It’s true. Not just because Polonius said so to his son, Laertes, in a rather ironic speech about being true to oneself and not being a phony. And not just because the idea has transformed into a cliché, handed down throughout the years. But in fact, science indicates that the clothes we wear, and our symbolic associations with them, can indeed affect our psychological processes. (Adam & Galinsky, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology).
In other words, dressing smarter may make you smarter. Dressing sloppily may make you – well, sloppy.
This totally makes sense. When I go to work each day, I take great care to wear outfits that are neat, well put-together, and professional. And also cute. Because dressing this way sets my attitude for the day – I have it all together. I am a well-organized, focused, and confident professional, ready to excel in the workplace. And also cute. However, when I’m home during the weekends, I pull on comfortable sweats, or jeans and an old t-shirt. My I-don’t-care uniform for lazy hours of reading, video gaming, or Netflix marathons.
In addition to the way our clothing can affect how we think and feel, the way we dress can also influence the perceptions of the people around us. Wrinkled shirts, ripped nylons, scuffed or worn-out shoes may give off an impression of laziness, apathy, or untidiness. By contrast, a well-fitting suit, a trendy yet conservative dress, and voilà! The people around us may perceive us as successful, full of confidence, even more trustworthy.
Are these perceptions as important as my own self-perception? Maybe, maybe not. I am inclined to think that the two are dependent on one another. Perhaps, if I were to pull on a superhero suit, it would make me feel and act like a superhero – not only because I appear to myself like a superhero, but because I am aware that the people around me will also see me as such. If a sexy red dress makes me feel sexy, then perhaps it is because I know that other people will also see me as sexy. And if a well-fitting, conservative (and cute) business suit makes me feel successful and confident (and cute), then perhaps it is due to the perception of success and confidence that my suit gives to others. The clothes do indeed make the man (or woman) – both to his or herself, as well as to the people in his or her life.
This is not to suggest that our clothing choices must always take into account the reactions of other people. No matter how snappy a dresser you may be, there will always be someone who sizes up your appearance and makes an unfavorable judgment about your character. Too provocative. Too conservative. Too frumpy. Too matchy-matchy. Too juvenile. Oh, the faux-pas! We can’t please everyone.
Now plenty of people are perfectly content to live their lives in one standard go-to outfit, be it jeans and t-shirts, khakis and polos, or something more Walmartian, as my daughter likes to put it. And that’s totally their prerogative. But for those of us who enjoy the process of “dressing the part,” it is important to strike a comfortable balance between making a good external impression and feeling positive about our own sense of self-expression through the clothes we wear. Although the clothes make the man, we must also remember, above all, “to thine ownself be true.”