The rumors are true: I’m kind of a slob. In high school, I wore baggy pants during the day and boxer shorts to volleyball practice. In college, I wore pajama bottoms to morning classes. I also wore them at least once on an afternoon coffee that turned out to be a date.
Recently, while at a wonderfully dirty camp in the mountains, a friend and I were talking about what we wore when we took the kids to school. I looked down at my holey yoga pants and my sweatshirt and my dusty running shoes and said that I looked like this pretty much all the time.
So when I heard about enclothed cognition, I was intrigued. In a 2012 study, researchers coined the term to mean how clothes influence the wearer’s psychology. They looked at how wearing a lab coat affected students’ performance on a test that measured their attention. If the students were told the coat was a doctor’s coat, and wore it while taking the test, they showed greater attention than if they merely saw the coat—or if they wore the coat but were told it was a painter’s coat.
The researchers write that the effect may come from two different things: what the clothes symbolize and how the person feels when she wears them. Several studies show similar connections between clothes and how they make us feel and think. In 2015, a series of five studies suggested that formal clothing enhances the ability to think abstractly. (Formal clothing, the researchers say, can increase the social or psychological distance between people. This distance can increase abstract thinking—when events are psychologically closer, they’re thought of more concretely.)
That might be part of why I have trouble dressing up—it does feel like it creates an awkward space bubble between me and everyone else. (Three-day-old yoga pants could do that, too.) And this spring, I felt isolated no matter what clothes I was wearing. I was going through a blue period that involved more than just the navy 15-year-old sweatshirt of my husband’s that I wore most days.
My mom reminded me of my fabulously-dressed aunt’s advice for times like these: just slap on your lipstick and go out and face the world. But I don’t WEAR lipstick, I said. What could I do instead? Take a shower? Put on clean yoga pants? Lace up my running shoes?
What I did eventually was get help. And I started feeling better. (If you want to read more about writers and mental health issues, please click over to Alex Riley’s wonderful feature, “On Being a Science Writer and Managing Mental Illness”, which appears this week in The Open Notebook.)
There was something else, too. It was one of my lowest days, when I just put on the clothes that I’d piled on the chair the night before, or maybe they were even the clothes I slept in. I still had to take my son to school. On our way into the building, the two of us started walking behind another mom who clearly had taken her time to pick out new clothes, to brush her hair, to put on her makeup.
There was a time when I would have thought something like this: How frivolous. What a waste of time to spend on something that’s just about appearances. That day, seeing this woman in the sunlight, holding her child’s hand, a different feeling washed over me: respect. How honorable, I remember thinking. I didn’t know anything about this woman—who she was, where she was going next, what else was happening in her life—but she took care with herself. It is an honorable thing, to take that kind of care.
That morning, I pulled up my hoodie and slouched back to the van. I still don’t wear lipstick. But the next morning, I got up and put on my jeans.
Photo by Jason Rogers, Flickr/Creative Commons license