Wish you knew how to pick the perfect outfit for every situation?

Wish no more! In this post, I am going to show you how to choose clothes that make you feel confident, bold and ready for anything.

This post is for BOTH men and women!

You Are What You Wear

The type of clothes you wear –  and the kinds of accessories you use to either jazz them up or tone them down –  says a lot about who you are, where you’re from, what you do and how you feel about yourself and others.

In fact, dress scholars Mary Ellen Roach and Joanne Eicher, find that dress is one of the main ways we send social signals because what we wear shows our identity.

What you wear — or dress, as Roach and Eicher define it — sends nonverbal cues to other people. Our clothing shows:

  • How much power you wield
  • How much influence you have
  • How smart you are
  • How much you earn

You see, writers, costume designers and directors use fashion all the time to show clues about a character. Think about Harry Potter’s glasses, Imelda’s shoes, Wall Street power suits or Cleopatra’s jewels.

The question is, what signals are you sending?

Let’s do a little self-quiz to find out:

How would you describe your current style? (Check all that apply)

___Formal

___Casual

___ Edgy

___Professional

___Flirty / Attractive

___ Unique

___ Young

___ Mature

___ Powerful

___ I have no sense of style

Look at your answers to the question above. What specifically about your style makes this impression?

___ The colors I wear

___ Where I buy my clothes

___ How I tailor my clothes

___ How I accessorize

___ The brands I wear

___ The patterns I wear

___ The people I emulate

Now let’s talk about your ideal impression. In your dream world, how would you like to come across? What is your ideal style?

___Formal

___Casual

___ Edgy

___ Professional

___ Flirty / Attractive

___ Unique

___ Powerful

Lastly, when helping clients build wardrobes they love, Elsa Isaac starts by asking them to write down 3 words that describe how they want their clothes to make them feel.

“Maybe you want your clothes to make you feel powerful or confident or sexy. Or maybe creative and edgy….make sure (the words) resonate with you and write them down.”

Once you identify the feelings you want your clothes to elicit, she says, the easier it is to choose the right pieces.

“It’s not about trends or being fashionable per se, it’s about how capable we are of expressing ourselves,” Isaac believes. What are three words that describe how you want your clothes to make you feel?

  • ____
  • ____
  • ____

Now, let’s make it happen! My goal is to help you understand the psychology of your fashion choices. Why do certain types of clothing change our first impression?

Clothing and Perceptions

Researcher Mary Lynn Damhorst says “dress is a systematic means of transmission of information about the wearer.” A person’s choice of clothing can heavily influence the impression they transmit and is therefore a powerful communication tool.

When it comes to communicating confidence and ability, what you wear plays an important role in creating positive first impressions. Whether you agree with the statement or not, clothes make the man. Or at least others’ perception of the man, science shows.

psychology of fashion, how to dress

How to Dress:

So how can you get closer to your ideal first impression? Below I have a guide to each type of fashion psychology and how you can get more of it. You can use color, styling and fit to get closer to the personal brand you want.

  • Color Psychology: How you use colors is a great way to harness the power of fashion in your first impression. Don’t pick out colors randomly, think very carefully about how you use each.

 

What to Wear: Our Color Guide

Download this one-sheet and put it on your closet door for easy reference!

Science-of-People-Color-Guide

  • Fit: How you tailor your clothes and the shape of your clothing affects how people perceive you.
  • Styling: Accessories–for both men and women can completely change an outfit. From shoes, to watches, to scarves, to hats, these are easy ways to change the impression of your style.
  • Brands: If you have trouble understanding fit and color on your own–let brands do it for you! Go to brands that emulate or showcase your ideal style and rely on their styles to decide for you.

How to Be Seen As More Formal:

Researcher Yoon-Hee Kwon of Northern Illinois University asked men and women about the effect of clothing on judgements made in a working environment. Kwon found men believed wearing the correct work attire increased the likelihood of them communicating they were intelligent, competent, knowledgeable, honest and reliable.

  • Dark colors are more formal–especially black and grey.
  • Clanky bracelets, wrap scarves or lots of accessories actually decrease your formality. If you want to be seen as more formal, simple accessories and clean lines are better.
  • Professional brands that do great workwear are The Limited, Calvin Klein and Armani on the higher end. This blog post from Fashionista covers some great stores that do affordable workwear.

How to Be Seen As More Casual:

Bright colors, pastels and loose clothes mark an air of casual fashion. Layers and loose fitting clothing tend to come across as more laid-back and easy-going.

