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
A 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 owned||Be clinging to the past through the sentimental value of your pieces||Adopting 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 accessories||Be 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 body||See 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 sexily||Consider 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 age||Be trying to express the age you feel you are, but getting caught between your actual and internal age||Gearing 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 clothes||Value yourself primarily through your work and work-related accomplishments||Recognizing your talents outside of work (great artist, compassionate, fun to bring to parties, etc.)|
|Covered in designer logos||Think you need to broadcast wealth in order to be treated well by others||Practice 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 hoodie||Put the needs of your family before your own||Take 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.