Our clothes can change who we are

I own five t-shirts. They all look similar.

Why do this? I first got interested in the effect of clothing on personality when I learned that many top performers (Zuckerberg, Jobs, Dalio etc.) wore the same things every day.

For example, in Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, we learn that Jobs owned hundreds of the same black turtleneck:

“He also came to like the idea of having a uniform for himself, both because of its daily convenience (the rationale he claimed) and its ability to convey a signature style. ‘So I asked Issey to make me some of his black turtlenecks that I liked, and he made me like a hundred of them.’ Jobs noticed my surprise when he told this story, so he showed them stacked up in the closet. ‘That’s what I wear,’ he said. ‘I have enough to last for the rest of my life.’”

When I first cut down my wardrobe, I was only interested in reducing decision fatigue — the less mental effort I spent on wardrobe choices, the more energy I thought I would have to spend on the important decisions in life.

Now, I realize that view is too simple. There’s a lot more to clothing than its effects on willpower.

In fact, your wardrobe can change who you are.

Talk to my blouse

When it comes to language, most of us think of words, either spoken or written. But words make up a very, very small corner of human expression.

Facial expressions, day-to-day actions, our body language — these things all contain information and, whether we recognize it or not, we use them all the time to think and act in the world.

Clothes are no exception.

In The Tongue of Fashion (found in A Lateral View), Donald Richie — known for his prolific writings on Japan — notes that the study of clothing as communication has been largely ignored:

“Various kinds of gesture, in themselves forming languages, have been only partially codified, and among these clothing as a system of expressing feeling and thought is rarely studied at all. Yet, as a means of self-comment and self-presentation it is one of the most common forms of gestural language: the “sentence” formed by the complete ensemble speaks plainly about the wearer and is intended to…”

Clothing speaks.

I’m judging you, and I can’t help it

I’m at a cafe in Thailand as I write this, and a man just walked in.

He’s tall, with blonde hair and a big frame. From the wrinkles, I’d say he’s in his mid-fifties. What’s he wearing? Khaki shorts, brown boat shoes and a light blue dress shirt. The top three buttons of his shirt are undone, and I see some blonde chest hair peeking out.

Pause and imagine him for a moment.

In that moment, you’ve made dozens of snap judgments — some conscious and others unconscious — about what kind of person he is. American. Owns a boat. Likes beer. Only talks about politics.

Steve Jobs understood how to use clothes to send a message. His black turtleneck became part of his personal brand (Jobs tried to implement uniforms for all Apple employees but was booed offstage).

The perception-altering part of clothing, I think, is easy to understand. After all, we all dress (whether we admit it or not) to get recognition from others. You don’t wear a necktie on a deserted island.

What’s more interesting to me is how clothing can change who we are.

New wardrobe, new attitude

In his essay Lumbar Thought (found in Travels in Hyper Reality ), Umberto Eco writes of his return to wearing jeans after losing a few pounds:

I assumed a demeanor. It’s strange that the traditionally most informal and antietiquette garment should be the one that so strongly imposes an etiquette. As a rule I am boisterous, I sprawl in a chair, I slump wherever I please, with no claim to elegance: my blue jeans checked these actions, made me more polite and mature. I discussed it at length, especially with consultants of the opposite sex, from whom I learned what, for that matter, I had already suspected: that for women experiences of this kind are familiar because all their garments are conceived to impose a demeanor — high heels, girdles, brassieres, pantyhose, tight sweaters.”

This seem bizarre at first.

But, on second thought, it isn’t that strange. We treat our grandmother differently than our boss, and we are more polite at a New York steakhouse than we are at Miami Beach. Why shouldn’t this extend to clothing? I am a very different person when I wear a suit.

You might then ask, “Who cares about demeanor? It doesn’t change who I really am, deep down.”

That kind of thinking makes me chuckle. Although we like to think we know about ourselves, most of us have no clue what goes on within us. We are complicated beyond our wildest nightmares.

Are you sure that your actions don’t change your inner life?

My yoga pants make me sad

This summer, I had the opportunity to attend Japan’s Nebuta Matsuri, one of Japan’s famed summer festivals. A lady friend of mine suggested we wear yukata  a casual form of the kimono.

A Star Wars float at Nebuta, from 2015 (source)

Donald Richie describes the kimono as “a costume so tight that it hobbles the wearer and prevents any actions other than walking, standing, sitting, kneeling — a repertoire of movements which, given the possibilities of the human body, is quite limited.”

