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ScienceSocietySpiegeloog 411: Power

Express Yourself!

By May 7, 2021June 8th, 2021No Comments

How do we pick what we are going to wear in the morning? What influences our clothing style? These questions seem to be quite complicated, as research shows the way we dress may not be as straightforward as it seems.

How do we pick what we are going to wear in the morning? What influences our clothing style? These questions seem to be quite complicated, as research shows the way we dress may not be as straightforward as it seems.

Illustration by Chitra Mohanlal
Illustration by Chitra Mohanlal

At some point in our lives, most of us were given the advice to just ‘be ourselves,’ to dress how we want, to express ourselves. And some of us might have dismissed it, often with the words ‘But they won’t like me wearing that!’ As such, we sometimes avoid clothing that we’d actually want to wear and opt for pieces we know our friends would like. In my personal life, I’ve often had my friends ask me what they will be wearing to a social event, in order to make sure none of us stands out too much. The fear of rejection and standing out too much is something universal – we are human beings, we want to belong. When faced with a new social group, we are tempted to say we like the same music or the same TV show as the majority of the group. Research has shown that those similar to us are more likely to be loved, trusted and accepted (Nijstad, 2009). Yet, we are all built differently – we’ve experienced life in a way nobody else has. Hence, the need to belong clashes with the inherent desire to show the world who we are. In which case – would people choose to be themselves, or would they choose clothing that adheres to the norms of their social groups? Is clothing a confidence booster, used to showcase who we are, or is it just something that we use to hide our insecurities?

“We all want to portray ourselves in congruence with our identity, but on the other hand – we also want to be accepted.”

Clothing is one of the tools in the box of self-expression. For example, people often select specific brands to wear, because their image coincides with people’s own image of themselves (Chernev, Hamilton & Gal, 2011; Rashid, 2020). To illustrate, some brands were found to be thought of as exerting competence. They were chosen by those who want to portray themselves as diligent and reliable co-workers.

The connection between clothing and one’s self-identity seems to be so strong that research has discovered style and clothing choices persevere even after the onset of dementia (Buse & Twigg, 2015). As such, people seem to be even subconsciously motivated to stay true to themselves. The need to be who you really are is overwhelming, and clothing seems to be a satisfactory option to consider when seeking out ways to express oneself.

In addition to seeking self validation, people are also motivated to feel validated by others. As previously stated, we subconsciously categorize those similar to us as in-group members and as such we trust and like them more (Nijstad, 2009). Following this line of reasoning – clothing can be used to signal to others that we are similar to them, without having said a word. And that similarity can then lead to validation by having others relate themselves to us.

As we all know, first impressions are powerful (South Palomares & Young, 2018). Most of us have experienced the anxiety of having to choose the perfect outfit prior to meeting a new group of friends. We all want to portray ourselves in congruence with our identity, but on the other hand – we also want to be accepted. Considering that clothing acts as a sign of a particular social identity of an individual (Akdemir, 2018), it is easy to imagine there is quite a bit of pressure put onto which shirt to wear. Do you wear your favourite band t-shirt? Or do you go for a more preppy ensemble? What happens when you feel more like yourself wearing one of those, but you know your mates will prefer the other?

Suppose your heart yearns for the band t-shirt, but your friends love their button-ups and cashmere sweaters. A prominent psychological theory, known as Cognitive Dissonance Theory (Nijstad, 2009), states that such a difference between cognition (what we actually want to wear) and behavior (choosing to wear something we dislike) makes us feel highly uncomfortable. So what do people do with these feelings? According to the theory, they will either change their cognition or behavior in order to alleviate the discomfort. To illustrate with our example – they will either start identifying with the preppy style, or they will remain true to their Self and choose the band t-shirt.

It will come as no surprise that, often enough, people faced with the choice between conformity and identity do not actually showcase their true style. For example, a study discovered that their participants choose their clothes and style based on comfort, but also on adherence to norms – the participants stated they avoid clothing that will make them stand out too much in their corresponding social groups (Noh, Li, Martin & Purpura, 2015; Auty & Elliott, 2001) (A/N: Note that these studies have been conducted in individualistic cultures, more specifically –  the U.S.A. and the U.K. – and as such, collectivistic cultures may vary in these findings).

“We control our appearance in order to control people’s perception of who we are.”

In order to gain a better understanding of why we dress the way we do, it is useful to take a look and trends in society and how they have emerged. To begin with, previous research has shown thinner men tend to go for clothing styles traditionally associated with masculinity (Buetow, 2020). The explanation is that thinner men aim to gain confidence with clothes in an area they otherwise are lacking in. On the other end, women have been found to wear the colour red or black when they want to be perceived as seductive, as these colours are generally associated with passion and sexuality (Roberts, Owen & Havlicek, 2010). As such, a pattern emerges, in which some of us tend to conform to our respective gender stereotypes – men as masculine, women as sexually appealing. In sum – not only do we restrict our self-expression to be in congruence with our peers, but also congruence with society’s expectations for men and women.

