Vain Trifles Full of Meaning: The Psychology of Fashion

By Annika Gralke

In this week's blog, CS Ambassador Annika Gralke delves into the psychology of fashion.

Whenever people ask me about my discipline of study, I usually respond with a dramatic pause and an intake of breath and say: "It's called Psychology of Fashion… it's psychology…but applied - to fashion". Despite its growing body of knowledge, it still seems to be quite an unusual, if not niche, field. For many people, it seems contradictory to bring together the scientific study of the human mind and behaviour and fashion. The most immediate and obvious assumption that people make is that it is a specialized branch of consumer psychology – "You want to understand how people shop clothes, right?" Whilst that is not entirely false, it is only one facet of the multidimensional field. Indeed, it is also not about the analysis of one's personal style. Psychology is not a superpower in that it can make me reveal something about you that you didn't know before. This ethical stance in psychology is critical. Instead, it is the application of psychological theory to the phenomenon of fashion, hence an intersection of two very extensive fields. Depending on which exponent you ask, then the definition of the psychology of fashion will differ. In my own attempt to explain, it is helpful to start with some definitions.

Figure 1: Sampler by Lydie Hooper, circa 1911-1912. Museums Victoria SH 880804.

Figure 1: Sampler by Lydie Hooper, circa 1911-1912. Museums Victoria SH 880804.

So, what is the psychology of fashion?

First of all, we must deal with the somewhat ambiguous vocable that is "fashion". Fashion is many things: A noun, a verb, a mirror of a culture and zeitgeist, a way of communication and a business. To some people, it is a source of self-exploration and –expression. To others, it is a catalyst of anxiety and challenge, often resulting in a rejective attitude or mockery of the whole matter. By the very definition, fashion is a particular style that is favoured and imitated at a particular moment in time. Unlike the rather tangible and utilitarian variable "clothing", it holds intangible social and cultural meaning that is not uncommonly a cause for dispute and friction in society. Studying the underlying mechanisms of fashion is absorbing and complex, but it is just as fascinating to explore people's personal relationship with non-fashionable clothes beyond fashion's social dynamic. That is to say, "to fashion" also means to construct, shape or create something. Indeed, we use dress to create a visual appearance or construct a certain social role without a specific fashionable interest. However, through their permanent presence, clothes constitute a dominant part of our material, social and aesthetic environment and shape our perception and experience of the world considerably.

Fashion also refers to a way of doing things in a particular manner – that is, in a particular fashion. Ultimately, this implies a form of behaviour that, as it usually happens, is based on a previously formed decision. If we were to observe a group of people, we would easily detect some forms of variation in their behaviour (that is, we would observe a variety of fashions). Now, all these reflections are among the core interests of psychology – the study of the human mind, behaviour, experience, perception, decisions and their respective variations. In order to explore these factors, psychology supplies a toolbox of established measurements such as personality tests or questionnaires concerning one's attitude to life. 

Social Psychology of Clothing

Firstly, as human beings, most of us spend most of our time in this world dressed. Whether we use them to convey a particular message or simply for utility, garments play an active role in our lives. Indeed, Virginia Woolf put it best in her ingenious novel Orlando: "Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world's view of us." 

Dress contributes to the impressions we form of other people, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Arguably, this is a thorn in many people's side when dealing with fashion: it is a judgment based on superficial information. But to navigate through the day, our mind depends on quick decision-making processes that are often prone to error. For example, a common form of bias is the Halo effect in which we attribute positive characteristics (e.g., "skilful", "trustworthy") to someone whose appearance we perceive as positive (e.g., "neat" or "professional") [1]. Surely, this also works the other way around – considering someone as unattractive and attributing them as chaotic or unreliable. But clothes also help us navigate through our various social roles by marking ourselves or identifying our surroundings more easily, for example, in professional or ceremonial contexts where specific dress codes are required (which we may follow or reject, that is). Thereby, how we wish to appear can be influenced by factors such as mood, self-esteem or personalities, gender, sex, age, cultural, ethnic or social background. 

