Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


What Your Clothes Are Telling You

Mind what you wear—it could change your life.

When a University professor asked students to put on Superman t-shirts, there was a scientific reason behind the request. Professor Karen Pine wanted to know whether the heroic clothing could really have an unconscious effect on the students’ thought processes. Her suspicions were confirmed. She found it boosted their impression of themselves and made them believe they were physically stronger than control groups. This, and other discoveries of how clothing can change our minds, is the topic of her new book called Mind What You Wear: The Psychology of Fashion.

When wearing a Superman t-shirt, Professor Pine’s students rated themselves as more likeable and superior to other students. When asked to estimate how much they could physically lift, those in a Superman t-shirt thought they were stronger than students in a similar t-shirt without the Superman logo, or in their own clothing. Through the book Pine reveals how people’s mental processes and perceptions can be primed by clothing, as they internalise the symbolic meaning of their outer layers.

Clothes change how we think and feel

It is intuitive to think of clothing as mere covering, or the means by which we project our image to other people. In a previous blog I wrote about how small differences in clothing can influence others’ impressions of a person. But studies of enclothed cognition have shown that clothes can influence the wearer too, affecting their thought processes and influencing their mood. If you have ever been a hospital patient forced to wear a shapeless, pale, garment like a baby’s gown that gapes at the back, you may recall how it made you feel docile, trusting and helpless. Or perhaps you have experienced that sense of deindividuation, or anonymity, that comes from slipping into a uniform, or the power surge that accompanies the wearing of a sharp suit.

Research has now confirmed that the clothing is actually priming the brain to function and operate differently. In the 1990s Barbara Fredrickson found that women who were given a maths test performed worse when wearing a swimsuit than in a sweater, although men’s scores were unaffected by their clothing. The researchers attributed the women’s poorer maths performance in a swimsuit to the fact that self-objectification consumes mental resources. When her body is on display, a woman is concerned about others evaluating it, while the men in this study were less affected by this and could keep their minds on the sums.

In Mind What You Wear, Pine describes research by Adam Galinski, who first coined the term ‘enclothed cognition’ and who found that a person’s mental agility improved when wearing a white coat. The coat primed their brain to take on the sharper mental capacities they associated with being a doctor. Interestingly, participants’ performance was not significantly altered when they were told the coat was a painter’s coat, thus further demonstrating it is the symbolic association of the garment rather than mere material priming that is the mechanism for altered cognitions.

We become what we wear

Professor Pine gives many more fascinating insights into the cognitive, social and emotional consequences of clothing in Mind What You Wear. She describes the link between women’s moods and their clothing choices. Having found that women are more likely to wear jeans when feeling low or depressed, Pine explores how clothing can reinforce negative mood states. She also uncovers recent research into the link between mood and clothing, showing that when women are stressed their world narrows down and this results in them wearing less of their wardrobe, neglecting as much as 90 percent of it. As well as scientific research, the book also contains tips on how to feel happier and more confident with the right clothes, reminding us not only that we are what we wear, but that we become what we wear.

In my next blog I will show how we are using this work to help people make changes they want to make with Do Something Different......

Mind What You Wear by Professor Karen Pine was published on 14 May 2014 for $2.97

More from Ben C. Fletcher D.Phil., Oxon
More from Psychology Today