Clothing: A Powerful Aspect of Our Identity

Three Women in 'Walking Habits', 1923
Walking clothes Three_Women_in_Walking_Habits_Marvin_D_Boland_Collection_1923 copyright free.jpg
Image credit: Marvin D. Boland (1873-1950). Public domain. Studies show that if your clothes are appropriate to a task, you are more likely to perform that task well. That is, if you wear exercise garb, you are likely to get more out of your exercise session.

Dress the part. Most of us think that means dress the way you want other people to see you. Research suggests, however, that dressing the part doesn't just affect other people. It affects us, as we go about our day.

An influential study published in 2012, Enclothed Cognition, concluded that the way we dress affects "our behavior, attitudes, personality, mood, confidence, and even the way we interact with others". The authors of the study, Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky, research scientists from the University of Bath and Columbia University, state: "We introduce the term “enclothed cognition” to describe the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer's psychological processes."

Working From Home During COVID-19
Working from home, the new normal_caused_by_COVID-19 Jayjay Dasho 4.0.jpg
Image credit: Jayjay Dasho. Used under CC 4.0 license.

COVID-19 and the Clothes We Wear
While this research would seem relevant at any time in our lives, at this particular juncture, when many people spent a year adapting to virtual business, virtual school, virtual friends and even virtual family, the way we dressed underwent a dramatic change for most people. Did this add to the psychological impact of the pandemic?

I discovered a few articles
The Mental Health Benefits Of Getting Dressed For Work
Dress-Code Policies Reconsidered in the Pandemic
The Science Behind WFH Dressing for Zoom
that addressed this, but they were mostly speculative and extrapolated from other research, so I didn't find the articles helpful. But we can extrapolate from research and make our own guesses about the pandemic and clothing.

'Business Attire', (As Listed by Wikimedia Commons)
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Image credit: Alexblueground. Used under a CC 4.0 license.

The Suit

A 2015 Article, The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing, concludes that "Putting on formal clothes makes us feel powerful, and that changes the basic way we see the world...” The authors (Michael L. Slepian, Simon N. Ferber, Joshua M. Gold,and Abraham M. Rutchick) conclude that wearing formal clothing leads to a broader, more inclusive perspective. Incorporated into this article were the results of five studies that sought to determine the effects of wearing formal vs informal clothing.

In each study, the results were consistent. Wearing formal clothing was associated with enhanced abstract processing. It's interesting that the effect also carried over to using formal speech. According to the authors, formal dress increases social/psychological distance between people, and it is this distance which increases abstract thinking. If we are near to something, or someone, we think in more concrete terms.

Lab Coat or Painter's Coat?
Lab coat_and_scrubs Samir from wikipedia 1.2.jpg
Image credit: Samir, transferred from Wikipedia. Used under CC 1.2 license. In the groundbreaking study by Galinsky and Adams, participants were told to wear a lab coat. When they believed the coat was a doctor's coat, it helped them to conceptualize in a more focused way. When they were told the coat was a painter's coat, they conceptualized in a less focused way.

Another study, Sartorial symbols of social class elicit class-consistent behavioral and physiological responses: A dyadic approach, published in 2016, reported that dominance behavior increased in (male) participants who wore clothing that was perceived as 'upper class'. The physiological effect of power dressing was actually evident in testosterone levels.

Hospital Gowns

Patient Wearing a Hospital Gown
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Image credit: This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. Refer to Wellcome blog post (archive). Used under CC 4.0 license.

Most of us have been there, haven't we? Or we have visited someone who was asked to wear one of those scant, backless hospital gowns. An article in the British Journal of Health Psychology, Baring all: The impact of the Hospital Gown on Patient Well-being, reports that the hospital gown symbolically represents dehumanizing aspects of healthcare. The gown fosters the subjective sense of 'being sick', of being vulnerable and of relinquishing control. The gowns are used often even though there is no medical necessity. Patients, especially women and patients living in long-term care situations, feel "exposed,... self-conscious, vulnerable, uncomfortable, cold, embarrassed, and disempowered". In sum, the authors of the Journal article conclude that hospital gowns are not appropriate for their intended purpose (to advance health). On the contrary, they impact "negatively on patient well-being."

