What’s the story you tell yourself when you put on your #OOTD?
The earliest records of human history show us homo sapiens fashionably adorned in some accessories or stylised clothing made from the materials around us. This is an anthropological phenomenon that spans cultures around the world. The relationship that we have with clothing has experienced exponential growth as we have developed socially. The history of fashion extends beyond its aesthetic appeal since the clothes we have worn have symbolised the start or end of an epoch. To understand the significance of this relationship, we can turn to the work of social psychologists Hajo Adam and Adam D. Galinsky.
Adam and Galinsky came up with the concept of “enclothed cognition” which discusses the social element that is attached to the clothes we wear.
In a series of experiments conducted by the two, it was found that when participants wore a lab coat, they showed a significant positive improvement in their cognitive ability assessed on attention based tasks. This led them to develop their theory of “enclothed cognition” which states that the clothes we wear have a symbolic meaning as well as a related physical experience. It is the conjoined existence of the two that relays a personal story to the wearer of an outfit.
To illustrate this example, imagine yourself putting on a suit. Now the symbolic meaning attached to this suit comes from the representation of a formal suit in society – it is a material representation of power. Suits are typically worn by white collar workers who are of high status and income. Related to this, there is the physical experience of wearing the suit where one feels like they are in the shoes (and mind) of a typical, white collar worker who is respected in society. As a result of this, when you put on a suit you feel as though you are someone who is to be respected, leading one to feel competent and assertive.
There are many pathways we can take in our discussion of the concept of enclothed cognition. Through this article, we will be looking at trends in fashion/fashion marketing in the recent past that have capitalized on social trends to sell fashion – or rather an experience of the self – to their consumers.
Insecurities and Cognitive Dissonance
Before the internet became the prime advertising medium of our times, print mass media such as magazines and billboards were what people looked at to understand what’s hot (or not) on the market in the mid to lates 2000s.
Looking at the example above, we can see a classic magazine ad that showcases shorts (summer fashion staple since the 2000s) for different body types. Traditionally, the media showcased shorts as an item of clothing worn by women of a more slender and tall body type, representative of the beauty standard of the time. The symbolic meaning of shorts in the case for each body type is that they are trendy and are worn just by women of the ideal body type while the physical experience of then wearing these shorts – despite the body shape of the woman – is supposed to make her feel confident and attractive just the way the ideal woman feels when she puts them on.
Such a marketing strategy relies on consumers feeling less than in comparison to an unattainable ideal. This way a state of cognitive dissonance is created. Consumers have the contrasting images of what their bodies should look vs what it actually looks like and this causes psychological stress. In order to minimise this stress, they are deluded to buy a certain item of clothing which they believe would get them closer to the ideal and marry the two contrasting images in their minds. However, the ideal beauty standard is inherently unattainable and thus no matter what product or service a consumer buys, they will never be satisfied. This leads them to be trapped in the cycle of unsustainable consumption.
Sustainability and Moral Licensing
While the late 2000s romanticised the idea of a “shopaholic” and the ideal day of a woman to be spent in a shopping mall scouring for the perfect dress for the fall season, the late 2010s have turned this trend on its head with rising demand for sustainable fashion.
The sustainable fashion movement demands for eco-friendly and ethical social practices to be implemented across all stages of the clothes’ life cycle. There has also been an uprising against fast fashion companies to be held accountable for their malpractices in the production of their fashion lines. This goes in line with increasing support given to SMEs who do incorporate sustainable practices. However, when we look at the psychology of consumers in relation to sustainable fashion, there are some important questions to be raised.
This requires us to have a look at two studies in the natural and social sciences. Environmentalists Holmgren, Kabanashi, Marsh and Sorgvist conducted an experiment on masters students with a background environmental science and energy to test how accurately they could estimate the number of trees it would take to construct a building. What they found was that even people who are “experts” in the field of environmentalism fail to intuitively comprehend the environmental consequences of their actions. Another experiment conducted by Wang and John who had some participants dress in luxurious fashion and they were then asked to review their political beliefs. What they found was that those dressed In Louis Vuitton expressed more economically conservative beliefs
While the two experiments may seem unrelated, they are quite useful in understanding the minds of consumers who are drawn to the appeal of sustainable fashion and why it is these same consumers who fail to understand the need to make lifestyle changes that are compatible with sustainable living.
The negative footprint illusion relates to how some consumers believe that by just purchasing “sustainable” products, they are helping the environment, when in reality a lot of cases have emerged in the recent past that show the truly unsustainable practices of both fast fashion and luxury brands. Additionally, the Wang and John study shows us that the change in political beliefs can easily be connected to a change in people’s beliefs about their engagement in environmental activism, just by adoring clothes that are “sustainable” .
Sustainable fashion in this case, becomes a front for the aesthetic of environmental action rather than enforcing consumers to be at the front line of an eco-conscious lifestyle. To illustrate the connection of this deluded sense of environmentalism some consumers have to enclothed cognition, we can have a look at this marketing campaign by ZARA below.
ZARA has received major backlash for their unethical practices however through just looking at the campaign design, we observe clothes marketed in a manner that is natural, down to earth yet stylish. The symbolic meaning of the clothes advertised here is that they are made from the “natural” materials around them, while the physical experience of wearing them makes one feel like the kind of person who stands with nature, rather than against it. This way, we can see that consumers can easily fall into the trap of wishing to fit the aesthetic of sustainable fashion from companies who have a track record of engaging in practices that are far from sustainable.
Through the examples discussed above, we can see that there is a significant social element that is attached to the clothes we wear. However, we must draw our attention back to the earliest records of human history with our attachment to some accessorised article. Us human beings are social and dynamic creatures who rely heavily on the environment not just on cues for survival but also for meaning. As a result of this, we take a part of the environment to customise it in a way that connects us to our surroundings and this extends beyond the clothes and accessories we wear. While we now live in a world that for the most part provides us with the bare necessities for survival, the attachment we have to our surroundings relies heavily on a search for meaning – now more than ever. The clothes we wear throughout the day, act as small pieces in the puzzle of life and our role in it. With this, I would like readers to pause before they decide to buy a new pair of jeans, or a trendy dress and ask themselves what story does this piece of cloth tell you about yourself. If the meaning attached to your shopping choices comes from what the social world tells you would make you happier, smarter, successful or the like, then maybe it’s time you invest in creating your own brand of meaning.