As a Cognitive Psychologist working in the applied field of Fashion, I am often asked by fashion journalists and practitioners to comment on how clothes and fashion affect our mood. My responses, drawn from evidence, are often counter-intuitive to followers of fashion. Why might this be?

Mood is a subjective, emotional state which is often less intense and less likely to be triggered by a particular stimulus than emotions and feelings. Mood is typically influenced by the quality and quantity of sleep and food we have and it is likely to influence what we choose to wear.

“The relationship between the clothes we wear and how happy we feel depends on our underlying psychological state.”

Evidence from psychology has found that our experience, assumptions and expectations shape our experience of the world. If we think about how we felt when we were wearing a particular item or outfit in the past, we may assume we will feel the same way when we wear it again. Our expectations can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. That is, our belief in the symbolic meaning of what we wear, can influence our perceptions of outcomes when we are wearing it.

To put it simply, if we feel good in what we are wearing, we are likely to be in a good mood. This is reflected back to us during our interactions and can strengthen the direction of our mood. Consequently, it seems unlikely that clothing in itself can be used for mood management. Rather, it seems that the power of fashion and clothing lies less in the items themselves, and more in the values, beliefs, assumptions and expectations of the wearer.

Researchers have found that if we are not in good psychological health, our clothing choices are often unimportant to us.  However, when we are in good psychological health, we often choose to negotiate and communicate our identity through our clothing.  For example, we may love wearing particular items because we recall good outcomes when wearing them previously, and so they help us feel confident. As discussed above, this is reflected in our interactions with others, reinforcing and strengthening our confidence.

“Can we colour ourselves happy?”

Although there is an entire industry built around colour styling, cognitive psychologists will tell you that colour perception is a subjective experience which depends on many factors including the lighting source, direction and strength. In addition, how we perceive colour depends on our assumptions and expectations. Just think back to ‘the dress’ which went viral in 2015. People couldn’t decide whether it was blue and black or white and gold. The controversy was due to uncertainty about the source of the lighting under which the original image was taken. In everyday life, we ‘discount the illuminant’ in order to make sense of the world. In psychology this is termed colour constancy. Read this blog for a very nice explanation.

Imagine if you were to interpret people and objects seen at night as monotone. That would be weird, right? But in fact, that’s how the brain ‘sees’ at night. We bring our experience and expectations to the sensory input so that we can navigate our way in the multisensory environments in which we live. Some people love wearing bright colours which is great for them. Others love wearing black and say that they feel very comfortable, confident and happy dressed in that colour.  This psychological insight enables us to begin to understand the the relationship between clothing, mood and colour and to appreciate it depends on many factors. Ultimately, it is more complicated that intuition suggests. To complicate it further, particular colours have socially and culturally constructed associations. These associations are frequently used in marketing and advertising. But, colour associations vary across cultures and there is no universally agreed colour association code.

Why not check out my interview with the Guardian on dopamine dressing for more on this topic?

“What about context?”

Our perceptions of colour vary according to the context in which we see it, our expectations, experience and knowledge. As a result, psychologists have developed the colour in context theory. Together these findings allow us to challenge the idea that a particular item in a particular colour which is associated with a particular emotion (for example, yellow with happiness, black with sadness), can make us feel that emotion. However, it may well do if we assume it will and we are receptive adequately to this influence when we wear it.

“Can shopping for fashion elevate mood?”

Retail therapy can be a great way to relieve tension, but it can be short-lived and result in an even lower mood when regret for purchasing kicks in. We tend to buy more when we’re happy and buy more impulsively when we’re unhappy. In both cases, we can feel satisfied or regretful post purchase. If we are looking for retail therapy, it’s useful to know that we get pleasure form desiring and looking for an item more than the pleasure we get from owning it in reality. Window shopping when the stores are closed is a compromise that affords the individual time to think whether they really want or need the item and whether browsing in itself was satisfying.

“How can we use fashion to help boost our mood?”

Wear what we feel confident and comfortable in. Would you be confident walking across a crowded room in that outfit. Does the outfit attract [unwanted] attention? Confidence is very attractive so feeling confident in what we wear is the best way to feel good about ourselves and receive reflections of this from those we interact with. In addition, we can bring meaning to what we wear through our belief in the item’s symbolism. For example, the dress I wore to an interview when I got the job can become my ‘lucky’ outfit. I can assume and expect that when I wear it again, it will bring positive outcomes because it did before. This can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Therefore we have the power to make fashion and clothing work for us through our beliefs about in their symbolism.

Contact me to find out how you can understand your customers better and in doing so give them the best experience.