  • Adam Glassman, O Magazine Creative Director, advises people to wear one bold piece. Perhaps a vibrant beaded necklace or an oversize men’s-style watch (minus the blingy-bling or wacky colors).
  • Note: Men should keep jewelry to a minimum. A classy watch and/or wedding band is sufficient. No thumb rings, earrings or weird piercings (unless you’re auditioning for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Then, anything goes.)
  • Some great casual clothing brands are Macy’s, Nasty Gal, Tommy Bahama and Gap.

How to Be Seen As More Edgy:

If self-expression and creativity is what you’re after, there’s no better medium to communicate that than with fashion. “To me, the more meaning my clothes and accessories have, the more they communicate who I am and what I want to convey to the world,” says New York stylist Elsa Isaac. “The possibilities are endless.”

  • Don’t get into a color rut. We all have our go-to colors when we’re stuck for what to wear or pressed for time. Celebrity stylist Daniel Musto advises breaking out of your color rut by getting a little creative. Wear a lot of black? Try navy instead. Always wear brown shoes? Try blue dress shoes to change it up. Usually wear jeans? Don’t stick to the usual blue, try black or khaki green.
  • Shop bravely. Try Etsy for handmaid clothing. Go to Amazon for fun leggings or scarves. Try Zappos for funky shoes. Online, you are going to find a wider variety of options to play with.
  • Use contrast. Juxtaposing cut, color and texture will make any outfit fun and interesting. It can also communicate different sides of your personality. If you’re wearing a leather skirt that screams edgy, then maybe you don a cashmere sweater that whispers sweet. Or perhaps your jewelry is demure and flirty, but your heels are strappy and vixen. The contrast in fabric and weight creates complexity that can be intriguing both for the wearer and the observer. “It’s a way of adding you to your outfit,” Isaac says.

How to Be Seen As More Professional:

You don’t need to spend tons of money on clothes, but you do need to make sure your clothes fit right. That holds true for both women and men. Doubly so if you want to come across as professional. According to Frank Bernieri, PhD, associate professor in the psychology department at Oregon State University, an interviewer will determine within 10 seconds of meeting a job candidate whether they’re right for the job. “A well-tailored outfit implies that you’re conscientious and pay close attention to detail,” Bernieri says.

“I can’t express that enough,” says menswear expert Nic Screws. “When people come up to me and ask, ‘What is the number one thing I can do to elevate my wardrobe?’ I’m always like, ‘Get a good tailor.’”

“You can take pieces that you have right now and transform the way you look by just making sure they are fitting you properly.” says Screws. 

  • That means not too tight, not too loose, not too long and definitely not too short.
  • Suits for both men and women are always seen as more professional.
  • Don’t break the “One and a Half” Rule. This one is for the ladies: Of course you want to look great and feel sexy when you’re out with your crush, but there’s a limit to how much skin you should bare  – especially, if it’s a first date. According to Musto, there are three areas of the body women want to focus on:
    • Legs
    • Arms
    • Bustline

“You should never show more than one and a half (of those areas),” he says. “You need your outfit to be like the appetizer – it fills his stomach just enough…but dinner’s not served.”

How to Be Seen As More Attractive:

When you love what you wear, you feel great and you look great. New York City stylist Elsa Isaac says when you wear clothes you love, “You perform differently. You walk differently,” Isaac explains. “Once my clients are in clothes they love, their body changes.”

And body language is key in conveying confidence and competence. Isaac should know. For nearly a decade, she has styled hundreds of powerhouse women in business. Best known for styling entrepreneur and online personality Marie Forleo, Isaac’s eye for style and fashion is fine-tuned. She knows how to use clothes to give her clients the edge.

“(Marie) doesn’t have to tell me that she likes something, she puts it on and she struts,” Isaac says. Such is the power of clothes and accessories.

  • Don’t wear something that makes you uncomfortable–physically or emotionally. Think something stands out too much? Is something too tight? Don’t wear it–it’s not worth it!
  • Highlight your best assets. Find outfits to dress for your figure. I like this guide for women. And this guide for how men can dress for their body type.

