Researching an article for a client, I recently stumbled upon Lauren Messiah, a funny and down-to-earth personal stylist who explains why style matters, despite your aversion to it. Yes, she shares the standard practical advice, like how to dress up a white tee, but more than the practical, Messiah’s advice on the psychology behind clothing resonated with me. It reminded me a lot of the psychology behind money.

What you wear can influence your behavior and productivity. There's psychology behind clothing, and here's what you need to know about it.

There are those people who think style is stupid and clothing doesn’t matter, she often says in her videos.

I’ll admit: I have always been one of those people. “You sort of have this vibe that says, ‘I don’t give a $%@* what I wear, you’re going to like me for me,’” my friend Dara told me recently. Dara sees it this way because she already knows me and loves me. Other people probably don’t get that.

In another video, Messiah talks about being mistaken for an assistant because, although she was dressed stylishly, her style didn’t exactly scream, “Oh hey, I’m a successful, powerful entrepreneur.”

Watching this, it hit me.

I hate when people assume I’m broke because I’m a writer, but I don’t exactly show them otherwise with what I wear. So when I tell someone I’m a freelance writer while wearing ripped jeans and a pit-stained shirt, maybe that contributes to the broke starving artist trope. Maybe.

In other words,  “What do you expect?” I could almost hear Messiah’s voice in my head. “You dress like a broke starving artist.”  On the other hand, Dara is right. Who cares what everyone else thinks? They’re not paying my bills, finding my clients, writing my articles. Also, I work from home. So really, who cares? Actually, I do. Which is why I get so mad when people assume I’m eating ramen every day — I care what they think. However, there’s a solid case to be made for dressing better for yourself, too. 

The Psychology Behind Clothing: How Style Affects Productivity

As an experiment, I started taking Lauren’s advice. I bought her book and binged her videos. I pulled some clothes out of my own closet and bought some new pieces, too. I started dressing better. Or at least trying to dress better.

And then, one week, I went to a couple of media panels, a scenario that would normally send my anxiety through the roof, but something interesting happened: I didn’t freak the %#$* out at these panels. When I talked to strangers, I felt calm and collected. Even better, I was present in the conversation, fully committed to paying attention, actually listening to what they were saying. After all, my mind wasn’t preoccupied with thoughts like:

  • How do I look right now? Are my pit stains visible?
  • I should have worn a blazer. Dammit, why didn’t I wear a blazer?
  • This person looks so nice. Where do they shop? Dammit, I need to stop shopping at Forever 21.

It’s not just me. There’s fascinating research on how clothing affects performance. For example, this 2014 study found that dressing better actually helped subjects negotiate better. According to the study’s abstract:

“Wearing upper-class [i.e. a business suit], compared to lower-class [i.e. sweatpants] clothing induced dominance—measured in terms of negotiation profits and concessions, and testosterone levels—in participants. Upper-class clothing also elicited increased vigilance in perceivers of these symbols.”

Not only that but wearing better clothing makes other people perceive you as more powerful, too. Also, in another study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, researchers found a link between creativity and dressing more formally. When subjects in the study wore more formal clothing, they were better at thinking more abstractly. Yet another study found people made fewer mistakes when wearing a white lab coat! These studies support an important point that I’ve come to realize: clothing is symbolic. 

Personal Style Is a Lot Like Personal Finance

I’ve said it before: personal finance has everything and nothing to do with money. It’s more about using money as a tool to support the things that matter to you most in life, like travel or writing or feeding your family. Similarly, I think personal style probably has everything and nothing to do with clothing. I want to dress better so I don’t have to worry about what I’m wearing the same way I want to save better so I don’t have to worry about what I’m spending.

“At the end of the day, it’s just clothes,” Lauren Messiah said when I interviewed her for this New York Times piece, pointing out that while clothes can be a powerful tool in changing the way you feel and how others perceive you, at the end of the day, clothing does NOT define you. It’s the same thing with money. Money is a tool, and it can make things so much easier, but at the end of the day, your salary and the things you buy do NOT define you as a person.

It’s important to make the distinction between identity and clothing (or money). What you wear does not define you, but it can make you feel more like yourself. One helpful exercise Messiah suggests in developing your personal style: think of three words that describe you. These will help you figure out what kind of clothes you should wear to highlight those attributes.

For example, I would say I’m ambitious and strong and creative, but nothing about the way I dressed conveyed that. And when I’m at a networking event or talking to my doctor or chatting with a stranger in a coffee shop, I feel so much more ambitious and strong when I actually dress like, you know, a strong and professional and ambitious woman. It sounds silly, but the right clothes can help me feel more like myself. Come to think of it, maybe it’s more that wearing the wrong clothes distracts me. As Messiah puts it, “If you don’t have your style in check, you are heightening all of your insecurities.” 

Where to Start If You Want to Up Your Style

Either way, changing up your style requires effort. I would love to work with a stylist one-on-one to help me navigate the process. For now, that’s not in the budget, so instead, I’ve been heavily researching personal style, approaching it the same way I approached personal finance: one subject at a time. It seems to come down to a few basic concepts: figuring out what kind of cuts and silhouettes look good on you, figuring out what you want to convey with your style, figuring out what kind of styles you gravitate toward, then mixing them to make your own style unique.

The plus side is, figuring this stuff out makes it a lot easier to spend your money efficiently and spend less time shopping. Instead of wavering over purchases, thinking too much about what works and what doesn’t, wondering if I should return a pair of jeans or keep it, I already know what fits, what works, what I like. So much easier.

I recommend checking out Messiah’s (free!) videos. (I’ve also read her book and am thinking about signing up for her course. And no, that’s NOT an affiliate link, I just think what she’s doing is awesome. I also read The Curated Closet (also free at my library!), which was helpful at breaking down the basics and even included some exercises to get started. I’m not saying I’ve transformed into a super stylish woman (so many of my friends would lol at the thought of that), but the point is, I’m learning how to use clothing as a tool.

If you’re like me and style averse (and skeptical), you might try changing up your style, just as an experiment. See if wearing different clothes makes you feel differently, work differently, communicate differently. If it does, you might be onto something. And if not, no big deal. You haven’t lost anything by experimenting with your wardrobe.

After all, they’re just clothes.

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Kristin writes about money, travel, and human behavior at Lifehacker, the New York Times, New York Magazine, and Mentalfloss. She's also written for NBC News, Fox Digital, and Scripps Network Interactive. Her book GET MONEY will be available on 3/27/18 with Hachette Books.

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