On a more negative note, research has discovered a connection between body dissatisfaction, eating disorders and choice of clothing (Trautmann, Worthy & Lokken, 2007). More specifically, individuals who are dissatisfied with their appearance will choose to hide their bodies. Examples include avoidance of bright-coloured or tightly-fitting clothing and a preference for oversized clothes. To summarize, it appears clothes may also be used as a way to protect oneself, to camouflage insecurities, perhaps in order to avoid negative peer evaluation. After all, if you do not like the way you look, why would others? To you, it would make sense to hide it. The paper also states that such individuals would avoid shopping for new clothes. In a sense, clothes would then become something negative. Dressing oneself in the morning will be an act of hiding yourself, as opposed to an act of self-expression.

However, even if clothes can be used to conform to norms, what if the norms are who you actually want to be? As discussed above, women may wear the colour red if they want to be attractive (Roberts, Owen & Havlicek, 2010). But that does not necessarily mean that the individual is solely wearing red to appeal to others. Perhaps they are feeling attractive and they seek to express that by wearing red, not necessarily to appeal to others, but to enjoy themselves. Furthermore, research has shown men’s adherence to particular masculinity norms in dressing can be protective against depression (Iwamoto, Brady, Kaya & Park, 2018).

Another way clothes can help us gain confidence is through their ability to exert social influence and demonstrate reputation. Through clothes we are able to tell others of our status (Kodžoman, 2019). Or rather – we inform others of the status we wish to portray. We control our appearance in order to control people’s perception of who we are. In addition, Kodžoman (2019) has discovered that we do not simply choose a certain colour to wear because of its effects on others, but also because of its effects on our own confidence. This would further support the point that women might choose the colour red not because of its appeal, but because it helps them feel more confident. Lastly, one study found that people, their self-concept and their self-expression are strongly connected to their clothing style (Piacentini & Mailer, 2004). Not only that, but the clothing that best fits their self-concept acts as role fulfillment, making the individual feel more capable and confident.

All in all, clothing is merely a tool. It can both make us stand out or mix with the crowd. It can also be used to either fit our best interest, or fit what society wants to see from us. However, I would choose to argue that only we can forge our own identity, and when we do – it will be something completely unique to us. So why hide it? Being honest with yourself and others will ultimately help you discover where you truly belong. And when you do, you will definitely recognize how much power being your authentic self can give you. <<

References

– Auty, S., & Elliott, R. (2001). Being like or being liked: identity vs. approval in a social context. ACR North American Advances.
– Akdemir, N. (2018). Visible Expression of Social Identity: the Clothing and Fashion. Gaziantep Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Dergisi, 17(4), 1389-1397.
– Buetow, S. (2020). The Thin Man is His Clothing: Dressing Masculine to be Masculine. Journal of Medical Humanities, 41(3), 429-437.
– Buse, C. E., & Twigg, J. (2015). Clothing, embodied identity and dementia: Maintaining the self through dress. Age, Culture, Humanities, (2).
– Chernev, A., Hamilton, R., & Gal, D. (2011). Competing for consumer identity: Limits to self-expression and the perils of lifestyle branding. Journal of Marketing, 75(3), 66-82.
– Trautmann, J., Worthy, S. L., & Lokken, K. L. (2007). Body dissatisfaction, bulimic symptoms, and clothing practices among college women. The Journal of Psychology, 141(5), 485-498.
– Iwamoto, D. K., Brady, J., Kaya, A., & Park, A. (2018). Masculinity and depression: A longitudinal investigation of multidimensional masculine norms among college men. American journal of men’s health, 12(6), 1873-1881.
– Kodžoman, D. (2019). THE PSYCHOLOGY OF CLOTHING: Meaning of Colors, Body Image and Gender Expression in Fashion. Textile & Leather Review, 2(2), 90-103.
– Nijstad, B. A. (2009). Group Performance. New York: Psychology Press.
– Noh, M., Li, M., Martin, K., & Purpura, J. (2015). College men’s fashion: Clothing preference, identity, and avoidance. Fashion and Textiles, 2(1), 1-12.
– Piacentini, M., & Mailer, G. (2004). Symbolic consumption in teenagers’ clothing choices. Journal of Consumer Behaviour: An International Research Review, 3(3), 251-262.
– Rashid, I. D. (2020). Psychological aspects of fashion’s ınfluence on lifestyle formation. Revista Conrado, 16(77), 42-49. 
– Roberts, S. C., Owen, R. C., & Havlicek, J. (2010). Distinguishing between perceiver and wearer effects in clothing color-associated attributions. Evolutionary Psychology, 8(3), 147470491000800304.
– South Palomares, J. K., & Young, A. W. (2018). Facial first impressions of partner preference traits: Trustworthiness, status, and attractiveness. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 9(8), 990-1000.

