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Clothes Minded


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Motioning toward the dressing room, she held up a pair of turquoise, teardrop earrings. “Put these on with the white shirt and the white pants,” she said. I did as I was told, and came out clothed head-to-toe in white, accented by the blue-green earrings.

Although I looked good, I knew I would never have the nerve to wear the outfit out. Something about all white says Look at me! As if sensing my doubt, Finkelstein said that the right clothing can give you more courage. She said that it can also change the way you carry yourself. Cue my mother’s advice on prom night all those years ago: “You’re dressed like a lady,” she said, narrowing her eyes, “so act like a lady.”

Although I hate to admit whenever my mother is right, there’s actually some truth to that statement. Studies have shown that clothes not only change the way people perceive you, but also how you perceive yourself. It’s a phenomenon called “enclothed cognition” where people actually act their clothes. A study by Northwestern University asked participants to wear white doctor’s coats and white painter’s coats. Those who wore the doctors coats were far more accurate on a test of focus and concentration—traits associates with physicians—than the  group that wore the painter’s coats. So just as doctors say you are what you eat, psychologists say you are what you wear.

Psychologists like Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner, who actually wrote the book on the subject: You Are What You Wear; What Your Clothes Reveal About You.

“We don’t discount how people sleep, how they eat, exercise, love, don’t love—we analyze all these other behaviors,” said Baumgartner. “But for whatever reason dress is discounted as nothing more than fluff.  Nowhere else are you able to so accurately perceive how someone is.”

But are you really “what you wear?”

“You have your own self-response to what you look like,” Baumgartner explained.”And others then respond to you. It creates a feedback loop. It can change your behavior.”

I’m not sure I buy it. But it would explain the times I’ve dodged a friend or two at the grocery store, sans makeup—doughnuts and Redbox in hand—wearing pajamas that looked like I stole them from the set of Cast Away. “Our appearance, and how we feel about it, can make us social,” she said. “It can make us less social.”

According to Finkelstein, it can also make us fit in. Or it can make us stand out.

For the most part, I prefer to fit in—something that wasn’t happening in the neon yellow jumper. Sensing my hesitation, Finkelstein handed me another outfit.

“This is the last one,”she said, giving me an earthy, pink stone necklace and telling me to wear it with the silver top, white pants and jean jacket. She pointed back toward the dressing room and told me to put it all on and come out. I did, and seconds later I looked put together and natural, and  stylish without looking styled. But more importantly, I looked, and felt, like myself.

“Clothing is an extension of who you are. And I think most of my work with my clients is to discover who that is, in this particular way. To people that think it doesn’t matter and that it’s superficial, I always come back to the fact that it’s just one of many things that you should incorporate and put value on in your life. One of many things.”

It’s something I have often battled with: the desire to look good without being superficial, to feel attractive without making it the priority. Is appearance just some distorted mirror making us think we need something we really don’t? Or is it just as relevant as our other behaviors, affecting how others perceive us and how we perceive ourselves? Something Baumgartner said about why she started studying clothing in the first place convinced me that it’s more than superficial “fluff.”

“Making very slight changes in peoples’ lives can create a motivation for them to make bigger changes. A relatively safe place to start that is in the wardrobe. It’s not as threatening, and it makes people feel better quickly.”

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