Prison Uniforms

Wood Engraving: Lines of Prisoners Waiting to Go in a Building
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Image credit:Wellcome Collection gallery (2018-03-31): CC-BY-4.0. CC 4.0

It was hard to find a peer-reviewed study on the effects of prison clothing on inmates. There are extrapolations from other studies (some mentioned already in this blog) and also some observational/retrospective studies. These sources seem somewhat reliable though not "scientific" in the usual sense of the term.

An article in Newsweek sums up the informed judgement of several sources. Cited by Newsweek is a study carried out at Cornell University in which participants were asked to play a virtual reality game. Different avatars were assigned to the players: "dark robes, Ku Klux Klan-like robes, physician uniforms or transparent suits". Those participants who were assigned KKK outfits or dark robes, treated their opponents with greater cruelty, were more likely to be disloyal to teammates and were more competitive as they played the game.

Even after the game, when asked to reflect on their characters and experience, the players who donned KKK-like outfits and dark robes wrote essays that were 'meaner'.

The conclusion the authors draw from this study: "If we wear clothing that conveys a particular role with a meaning, we'll take on that role to some degree." What are the implications of this study for prison garb? By muting individuality with prison uniforms, institutions are attempting to exert control "over behaviors people engage in" and induce them all to behave in the same way.

My question: Is that a good thing in prison, and does it seem to advance the cause of rehabilitation? As a long-term goal,do we want all prisoners to behave in the same way? Do we want prisoners to see themselves like others in the institution, or do we want them to fashion individual, positive ambitions?

A 2017 article in Index on Censorship asks,
...does stripping individuality make rehabilitation more difficult? In recognition of the powerful effect clothing as on the psyche, the author of this article cites a U.N. standard known as the Mandela Rule: “Every prisoner who is not allowed to wear his own clothing shall be provided with an outfit of clothing suitable for the climate and adequate to keep him in good health. Such clothing shall in no manner be degrading or humiliating." The article emphasizes that at one point most prisoners will be returned to society. Depersonalizing them, dehumanizing them (through clothing) does not prepare them for that ultimate goal.

Gerontology and Clothing

'Oldest Man in Chile' (2011), Celino Villanueva, 115
aged Don Celino Villanueva tu Foto con el Presidente 2.0.jpg

Image credit: tu Foto con el Presidente. CC 2.0 license.

One of the conditions of life that often leads to a loss of identity and control is aging. This is especially true when aging is accompanied by dementia. Clothing is one part of an aging person's daily routine that may be overlooked. This is a mistake. Julia Twigg, from the University of Kent, explains that, "Clothes are central to how we perform our identities."

When so much else is falling away from an individual, particularly in the case of dementia, the way we dress, "offers a means of maintaining continuity of self at a material, embodied level," according to Dr. Twigg. This assertion is based on a body of literature, including a report by the Economic and Social Research Council (UK) entitled, "Dementia and Dress".

In another article,"Clothing, Age and the Body: a Critical Review", Dr. Twigg explains that, "dress forms a significant, though neglected, element in the constitution and experience of old age." Clothing is one way individuals may assert control over their bodies and may resist culturally imposed assumptions about what is appropriate to aging.

Research by Dr. Pat Armstrong, Professor of Sociology from York University in Canada, looks at how clothing affects aged residents in a communal setting. Clothes, Dr. Armstrong explains, "...are central to our personal identity and our dignity". This is particularly true in a nursing home, where other aspects of our identity are challenged.

Dr. Armstrong's research team surveyed nursing homes in Norway, Sweden, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada in order to come up with ideas for improving the quality of life for residents. Clothing, it is suggested, was one of several material improvements that might be managed in a communal setting.

Dr. Armstrong concludes her article:

when designing, managing and choosing nursing homes, we need to pay attention to clothes. This means attending to how residents are helped to dress and how clothes are worn, cleaned and stored.

Researching this post was instructive for me. I have never paid much attention to clothing. Even when I was a child, pictures reveal, I was casual. Of all my siblings, I would be the one with one sock down. Today,when I go out, I stop and think what clothing means to other people, when they see me. But maybe I should think about the effect clothing has on my own psyche, even when I don't go out.

Note the lack of attention to dress (turned up collar) in this picture of me, taken more than sixty years ago.

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I hope you found the material in this blog interesting. Thank you for reading.

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Selected Sources


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