Your clothes affect your mental health. Here’s what you need to know.


 

Isn’t it incredible how wearing a particular look can make us feel much more self-assured ? 

You might now be asking: How do you know you feel like yourself? It’s when you walk on the street and a feeling of confidence reverberates through your body. That’s you. The real you. And it feels amazing!

Fashion is more than just functional, it’s a way of expression and empowerment that can trigger our emotions in a positive way. But what happens when it goes the other way around?

At Les Izmoor, we stand for the promotion of reflective purchases that can help reduce waste and change an established system that harms the environment. Today, we wanted to examine the impact that a conscious approach can have not only on the planet but also on the human mind. To explore this topic, we connected with Tena, a cultural anthropologist who recently published a research about the connection between fashion and mental health. We asked her to share with us her story and her most important findings. 

Without any further ado, here’s what Tena shared with us!

 

How I got into fashion and mental health

My interest in mental health and fashion is largely a result of my own experience. When I got my first proper job after graduating, I felt the need to suddenly invest in my wardrobe and buy clothes that would present me as a serious person. I started attending a lot of business meetings and conferences, and I thought that matching blazers and pants would make me feel confident. But they didn’t. I always felt out of place. Also, they just looked awkward on my body, making me feel very self-conscious, to the point where I’d rather be in the back seat than in front of an audience.

Until one day, when I decided to attend a meeting with a big client in jeans, high-heel boots, and a blazer with pins. I felt fantastic! And guess what: the client still took me seriously and listened carefully to my presentation. Not long after this, I started to learn about sustainability and ethics in fashion. And the more I embraced slow fashion, the more confident I felt in my clothes. I shopped less but I started curating my wardrobe carefully. 

This is because clothes are much more than functional objects on our bodies. They can be an extension of our identities, they can help us express, communicate, and connect. Learning this opened a whole new world for me. 

With time, I met other people who went through a similar journey. So, I got interested in how clothes connect to our mental health and started reading about it everywhere. After months of research, discussions, and connecting with other slow fashion enthusiasts, I decided to sum everything up. And, trust me, this is just a start!

No universal way in which clothes affect us

Possibly the most important thing I learned is that there’s no universal way clothes affect us and our mental states. Some ideas, like colour psychology, might be popular. In particular, it’s an idea that certain colours affect or encourage moods: blue is calming, red is passionate, and orange is energising, and so on. Well, the thing is that our perception of colours depends on the context. This is why psychology developed the colour-in-context theory, which speaks exactly about that. In other words, how we experience clothes is a result of a complex interaction between our own inner selves and the cultural and social context around us. The clothes can mediate between those two, which is a reason why they are so powerful and why many of us feel attached to them.

Yet, the attachment to our clothes isn’t a bad thing. On the contrary, it’s very human, and if we better understand this, we can find ways to use it to our advantage. Sometimes, we like to call this finding our own style.

 

Ever heard of enclothed cognition?

A great way to start understanding how clothes affect us is by learning about enclothed cognition. This term describes how an experience of wearing clothes has psychological and behavioural consequences. In the original series of experiments, psychologists Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky found out that a white coat, associated with doctors, increases the attention of the person wearing it. However, the same coat, when associated with another type of profession, like a painter, doesn’t have such an effect.

That is to say that enclothed cognition depends on two factors: the symbolic meaning of the clothes and the physical experience of wearing them. So, the same clothing item, say a long beach dress, can feel comfortable on holidays but not so good on a formal occasion. Unless perhaps that formal occasion is a beach wedding, and everyone is wearing a similar thing. I’m sure you get the point!

What enclothed cognition and other research from psychology, sociology, anthropology, and similar disciplines, shows is that we feel the clothes very intimately. We may not always be aware of that, but clothes tie deep with who we are or who we want to be.

 

Ads aren’t necessarily bad for us, unless…

Now, when the industry that makes and sells clothes speeds up, our connection with clothes becomes fragile. Keep in mind that through most of human history, fashion has been about slow, small-scale, and (mainly) local business and trade. Historically speaking, it wasn’t that long ago that clothes making turned into a massive industry, led by profit over craftsmanship. In the past couple of decades, fast fashion started dominating the industry, making overproduction and overconsumption the main characteristic of fashion. Because for fast fashion to be profitable (and make sense), we need to keep buying. Thus all the trends, ads, offers, and discounts. 

The trouble is that keeping up with the constant newness in the industry and chasing the trends, can be stressful. You might have experienced it too: you can never quite catch up with it all. And yet, our brains are constantly stimulated and we are encouraged to always look for the next item to buy. 

