Most people would casually agree that every day we express who we are, and who we aspire to be, through the clothes we choose to wear, and how we mix and match those bits of visual information. This is a subtle science and one that we work on intently in our youth and then update as needed in adult life.
We may even tell the world who we are not, and what values we reject. Most often it’s the rebellious attitude that we see as a denouncement of values- namely social pressure towards harmony and conformity. But chinos and loafers reject values as loudly. It’s just that the values they reject are those of a minority (or an underrepresented majority), so that the statement is seen as a positive- a “yes” to the status quo that the chino-wearer has a vested interest in. In a way the clothing is a non-verbal effort to effect the world.
What we rarely think about is the effect that clothing has on the wearer. From an early age, dressing up is a huge part of playing pretend. As teenagers, identity gets forged around clothes. It is as if the clothes themselves have the power to make you into a member of the group that wears the clothes. Certainly every 80′s Ugly Duckling to Swan movie had you thinking so. Posses the clothes and you will posses the powers that come with them. The validity of the statement that a certain pair of shoes make you feel feminine, a sports jersey makes you feel powerful, or wearing glasses makes you feel smart, are all hinged on that word “feel”. We accept the power of social cues, but we know that they don’t really make us BE different. Right?
A study from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University found that wearing a doctor’s coat made test subjects perform better on selective attention tasks. When the subjects knew that the white coat belonged to a doctor, they behaved in a way that they believe a doctor behaves- with focus, intelligence, and attention to detail. However, when they thought the coat they wore was a painter’s coat, they performed no better than the control group. So it was their “feeling” smart in the coat that actually made them smart.
It’s not clear how the subjects would have performed had they thought that doctors in general did not possess those positive attributes but were pretentious quacks. Did the wearers of the coats increase their performance through increased confidence, or did they behave in a way that the social cue of the coat directed them to behave? Maybe they were living up to the expectations of the audience they were performing for. Whatever the subtle psychological workings are, it’s an interesting and observable indication that we are as effected by what signals we send out as those that we are sending them to.