In the spring of 2012, Adam Galinsky described to the New York Times how dressing as a pimp on Halloween affected his mind. The professor and social psychologist had donned a long coat and fedora, and accessorized with a cane, and as a result, “felt a very different presence,” he told the paper. “When I entered the room, I glided in.”
At the time of this interview, Galinsky and a colleague had recently published an article called “Enclothed Cognition” in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. And while the article acknowledged the wealth of previous research “document[ing] the effects that people's clothes have on the perceptions and reactions of others,” Galinsky and his research partner were interested in the effect clothes had on the wearer. “We posit that wearing clothes causes people to ‘embody’ the clothing and its symbolic meaning,” they wrote. The pimp-clothes revelation wasn’t just a hunch; it was now actually supported by research.
I learned all of this not long after having my own clothing epiphany. No, I haven’t dressed as a pimp (and I have no plans to). But a couple years ago, when I was making my way out of a phase of depression, I started to fully appreciate the psychological power of my wardrobe. In this moment of being desperate not to feel worse, and paying close attention to how certain things made me feel, I could sense a pleasant mood-uplift from little sartorial details, like the way the cuff of a sweater aligns with the shirt-cuff and wristwatch underneath, or the feel of a immaculately fitted pair of jeans. For the first time in my 30-plus years, I saw clothing as a kind of magic, whereby simply from wearing a certain combination of garments, I could get a tangible boost of confidence or energy.
And, as it turns out, this is not a small detail about our brains—it’s actually fundamental to who we are. You can go all the way back to cave dwellers, says Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and author of the book, Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy, and “even back then, people spent time and energy collecting trinkets to wear, thinking about what they might look good in.” One of the founding fathers of psychology, William James, saw clothes as more closely connected to our identity than our families, home, or property.
And this, as far as my mental health is concerned, is both exciting and frightening.
It wasn’t long into this new and pleasant clothes-consciousness that I began to wonder if my passion could ever turn into something dark. After all, I am, in ways both beneficial and detrimental, an obsession-prone person. And, beyond that, I’ve read Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger’s unforgettable account of his self-described “Gucci Addiction,” so I know at least one dramatic way that this story could end. And, indeed, as I talked to experts, it became clear that for some people relying on a mood "fix" from clothing could be a slippery slope into addiction.
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“Most definitions of compulsive buying disorder include repeated, difficult-to-control urges to buy,” says Elias Aboujaoude, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, who has researched compulsive purchasing. When I ask him how I would know if I drift into dangerous territory, he shares with me what amounts to a three-part warning system. One element is the fact that, if you can’t control your buying urges, you’re in trouble. Another sign is shopping behavior that results in what he calls “serious negative downstream consequences” in a person’s financial, personal, or professional life. And a third is the simple measure of whether shopping behavior is making you feel worse, not better.
Other experts offer similar ideas. Obsessiveness could be a sign that a person’s relationship to clothing is veering into unhealthy territory, says Carolyn Mair, a cognitive psychologist, consultant, and former professor of psychology for fashion at University of the Arts London. Abraham Rutchick, a professor of psychology at the California State University Northridge, encourages me to look out for whether clothes become my sole source of enjoyment, as opposed to part of diverse portfolio of joy in life.
When I speak with Galinsky—the pimp costume researcher—he mentions the idea that impairment is a thing to watch out for. For example, if losing my favorite shirt meant not being able get out of bed or leave the house for days, then I’ve got a problem. “If you feel better when you wear the shirt, but you’re not debilitated when you don’t wear it, I don’t think that’s a problem,” he says.
Yarrow assures me that my revamping my style for the sake of altering my mood is perfectly healthy. “What’s not normal [or] healthy is feeling guilty about it,” she says. Caring about clothes is simply human, she says, “And frankly, compared to all of the other things that people do to feel calm, to feel seen, to feel confident, it’s really pretty healthy,” she says.
Beyond feeling a bit relieved—my clothing behavior, unlike the frequency of my book-purchasing, remains in a Safe Zone—I leave these conversations with a new and powerful awareness of just how dramatically clothes light up our minds. Clothes are a way that we express ourselves and communicate with each other, a manner in which we try to attract potential romantic partners, and get into costume for our professional lives. Clothes are a link with a deep strands of human history. Getting dressed every morning is actually a complex psychological negotiation with ourselves and the world.
And, at times, clothing might actually serve as kind of barometer for our overall mental well-being. “People who are [dealing with] poor mental health tend not worry at all about what they’re wearing, couldn’t care less what they’re wearing, and really lose interest in most things, including their clothes,” Mair says. In this light, you could argue that my recent passion for clothes isn’t a sign of illness, but just the opposite: a sign of health and of vitality.
But even if I’m unlikely to get addicted to shopping, could using clothing as a mood-lift send me tumbling into an ever-more expensive cycle of materialism? Not necessarily.
My conversations with experts also prompted a reassuring realization that, for me at least, the amount of joy I take from clothing isn’t directly related to its cost. In fact, wearing clothes that are too expensive or loudly luxurious makes me uncomfortable; that’s not the kind of vibe I like to put out. My uniform tends to be sneakers, jeans, and a button-down shirt. And some of the most fun I’ve had during my fashion renaissance—which happens to have coincided with the rise of Donald Trump—has been purchasing T-shirts for various news organizations, like the New York Times and Washington Post, and proudly wearing them at my gym and other public places. I am a journalist and journalism teacher, and these shirts are an expression of some of my deepest values at a moment when they’re under attack. Meanwhile, when I wear my simple, gray $20-dollar t-shirt from New York Public Library that says “What are you reading now?” I feel surge of happiness equal to anything I feel wearing my nicest suit.
And this, Mair explains to me, is because fashion is psychology. “It’s all about our self-identity, it’s all about our behavior,” she says. “We behave in a particular way depending on what we’re wearing.” Clothes are our second skin and they are our outward face to the world. Even when people say they’re not interested in fashion, what they buy and wear says something about them, she says. And, really, who would want to opt out of this realm of expression and communication and performance and armoring?
Toward the end of our conversation, Galinsky he tells me about one of his father’s “giant” old sweaters that now belongs to him. He rarely actually saw his father wear it; he grew up in North Carolina, where it usually isn't cold enough to require it. But then when his father passed away in a car accident 13 years ago, he inherited the sweater.
“I still have it to this day,” he tells me, “and every time I put it on, it just makes me feel so good to feel closer to my dad.”
Hearing this banished any lingering worries over the feelings clothes elicit. Of course we’re going to feel strongly about what we wear. As Mair reminds me, “if you think of a body, what we wear is probably eighty percent of our appearance.” So—with the exception of nudists—when people see us in the world, they see mostly clothes. And it’s mostly clothes we see when we look in the mirror, too.
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