The Power of Fashion: The Benefits of Creatively Expressing Our Self-Identity Through Our Physical Appearance.
We make about 35,000 choices a day. From what we’re going to have for breakfast to what time we’re planning on waking up the following day. The accumulation of these choices has a huge impact on our mental health thus our quality of life. No matter how big or small; every choice matters. One choice, conscious to some yet unconscious to others, is our fashion choice. Daily stylistic choices are an outward form of self-identity. It can be used to elevate our mood, increase our confidence, and live a more authentic life.
Self-identity is an integral aspect of living authentically. It is your perception of yourself, how you define yourself, essentially they’re all the answers that come up when you ask “who am I?” It’s all a unique blend of characteristics, qualities, traits, hobbies, aspirations, moral code, and values that make you, you. Having a good sense of who you are allows you to live with purpose, in accordance with your goals and values, and develop healthy relationships. Erika Meyers describes this impact well in a Healthline article:
“Having a well-developed sense of self is hugely beneficial in helping us make choices in life. From something as small as favorite foods to larger concerns like personal values, knowing what comes from our own self versus what comes from others allows us to live authentically”
There are many theories out there for what forms this self-identity. Psychologists like Freud and Erikson have attempted to decode this phenomenon. Carl Rogers, an American psychologist, broke down the formation of self-identity into three parts: self-image, self-esteem, and ideal self. Self-image is how you see yourself, whether it’s personality traits or physical appearance. Self-esteem is your perception of your inherent worth or value. Lastly, the ideal self is who you aspire to be, it’s the image of your best self. On the other hand, Dr. Bruce Bracken broke self-identity down into six domains: social, physical, competency, familial, academical, and emotional.
Creativity is an even more abstract concept to define! There are countless definitions to what creativity is and multiple theories as to how it’s formed. In its most basic definition, creativity is a person’s ability to create something novel. Or, one’s ability to create connections between seemingly unrelated things. Creativity expands beyond the arts; there is creativity in science, too. Whether it’s creating a new recipe with your leftover ingredients, redesigning your room space, or choosing what to wear, creativity is in our innate human nature.
One way in which our self-identity and creativity overlap is through our sense of style. In other words, fashion and self-identity are intrinsically inter-connected. It is no secret that we dress in alignment to how we define ourselves, whether it’s our gender, nationality, religion, economic status, social role, or who we aspire to be. Not only is our style and self-identity interconnected, but we also use style to creatively express our self-identity; it is the outward reflection of who we are (or who we think we are). In this case, style becomes this form of non-verbal, visual expression of ourselves. As Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner mentions in her book You Are What You Wear:
“Our clothing is the physical representation of our perceptions, our dissatisfactions, and our desires. When we look beyond the physical to our internal workings, we can create a change at the core. Unlike change that occurs in therapy, these difficult internal examinations are softened by the light of the wardrobe makeover . . . Taking care of yourself begins with self-discovery. The clothing you put on your back is an incredibly accurate indicator of what you think of yourself and your life. Cracking open the closet doors can lead to great insight. When you strive toward self-discovery, improvement often follows. Wearing clothing that makes you feel comfortable, happy, and good about yourself really does make life better”
To put it in another way, the fashion choices we make on a daily basis are a huge indicator of our identity. Additionally, when we dress authentically to our true self, we begin to feel happier, sexier, and more confident. This makes fashion not only a significant part in cultures but also an important aspect in self-actualization and life satisfaction: “The freedom that comes with self-expression is magnificent and sets you on a path to being a happier version of yourself.”
Building on that, as humans, it is only natural that we feel the urge to stand out, express ourselves, and be unique. One person who does that really well is “Geriartic Starlet”, Iris Apfel. With vibrant colors, chunky beads, vivacious patterns, and signature rounded glasses, this 99 year-old fashion icon knows exactly how to creatively express herself. Apfel is the true embodiment of dressing authentically, as she once said in a Tatler Hong Kong interview:
“When I used to wear things that were a bit offbeat,” she recalls (“bit,” one imagines to be an understatement), “people used to always say, ‘Oh, my goodness! Don’t you worry about what people will think?’ and I would say, ‘No, I don’t care at all.’ That’s not my problem. I dress for myself and I hope other people will like it, but if they don’t, it’s their problem, not mine….Dressing can be a creative experience and I think people should take advantage of it”
With a tagline like “More is More and Less is a Bore”, it is clear that Apfel acknowledges and appreciates the power that fashion holds in expressing yourself authentically.
Another icon who is unapologetically herself is Yayoi Kusama. Kusama, a Japanese contemporary artist who moved to the States in the 1950’s, is best known for her engulfing polka-dot art installations. Her immersive art installations are exhibited all around the world in places like Institute of Contemporary Art, MoMA, and Tate Modern.
Her obsession with polka-dots was inspired by a weird hallucination she had as a child. Not only does Kusama create polka-dot art installations, but she also turned herself into one of her art pieces through her style. In fact, it’s Kusama’s goal to blend into her environment and reach utter oblivion, as an article in the Tate Kids mentions:
“By adding all-over marks and dots to her paintings, drawings, objects and clothes she (Kusama) feels as if she is making them (and herself) melt into, and become part of, the bigger universe.
She (Kusama) said: ‘Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos. Polka dots are a way to infinity. When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of our environment’” .
