Judging Humans By Their Covers


A quick online search for the Patagonia vest soon throws up the sort of thing it now seems Patagonia do not want to be associated with; tech and finance bros. The vest has become so synonymous with Silicone Valley tech types that it is now referred to as the midtown uniform, with a thousand and one instagram posts and memes mocking wearers, believing the uniform to represent privilege, elitism and homogeneity.

Last week I was invited on to BBC radio Scotland with Kaye Adams to discuss just this, as well as what judgements people make about others based on their clothing.

Let’s take a look at some of the psychology that might be at play here and might help us to understand what this midtown uniform displays and the responses to it.

Finding your tribe

Social stratification

Have you ever heard the phrase “looking the part”? This is an example of social stratification in our everyday language. Social stratification is the categorisation of people within society e.g. class. Clothing is just one way that we display sameness and difference, a way for us to say I am like you, but not so much like you, and to align ourselves with those we consider our peers. The Patagonia vest is just one example of this, the hoodie and youth culture is another, and the Park Slope mums in Brooklyn with their number 6 clogs and Salt Straps are another. On a micro-system level, picture an American high school with the Goths and Jocks identifiable by their dress. Clothing is a powerful non-verbal communication, it tells others something of our underlying values, beliefs, tastes and culture. The fact is, people dress similarly to the people they surround themselves with (or wish to); their tribe. This is social stratification and it is nothing new, humans have been doing this as long as they have had fashion; think of King Louis XIV in the 17th century who donned his court in red bottomed heels (sound familiar) to denote nobility, a trend that quickly spread throughout western Europe with others also wanting to show their social standing.

Symbolic interactionism

Symbolic interactionism is where a common set of symbols and understandings emerge over time; in the case of clothes this comes from repeated interactions between an item of clothing, the wearer and feedback from society until a shared meaning is reached. In the case of the Patagonia vest, it was worn by individuals who were or went on to be very successful, such as Dara Khosrowshahi the CEO of Uber. The vest itself did not represent anything but went on to do so through the repeated wearing of such types and the meaning observers made of this based on the character of the wearers e.g. that this item symbolised tech and finance working, success and competence, things that those also in field may want to have been aligned with and by wearing the item may have felt they would also convey. Burberry in the late 90s/late 00s is a prime example of symbolic interactionism, where a brand that wanted to be seen as luxury became popular with footballers, WAGS and as youth streetwear leading to Burberry’s signature pattern being derogatively named the chav-check. Because of who wore the clothes, the clothes took on a new social meaning, and those wearing the brands pattern were seen as belonging to a certain social group.

The judgements we make

That people judge others based on their clothing is a reality of our society, if it wasn’t we would not dress differently for interviews or work where a set uniform is not dictated. But we do; we put on clothes that we think will portray competence, confidence and being a “good fit” (social stratification at play again) and employers expect us to do so even though our clothing is in no way linked to our skill. Even though social media users did not know each of the men they encountered, photographed and mocked in the Patagonia vests, they believed they knew them; they even went as far as to ascribe stereotypical names to memes such as Chad and Brad. To them those donning vests and chinos were seen to be of a certain character. As I said before, clothes give us clues about a person, but they do not tell the whole story and like art, interpretations are subjective.

Self-perception theory

It is not only others making judgements about individuals, but we also make judgements about ourselves based on our dress. A study in the 80s found that individual s rated their competence and intelligence higher when they were wearing glasses even though their test scores didn’t actually differ! A later study in 2005 found that flight attendants wearing casual work wear led to negative self-perceptions such as lack of confidence, authority and professionalism.

Colour in context theory and attribution bias

Negative memes and companies not wanting to provide you with branded vests because of your perceived lack of environmental work is on the lighter side of making judgements about people based on their clothing. Colour in context theory is the effect of colour on psychological functioning including decision making, in different contexts and studies applying this to clothing have found worrying results. A 2014 study by Pazda found that women wearing red were rated as more attractive and as having more sexual intent by men, compared to women wearing white. Women rated women wearing red as more sexually receptive and less likely to be sexually faithful. All of this based on….colour.

Even more worrying are the judgements people make about a woman’s responsibility for her own sexual assault based on her clothing. Studies in the 1990s found that women wearing more fitted or revealing clothing were rated as more likely to provoke sexual harassment. Stepping outside of the psychology lab and into reality, shockingly this is exactly what was seen in a 2018 Irish rape trial where the victims lace thong was cited as possible evidence of consent.


Adomaitis, A, & Johnson, KKP. (2005). Casual versus formal uniforms: flight attendants’ self-perceptions and perceived appraisals by others. Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, 23(2), 88–101.

Johnson, KKP, & Workman, JE. (1992). Clothing and attributions concerning sexual harassment. Home Economics Research Journal, 21(2), 160–172.

Johnson, KKP, & Workman, JE. (1994). Blaming the victim: attributions concerning sexual harassment based on clothing, just-world belief, and sex of subject. Home Economics Research Journal, 22(4), 382–400.

Kellerman, J, & Laird, J. (1982). The effect of appearance on self-perceptions. Journal of Personality, 50(3), 296–315.

Pazda, AD, Elliot, AJ, & Greitemeyer, T. (2014a). Perceived sexual receptivity and fashionableness: separate paths linking red and black to perceived attractiveness. Color Research & Application, 39(2), 208–212.

Pazda, AD, Prokop, P, & Elliot, AJ. (2014b). Red and romantic rivalry: viewing another woman in red increases perceptions of sexual receptivity, derogation, and intentions to mate-guard. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(10), 1260–1269.

Deliberate Dressing


If one is to consider the frivolity of clothes, then consider we live our livesin clothes” Keenan, 2001


Ajax Lee
Photo credit: Ajax Lee


Who remembers those little paper dolls with the tab clothes? They would come in a book and you would cut or pop them out and fold the little paper tabs over their shoulders and around their impossibly tiny waists to make sure your carefully crafted ensemble was befitting your dolls plans for the day and their mood. We used to take so much time and care, considering and choosing what the doll should wear that day; tennis skirt perhaps if she was feeling in a sporty mood, or glittery party dress if she was feeling a little showy and ostentatious that day, (those who are too young to remember paper dolls 1) I envy you 2) Google it 3) Insert Barbie/ Ken/ or Bratz equivalent.)

How many of us can say that we take as much time, care and consideration with our own dressing on a day-to-day basis, not just when we’re going “out, out”? Granted, as adults we don’t have as much free time as we had as kids for such frivolous things (no judgment if you still like to dress dolls) or to ponder life’s big questions e.g. If Sabrina can cast spells, why does she still do her own homework? But I want to think with you for a moment, and question, is taking time to consider what we put on our bodies to face the day ahead really frivolous?

How many of us have gotten dressed in the morning, pulling and dragging on the first moderately decent clean thing we find and running out of the door or have had the experience of being out somewhere and wearing an outfit or item, that didn’t quite fit, or you didn’t feel wholly comfortable in? How did you feel? Compare that to how you feel when you have worn something you are happy, comfortable, and feel good in.


Pile of clothes


Whether you think yourself a fashionista or not what differentiates us from other species (as well as having Netflix) is that we dress. It is something, unless you’re a nudist, that we can’t avoid. So why not positively engage with dress and take charge.

I say over and over again, how we feel affects what we wear, and what we wear affects how we feel. If we continuously wear things we’re not comfortable or confident in, it can impact on our mood, self-esteem and ultimately our well-being. When we dress carelessly, it sends out a message of lack of self-care to the world and more importantly promotes feelings of being uncared for within ourselves. How many times have you said or heard a person say, “I just don’t have time to dress like I used to” or “I have more important things to do/worry about”. But we are important, and few moments aren’t going to hurt or take away from anyone. In psychological terms wearing clothes, you are happy in can promote something called hedonic well-being or hedonic happiness, also known as the feel-good factor. It’s the same little buzz of happiness you get, if you’re anything like me, from eating a slice (or two) of your favourite cake or watching a good movie (Magic Mike 2 anyone).


By all means, this DOES NOT MEAN spending hours getting ready each day, unthinkingly following all the latest trends (I’m sorry, I just can’t get on board with this dad trainer trend) or maxing out your credit cards to buy a new wardrobe. But just take a few moments in the morning to consider yourself, check in with yourself, and ask, “what do I WANT to wear today?” Dress for your day. Dress deliberately.


Suggested reading

Hefferon, K. (2013). Positive psychology and the body: The somatopsychic side to flourishing. Maidenhead, United Kingdom: Open University Press.

The Importance of Sartorial Armour

Last Monday I had the privilege of speaking at The Dragon Café’s  Mental Fight Club, as part of their Festival of Freud. I’ll be honest, when I was first approached at the Fashion and Psychoanalysis conference last month, I did not see it as a privilege; a great opportunity yes, but I hadn’t considered what I might also learn from the experience.

The Dragon Café is a creative space in Southwark where issues around mental illness are explored through exhibitions and performances, seminars and workshops, and generally by coming together.  I was there to do an interactive talk on the link between clothes, personal style, and wellbeing.

My first question to the audience was, “what does personal style mean to you?” Calls of “Identity!”, “Individuality!”, “Comfort!”, “Tribe!”, and “Armour!” rang out.

My second question to the audience was, “Can you tell me of a time when you wore something that made you feel a certain way, or an item of clothing/outfit that evokes a particular memory?” I had expected replies telling stories of wedding dresses or outfits from childhood (I still remember my Teenage Ninja Turtles sweatshirt), but what I heard was less about the presence of outfits and choices, but the absence.

“When I was sectioned I was kept in the same outfit I came in, for 6 weeks” Just let that sink in. I was humbled into silence by the power of what had been shared. He went on to explain, “when I came into the ward I was in a bad way, obviously. But I felt because I was wearing the same clothes, that when they looked at me they saw the person I was when I arrived.” Clothing can be a reflection of mood, of seasons, of occasion, it speaks of temporality, and for this gentleman his state had been visually frozen in time. Although he felt his health had improved, he felt this could not be seen while he still wore the uniform of one of his lowest moments.

More tales came of being incarcerated and the clothes people found themselves reaching for upon their release, wanting to confer status, and relatedness to those they used to associate with. Tales of “greens”, referring to the green cotton trousers and tops inpatients are given to wear in mental health facilities and the loss of identity that follows as they become just one of the many “greens”.

I don’t think I need to over explain the power of these stories and what they highlight of the integral link between our personal style, sense of self and wellbeing. This is fashion psychology in everyday life.

Welcome to The Fashion Psychologist

Welcome to the Fashion Psychologist; your one stop shop for all things fashion psychology related. Here I will share easy to read, accessible summaries of academic research relating to fashion psychology from a range of publications; reviews of topical events; and share my views, from a psychological perspective on goings on in the world of fashion, beauty and media.

In the last few years fashion psychology has grown from a small burgeoning field to one that is becoming widely recognised. Fashion, retail and the media are paying more and more attention to the emotional, cognitive and generally psychological implications of the fashion world on individuals and society as a whole. Only last month Elle UK published an article entitled “9 women on how they use fashion to feel empowered: You don’t need a costume to be a real life wonder woman”. Perhaps unwittingly, what they were discussing here was the psychology of fashion; the link between what we wear and how we feel, behave, and even how we think.

In 2014 Professor Carolyn Mair launched the world’s first fashion psychology programme; including the psychology for fashion professionals MA, and the applied psychology in fashion MSc, both at the University of Arts London’s, London College of Fashion. Since then, the programme has seen three cohorts graduate and go off into a range of diverse and exciting roles such as fashion marketing, buying, styling and design; taking with them their newly acquired psychological knowledge. Dawnn Karen in the US has taken fashion psychology and founded the Fashion Psychology Institute, which offers on line training in fashion psychology to those with undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications in psychology.

Fashion psychology is not a new field, and in fact was first coined in the late 19th century by American psychologist Henry James. It was also explored and discussed by Brit Thomas Carlyle, most poignantly in his seminal text , Sartor Resartus (1869).

Despite its longevity and newly found popularity, fashion psychology is yet to receive its own academic journal, meaning that fashion psychology students and enthusiasts alike must look to non-peer reviewed publications, pop-psychology articles and text books, which due to their nature, although still highly informative, become dated almost as soon as they are published. In any field of science, whether natural (biology, geology etc) or social (economics, psychology etc) current, up to date academic research is needed, to ensure the advancement of the field. Currently, research on clothing including colour, style, provocativeness, the impact of fashion images on self-esteem, and consumerism in fashion are published across a range of journals such as The Journal of Fashion and Marketing Management; The Journal of Social Psychology; Body Image; and The Journal of Problem Solving. Some of which require paid access.

Here, the fashion psychologist will bring ideas together, taking interesting articles relating to fashion psychology, from disparate sources and summarise and critically evaluate them; all in one place. Welcome to The Fashion Psychologist.