What cognitive psychology studies reveal about fashion
Monday, January 17, 2011After tweeting about the possible role of cognitive science on fashion design, I decided that it was past time to look into this in more detail. Interestingly, there are a few wake up calls within the research world – one team (Moody, Kinderman and Sinha, 2010) echoes my own statement that there has been very little formal research using cognitive psychological methodologies into the problem of how people experience the wearing of fashion. There has been several investigations using social science approaches into the impacts of fashion on how other people perceive us as a result of the clothes that we wear, especially during the 1980s and 1990s, and quite a few on how we perceive fashions from the perspective of developing virtual simulations of fashions, in the late 1990s and early in the first decade of 2000. There is also a growing interest in developing computer software to assist in making decisions about clothes, or in support of the development of virtual fitting rooms so that people may get a better feel of clothes and fit before buying them online. Also, in the 1990s, several research teams became interested in understanding the tactile properties and perceptions of clothes.
I will try to summarize some aspects of these diverse types of research. As always with research, there are large gaps where knowledge is still very skimpy, and other areas where, although some research exists, studies using rigorous methodologies and large groups from which it is possible to develop broad and robust generalizations are lacking. Also, please note that my list of relevant research is but a limited view of a much larger field of inquiry.
How our apparel choices affect the judgements other make of us
This was the focus of several studies particularly in the 1970s through to the 1990s. For example, in 1991, research on how the dress of children affects the perception of intelligence among teachers found that teachers’ judgements of intelligence were clearly influenced by style of dress (Behling and Williams, 1991). Another study of adults showed that when people were exposed to images of a person wearing conservative or casual clothing styles, they saw these people as more self-controlled and reliable ; people clothed in a dressier style conveyed a sense of social unease ; and people dressed in a daring style were found to be attractive and individualistic (Paek, 1986). A study of nurses in the same era showed that nurses who were dressed in nurses costumes were viewed with greater trust than those in casual dress. A range of other studies showed similar influences in clothing choices on the perceptions of others. In fact, these studies are often cited when coaching people to dress well for job interviews – clothing choice matters in such circumstances.
How apparel conveys meaning
A number of studies attempted to grapple with the issue of how clothing choices convey meaning to others. Interestingly, several studies which attempted to find straightforward correlations came up with mixed results or were inconclusive. Out of this emerged a consensus that, although clothing conveys meaning, the meanings it conveys are not easy to untangle – they are determined to a great extent by context, but also by so-called subculture. That is, if the wearer and the observer belong to the same sub-culture, the message is clearly understand, but if they belong to different sub-cultures, sometimes the messages are lost or become confused. In a recent study, it was pointed out that fashion serves at least four different purposes, and that the meaning conveyed by clothing may be different depending on the purpose sought (Venkatesh, Joy, Sherry Jr and Deschenes, 2010). The four purposes include fashion as wearable art, as a way of forming or maintaining identity, as a commentary on the body, or as a reflection of body image.
In other research concerned with the relationship between cultural clothing choices and individual emotion, researchers found that strong ethnic identification leads to particular choices of apparel and that these choices are matched by strong feelings (Chattaraman and Lennon, 2008). Related studies found that the process of acculturation by immigrant groups affects fashion choices, especially as language competency grows (Hu, 2010), and that during the integration stage of acculturation, fashion satisfaction with both original fashion choices and dominant culture fashion choices may be low (Potts, 2009). There needs to be some form of intermediate fashion offerings – the case involved Muslim women who were looking for more modest clothing choices than are generally found in North American fashion outlets.
Managing emotion and identity through clothing choices
The relationship between emotion and clothing is also found in other research studies. For the past decade, the study of emotion has become mainstream in psychological research and the results of this concentrated effort are increasingly present in the research literature. In the exploratory study by Wendy Moody, Peter Kinderman and Pammi Sinha cited at the beginning of this post (Moody, Kinderman and Sinha, 2010), emotion and mood were found to be managed and reflected through clothing. Although personality played into clothing choices, mood was a much stronger predictor. The authors caution that the small size of their first study group limit the generalizability of their findings, however, and promise more as the study moves forward. These modern studies complement earlier findings that found clothing selection to be influenced by mood, but more so in women than among men (Kwon, 1991). Other modern studies show, for example, how Arab women managers use clothing choice as a way of dealing with conflicting identities in the work environment (Omair, 2009).
