The Science-Backed Power of Clothes

When I was a little girl, I loved playing dress-up. It didn’t take much. A red napkin magically became a superhero’s cape, and I became Wonder Woman. A red, white and blue leotard transformed me into Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton. Green scrubs and a plastic stethoscope turned me into a surgeon. I especially loved stomping around in my mother’s high heels, and it wasn’t just because of the extra height—they gave me attitude. When I was wearing those shoes, I felt powerful and my older sister felt just a little less intimidating. As it turns out, clothes have just as much of an impact on adults.

They affect the way see ourselves

Children are not the only ones affected by clothes. What you wear can affect how you feel. Consider how vulnerable you feel in a hospital gown. Compare that to how empowered you feel in a power suit or in a great dress. Studies show that clothing can influence your posture, body language, motivation and even mood. The right outfit can enhance creativity, focus and negotiation skills. Clothes certainly impact how other people see us. People make snap judgments about us based on our appearance, especially when it comes to what we are wearing. But what we wear has meaning beyond what the outside world sees and perceives; it also affects the way we perceive ourselves.

What we wear can improve our focus

For example, in one study, volunteers who were asked to wear a doctor’s lab coat demonstrated greater concentration than those who did not sport a lab coat. It’s believed that the symbolic meaning of the white coat and the physical experience of wearing it account for the difference in the volunteers’ ability to focus.

Clothes can turn a bad day around

Related research highlights how getting dressed up promotes abstract thinking and provides perspective. This can be especially helpful when things aren’t going your way. When you look your best, it’s easier to see the big picture and not take criticism too personally. The right outfit can help you feel strong when you need it the most—it can serve as both armor and inspiration. For those who are allergic to the idea of wearing a tie or putting on formal attire, I doubt the effect would hold. But for those who love getting dressed up, like yours truly, this is an excellent excuse to wear a pretty dress.

Fashion is a tool for self-expression

Of course, there are people who tell us that fashion is a waste of time and that clothes are superficial. “In a world full of far more important matters to think about, why on earth,” they ask, “should what we wear occupy a moment’s thought?” But as Alison Lurie argues in The Language of Clothes, clothing is about so much more than getting dressed: “Occasionally people tell us that fashion is unnecessary; that in the ideal world of the future we will all wear some sort of identical jumpsuit—washable, waterproof, stretchable, temperature-controlled, timeless, ageless and sexless. What a convenience, what a relief it will be, they say, never to worry about how to dress for a job interview, a romantic tryst or a funeral! Convenient perhaps, but not exactly a relief.”

While it might be easier to get dressed in the morning in a fashion-free utopia, we would miss the pleasure and privilege of self-expression. Moreover, many of us would miss the transformative magic of dressing the part. Choose clothes that bring out the best in you, that elevate you and that make you feel strong and beautiful. Never underestimate the power of a great outfit to help you thrive on good days and to fortify you on tough ones.

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman