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The strange power of clothing

Who would have thought an episode of The Simpsons (more specifically “Team Homer”) would inspire two researchers to examine clothing’s ability to affect our psychological processes, and lead to the concept of enclothed cognition.

Image Credit: Niccole Lim on Unsplash

So just how did Bart Simpsons “Down with homework” tee spark an investigation into the strange power of clothing?

Well, as shown in the episode, the introduction of grey uniforms demoralises the students of Springfield Elementary. It isn’t until a freak rainstorm washes away the drab grey, uncovering bright tie-dye colours, that the playful spirits of the children returns. This caused researchers Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky from Northwestern University in the United States, to ponder “Would this actually happen in the real world?”.


Embodied verses enclothed cognition

Enclothed cognition is an extension of the well-established psychological theory of embodied cognition.

Embodied cognition involves a direct connection between physical experience and symbolic meaning. The physical experience automatically embodies the symbolic meaning. For example, the physical act of cleansing oneself, is associated with the abstract concept of moral purity.

Conversely, the link between physical experience and symbolic meaning is indirect in enclothed cognition. The physical experience of wearing the clothes is required as the clothes carry the symbolic meaning, so it is not automatically embodied. Therefore enclothed cognition is dependent upon the co-occurence of two independent factors: 1) the symbolic meaning of the clothes, and 2) the physical act of wearing the clothes.

The lab coat experiment

So just what did Adam and Galinsky do?

The study involved testing the power of the white lab coat (selected because of its association with scientists and doctors, and synonymousness with carefulness and attentiveness) and its influence on sustained and selective attention.

The initial study examined whether wearing a lab coat influenced selective attention, indicated by performance on a Stroop task. The results showed that participants wearing lab coats performed better on the stroop task, demonstrating increased selective attention, than participants wearing their own clothes.

Experiments two and three, went on to examine the effects of physically wearing a lab coat, verses describing it as a doctor's coat or painter's coat (symbolic meaning) on sustained attention. The results demonstrated no increase in sustained attention when the coat was associated with a doctor, but not being worn, nor when the coat was being worn but not associated with a doctor. An increase in sustained attention was only shown when the coat was worn, and it was associated with a doctor.

What now?

Adam and Galinsky’s finding that “clothes can have profound and systematic psychological and behavioural consequences for their wearers”, undoubtedly triggered a new trend in the study of fashion, with potentially far reaching implications.

Ethical and sustainable consumption?

What if we were to apply an enclothed cognition perspective to counteract the fast-fashion model? Could we encourage people to make more socially and environmentally responsible consumption choices?

Let’s consider one of my favourite pairs of shoes - the “Fair. Vegan. Sustainable” Ethletic sneaker. Not only are they incredibly comfortable, and go with almost everything, but I feel pretty darn good wearing them because of what they represent (‘ETHletIC’ being a play on ‘ethic’). It also just so happens that the words ‘Fair. Vegan. Sustainable’, are emblazoned on the shoes tongue, so I (as well anyone looking at my feet) am constantly reminded of the conscious choice. Wouldn’t it be interesting to look at the emotional associations of wearing (or ‘embodying’) something ‘good’?

Adam and Galinsky poised the question “Could the effects of physically wearing a particular form of clothing wear off over time as people become habituated to it?” in their report. Following this thread, it would be interesting to take a more longitudinal approach to this theory, examining its effect on consumers who maybe don’t even take ethics and sustainability into consideration.

Power of colour

Professor Carolyn Mair PhD stated in an article for The Guardian that while colour can influence mood, when it comes to fashion, it hinges on the symbolic meaning we attach to the colour and clothing. For example, black is often associated with mourning in countries such as Europe and the United States, while the wearing of White is traditional in Chinese culture.

What if we took a leap here, and considered the newly appointed colour of the year: PANTONE 16-1546 ‘Living Coral’. Described as an “animating and life-affirming shade of orange with a golden undertone”, reflecting “the warmth, nourishment, and shelter of coral reefs to sea life”. This colour is a nod to the importance of coral reefs, and the greater issue of climate change. In accordance with enclothed cognition theory, if we believed in the positive symbolic nature of this colour, could the ‘enclothing’ ourselves in ‘living coral’ lead us to increased environmental activism?

Can the humble T-Shirt bring social and cultural change?

The statement slogan t-shirt has been gracing the catwalk and high street for a some time. From Katherine Hamnett’s "58% Don't Want Pershing” anti-nuclear statement, and Wham’s donning of her "Choose Life” tee, to the more recent “We should all be feminists’ from Dior.

Dennis Nothdruft, Curator of the Fashion and Textile Museum, stated in an article for the Guardian that the t-shirt “has developed an amazing power to communicate and to create a dialogue between the wearer and the world.” I can’t say that I own a slogan tee, or even one adorned with a brand logo, so I can’t personally comment on the ‘power' of wearing such an item. However, I can imagine that their ‘billboard-esque’ nature would mean I would really have to understand and believe in the message and symbolism of what I was wearing.

Given the political, social and environmental climate of today, and the omnipresence of the slogan tee, it would be an opportune time to investigate whether slogan tees exert some kind of ‘power’ over the wearer (or observer for that matter), or are we simply buying into a trend.

Maybe the slogan tee is something I need to road-test for myself, and get back to you!


Additional Resources

Selective Attention Test:

The Stroop Test:

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