Combat boots. Hawaiian shirts. Graphic Tees tucked into jeans. These are some staples in my wardrobe. None of these are particularly unique or unheard of, but make up some of my most eccentric outfits. Getting dressed and spending ridiculous amounts of time trying on outfits has become a grounding ritual of sorts and something that I look forward to each day. Color coordination excites me, and my personal style is something I often play around and experiment with.
As pretentious as that might sound, fashion is undoubtedly an important part of our lives. It affects how we are perceived and how we carry ourselves. It’s a means of reclaiming our identity. Fashion has certainly played an important role in my own life, and it’s interesting to reflect on my own personal style journey. When I was in elementary school, my outfits were incredibly colorful. They mostly consisted of flower-patterned dresses and skirts layered over brightly patterned tights. My then jubilant and colorful style simmered down as I grew older and admittedly more anxious.
Until recently, personal style wasn’t something I valued or prioritized. In middle school and much of High School, I would throw a sweatshirt over skinny jeans and finish it off with a pair of old converse. In retrospect, my “style” or the lack thereof during those intermediate childhood-adulthood years reflected how I wanted to be perceived. I didn’t want to be noticed and despised being the center of attention—two classic symptoms of social anxiety. I was afraid of being judged and felt that wearing “boring” clothes and blending into the sleep-deprived crowd was the only way to make my existence less awkward, and in turn more tolerable.
While I still experience social anxiety, it was a lot more acute during middle school and my first few years of high school. However, my disinterest in my own fashion choices changed over the pandemic. Getting dressed became a means of grounding myself and preserving my sanity in the midst of confusing and overwhelming circumstances. I began experimenting more with my style choices and wearing what I truly wanted to wear, regardless of what I thought others might say or think. After all, classes were virtual, which gave me the time to build up confidence without the anxiety of regretting my own clothing choices while in school.
According to a 2012 study from Northwestern University, wearing certain clothes has a tangible effect on the wearer’s psychology and performance. This concept is known as “enclothed cognition,” which refers to the symbolic meaning of fashion and its influence on our mental state. For instance, wearing a lab coat or a blazer to work can boost productivity and performance based on their associations with intelligence. People often embody the abstract meaning of the clothing they are wearing. “Enclothed cognition” can be good or bad, depending on if it’s associated with a negative or positive construct. This might explain why staying in sweatpants or pajamas all day during the pandemic affected some people’s productivity due to its association with laziness or leisure.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is “cognitive dissonance,” a psychological phenomenon where an action that strays from our personal values or beliefs leads to a conflict that causes mental uneasiness. To reduce the discomfort, we either convince ourselves that we want to carry out the action or change the action so it aligns with our beliefs. This phenomenon takes place on a daily basis through people changing clothes or purging their wardrobe of pieces that don’t align with their sense of self or the sense of self they are trying to embody.
The colors one chooses to wear can also impact the wearer’s mood. Cheerful or bright colors have been known to boost one’s energy, while darker colors tend to create a low-stress, relaxed feel. Some colors that are particularly mood-boosting are yellow and blue. Yellow tends to elicit feelings of happiness while blue is associated with peacefulness. Any sort of print is also known to have a similar mood boosting effect.
Fashion is also an often overlooked way to maintain or improve mental health. It can give us something to look forward to every day and help us combat depression. One of the main symptoms of depression or a depressive episode is having trouble with self care, such as not showering or not getting dressed. Getting dressed in the morning is often an overlooked aspect of self-care but can help combat depressive tendencies and in turn become a mindful practice.
It can also spark creativity, an aspect that affects many areas of life. Minaa B., LCSW, a wellness coach and therapist, explained that coming up with an outfit “involves the power to make choice to dress however you want, finding items that make you feel good in your body, and using coordination and style as a way to tell a story about yourself and who you are,” which plays an important role in mood management and confidence.
When I’m feeling low, a good outfit can help me reclaim control over my own body on a physical and emotional level and give me confidence to go about my day. It allows me to reshape and redefine various facets of my identity as I continuously evolve as a person. Studies have shown that people who tend towards introversion and have trouble expressing themselves through words tend to benefit greatly from fashion, since fashion can provide a more comfortable outlet for self-expression.
Clothing allows me to say what cannot be said, to present my colorful, witty persona that otherwise might be overlooked based on my quiet demeanor. To a stranger, my occasionally eccentric style might juxtapose my unassuming first impression, especially as someone who’s been called “quiet” or “shy” my whole life. In the broadest sense, fashion is empowering and can help us reclaim some control over our first impressions.
Clothes can also aid our sense of belonging, signifying what social or aesthetic subgroups we belong to. While seemingly superficial, certain clothing students and their enclothed cognition can draw others towards us or away from us. In other words, items of clothing are subtle indicators of our personalities and can allow us to find others like ourselves or consciously differentiate ourselves from certain subgroups.
While fashion offers many tangible benefits, there is still more research to be done on the psychological and mental health benefits in particular. In the meantime, wear what makes you feel like you in the truest sense. Buy that campy shirt from the thrift store or that borderline-ugly sweater. Strut to class in a blazer. Or your favorite dress. Regardless of what’s “on trend” or “cheugy,” wear clothing that excites you and grounds you in your being. You might be surprised at the results.
(www.dw.com), Deutsche Welle. “How Fashion Impacts Our Mental Wellbeing: DW: 24.09.2019.” DW.COM, 24 Sept. 2019, https://www.dw.com/en/how-fashion-impacts-our-mental-wellbeing/a-50562794#:~:text=Dressing%20how%20you%20want%20to,can%20impact%20our%20mental%20wellbeing.
Lopez, Carmen. “Look Good, Feel Great: The Psychology of Clothing.” Current Boutique, Craving Current, https://currentboutique.com/blogs/cravingcurrent/psychology-of-clothing.
Stewart, Kelsey. “This Is How Fashion Has Improved My Mental Health.” The Zoe Report, The Zoe Report, 5 July 2021, https://www.thezoereport.com/fashion/how-fashion-has-helped-me-cope-with-anxiety-depression.