Forgive me, fashion, for I have sinned: Ever since I started working from home three years ago, I have cycled through the same four sweatpants and sweatshirts, over and over again. Without realizing it, I have fallen into the Silicon Valley-espoused trap of wearing the same outfit every day for reasons I can attribute only to laziness, lack of vision, and getting dressed while half-asleep.
I wasn’t always like this: In high school, my type A tendencies and desire to sleep as late as possible forced me to lay out my clothes the night before; years later, when I started a job that required me to be out the door by 4:30 a.m., I would pick out my outfit ahead of time so I could dress for work in the dark without waking my partner.
Like many people, my life has shrunk in the years since the pandemic, and if you look at how I dress each day, it would appear my closet has too. But my problem isn’t that I don’t own enough clothes, or even that I don’t own clothes I like. The issue is that I’m opening my closet every morning in the same mental and emotional state (read: tired and grumpy), and expecting to see what’s inside in an entirely new light. And I’m starting to wonder if my newfound approach to dressing myself is having a negative effect on my mental health. Below, I discuss experimenting with picking an outfit before bed and how it may positively affect my mental state.
Meet the Expert
- Dr. Carolyn Mair is a psychologist with a focus on fashion. She has her Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience, MSc in research methods, and BSc in applied psychology and computing.
- Dr. Dawnn Karen is a fashion psychologist and author of Dress Your Best Life.
The Experiment: Picking an Outfit Before Bed
I decided to commit to a week of laying out my outfit the night before going to bed. At the very least, I hoped this would force me to re-engage with some of my wardrobe pieces that aren’t made of fleece; at the very most, I hoped to use clothing to yank myself out of an anxious, depressive rut. After all, if we can dress for the job we want, shouldn’t we also dress for the mood we desire?
I have a bad habit of taking my commitments more seriously after I’ve already spent money on them, so to motivate myself to actually follow through with this plan, I purchased this valet hook to hang outside my closet. It comes with five hanger notches, so there’s plenty of room to lay out my pre-selected outfits, and the hook can be folded into the wall when it's not in use.
Styling Yourself for a Better Emotional State
Fashion is an art, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t scientific explanations for why certain clothes make us feel better than others. According to a 2012 study conducted by Professor Karen Pine, co-author of Flex: Do Something Different, a woman’s outfit choice is “heavily dependent upon her emotional state.” Of the 100 women the psychologists surveyed, over half answered that they wore jeans when feeling depressed, and 57% said they would choose a baggy top when in a negative emotional place. The psychologists concluded that women can alter these emotional states by choosing clothing pieces that they associate with happiness (like a favorite dress), when they’re emotionally low, thereby allowing them to hijack their mood.
There’s just one problem: As I discovered in the years preceding this experiment, it’s hard to motivate yourself to reach for that favorite dress or piece you’ve been saving for a special occasion when your mindset is already crummy. Dr. Carolyn Mair, a fashion business consultant, author of The Psychology of Fashion, and a fan of pre-planning outfits, says this is why selecting an outfit the night before can come in clutch: “We might be more relaxed in the evening than in the morning, and so we might even be able to make a better choice of outfit,” she tells me in an email.
If we can dress for the job we want, shouldn’t we also to dress for the mood we desire?
Once I recommitted to laying out my clothes the night before, I began thinking more critically about what I had planned for the next day, and how my outfit might facilitate a mood that could help me accomplish those goals. There is power in the clothing we choose to put on our bodies, and studies show that your outfit has a measurable effect on your mental and physical performance. For example, a paper published in 2015 in Social Psychological and Personality Science tracked how clothing affected test subjects’ ability to think abstractly. Participants who were asked to change into a formal outfit before taking a cognitive test demonstrated an increase in abstract thinking, which is linked to creativity and long-term strategy.
During the week of my experiment, I had set aside a day to write in anticipation of a deadline—the kind of day that would usually result in me wearing a sweatsuit from sunup to sundown. Instead, I set out an outfit that was far more formal than I would normally throw on to sit in front of a computer (this black oversized Park City sweater from Rumored over a white button-down) and was surprised to discover that I cranked through my work much more efficiently than I normally do. Was it a placebo? Maybe. But that didn’t stop me from celebrating and wrapping up work an hour early.
Try Dopamine Dressing
A month after the pandemic began, fashion psychologist Dr. Dawnn Karen published her book Dress Your Best Life, where she introduced the idea of “dopamine dressing.” Dr. Karen suggests that choosing to dress your body in bright colors or clothing you love is a natural way to boost dopamine—a neurotransmitter that serves as the brain’s chemical messenger, delivering information associated with pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation between the brain’s nerve cells. Two years after the book’s publication, the term started making the rounds on TikTok and in the fashion media. As we returned to our previously scheduled lives and attempted to deal with our increased anxiety and depression—often without any additional support—the idea that an outfit choice could potentially affect our mood and boost feel-good hormones started to sound pretty appealing.
As far as wellness and fashion trends go, dopamine dressing is one of the most accessible and easiest to integrate into your everyday life because all it requires is a knowledge of self. What kinds of clothes make you happy when you put them on? Which colors boost your mood? What styles or fabrics make you feel the most confident or comfortable? Answering these questions will not only give you insight into your personal style, but will allow you to hack your already existing wardrobe, and optimize it for your own mental health gains.
The Final Takeaway
Anyone with mental health issues can tell you that when you’re at an emotional nadir, planning ahead feels not only impossible but futile. When everything in the present feels hopeless, what’s the point in planning for the future? Similarly, when everything is a struggle, there’s comfort to be found in reaching for the familiar sweatpants or the well-loved sweatshirt. But what I took away from my week of outfit pre-planning and dressing with intention is that there’s also dopamine to be mined from places of novelty. When it feels like there’s nothing to feel good about, I can access those chemicals by putting together a new outfit, or wearing something I haven’t put on in a while, or by dressing myself in colors that make me happy. Planning your outfit the night before won’t replace your SSRIs, but it can save time, money, and as Dr. Mair says, “reduce stress and open up the capacity to think about more pressing issues.” And ultimately, those are all things that have the potential to make me smile.