While buying something new can bring short-term satisfaction, in the long term it can increase the levels of stress and anxiety because it puts us in a constant state of an emergency. Sometimes, this can lead to shopping addictions or compulsive disorders. Moreover, participating in fast fashion can make us overlook the value of our clothes and focus on what’s in trend, rather than what we like. It might seem like a minor thing until we realise that we can end up with closets full of clothes and still feel empty. If that anyhow sounds familiar to you, you’ll know how alienating fast fashion can be. Slowing this down is not only good for the environment but it may help you reconnect with your style and clothes.

 

Is social media harmful?

We cannot ignore the fact that social media (and especially Instagram as a visually oriented platform) had a big role in promoting fast fashion and consumption. Here’s how I see this.

Apart from having an influence on us, as individuals, fashion is also a visual and aesthetic representation of society, history, and geography. Fashion projects images of lifestyles and aspirations. While there’s no one lifestyle or uniform image it creates and sends, fashion is largely about what we imagine to achieve. Unfortunately, for decades, fashion has been projecting an image that excludes large parts of the population. We can see this the best in an image of a perfect body. Though things are definitely changing in recent years, we still largely see the same type of body in fashion: thin, tall, white, and young. 

Of course, this isn’t anything new. However, with the rise of social media, we entered an era when we constantly compare ourselves to others. In many ways, social media is a perfect platform for fast fashion: they are both based on constant novelty, speed, and trends. A good example of this is the growth of #OOTD (Outfit of the Day) on Instagram: a trend of wearing an outfit only once. Moreover, many feel a mental burden of being on social media (even when they are perceived as successful).

However, this doesn’t mean that social media is bad for our mental health. In fact, research shows that our connection to social media is far more complex than this. This is because people aren’t just passive users of technology. Many are using social media not only to create meaningful connections or keep relationships alive but also as a platform to advocate for things they care about. We have witnessed many social movements that grew thanks to social media. Even when it comes to fashion, the growth of slow and sustainable fashion is, at least partly, thanks to social media. In my view, social media is a tool that can be powerful when used well.

 

Feeling unease? There are things you can do.

To stay on the topic of social media, one thing that helped me a lot is curating my online space. What I mean by this is that I unfollowed many accounts that encouraged me to compare myself with others or to shop more. Instead, I looked for those who can teach me something or help me work on myself. Most of us spend large parts of our day on social media, so it’s important to make it a safe space, focused on what’s good for us. 

I also made sure to unsubscribe from big brand’s emails, and overall started avoiding the situations in which I knew I’ll be exposed to constant ads and pressure to buy. Once again, ads aren’t essentially a negative thing but I decided to limit the amounts that get to me daily. This way, I got less discarded and I started having more time for things that matter to me. 

I suggest you try the same. Unfollow people and accounts that make you feel unease in any way. They aren’t worth your time nor mental energy. I guarantee: you’ll feel much better!

 

How to shop and stay true to yourself: my 3 tips

Slowing down our fashion consumption can have great benefits for our mental well-being. Largely, this is because, once we stop focusing on trends and ads, we can focus on our style. When I say “style” I don’t mean any particular aesthetic. Rather, I mean figuring out the colours, cuts, pieces, patterns, etc. that fit our needs, lifestyles, and personal taste. 

Even after years of being into slow fashion, this is an ongoing process for me. And that’s fine, remember: it’s not about rushing but slowing down. Still, there are ways you can figure out your style and stay true to yourself when shopping. Here are 3 tips I have for you:

  1. Make a visual representation of your ideal wardrobe

A couple of years ago, I created a Pinterest board with clothes I like. I started by just freely pinning pieces I’d find on the internet, and I’m regularly updating and checking my board. It’s a visual representation and a reminder of what I like. And as my needs change, my board changes slightly too. For example, I’ve been pinning a lot more dresses and flowy tops than before, probably because I started working from home. I even refer to my board when considering a new purchase. It helps me see if a new item would fit my ideal wardrobe.

  1. Wait before you buy

Another thing that is essential when shopping for clothes is taking the time and resisting to buy something immediately. I usually give it about a week before I buy something. If I still want an item after this period, I know that I’m more likely to actually wear it. This time also allows me to think of all the combinations and uses I can get out of an item, which is important. Clothes are an investment and as such, we should be able to make the most out of them!

  1. Visit your closet regularly

I organise and re-arrange my closet at least every couple of months. I make sure that every piece has its place and is properly stored. Not only that this helps clothes last longer but it allows me to know what exactly I have in there. It helps a lot when shopping for something new because I’m less likely to buy something that doesn’t go with anything else I own. It definitely helps me be more mindful of my clothes. 

Of course, there’s no magical formula. After all, as I mentioned earlier, the way clothes impact us is very personal and context-depending. Yet, hope the above tips give you at least some inspiration to start with. 

 

We at Les Izmoor certainly learned a lot from Tena! If you’d like to learn even more, you can check out her research or visit her website. In the meantime, we are always interested in hearing about anyone’s experience with fashion and mental health. Have a story or tips to share on the topic? If yes, we’d love to hear about it!


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