At some point in our lives, most of us were given the advice to just ‘be ourselves,’ to dress how we want, to express ourselves. And some of us might have dismissed it, often with the words ‘But they won’t like me wearing that!’ As such, we sometimes avoid clothing that we’d actually want to wear and opt for pieces we know our friends would like. In my personal life, I’ve often had my friends ask me what they will be wearing to a social event, in order to make sure none of us stands out too much. The fear of rejection and standing out too much is something universal – we are human beings, we want to belong. When faced with a new social group, we are tempted to say we like the same music or the same TV show as the majority of the group. Research has shown that those similar to us are more likely to be loved, trusted and accepted (Nijstad, 2009). Yet, we are all built differently – we’ve experienced life in a way nobody else has. Hence, the need to belong clashes with the inherent desire to show the world who we are. In which case – would people choose to be themselves, or would they choose clothing that adheres to the norms of their social groups? Is clothing a confidence booster, used to showcase who we are, or is it just something that we use to hide our insecurities?

“We all want to portray ourselves in congruence with our identity, but on the other hand – we also want to be accepted.”

Clothing is one of the tools in the box of self-expression. For example, people often select specific brands to wear, because their image coincides with people’s own image of themselves (Chernev, Hamilton & Gal, 2011; Rashid, 2020). To illustrate, some brands were found to be thought of as exerting competence. They were chosen by those who want to portray themselves as diligent and reliable co-workers.

The connection between clothing and one’s self-identity seems to be so strong that research has discovered style and clothing choices persevere even after the onset of dementia (Buse & Twigg, 2015). As such, people seem to be even subconsciously motivated to stay true to themselves. The need to be who you really are is overwhelming, and clothing seems to be a satisfactory option to consider when seeking out ways to express oneself.

In addition to seeking self validation, people are also motivated to feel validated by others. As previously stated, we subconsciously categorize those similar to us as in-group members and as such we trust and like them more (Nijstad, 2009). Following this line of reasoning – clothing can be used to signal to others that we are similar to them, without having said a word. And that similarity can then lead to validation by having others relate themselves to us.

As we all know, first impressions are powerful (South Palomares & Young, 2018). Most of us have experienced the anxiety of having to choose the perfect outfit prior to meeting a new group of friends. We all want to portray ourselves in congruence with our identity, but on the other hand – we also want to be accepted. Considering that clothing acts as a sign of a particular social identity of an individual (Akdemir, 2018), it is easy to imagine there is quite a bit of pressure put onto which shirt to wear. Do you wear your favourite band t-shirt? Or do you go for a more preppy ensemble? What happens when you feel more like yourself wearing one of those, but you know your mates will prefer the other?

Suppose your heart yearns for the band t-shirt, but your friends love their button-ups and cashmere sweaters. A prominent psychological theory, known as Cognitive Dissonance Theory (Nijstad, 2009), states that such a difference between cognition (what we actually want to wear) and behavior (choosing to wear something we dislike) makes us feel highly uncomfortable. So what do people do with these feelings? According to the theory, they will either change their cognition or behavior in order to alleviate the discomfort. To illustrate with our example – they will either start identifying with the preppy style, or they will remain true to their Self and choose the band t-shirt.

It will come as no surprise that, often enough, people faced with the choice between conformity and identity do not actually showcase their true style. For example, a study discovered that their participants choose their clothes and style based on comfort, but also on adherence to norms – the participants stated they avoid clothing that will make them stand out too much in their corresponding social groups (Noh, Li, Martin & Purpura, 2015; Auty & Elliott, 2001) (A/N: Note that these studies have been conducted in individualistic cultures, more specifically –  the U.S.A. and the U.K. – and as such, collectivistic cultures may vary in these findings).

“We control our appearance in order to control people’s perception of who we are.”

In order to gain a better understanding of why we dress the way we do, it is useful to take a look and trends in society and how they have emerged. To begin with, previous research has shown thinner men tend to go for clothing styles traditionally associated with masculinity (Buetow, 2020). The explanation is that thinner men aim to gain confidence with clothes in an area they otherwise are lacking in. On the other end, women have been found to wear the colour red or black when they want to be perceived as seductive, as these colours are generally associated with passion and sexuality (Roberts, Owen & Havlicek, 2010). As such, a pattern emerges, in which some of us tend to conform to our respective gender stereotypes – men as masculine, women as sexually appealing. In sum – not only do we restrict our self-expression to be in congruence with our peers, but also congruence with society’s expectations for men and women.

