For some people, fashion is a way to express themselves, to channel their creativity and show the world glimpses of their personality. For others, clothes are merely a necessity, something they put on without a second thought.
If you fall into the latter category, you may be surprised to learn that what you wear can affect your health. Research from 2015, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, found that when people wore formal clothing, their ability to engage in abstract thinking increased.
If you want to perform better at work, select pieces you view as professional.Credit:Stocksy
“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,” they wrote.
Another paper, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2012, found that wearing a lab coat (which is typically associated with increased concentration) led to an improved attention span in wearers. Consequently, the researchers coined the phrase “enclothed cognition” to describe the influence clothes have “on the wearer’s psychological processes”.
Carly Findlay is a 37-year-old writer from Victoria who has a chronic illness and spends a lot of time at home writing in bed. When she does go out, she likes to dress in bright, eye-catching clothes as a natural way to boost her mood.
“It uplifts me; I really like the confidence I feel through dressing up with colour,” says Findlay, who jokingly describes her wardrobe as being like a “rainbow unicorn had vomited all over it”.
Findlay’s fashion choices don’t just boost her mood, they’ve also positively affected her social life. ”It becomes a point of conversation when you meet people and get talking about your dress,” she explains. Her wardrobe choices have even led to an expanded social circle, as she’s made friends with people she’s met online through lovers of the fashion label Gorman.
All these benefits make sense to psychologist Sharon Draper. “Our clothing choices can absolutely affect our wellbeing,” she says, adding that when we wear ill-fitting clothes, or feel over- or underdressed for an event, it’s natural to feel self-conscious or even stressed. Conversely, she says, opting for clothes that fit well and align with your sense of style can improve your confidence.
But can you improve your health through your current attire, without having to dash out and buy a whole new wardrobe? “Absolutely,” says Draper. If your goal is to improve your thinking, she recommends picking clothes that fit well and are unlikely to encourage fidgeting (so, avoid bows, ties and unnecessary accessories).
It also helps to opt for clothes you perceive as tying in with your goals. So, if you want to perform better at work, select pieces you view as professional. Draper says this fits in with the concept of behavioural activation, whereby engaging in a behaviour (in this case, selecting clothes) can set you on the path to then achieving your goals (working harder).
Another way to improve your frame of mind is to mix things up. Draper says we often feel stuck in a rut if we wear the same clothes – even if they’re our favourites. Opting for an item you don’t wear often, or adding something different to an outfit (such as a scarf or earrings), can positively shift your mood. “Sometimes we just need a slight change to feel a little different.”
On days when you’re really reluctant to brave the world, Draper suggests selecting sentimental items of clothing, such as ones you wore on a special day, or given to you by a loved one. Clothes with fond associations, she says, can help you tap into positive emotions.
But don’t fret about it too much. Draper says there are already enough stressors in life and your clothing choices shouldn’t add to that burden. But if your aim is to lift your spirits through what you wear, Findlay says the key is to throw out the rulebook and embrace your choices without worrying about what other people think: “Wear what makes you feel good and what makes you happy.”
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale October 6.
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