The psychology of power dressing

Image credit: Steven Meisel

Clothes have long been acknowledged as a form of social categorisation and definition, and that might give the impression that they are a purely outward display for the rest of the world. But the way we dress can also be used as a tool of self-expression, making it a more personal matter. An outfit then is perhaps an external show of an internal dialogue: if so, can clothes also be used to manipulate your own psychological process?

Take power dressing: the shoulder-pad clad era of the 80s aside, power dressing is very much still a part of modern culture. In fact, it is such an engrained part of fashion nowadays that you will be hard pressed to find a brand that lacks a ‘work-wear’ section, and not just because the work place often has a dress code. There’s a certain psychology behind it that makes sense – dress smart, think smart. Going to a job interview for a highly competitive position? Of course you will choose your best fitting blouse and pencil skirt with some sleek heels over slacks and a loose jumper – needless to say you want to make a good impression, but there is something about a clean-cut, sharp ensemble that makes you feel more put together, more professional, more confident. 

Whilst the ‘work’ environment might be an obvious example, that same principle – dressing to influence not just the way others judge us, but also the way in which we think and act – can be applied to almost any situation. On a night out, you’d probably choose tight, leather-look trousers over the trackies you change into the second you get home from a long day. In both situations you feel at your most comfortable, and yet these are two items of clothing that couldn’t be further apart from each other in terms of style. The idea of dressing to impress can have the connotation that you are dressing purely to impress others around you, but it can just as easily mean to impress yourself: on a night out you want to feel confident and fun, and only a piece of clothing that makes you feel that way will provide the same psychological comfort as the trackies on a Netflix night.

Another perfect example of how we dress to impress ourselves is the success of lingerie. Of course, there may well be a significant other who will also benefit from seeing your body in a matching set of La Perla lace, but it’s not the only reason that women seek out the latest lingerie collections. Many people will take to wearing a matching set of lingerie on days when they need a boost, and there’s no denying that once you don your Intimissimis you feel like the world is your oyster, you have your life together, and you can pretty much face anything the day throws at you. And all of this is possible without anyone else knowing what your underwear looks like but you.

It is unlikely that there will ever be a time when what we wear won’t affect the way society perceives us, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also affect the way we perceive ourselves: so next time you’re getting dressed, do it for yourself and not for society. And whilst it’s fun to dress up to reflect how we’re feeling, it’s equally important to remember that clothes can’t just act as a mask – they're there to enhance what you already have, not to cover it up. 


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