On a more negative note, research has discovered a connection between body dissatisfaction, eating disorders and choice of clothing (Trautmann, Worthy & Lokken, 2007). More specifically, individuals who are dissatisfied with their appearance will choose to hide their bodies. Examples include avoidance of bright-coloured or tightly-fitting clothing and a preference for oversized clothes. To summarize, it appears clothes may also be used as a way to protect oneself, to camouflage insecurities, perhaps in order to avoid negative peer evaluation. After all, if you do not like the way you look, why would others? To you, it would make sense to hide it. The paper also states that such individuals would avoid shopping for new clothes. In a sense, clothes would then become something negative. Dressing oneself in the morning will be an act of hiding yourself, as opposed to an act of self-expression.

However, even if clothes can be used to conform to norms, what if the norms are who you actually want to be? As discussed above, women may wear the colour red if they want to be attractive (Roberts, Owen & Havlicek, 2010). But that does not necessarily mean that the individual is solely wearing red to appeal to others. Perhaps they are feeling attractive and they seek to express that by wearing red, not necessarily to appeal to others, but to enjoy themselves. Furthermore, research has shown men’s adherence to particular masculinity norms in dressing can be protective against depression (Iwamoto, Brady, Kaya & Park, 2018).

Another way clothes can help us gain confidence is through their ability to exert social influence and demonstrate reputation. Through clothes we are able to tell others of our status (Kodžoman, 2019). Or rather – we inform others of the status we wish to portray. We control our appearance in order to control people’s perception of who we are. In addition, Kodžoman (2019) has discovered that we do not simply choose a certain colour to wear because of its effects on others, but also because of its effects on our own confidence. This would further support the point that women might choose the colour red not because of its appeal, but because it helps them feel more confident. Lastly, one study found that people, their self-concept and their self-expression are strongly connected to their clothing style (Piacentini & Mailer, 2004). Not only that, but the clothing that best fits their self-concept acts as role fulfillment, making the individual feel more capable and confident.

All in all, clothing is merely a tool. It can both make us stand out or mix with the crowd. It can also be used to either fit our best interest, or fit what society wants to see from us. However, I would choose to argue that only we can forge our own identity, and when we do – it will be something completely unique to us. So why hide it? Being honest with yourself and others will ultimately help you discover where you truly belong. And when you do, you will definitely recognize how much power being your authentic self can give you. <<

References

– Auty, S., & Elliott, R. (2001). Being like or being liked: identity vs. approval in a social context. ACR North American Advances.
– Akdemir, N. (2018). Visible Expression of Social Identity: the Clothing and Fashion. Gaziantep Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Dergisi, 17(4), 1389-1397.
– Buetow, S. (2020). The Thin Man is His Clothing: Dressing Masculine to be Masculine. Journal of Medical Humanities, 41(3), 429-437.
– Buse, C. E., & Twigg, J. (2015). Clothing, embodied identity and dementia: Maintaining the self through dress. Age, Culture, Humanities, (2).
– Chernev, A., Hamilton, R., & Gal, D. (2011). Competing for consumer identity: Limits to self-expression and the perils of lifestyle branding. Journal of Marketing, 75(3), 66-82.
– Trautmann, J., Worthy, S. L., & Lokken, K. L. (2007). Body dissatisfaction, bulimic symptoms, and clothing practices among college women. The Journal of Psychology, 141(5), 485-498.
– Iwamoto, D. K., Brady, J., Kaya, A., & Park, A. (2018). Masculinity and depression: A longitudinal investigation of multidimensional masculine norms among college men. American journal of men’s health, 12(6), 1873-1881.
– Kodžoman, D. (2019). THE PSYCHOLOGY OF CLOTHING: Meaning of Colors, Body Image and Gender Expression in Fashion. Textile & Leather Review, 2(2), 90-103.
– Nijstad, B. A. (2009). Group Performance. New York: Psychology Press.
– Noh, M., Li, M., Martin, K., & Purpura, J. (2015). College men’s fashion: Clothing preference, identity, and avoidance. Fashion and Textiles, 2(1), 1-12.
– Piacentini, M., & Mailer, G. (2004). Symbolic consumption in teenagers’ clothing choices. Journal of Consumer Behaviour: An International Research Review, 3(3), 251-262.
– Rashid, I. D. (2020). Psychological aspects of fashion’s ınfluence on lifestyle formation. Revista Conrado, 16(77), 42-49. 
– Roberts, S. C., Owen, R. C., & Havlicek, J. (2010). Distinguishing between perceiver and wearer effects in clothing color-associated attributions. Evolutionary Psychology, 8(3), 147470491000800304.
– South Palomares, J. K., & Young, A. W. (2018). Facial first impressions of partner preference traits: Trustworthiness, status, and attractiveness. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 9(8), 990-1000.

 

Emanuela Zhecheva

Author Emanuela Zhecheva

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