Though I usually take long, languid strides when I walk, I found the yukata forced me to take small, dainty steps. After a while, I actually started to feel smaller and daintier.

If you hold a pencil in your mouth, the muscles of your face organize in a way similar to that of a smile. And, unknowingly, this action makes you feel happier. The way we move, the postures the body takes, what we can and cannot do — these things affect how we feel and experience the world.

Eco writes:

“Women during menstruation; people suffering from orchitis, victims of hemorrhoids, urethritis, prostate and similar ailments know to what extent pressures or obstacles in the sacroiliac area influence one’s mood and mental agility. But the same can be said (perhaps to a lesser degree) of the neck, the back, the head, the feet. A human race that has learned to move about in shoes has oriented its thought differently from the way it would have done if the race had gone barefoot.”

So we’ve looked at demeanor. We’ve looked at emotions.

Now let’s look at how these two things — our actions and our feelings — feed into who we are.

I lost my favorite t-shirt and now I don’t know who I am

In a previous essay, I wrote about self-signaling — how our own actions (willful or not) go on to change both what we do and how we see ourselves.

Clothes affect not only our emotions but our choices too. You don’t do push-ups in suit and tie, and you don’t attend a funeral in beach sandals.

This implications are fascinating.

What happens when you make kids wear uniforms? What happens when your company changes its dress code? Do I literally change if I move to a warmer country, and switch from coats to shorts? Do we transform, like our wardrobes do, with the seasons?

Eco goes as far as to suggest clothing may affect morality itself:

“I thought then about how much, in the history of civilization, dress as armor has influenced behavior and, in consequence, exterior morality. … The Victorian bourgeois was stiff and formal because of stiff collars; the nineteenth-century gentleman was constrained by his tight redingotes, boots, and top hats that didn’t allow brusque movements of the head. If Vienna had been on the equator and its bourgeoisie had gone around in Bermuda shorts, would Freud have described the same neurotic symptoms, the same Oedipal triangles?”
Victorian dress

Now, on to my favorite part. As a writer, I care a lot about creativity and the thoughts that float about in my internal world.

Do clothes affect that too?

I’m shallow, and I blame fashion

What we wear can also affect our depth of thought.

Aesthetic-obsession can affect creativity and deep work in an alarming way. Our relationship with our clothing can even alter the fabric (har, har) of our thoughts:

“Not only did the garment impose a demeanor on me; by focusing my attention on demeanor, it obliged me to live towards the exterior world. It reduced, in other words, the exercise of my interior-ness. For people in my profession it is normal to walk along with your mind on other things: the article you have to write, the lecture you must give, the relationship between the One and the Many, the Andreotti government, how to deal with the problem of the Redemption, whether there is life on Mars, the latest song of Celentano, the paradox of Epimenides. In our line this is called “the interior life.”
Well, with my new jeans my life was entirely exterior: I thought about the relationship between me and my pants, and the relationship between my pants and me and the society we lived in.”

Clothes can make us more shallow.

Let’s say you bought a new pair of shoes. You take a walk down the street, see the other people around you, and you might start to wonder how you appear to them. How do I look? Do these shoes match my shirt? Do I look fat? Wait, that woman is looking at me. Oh my gosh she’s looking at my shoes. I knew they were…

We can do this dozens of times a day. Now imagine that this happens every time you put on a new outfit — that’s thousands of thoughts a year that aren’t going towards your art, your business, your family or your new book.

So, to cultivate an internal life, it makes sense to to wear clothes that leave you unconcerned with the outside world:

“[The monk’s habit] left the body (inside, underneath) completely free and unaware of itself. Monks were rich in interior life and very dirty, because the body, protected by a habit that, ennobling it, released it, was free to think, and to forget about itself.”

Eco goes on to argue that a aesthetics-obsessed culture cripples our ability to think:

“But if armor obliges its wearer to live the exterior life, then the age-old female spell is due also to the feet that society has imposed armors on women, forcing them to neglect the exercise of thought. Woman has been enslaved by fashion not only because, in obliging her to be attractive, to maintain an ethereal demeanor, to be pretty and stimulating, it made her a sex object; she has been enslaved chiefly because the clothing counseled for her forced her psychologically to live for the exterior.”

Perhaps there’s a kernel of truth in the old Greek saying that “the garment makes the man.”

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