Additionally, a ‘Dazed’ article explains: “As she (Kusama) started to experiment in spatial installations, her clothing — which always blends into the work she is exhibiting — became another device to obliterate space and the perceptual field…. Kusama is now rarely seen without a bright red wig and a dotted dress — the culmination of a longtime exercise in self-branding”
Like Apfel and Kusama, we all express our self-identity through our appearance, albeit in different ways. Everyday, we make decisions on how we want to present ourselves to the world and express our personality through our style. Seemingly miniscule fashion choices, like what we do with our hair or our choice of footwear, end up communicating so much about our self-identity.
One example of how our choice of footwear communicates messages about self-identity is explored in an article published in Journal of Research in Personality called “Shoes as a source of first impressions” discovered that people can form accurate first impressions based on someone’s shoes. In the study, participants were given a collection of images where they were asked to identify the shoe owner’s annual income, gender, age, personality, and attachment style and compared that to the self-reported data from the shoe owner. Although participants weren’t able to accurately identify all the data about the shoe owner, they agreed on other characteristics that were accurate, like anxious-attachment styles, agreeableness, and openness.
“Dress for the job you want, not the one you have.” I’m sure we’ve all come across this cheesy, seemingly superficial quote. Enclothed cognition, a term coined by cognitive psychologists Hajo Adam and Adam D. Galinsky, states that what we wear has a direct influence on our psychology in terms of how we think, feel, and behave. This is interesting because clothes were originally created for practical purposes! They were used to protect our primal bodies against bugs, insects, and adverse conditions, and now they have somehow evolved to aesthetic purposes that affect our thought processes.
Enclothed cognition is part of a broader field of research called embodied cognition, which examines how humans think with both their brains and bodies. An article in Positive Psychology News explains this phenomenon as: “Embodied cognition experts have discovered that our thought processes are based on physical experiences that set off associated abstract concepts, including those generated by the clothing we wear.”
In other words, we perform and behave differently when wearing different pieces of clothing, simply due to the abstract meaning that we attach to them. This is further reinforced in Adam and Galinsky’s Enclothed Cognition experiment. In the experiment, they gave a group of participants a white doctor’s coat, a white painter’s coat, and no coat at all and asked them to perform a certain set of exercises. The research experiment found that participants wearing a lab coat performed better in attention-related tasks and sustained a higher attention span than those who were wearing a painter’s coat or no coat at all.
This conclusion is explained due to the abstract meaning we attach to a piece of white cloth — the doctor’s coat. Socially, doctors are seen as intelligent and hardworking, while artists are seen as free-spirited and creative. Therefore, when participants wore the different types of coats, the meaning of the coats had a significant impact on the performance and psychological state. Adam and Galinsky’s Enclothed Cognition experiment which suggests that enclothed cognition involves the co-occurrence of two independent factors — the symbolic meaning of the clothes and the physical experience of wearing them. This means that seeing a doctor’s coat doesn’t suffice, the participant needs to attach a meaning and experience wearing it for enclothed cognition to apply.
Another 2017 research study concluded that individuals wearing red are not only perceived as more attractive, but also have a higher perceived self-attractiveness. In the experiment, participants were asked to wear a red or blue shirt and rate their self-attractiveness. Participants in red indicated a higher level of self-attractiveness than participants in blue.
“Romantic Red” is another research study by Professors Andrew Elliot and Daniela Niesta on the color red. The study concluded that red leads men to view women as more attractive and more sexually desirable. However, it has been found that red does not influence women’s perceptions of the attractiveness of other women, nor men’s perceptions of women’s overall likeability, kindness, or intelligence.
This phenomenon occurs due to the fact that women view men who wear red as more dominant men of higher status, therefore, men who are likely to make more money and have more power, which leads to higher attraction. On the other hand, it is important to note that men are attracted to women who wear red for more biological and primal reasons. Professor Andrew Elliot also explains this in an article: “We found that women view men in red as higher in status, more likely to make money and more likely to climb the social ladder, and it’s this high-status judgment that leads to the attraction.”
Even though the term ‘enclothed cognition’ was coined in 2012, it turns out the actual concept isn’t new. In fact, there are multiple other relevant experiments that reveal a relationship between what we wear and our cognitive processes. For example, in “The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing” wearing formal clothes, whether it’s a suit or a dress, encourages people to use abstract processing more readily than concrete processing. As Abraham Rutchick, an author of the study and a professor of psychology at California State University, Northridge, explains in ‘The Atlantic’ article: “Putting on formal clothes makes us feel powerful, and that changes the basic way we see the world.”
To sum up, there are clear benefits that our fashion choices have on our self-identity and life satisfaction. We can see in icons, like Apfel and Kusama, that fashion choices can help us live a more authentic and fulfilled life. When we dress to express who we are, we begin to feel more confident and happier about ourselves. Additionally, multiple research studies, like Enclothed Cognition and Romantic Red, have shown the effect of clothing on our behaviour, cognitive processes, and how we perceive ourselves. Making fashion choices like wearing red, wearing a formal suit, or wearing expensive shoes can make us feel more sexy, comfortable, and powerful. Every stylistic choice communicates so much about how we see ourselves, who we are, and how we define ourselves, thus making the ‘right’ fashion choices can in return end up elevating our mood and making us feel like we own the room.