So-called dopamine dressing is everywhere this season. Based on the idea that wearing overtly fun clothes can help lift your mood in depressing times, it begs the question: can wearing “happy clothes” really make us more happy?
The fashion industry is certainly trying to convince us that it can be done. The catwalks have been a Skittles packet of brights – from Fanta orange at Armani and scarlet at Maison Margiela to Beauty and the Beast yellow and candyfloss pink at Giambattista Valli. Accidentism is in full flow; eyeshadows are fizzy tangerines and lemons; and hair’s gone blorange. Grazia magazine is encouraging us to test the power of positive thinking in Bella Freud Good Times tops. And elsewhere it’s all about head-to-toe green and rainbow bags in the shape of elephants.
But does the idea hold water? In a word: yes. But it’s not necessarily about dressing as an Opal Fruit. According to Carolyn Mair, a psychologist who has developed an MA course in fashion psychology at the London College of Fashion, it’s as much about you – and what meaning you believe your clothes have – as it is about the clothes.
Mair says that, while there’s some “less than scientific evidence” to suggest certain colours lift your mood, whether or not La La Land yellow will chirp you up is actually down to how you see that colour. Colour is culturally loaded – in the UK, we wear black for mourning; in China, it’s white. So, doing like Emma Stone will lift you only “if you believe that wearing a certain colour – it doesn’t need to be bright yellow, it could be black – lifts your mood … it’s a simultaneous wearing and believing that has been found to have significant results.” And it can be potent: “When people believe in the symbolic meaning of their clothes, it can affect their cognitive processes, and part of those are your emotions.”
So Victoria Beckham stepping out, as she recently did, in tangerine-orange palazzo pants with a WKD-blue shirt will only feel better if she buys into the edifying quality of her clothes. Ditto the the stars, from Viola Davis to Natalie Portman, who have taken to the red carpet recently in La La Land yellow dresses. And the likes of Anna Dello Russo and Man Repeller’s Leandra who, over on Instagram, have been peppering our feeds with the rainbow-coloured Alberta Ferretti day-of-the-week jumpers.
Mair cites a 2012 paper by Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky that delved into this idea of “enclothed cognition”, clothes’ ability to affect our thoughts. In one experiment, some participants wore a garment described as a doctor’s coat and others an identical garment described as a painter’s coat. Participants wearing what they thought was a doctor’s coat performed better in a task than those who thought they were in a painter’s coat – the influence of clothes, the paper suggested, depends on “wearing them and their symbolic meaning”.
So, lucky pants start to make more sense – if you truly believe that pair of old Sloggis are lucky, they may well help you feel better/more confident.
Mair quotes a study testing the theory that people wearing red are seen as more attractive. Participants were asked to rate the attractiveness of people wearing different coloured T-shirts. Those wearing red were seen as more attractive. The researchers then blanked out the colour of the T-shirts in pictures – participants still rated those wearing red as more attractive. “The researchers,” Mair explains, “concluded that the reason was that when people wore red they felt more attractive.”
There is also an external element to dressing yourself happy. If you wear a top with a kitten or smiley face you might not “actually see what’s on your T-shirt except for when you look in the mirror,” says Mair. “But you’re projecting it to other people, and they project it back to you.”
But what, I ask, trying to prod the limits of dopamine dressing, if you wear a jumper with a positive slogan on it, but it’s not a garment you feel good about? Or you wear a garment with a negative message, but it’s one you feel good about? Punks or Hell’s Angels would be unlikely to feel happy in a kitten T-shirt, after all. Well, that would be an interesting study, Mair says.
So, how can we dress ourselves happy, having debunked the idea that simply sticking on a yellow frock is the sartorial equivalent of Prozac? “Wear clothes that you feel confident enough to move in,” advises Mair. “Go with a critical friend when you’re buying something, particularly if it’s something that you’ve never worn. But if you really want to go for it and if you feel good it in, you’ll project that. If you don’t feel good in something, don’t wear it just because it’s fashionable.”
So, by all means taste the rainbow, but only if it makes you feel good.
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