Issac B. Singer said, “What a strange power there is in clothing.” But until recently, who knew what you wear has the power to make you pay closer attention?
Everyone’s got a favorite piece of clothing. In my case, it’s a LBD (little black dress) made of some miracle fiber that packs well, is completely comfortable, and looks good with flip-flops or heels. (I’m lying — I never wear heels. But you get the idea.) When I see photos of myself in it, I rarely gag. Knowing I have that dress to pull out at any moment saves me hours of trying on and dismissing pieces of clothing as “too old,” “too young,” “too tight,” “unflattering.” I worry that when my LBD dies (and it’s at least six years old, so the end may be near), my life will be greatly diminished.
Sounds dramatic, I know, but there are some pieces of clothing that just make us feel great. And according to academic researchers, they may even affect the way we think. A recent New York Times article described a phenomenon called “enclothed cognition.” Researchers discovered that people who put on a white doctor’s coat scored higher in tests related to paying attention. When they wore an identical white coat they were told was a painter’s coat, their attention improvement was negligible. And they didn’t pay better attention if they simply looked at the coat — the subject had to be wearing it. The researchers concluded that for clothes to have this kind of effect they must be worn, and the wearer must understand their symbolic meaning (in this case, the doctor’s coat represented the typically scrupulous attention physicians pay to detail).
This white coat research piggybacks onto embodied cognition, the field of research that explores the way our bodies and physical movements affect our abstract thought processes. Embodied cognition studies have shown that if you hold a heavy clipboard you feel more important, and that the experience of washing your hands is associated with moral purity. So while it’s long been known that clothing can affect other’s perceptions of you — think “dressing for success” at job interviews, for example — the white coat study is the first time scientists have proven that the physical act of wearing a particular garment can affect the way your brain functions.
Even without scientific evidence, though, most of us acknowledge that clothing influences our behavior (even if it doesn’t make us smarter). Wearing lacy, racy lingerie may lead to actions (and activities) that differ from those that occur when you’ve donned overalls and gardening clogs. Men in ties typically, gratefully, tug them off when it’s time to kick back. Civil war re-enactors feel so strongly about the historical accuracy of their clothing that they’ll remove digital watches or plastic frame glasses to fully embrace their roles. And major changes in behavior are routine at Halloween, when mousy nerds strut like James Bond in sharkskin suits and in-your-face friends go all demure in nuns’ habits.
Scientists haven’t discovered why this works, just that it does. But now that we know for a fact that clothing with symbolic meaning can enhance our skills, think of the repercussions. If wearing a white lab coat can make us pay closer attention, what clothes might improve our ability to cook dinner, give a speech to a room full of strangers, or heighten our creative spirit?
A lifelong sewer/knitter and former weaver/spinner, Linzee Kull McCray, a.k.a. lkmccray, is a writer and editor living in Iowa. She feels fortunate to meet and write about people, from scientists to stitchers, who are passionate about their work. Her freelance writing appears in Quilts and More, Stitch, UPPERCASE, American Patchwork and Quilting and more. For more textile musings, visit her blog.