored black pants, a silk shirt  and pumps.  It can be dressed up or down and I add in a splash of color in the shirt pattern or shoes.

  • Suzannexitrealty

    Hello Dr. Baumgartner, Interesting and helpful…My  go to outfit is nice jeans and nice white top. earrings and a necklace. My daughters are really good at putting themselves together. I like casual and maybe need your book to push me to shop with a little more professional/casual looks..I’m in real estate and work from home..go out with clients very casual so I typically match their look..If I’m showing clients in Beverly Hills or I will wear dress pants and nice blouse..Thanks very much, Suzanne

  • Leslie Whitaker

    A solid color belted sheath is my go-to outfit.  

  • Nicole Sandico

    Dark colored classics matched with neutral colored loafers. :D

  • tanya pemberton

    I like my coral capri’s,sleeveless top and a peach/coral see through sheer top..I get tons of compliments and looks sharp at work(home depot) and any outing that fits my fancy..thanks tanya 

  • Christina

    I fall into the neutral category–a lot of my clothes are bought in creams, whites, blacks, browns, grays, and light blue. I have simple accessories, but of good quality–a watch for work, a silver bracelet. I never thought of it as a psychological rut. My tastes have always been toward the more conservative, classy look–such as Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, even Kate Middleton (without the expensive designers!) I always just thought it was a bit of mental lazy-ness–its easier to match my clothes, accesories, and shoes when they tend to be of neutral or easily matched colors.

  • DK

    Usually in my comfortable mom clothes….tank top and capris or sweatshirt and workout pants. And flip flops year round 90% of the time.  I seriously wish someone would nominate me for What Not To Wear! ;)

  • Lisagarces

    I am working- either work clothes or workout clothes! 

  • http://twitter.com/TeeniJ Tara James

    Sad as it is, my go-to outfit is still jeans, a cute t-shirt and tennis shoes. =s

  • MD Owen

    My go-to outfit is a pair of khakis and a large shirt, usually of the white and other cool colors variety.

  • Reallyreads

    My go to outfit is a colorful tank with front ruffles a blazer that matches my black pants; then either black comfortable shoes or shoes that match my tank underneath my blazer.

  • Firouzeh Khan

    My go to outfit: Embroidered shirt, smock or a loose frock over basic color tights & classic embroidered flats or pumps also in basic colours

  • Lee

    My go to outfit is a pair of dark jeans and a off brand shirt I got at a big box store. I get compliments every time I wear the shirt and have never found another like it. I don’t know what I wwill do when the shirt is unwearable.

  • Diane Fehler

    My go to outfit is black slacks with a jewel tone top and black blazer, earring that complement the top and a simple drop necklace.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/J5OZ4H36ICG6355VYQZH663ZEU Delia B

    Leggings, because they fit so comfortable. I wish I had more tunics to wear with them, though.

  • Trinity

    The majority of my wardrobe is black…my go to outfit is my black, comfy jeans, a grey or purple tank top with my favorite, oversized black long sleeved top from etsy with, yes, black uggs.

  • Lauralee 81

    Black pants shirt and sweater jacket

  • Kate Kirsch

    Black gored skirt, black twisted center knot cotton sweater, pink/silver/black paisley scarf with sparkles, pearl earrings, red Joan and David shoes – kitten heel, crocodile red purse

  • happyone

    Harley shirt blue jeans

  • Mona Caprice

    For Return on Investment, nothing beats my little black wool crepe shift which I wear at least once a week year round in Atlanta. My black canvas falls just above the knee. I have fun dressing it up or down with flats, boots, heels, a blazer, a denim jacket, a sweater, a scarf or jewelry. Tights and a turtleneck turn it into a jumper!

  • rdixon571

    My go-to outfit includes black slacks, and a sweater of some sort. Usually a crimson red closed wool cardigan with a black turtleneck under it. I wear my “everyday” silver necklace outside of the turtleneck to add just a little bit of interest. I love this outfit because its comfortable, warm and professional. I could wear it anywhere, anytime, everyday if I knew it wasn’t so obvious I was wearing the same thing everyday!

  • tashy

    My to-go outfits:

    A well fitted black dress with a well fitted black blazer. Shoes and accessories depend on occasion and season.

    Great fitted dark denim skinny jeans, any blouse or top, and a well fitted black blazer with black heels or black boots

  • divorcedmom

    My go to outfit is a colorful t-shirt and slacks or jeans. Then I can dress up or down with chosen accessories including jewelry, scarfs or shoes.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kstanco Kathryne Elizabeth Stanco

    My go to outfit is a pair of yoga or sweat pants (or in the summer, comfy sweat shorts) and a bigger t-shirt, a pair of adida sandals and mismatched socks :)

  • woobielou

    Courdory pants, any top that will help hid my still there post baby belly and my comfy black cardigan.

  • Alanah

    My go to outfit would be a pair of cuffed jeans with a flowy shirt.

  • Olivia Vo

    My “go-to outfit” consists of a simple black sheath dress paired with colorful blazers with little details like zippers, darts, peplum style. This outfit is easy to put together and great for travel!

  • Penelope

    A seductive black dress with an appealing neckline over a black slip with matching bra and panty, usually with silver earrings, and a butterfly necklace, and sometimes with a butterfly pin. I also would have appropriate boots or flats depending on the weather, and always with stockings either black or nude, also depending on the season and situation. My hair is always straightened and my makeup is always a natural and appealing look.

  • Irina T

    My go-to outfit includes my plain black leggings with a flowing white or neutral tone tank-top and black or bright sweater (depending on color of top), shoes are either boots in the colder season or flip flops, and for accessories I wear a scarf to contrast the color of the top. And, of course, always a big purse

  • Regina W. Sampson

    Black slacks, or skirt, sleevless tank, blazer in same color. Gold or silver accessories.