How to Be Seen As More Unique:

Everyone has a sense of style–even if you don’t know it yet. I think that our clothing is a fun and easy way to stand out. All you have to do is be more experimental. Here’s how:

  • Prints and patterns are an excellent way to stand out as long as they are appropriate for the occasion. You may not wear bold, bright florals to a job interview but you may choose to wear them for a summer brunch or tropical getaway. At work, you may decide on sophisticated pin stripes, a classic plaid or subtle polka dot.
  • Choose a unique shape. Most shirts, pants and dresses come standard, but you can play with shape to stand out. For example, if you always wear short dresses, try a maxi dress. Instead of wearing a typical winter coat, try a peacoat that has a different length.
  • Use your socks! If your job is more formal – say you work for a law firm or the government – then socks might be the best outlet for individual expression, especially since they can be bold and wacky. Colorful or character socks show playfulness and make a great ice breaker or way to connect with others, says Lauren Rothman, a stylist and author of Style Bible: What to Wear to Work. “Folks are showing their power, their bravado in the boardroom,” Rothman tells Quartz. “The louder the socks, the bigger the wallet.”
  • For unique clothes, DON’T go with any typical brands. Shop in boutiques or go vintage. I like this post on the best Indie Fashion Brands.

How to Be Seen As More Powerful:

Turns out, fashion doesn’t just impact other people’s impressions of us. It affects how we think and feel about ourselves. A study by California State University professor Abraham Rutchick and others found that formal clothing — suits, ties, dress shirts — makes people think more abstractly and holistic. Indeed, formal clothes made people think more like leaders.

“Putting on formal clothes makes us feel powerful, and that changes the basic way we see the world,” Rutchick said to The Atlantic.

What you wear can also give you leverage in negotiations.

In a study conducted by Yale professor Michael Krauss, men in suits negotiated better than their sweatpants and flip flop-wearing counterparts. In a mock real estate transaction, the suit-and-tie guys negotiated about 10 percent more profit than the casually-dressed dudes.

“You behave more dominantly, you compromise less, and part of that is because your interaction partner is allowing you to get away with more,” Krauss tells NPR of the men in suits.

Indeed, fashion is the vehicle through which humans can command – and project – more confidence, research shows.

“Most men are like, ‘I don’t need to worry about what I look like or that’s not important or that’s not masculine, (but the truth is) part of your personal brand is how you present yourself and that includes fashion,” says menswear expert Nic Screws.

  • If you want to be powerful, dress like a powerhouse in a suit and tie or pant suit.
  • Channel the most powerful person you know–what would they wear?
  • Wear bold colors that stand out and make you feel great.

Some Other Fashion Tips:

 

#1 Don’t Get Into a Fashion Rut

But how do we choose the right clothes that provoke the right feelings for the right occasions – whether it’s a high stakes interview or a night on the town?

Celebrity stylist Daniel Musto says, “When it comes to your clothes, you have to be ready for anything.” Because, Musto says….

“The way you look on the outside pulls out a lot of how you feel on the inside.”

That’s especially true when it comes to romance. It’s easy for lovers to fall into a wardrobe rut if they’ve been together for any extended period of time as these couples have found. The trick is to keep things fresh and interesting.

 

#2 Ease Into It

Ideally, clothes should be comfortable, literally and metaphorically. If you default to wearing jeans and sneakers all the time, a suit and tie might feel like a straightjacket.

“Ease into it”, says internationally-renowned fashion designer Michael Kors.

If you’re used to being in a traditional suit all day, then a white linen pant and henley might be a little too drastic. But a more relaxed suit—something unlined, maybe, with the wrinkle built in—is a stepping stone,” Kors says in this interview for Bloomberg Media. “You’re still polished, you’re still in a suit, but it’s more laid-back.”

 

#3 Don’t Forget About Footwear!

The same holds true for shoes. Most men might not feel comfortable sporting this season’s trendy new sandals or open-toed shoes. No worries.

Just “take it a piece at a time,” Kors says.

“If you never wear sandals, start with a heavier sandal, something with substance, on the weekends. Soon you’ll be wearing them with a trouser and a linen sweater at the office,” Kors explains in this interview.

“On the other hand, if you live in sneakers, try a rugged boat shoe. They’re still comfortable, but they’re a little more polished.”

The trick is to be comfortable.

“I do like the idea of ease and comfort, and I think most men do, too.”

 

#4 Clothing Hacks

I have some of my favorite clothing saving tricks to keep your clothes looking nice over time:

 

Bottom Line: HAVE FUN

Unlike any other member of the animal kingdom, humans have the unique advantage of choice. We get to choose what we wear. So have fun with fashion. Play a little. Experiment. If something doesn’t work or feel right, switch it up. No one says you’re stuck with wearing something you don’t like. Have fun. But remember, a good rule of thumb is: if you have to question a piece of attire, don’t wear it.

After all, it’s your choice.

 

About Vanessa Van Edwards

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and behavioral investigator.

I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.

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