Fashion Bytes — “Enclothed Cognition”

It is not news to fashion scholars that what you wear can affect what you think about yourself as well as your appearance. A recent study has not only proved this basic concept, it has also shown that what you wear can affect how you think. In a New York Times article in April it was revealed that in one of the experiments in this study, 74 students were divided into three groups: one group wore a white coat they were told belonged to a doctor, another group wore a white coat they were told belonged to a painter, and the third group simply saw a “doctor’s coat”. Those who wore the “doctor’s coat” showed increased attention, and confidence in their own actions.

The (real) doctors conducting these experiments already knew from previous experiments that what people wear affects other people’s perceptions of us as well as our self-perception, but they were trying to discover whether or not what we wear has any effect on our psychological processes. This certainly seems to be the case if the scientific evidence is anything to go by. In addition to the white coat study, back in March, another study showed that women suffering from depression were more likely to wear jeans than those not dealing with depression, proving the old adage that people dress their mood. All of these studies are being conducted by a group of neuroscientists who focus on what is called “embodied cognition”, which looks at the way our environment affects how we think. These experiments raise many questions as Dr Adam Galinsky states at the end of the NYT piece:

But what happens, he mused, if you wear pimp clothes every day? Or a priest’s robes? Or a police officer’s uniform? Do you become habituated so that cognitive changes do not occur? Do the effects wear off?

What is the importance of these scientific studies to the field of fashion studies and research? All these experiments seem to be based in the United States — how different would the results be in China, India, France, Sweden, or even the UK? There are all sorts of adages and advice regarding perception in our culture — dress conservatively for interviews, dress for the job you want rather than the job you have — so why do experiments by doctors in white coats have so much more weight in our society than culturally inherited knowledge? Why does neuroscience have more authority in the analysis of appearance than fashion scholars in our society? Should fashion scholars be involved in some way? Will the results of such experiments give more weight to fashion studies and fashion exhibits in museums? Would you find such studies useful material for teaching or in creating fashion exhibits? What other experiments would you like to see done, or perhaps like to conduct yourself?

Please share your thoughts.


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  • jacqueline May 15, 2012 01.52 pm

    I’m always encouraged to read about studies on dress. I do not mind scientists working across disciplines to study dress. There are obviously particular experiments that dress scholars are able to perform which require a neuroscientist’s expertise and resources.

    In fact, reading that scientists are interested in the affects of dress gives me hope that our field is being taken more and more seriously by people that traditionally considered it fluffy “women’s work.”

    Dress scholars will be able to use the results and interpret them in our own ways, providing richer material for students in class or in exhibitions at in museums.

  • Joy D. May 18, 2012 01.28 pm

    The human psyche continues to surprise me.


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