And in another area of research altogether, several studies show how clothing may be used by people with disability, chronic illness such as rheumatism (Goodacre and Candy, 2010), disfiguring scars (Brown, Moss, McGrouther and Bayat, 2010) or dementia (Twigg, 2010) to manage their emotions and contribute to their sense of identity. Likewise, a study of the “Lolita” subculture in Hong Kong (Rahman, Wing-sun, Lam and Mong-tai, 2011) shows how young people using contextual clothing choices to handle contradictions in identity. In many ways, this research into groups usually considered to be marginal is ground-breaking and yielding new insights into the relationships between fashion and clothing choice, personal and social identity, emotion and meaning. Just to take one case in point, the study into disfiguring scars (Brown,, Moss, McGrouther and Bayat, 2010) showed that patients with non-visible scars experience greater distress than patients with visible scars, irregardless of scar type (yes, greater stress when non-visible!). This result is consistent with other studies into disfiguring conditions, and suggests that clothing needs to allow “revelation” and not simple conceal these scars!
How Clothing Affects Our Self-Perception
In addition to the emotional and identity management effects discussed above, clothing choices may also influence our self-perception in other ways. A 1994 study showed that clothing enhances people’s self perception of a range of “occupational attributes”, including responsibility, competency, knowledgeability, professionalism, honesty, reliability, intelligence, trustworthiness, willingness to work hard and efficiency (Kwon, 1994). That is, by wearing appropriate clothes, a person’s sense of these traits was augmented. This result was further reinforced in a more recent study that showed that people who are dressed more formally use more formal language to describe themselves, compared to the casually dressed who use more casual language (Hanover and Kühnen, 2006). An overview paper (Tombs, 2010) notes that fashion affects both our self-concept and our internal feelings, but also affects our forms of symbolic and emotional expression. He sees the first two as “inward oriented” and the second pair as “outward oriented” within a communications model. This understanding parallels the communication model discussed in the previous post. Tombs notes that “people consume fashion to fulfill emotional needs”.
Summary and Assessment of the Importance of these Results
In summary, although the current state of research into what one might call the socio-psychology of fashion is incomplete, a number of revealing findings are nonetheless emerging. Hence, although it has long been understood that a person’s fashion choices affect how others see us, it has become increasingly clear that clothing choices also contribute to our self-concept and internal (emotional) organization! Third, they constitute a powerful means of negotiating with social expectations within culture… and also subculture. There are major implications here both for designers, but also for fashion marketeers. But that is a story for another time.
Behling, Dorothy U., and Elizabeth A. Williams, 1991, Influence of Dress on Perception of Intelligence and Expectations of Scholastic Achievement, Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 9(4): 1-7
Brown, B.C., T.P. Moss, D.A. McGrouther and A. Bayat, 2010, Sin scar preconceptions must be challenged : Importance of self-perception in skin scarring, Int. Journal of Surgical Reconstruction 63(6): 1022-1029
Chattaraman, Veena, and Sharron J. Lennon, 2008, Ethnic Identity, consumption of cultural apparel, and self-perceptions of ethnic consumers, J. Fashion Marketing and Management, 12(4): 518-531
Goodacre, Lynne J., and Fiona J. Candy, 2010, ‘If I didn’t have RA I wouldn’t give them house room’: the relationship between RA, footwear and clothing choices, Rheumatology 50(2)
Hanover, Bettina, and Ulrich Kühnen, 2006, “The Clothing Makes the Self” Via Knowledge Activation, J. Applied Social Psych. 32(12): 2513-2525
Hu, Xiaoyu, 2010, Self concept, acculturation, and fashion orientation, M.Sc. Management thesis, Brock University
Kwon, Yoon-Hee, 1994, The Influence of Appropriateness of Dress and Gender on the Self-Perception of Occupational Attributes, Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 12(3): 33-39
Kwon, Yoon-Hee, 1991, The Influence of the Perception of Mood and Self-Consciousness on the Selection of Clothing, Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 9(4): 41-46
Moody, Wendy, Peter Kinderman & Pammi Sinha, 2010, An exploratory study : Relationships between trying on clothing, mood, emotion, personality and clothing preference, Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management 14(1): 161-179
Omair, Katlin, 2009, Arab women managers and identity formation through clothing, Gender in Management : An International Journal 24(6): 412-431
Paek, Soae L., 1986, Effect of Garment Style on the Perception of Personal Traits, Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 5(1): 10-15
Potts, Johnna, 2009, Lifting the Veil on Fashion : Filling the Gaps Between Modesty and Fashion Apparel, Education and Human Ecology Honors Thesis, Ohio State University
Rahman, Osmud, Liu Wing-sun, Elita Lam and Chan Mong-tai, 2011, “Lolita”: Imaginative Self and Elusive Consumption, Fashion Theory : The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture 15(1): 7-28
Tombs, Alastaire, 2010, Do our Feelings Leak Through the Clothes We Wear? Australian & New Zealand Marketing Academy
Twigg, Julia, 2010, Clothing and dementia : A neglected dimension? Journal of Aging Studies 24(4): 223-230
Venkatesh, Alladi, Annamma Joy, John F. Sherry Jr. and Jonathan Deschenes, The aesthetics of luxury fashion, body and identity formation, 2010, J. Consumer Psych. 20: 459-470