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You Are What You Wear

Weill Cornell psychiatrist and founder of the Positive Prescription blog Dr. Samantha Boardman reports on the impact clothing can have on your outlook.

When it comes to clothing, dressing the part can improve your mood.

What we wear affects the way we feel. If you’ve ever played dress-up or seen a 7-year-old put on a superhero costume, you know exactly what I’m talking about. The moment my son changes into his Superman costume, the transformation occurs. The somewhat shy boy who was sitting calmly at the kitchen just moments ago morphs into a brave warrior ready for action. Even his younger sister seems taken aback by the transformation and eyes him warily, not quite recognizing who he has become. My son puffs up like a penguin with pride and marches around the house with a confident swagger. I watch him admire his new Styrofoam muscles in the mirror. Even his voice changes. It’s deeper, and he makes declarations like, “I am here to save the day.” And he means it.

Superheroes aside, a recent study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology elegantly demonstrates the way clothing and costumes affect us all. The study, conducted by two professors at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Chicago, had two sets of people wear the same white coat. One group was told the coat belonged to a doctor and the other group was told the coat belonged to a painter. The group wearing the “lab coat” showed a sharp increase in their ability to pay attention, while the group in “painter’s coats” showed no improvement whatsoever. The study revealed that in terms of how clothing affects our feelings, it’s less about the actual clothes we wear and more about what we associate with them. Their symbolic value and emotional attachments give them meaning. The white-coat study speaks to why we hang onto our dad’s moth-eaten sweater and why we wear a killer black dress to a high school reunion. These decisions are not superficial.

When you wear something that makes you feel great, the effects may be subtle—the way you tilt your head, your facial expressions and your body language—but they matter. It sends a message that you care about yourself. When we look good, we feel good—and vice versa.

Therapists are trained to pay attention to appearance because it conveys information about a patient’s mental health. During episodes of depression, people sometimes fall into a state of self-neglect. Stained clothing, unwashed hair, 2-inch roots and chipped nails on someone who is usually impeccably dressed and well groomed could be a sign something is wrong. Part of treatment is getting the person back into a routine of taking care of herself.

The link between mood and appearance is clear. Our clothes tell a story about who we are, how we relate to others, and most important, how we feel about ourselves. Next time you’re having a bad day, skip the sweats and throw on your favorite outfit, something you know you look and feel great in. Or borrow your 7-year-old’s superhero cape. It might work wonders.