What started as a simple biomedical issue, has now turned into a multi-dimensional crisis. COVID has not only had social, political, and economic consequences, but it has significantly impacted our psychological well-being. The Indian Psychiatric Society found a dismaying 20% escalation in mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety disorders, after the outbreak of the virus. Similar statistics have also been reported from countries all around the world.

These testing times call for greater focus on ourselves, and concerted efforts in tending to our mental health. A less explored, yet effective, way to do so is to alter how we use our wardrobe. Sounds strange? It isn’t. Psychologists use the term ‘enclothed cognition’ (Adam & Galinsky, 2012) to refer to the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes. In effect, this means that our attire can modify how we think, and even affect our behaviour.

Ms Bandita Patro, an image management consultant, narrates how outfits, intentionally or unintentionally, drive the state of our mind. “Enclothed cognition involves the effect of clothes on our emotions, self-evaluations, attitudes, and interpersonal interactions.”, she says. Ms Patro also draws attention to the symbolic meaning we, as a society, ascribe to different types of attire. A woman in a pant-suit and tight bun would automatically be seen as powerful, while one in a flowy dress and open hair would be regarded as sprightly and fun. “We evaluate people we have just met based on their clothes, and also evaluate ourselves and our roles based on what we are wearing at a particular time.”, she adds. These influences may be subtle, but they are definite.

This also invokes what Adam and Galinsky (2012) demonstrated through their famous ‘White Coat Study’. In one experiment, half of the participants wore a disposable white lab coat, and all of them took a selective attention test. It was found that those participants who had donned the lab coat, made fewer mistakes and focused better than their peers. In the 2nd experiment, all participants wore a white lab coat- however, half of them were told that it was a doctor’s coat whereas the others learnt that it was a painter’s smock. This time, the participants who believed they were dressed in a doctor’s garb performed better than their ‘painter’ counterparts. The researchers concluded that this could be because doctors are known to be attentive and detail-oriented, and so the participants ended up embodying the expectations of the outfit.

In more applicable terms, it translates into how we can dress up in ways that would cause us to work in the desired manner. For instance, putting on your gym clothes will push you to work out and make healthier choices- the clothes would not only serve as a reminder to get your body moving but will also put you in the ‘healthy living mindset’. Similarly, dressing up as you used to for college, will increase your attention and participation in the online classes. The increase in one’s productivity as a consequence of their clothing is also endorsed by Ms Patro who experienced the difference first-hand. She recounts how before she pursued image consulting, she often used to work from home in her casuals or nightwear- backlogs and incomplete work were a regular part of her life then. However, when she started bringing in small changes in her WFH wardrobe by substituting a collared shirt for her T-shirt, or tailored pants for loose pyjamas, she noticed how her productivity, as well as interest in the work, shot up.

Applying the principles of clothing psychology in our day-to-day lockdown-ed life can be a great way to indulge in some self-care. Tiggeman and Lacey (2009) showed how clothes can influence our mood as soon as they are put on the body. At the same time, we reinforce our mood and express our feelings through our clothing (Sullivan, Kazlauciunas, & Guthrie, 2017). Caroline Adams Miller, a professional coach and author of ‘Creating Your Best Life’ cites “the science of happiness” in her analogy of fashion as a deliberate self-intervention for changing our mood. She says we can be happier “by wearing things that evoke positive feelings, positive reactions from others or that remind you of positive experiences.” (Sterman, 2018). This could also be a good starting point to consider putting more thought into the colour of our everyday garments. Yellow other bright colours cheer us up, boost our energy and enhance activity. Alternatively, darker tones can help create a relaxed and low-stress feel.

It might seem counterintuitive or a waste of energy to dress up when you aren’t going out or expecting anybody home. But now is the time to create reasons to dress up- according to Ms Patro, it “triggers a sense of excitement as the mind automatically tends to build a connection towards going out”. So whether it be for a virtual birthday party or a Skype date, make a deliberate effort to put on fancy clothes and look more groomed; this will fool your mind into a state of activity and enthusiasm, and cause it to release some happy hormones! If you are still not convinced, Ms Patro, lists some more reasons to wear clothes from the prettier section of your wardrobe: 1) decreases feelings of lethargy and makes us feel fresh; 2) relieves anxiety; 3) enhances creativity, and 4) helps communicate with others in a better manner.

While no one can replace PJs as the go-to, no-fuss, supremely comfortable item of choice for the end of the day, it might be a good idea to think more into what we wear during our waking hours and let our clothes be the expression of love towards ourselves.

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