Enclothed Cognition

Beyond affecting our perception of others, clothes also have an impact on our very selves. Indeed, "[t]here is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them", as Virginia Woolf noted in Orlando. That is, fashion may have a significant effect on the way we see ourselves and thus change our cognition and behaviour. As a matter of fact, one of the most prominent experiments of fashion psychology has indeed found empirical support for this claim. In their three-part experiment known as Enclothed Cognition, conducted in 2012, H. Adams and A. D. Galinsky [2] discovered that their participants scored better results on a focus-related task when wearing a doctor's coat, compared to another group who wore the same coat but thought it was that of a painter. In a similar study by B. López-Pérez and colleagues [3], participants showed more empathic emotions and prosocial behaviour when wearing a tunic described as a nursing scrub as against a cleaner's scrub described to the other group. Gino, Norton and Ariely [4] discovered that participants were more likely to cheat on a task when they were given alleged counterfeit sunglasses than others who wore alleged originals. What these studies show is that fashionable products inhabit symbolic meaning. Once embodied, this meaning conveys on our minds and emotion – or once again with Woolf "…we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking" [5].  


Different branches of psychology

But the psychology of fashion doesn't stop here.The research interest can take various forms, depending on which viewpoint one takes. Developmental psychology, for example, explores how changes in personality, behaviour, relationships, the body, mind and brain occur throughout people's lifespan. How does fashion shape and accompany our identities during the course of life, and how are we stylistically influenced by other generations? Aesthetic psychology explores why we find some things more beautiful than others and how taste and preference differ according to individual factors such as personality, class, or cultural background. Consumer psychology seeks to understand consumer behaviour in the special context of fashion. Apart from successful marketing strategies, consumer psychologists might explore why consumer's attitude towards sustainable fashion is admittedly positive, but their consumption habits don't change (known as the "attitude-behaviour gap") (8). Lastly, positive psychology examines how fashion can be beneficial to boost our self-esteem and increase the wellbeing and quality of life of ourselves and the world around us. 


Indeed, there is so much more to be explored and discovered. We must not underestimate the role and purpose that fashion plays in our lives. Throughout history, it has consistently been derided or doomed as a frivolous subject, and utopian fantasists have even tried to abandon fashion from their agenda. But this doesn't do justice to the matter. By applying psychology to fashion, we can explore the depth of human experience with clothing on a scientific level and gradually render solutions towards a sustainable future. If we are curious enough to explore the surface with all its pleats, pockets, textures, shapes, changes and dynamics, ultimately, we might gain invaluable insights into the underlying meaning of human life.










[1] Lennon, S., Johnson, K., & Rudd, N. (2017). Social Psychology of Dress. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Inc.

 [2] Adam, H., & Galinsky, A. (2012). Enclothed cognition. Journal Of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(4), 918-925.  

[3] López-Pérez, B., Ambrona, T., Wilson, E., & Khalil, M. (2016). The Effect of Enclothed Cognition on Empathic Responses and Helping Behavior. Social Psychology, 47(4), 223-231.

[4] Gino F, Norton MI, Ariely D (2010): The counterfeit self: The deceptive costs of faking it. Psychological Science. , 21 (5): 712-720.

[5] Woolf, V. (1928). Orlando. Rosetta Books(pp. 111-112). 

 [6] Popova, M. Survival of the Prettiest: Harvard Cognitive Scientist Nancy Etcoff on the Science of Beauty. Brain Pickings. Available from 

[7] Herbe, A., & Elger, C. (2018). Psychology of shopping sprees: On Black Friday your brain forgets everything else. DW.COM. Available from

[8] Park, H., & Lin, L. (2018). Exploring attitude-behaviour gap in sustainable consumption: comparison of recycled and upcycled fashion products. Journal Of Business Research, 117, 623-628. 


Further Reading 




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