The clothes we wear can make a strong impression on others. We learn early on in our careers to ‘dress for success’, and TV shows, such as the Today Show’s ‘Ambush Makeover’, emphasize the power of clothes to create favorable impressions. From drab...to fab.
The effort to manage the impressions we make on others is called ‘self-presentation’, and clothing is a great way to manipulate such impressions. For example...
Teaching assistants in formal clothes are perceived as more intelligent,11 but women who dress sexily in prestigious jobs are perceived as less competent.7
Men wearing tailored suits are rated as more confident, successful, and trustworthy than men wearing a regular ‘off-the-peg’ suit.8
Appropriately dressed customer service agents elicit stronger purchase intentions than inappropriately dressed ones.12
So, our clothes we wear can have power over others, but what about power over ourselves?
According to the ‘enclothed cognition’ theory, clothes can have a strong influence on what we think, believe, and feel, even encouraging us to adopt a particular identity.1
In other words, if we ‘look the part’, perhaps we ‘play the part’?
We know wearing a nurse’s uniform has made people less likely to administer electric shock to others, than those wearing large hoods and capes.14
Sports teams wearing black uniforms are more aggressive and penalized more than teams wearing non-black uniforms.6
While wearing red can enhance our perceptions of dominance and threat in a competitive context.5
Even city workers felt more trustworthy and productive when wearing business casual, but least friendly and creative when wearing formal business attire.9
Athletic Wear or Fitness Clothing
To the question at hand, what about putting on athletic or fitness wear? Some believe that it might work.
In one study, a sample of women classified as overweight provided their beliefs on the purpose of athletic apparel:3
- To set the tone, get in the mind set for physical activity,
- To avoid attention from other gym goers, and
- To support the body during physical activity.
Thus, these findings would appear to suggest that if we ‘look the part’ of an active person, perhaps we ‘play the part’.
‘Looking the Part’
Well, there is no evidence that looking the part of a fit person actually translates into more physical activity, especially if the goal is simply to make people believe that I am active by wearing certain clothes.
Of course, there is also the new “athleisure” fashion trend where active wear, designed for working out, is worn outside of the gym, for leisure, such as shopping or social occasions.
‘Playing the Part’
Even though there is no current evidence that wearing athletic wear will make us workout more, I think there are a few different ways it could work for the new exerciser.
Clothes can also help us feel more comfortable, limiting attention we receive from others while exercising in enemy territory (such as the gym), reducing anxiety, and helping us fit in with the social norms of a potentially hostile exercise environment.
A Short-Term Boost
If someone is going to workout or start an exercise program anyway, then the new outfit might provide a nice, short-term boost in motivation to get out there and sweat a little bit.
Clothing is commonly used as a way to camouflage or disguise one’s body or trouble areas.13 Although it is possible that people can camouflage to increase their comfort to exercise in public, my research suggests that it might be used more as an emotional avoidance coping strategy in women, alongside suppressed eating, supplement use, disengagement from behavior, and comfort food consumption.4
Exercise clothing might be a reward for some, thus inspiring greater effort and adherence to exercise.10
Physical Comfort and Performance
Practically speaking, such attire might also provide a level of physical comfort, like a good pair of running shoes, which could enhance physical activity participation.
Thus, I think this one is a clarify, as many might be wearing athletic or fitness clothing, especially expensive brands, to ‘look the part’ – making others think they are active or a part of a particular exercise/fitness group, but not actually exercising more.
With that said, for the new exerciser, a new outfit might provide some comfort and even a short-term boost to ‘play the part’, but no research currently confirms that wearing athletic clothes will make us work out more.
- Adam, H., & Galinsky, A. D. (2012). Enclothed cognition. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(4), 918-925.
- Casselman-Dickson, M. A., & Damhorst, M. L. (1993). Use of symbols for defining a role: do clothes make the athlete? Sociology of Sport Journal, 10(4), 413-431.
- Christel, D. A. (2012). Physically active adult women's experiences with plus-size athletic apparel. Dissertation. Oregon State University.
- Faries, M. D., & Bartholomew, J. B. (2015). Coping with Weight-related Discrepancies: Initial Development of the WEIGHTCOPE. Women's Health Issues, 25(3), 267-275.
- Feltman, R., & Elliot, A. J. (2011). The influence of red on perceptions of relative dominance and threat in a competitive context. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 33(2), 308-314.
- Frank, M. G., & Gilovich, T. (1988). The dark side of self and social perception: Black uniforms and aggression in professional sports. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 74–85.
- Glick, S., Larsen, S., Johnson, C., & Branstiter, H. (2005). Evaluations of sexy women in low and high-status jobs. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 29, 389–395.
- Howlett, N., Pine, K., Orakçioglu, I., & Fletcher, B. (2013). The influence of clothing on first impressions: Rapid and positive responses to minor changes in male attire. Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management: An International Journal, 17(1), 38-48.
- Karl, K. A., Hall, L. M., & Peluchette, J. V. (2013). City Employee Perceptions of the Impact of Dress and Appearance You Are What You Wear. Public Personnel Management, 42(3), 452-470.
- Kravitz, L., & Furst, D. (1991). Influence of reward and social support on exercise adherence in aerobic dance classes. Psychological Reports, 69(2), 423-426.
- Morris, T. L., Gorham, J., Cohen, S. H., & Huffman, D. (1996). Fashion in the classroom: Effects of attire on student perceptions of instructors in college classes. Communication Education, 45, 135–148.
- Shao, C. Y., Baker, J., & Wagner, J. A. (2004). The effects of appropriateness of service contact personnel dress on customer expectations of service quality and purchase intention: The moderating influences of involvement and gender. Journal of Business Research, 57, 1164–1176.
- Tiggemann, M., & Lacey, C. (2009). Shopping for clothes: Body satisfaction, appearance investment, and functions of clothing among female shoppers. Body Image, 6(4), 285-291.
- Zimbardo, P. G. (1969). The human choice: Individuation, reason, and order vs. deindividuation, impulse and chaos. In W. J. Arnold, & D. Levine (Eds.), Nebraska symposium on motivation, Vol. 17. (pp. 237–307) Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.