Published! The Psychological Impact of Clothing

Hey everyone! This is an article I wrote for The Fair Magazine and an edited version is published on their site.

I loved writing it as it combined both fashion knowledge and what I learned in my psychology degree. The degree is finally useful for something other than firelighters ! 😛

It is interesting to consider how what we wear affects us on the inside as well as on the outside. If we have a great night out in an outfit, the pleasure associated with the outfit is likely to make us wear it again and again.

People often refer to items of clothing as their “lucky jeans” and believe wearing them for important days like interviews or auditions can bring them success.

 Conversely a bad experience in a certain outfit can lead us to reject that item in the future.


Uniform is an interesting concept to explore when we think about the psychological impact of clothing.

For instance one winter in my work as a sales assistant I wore an all black slightly formal uniform, towards the end of winter I felt fed up and drained in this outfit. When we got a new spring outfit it was colourful and more casual and I instantly felt happy putting it on despite the fact it was a uniform.

School uniforms serve to identify a specific group and also to counteract competitiveness, it could be argued that uniforms serve to dispense with the individual and create a group identity.


When we see someone in the street in uniform such as a Garda they immediately stand out and command respect. These kinds of uniforms represent power and authority.

A famous psychological experiment by researcher Philip Zimbardo involved giving two groups of people roles as “guards” or “prisoners”. The prisoners were stripped of their regular clothes and given prison style uniforms and ID numbers

. These changes isolated the prisoners making it harder for them to be seen as individuals by the guards. The guards had authority and power over the prisoners and treated them badly.

The outcome of the experiment resulted in the guards becoming cruel and sadistic towards the prisoners and the prisoners becoming more and more helpless and depressed in their situation. It gives us an insight into how powerful uniform is and how important clothing is to express one’s individuality. (Zimbardo 1971.)

Another experiment carried out by researchers at Northwestern University Illinois divided participants into two groups, each was given a white coat to wear and asked to carry out a simple task. One group were told their coat was a “painter’s smock” and the other a “doctor’s coat”.

The group who were told their coat was a doctor’s tended to be more careful and thorough in their task. Certainly associations with clothing have a powerful effect on our subconscious and psychological processes.


Some people use certain types of clothing to distinguish themselves as part of a certain social group without actually wearing a uniform.

For example people who identify with goth culture may wear a lot of black. In Japan the Harajuku district is frequented by teenagers and young people wearing outrageous outfits, very colourful and intricate, usually heavily accessorised and equally dramatic hair and makeup

. At a first glance these outfits may all seem similar but there are distinct divides and sub-groups such as “gothic Lolita” “visual kei” and “cosplay”.  Different characters, cultures and caricatures are portrayed through their wild costumes.

It may look like a fancy dress party on steroids to the outsider but the Harajuku style once a subculture, has attracted a lot of mainstream attention. Gwen Stefani appluads their style in the song Harajuku Girls and incorporated four Harajuku styled dancers and performers into her videos and shows.

Nowadays this would probably be regarded as cultural appropriation but in 2004 it was grand. 😛

Just a regular day in the Harajuku district

Certain colours cause us to have psychological reactions when we see others wearing them. It has been proven that men rate women wearing red as more attractive and more interested in sex.

Red is a colour we associate with sexuality and passion. A study of Olympic uniforms by anthropologists at Durham University found that evenly matched athletes in the 2004 Games who wore red in boxing, tae kwon do and freestyle wrestling defeated those wearing blue 60 percent of the time. The researchers suggested that red, for athletes as for animals, symbolizes dominance.

We are generally instructed to wear black to an interview but apparently blue has a pleasing effect and is attributed to interview success. Navy blue is a good choice as it still serious but without being as sombre as black.

Black represents power and authority but can make you look unapproachable. We wear black to funerals as a representation of mourning and loss. Black signifies formality, occasion and dignity. Even though it is a dark colour it can be very striking if worn appropriately.

Logos and revealing clothing are another way we draw attention to ourselves. Certain name brands are synonymous with certain social groups and we can use clothing to define ourselves as members of those social groups.

Many clothing labels use celebrities to endorse their clothing but some brands have even offered gauche celebrities and reality stars money not to wear their clothes! i.e. chavs and Burberry!

Many people use designer brands as a means of validation, they feel portraying wealth is a way to be accepted by others.

Others choose casual clothing like tracksuits or even wearing pyjamas and onesies in public as a way of demanding their comfort or rejecting convention. Wearing pyjamas in public either suggests that you are very comfortable with yourself and refuse to get dressed or that you don’t care about your appearance.

This has become a common phenomenon in many urban areas with some public places refusing admittance to pyjama-clad people. RTE even commissioned a programme about the “pyjama girls.”

RTE’ s Pyjama Girls

It seems that what our clothing says to us and about us is powerful way for us to express ourselves and our personalities. Clothing is how we show the world what we want it to see of us, a hard worker, a wealthy person, a deadbeat, a stylish person, a busy mother.

A familiar old item can make you more confident and happy than a brand new ill-fitting garment. Ultimately our clothing is a reflection of our own lifestyles, behaviours and consumer choices.

As Mark Twain famously said “Clothes make the man, naked people have little or no influence on society.”

 Thanks as always for checking out my blog. 🙂

7 thoughts on “Published! The Psychological Impact of Clothing

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