Stepping into a pair of fuzzy sweatpants after a long day is the sartorial equivalent of a warm hug. But the thought of taking them off in the morning and putting on “real” clothes can feel like torture when you’re not feeling up to facing the world.
According to Alyssa Dana Adomaitis, professor and director of the business and technology of fashion program at New York City College of Technology, there’s a reason the human brain might gravitate toward less professional garments when experiencing an “off” day: role theory.
In practice, Adomaitis explained, role theory means you — albeit subconsciously — dress for the position “you want to portray.” If you’re not feeling especially great about yourself (and you don’t have a full agenda), Adomaitis said that sometimes “your emotions that will get the best of you” when you’re deciding what to wear. And thus a sweatpants-based outfit is born.
But instead of letting emotions dictate our outfits, what if we strategically selected outfits that could sway our mood in a direction of our choosing? Experts on the various links between clothing, culture and human behavior whom HuffPost spoke to all support the idea that intentional clothing choices can have subtle but meaningful impacts on our behavior and outlook.
Andrew Reilly, a professor who teaches a class on culture, gender and appearance at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, likens the impact of clothing on human behavior to that of music. Different kinds of music, Reilly said, “influence how you’re going to behave, what you feel.” The same can be said of our garments: “We can use clothing to elevate our moods.”
Below, experts on the link between clothing and psychology share which pieces hiding in our closets might adjust our outlook and behavior.
Consider suiting up.
If you’re looking for a power boost, try throwing on an interview-worthy outfit. In a 2015 study, California State University-Northridge psychology professor Abraham Rutchick and his team found that dressing more formally than you usually do alters your way of thinking.
Participants in Rutchick’s study were asked to show up to the experiment with two outfits: one they’d wear to class and another to a job interview. Researchers concluded that when dressed in more formal clothing — whatever the participants deemed as interview-worthy — they engaged in more abstract, “big picture” thinking.
“Leaders are the people who have these big ideas,” Rutchick explained. “Followers are the ones who have to worry about the details.” He said his team’s “best guess” about why this happens is that people feel a heightened sense of power in formal clothing, which leads to “a grander, broader, bigger picture view of the world.”
So, does wearing a blazer mean you’ll perform better than usual if you normally might wear a T-shirt for the same task? No. But a more formal outfit could help you to make decisions with a broader perspective in mind. According to Rutchick, this tactic isn’t “magic.”
“It’s a subtle effect,” he said, “but I think it’s real.”
Mine your closet for memories.
Reilly and Johnson both noted that wearing items with strong positive attachments can be effective in swaying your outlook. Reilly pointed to perfume in particular.
“Humans are social animals and we get a boost from positive responses and reactions from others.”
According to a 2016 article published in Brain Science, studies show that “autobiographical memories triggered by odors feel much more emotional” than memories triggered by other factors. Thanks to an activation of a specific part of the brain, “people are more brought to the original time and place of their memories” when the remembering is triggered by scent compared to when the same events are recalled in other ways.
If a certain scent takes you back to a particularly happy place, give it spritz when you’re feeling a bit “meh” and see how it makes you feel. And if a scent doesn’t jump out as especially noteworthy, Kim Johnson, a University of Minnesota professor emeritus who taught a course examining the effect of dress on human behavior, notes that wearing good luck charms might also be worth a try.
A 2010 study published in Psychological Science examining the effect of superstitions found evidence supporting the idea that believers in good luck charms might really be on to something. One of the study’s tests invited 41 participants, all of whom reported having a designated lucky charm, to bring said charm with them to an experiment. Only some participants were allowed to keep the good luck charm while performing assigned tasks while others had to carry on without them. Results showed that those who kept their lucky charm “reported higher levels of self-efficacy” than those without the charm.
So, if you believe that something you wore helped achieve a desired outcome in the past, it might be enough to provide an added sense of security and confidence the next time you wear it. In other words, don’t throw out those lucky socks just yet.
An “off” day is precisely the right time to wear whichever garment most reliably rakes in the compliments. Humans ”are social animals and we get a boost from positive responses and reactions from others,” Johnson explained. If a particular item in your wardrobe previously garnered positive feedback, it’s likely that giving it another spin could provide a confidence boost today.
And if you need another reason to get those pants hemmed, Adomaitis noted that people tend to feel most comfortable and confident in well-tailored clothing. The less fussing and pulling at your clothing you’re doing, the less self-conscious you’ll be.
Reilly points out that wearing specific colors, cuts or fabrics just because someone tells you to won’t necessarily create positive adjustments if you feel awkward in them. “I don’t think [those colors] are going to do any good for you if you’re wearing them because you’re just told to wear them,” he said. “You need to look at what you are physically comfortable in and psychologically comfortable in.”
For example, he explained, “People may say tight-fitting clothes are on trend, but if you’re not psychologically comfortable,” wearing them will likely just cause greater stress than whatever bonus you might have anticipated from fitting in with the group.
To that end, skip out on wearing fake designer goods. Even if they’re convincing enough to dupe everyone in the office, a 2010 study published in Psychological Science shows it might not give you the confidence boost you’re hoping for. When participants were given knockoff designer sunglasses to wear, findings showed that regardless of initial interest in owning them, wearing them caused increased negative feelings about the self, particularly the sense of being a fraud.
Of course, what you wear can only change so much about your outlook. If it feels like you’re experiencing something more serious than just an “off” day, please consult this list of mental health resources.
And try to be kind to yourself, no matter what you’re wearing.