Our Gender, Ourselves

The changing American family

Why It Matters What We Wear

Clothes influence how we view and interact with the world

While of course it matters how men behave, studies show that clothes most definitely do make the man. And that there’s reason to believe attraction to another’s personal style (and, more specifically, how they chose to express that style) can actually help determine compatibility. This shouldn’t be entirely surprising. After all, it’s precisely because taste in clothes is such a personal choice that they can tell us so much about the person who chose to put them on.

A 2012 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology coined the phrase “embodied cognition” to describe the idea that we think not just with our brains but also with our bodies. The researchers found that clothes influence how we view and interact with the world: When they gave participants white coats they said belonged to doctors, the subjects’ ability to pay attention increased. When they were told the coats belonged to painters, their ability to pay attention flat lined. What this means: Clothes can, and do, influence a wearer’s psychological processes. Dressing casually, or carelessly, could cause a worker—or, for that matter, a partner—to feel less focused and less alert. Less engaged and present.

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Clothes also dictate the role the people wearing them take on, whether we’re talking about an upstanding man wearing a crisp button down and good jeans to take a woman out for Sunday brunch or the no-good slouch showing up to take her to dinner in the sweats he’s owned since college. A 1994 study out of North Illinois University found that people’s perception of their own responsibility, competence, honesty, reliability, and trustworthiness, among other qualities, was heightened when they took a little more care in the clothing they put on. How this works is similar to how certain body positions can make people act more confidently, even in certain cases raising testosterone in the body, as was concluded in a 2010 study published in the journal Psychological Science. What does this mean for relationships? Well, think about it. The care and pride you take in presenting yourself is likely to correspond to the care and pride you take in your relationships.

As my son, who has worked in retail and fashion for many years and now designs a line of casual clothing for men called Alex Mill, can attest, dressing yourself is a form of personal branding. Women want a man who believes in what he’s selling just as much as a man want s to buy whatever it is that’s behind that façade. Clothing carries symbolic meaning. When a woman  puts on a black dress to go to a funeral, or  running tights to go to the gym, her brain is primed to behave in ways consistent with that meaning. We act in a manner consistent with our dress. When we put on a stained t-shirt and an ill-fitting pair of jeans, our brain thinks it needn’t try so hard, either.

If you’re still not convinced, consider that, men most definitely judge women by what they wear. In her book, Modern Dating: A Field Guide, author Chiara Atik reveals that, in her research, men consistently brought up clothing as among the first things they notice about women. So ladies go ahead and think twice about the guy with the perpetually wrinkled shirt. It’s not superficial. It’s just common sense.  

 Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and their children.

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