It’s good to be a little vain.
Fashion is just one among many expressions of the self, but, my, what a glorious expression it can be. Few things herald a personality quite so well. Fashion editor and former Vogue editor-in-chief, Diana Vreeland, once wrote that “I loathe narcissism, but I approve of vanity,” a sentiment that captures an unexpected truth—there is such a thing as healthy vanity, separate from unhealthy self-obsession. American culture often tells us that utility is what’s important, and that practicality is king—a king dressed in drab gray on a concrete throne. We’re often made to feel that paying special attention to our appearance is a kind of little sin, that we’ll be somehow less intelligent, less empathetic, and overall, less truly happy, if we are a bit vain. But it is not so! Respect for oneself, self-awareness, and paying attention to how our appearance affects those around us, are tools for our everyday happiness. Let’s take a look at how that well-tied scarf or lovely, layered winter wear can make your life better.
Your brain loves novelty. And few worlds are as fluid as the world of fashion. The colors, lights, textures, and faces are a constantly shifting mélange of trends. It’s well documented that new experiences and environments have a dramatic effect upon the brain. Reward circuitry is stimulated, causing us to feel euphoric. Cognitive processes—the attributes which affect learning, such as memory, visual processing, and problem solving—are enhanced. From an evolutionary perspective, this is because new stimuli must be investigated as benefit or danger to help ensure survival. We’re simply wired to appreciate the new, and our bodies reward us for indulging. Changing your wardrobe based not only on trends, but on the shifting expressions of your inner self, is a kind of self-reinvention that can give a neurological boost to both your mood, and your mind. So try it!
Apart from the novelty of fashion, choice of color also affects the mind in various ways, depending on your personal background. Generally, if you find yourself down, swathe yourself in yellows or reds, which promote energy and excitement, both in yourself and others. Feel anxious? Dress yourself in hues of blue for a calming air. Greens work well in promoting a sense of stability and prosperity. And purple, of course, promotes a sense of luxury and creativity. Jeannie Mai, host of the Style Network’s “How Do I Look,” advocates what she calls "Wearapy" using “clothing and texture to enhance people’s moods and lives.” This works both because of the subjective, preexisting associations we each have, but also because of certain innate, physiological reactions to color. For example, Andrew Elliot, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, in his study, “Romantic Red: Red Enhances Men’s Attraction to Women,” states that red excites us because it mimics the “red flush of sexual excitement.” With color producing strong physiological, as well as psychological responses, be aware of the colors (and textures!) which sooth or impassion you, as well as those that might dampen your mood. You’ll be the the happier for it.
The benefits of being fashionable extend beyond the chemical processes of the brain, and into the social world. Like it or not, others make judgments about us in less than a second—in about 1/10 of a second, to cite current research. Being aware of how we affect others with our appearance allows for something spectacular—opportunity. Dress as if you expect to, whilst walking down the sidewalk, have a Lamborghini screech to a halt in front of you, the door flinging open to reveal a foreign monarch who demands that you show them the best of your city. After all, you never know when you may find yourself in a conversation with that executive who holds the power to get you that coveted raise or job position. Author Oscar Wilde was correct when he observed that, “You can never be overdressed or overeducated.”—this has proven to be absolutely true. According to Dr. Karen Pine, Professor of Psychology, people "who dress like the boss are more likely to get appointed and promoted quicker." She goes on to also say that well dressed people also appear more "trustworthy and competent" to others in all situations. And at the simplest level, you might just put a smile on a stranger’s face, which is always worthwhile. Fashion is a language without words, constantly communicating about us. Do you know what you're saying about yourself?
Far from being the mere act of blindly following trends, or a simple tool to manipulate others, a sense of personal style is, ultimately, an expression of the self. It’s all about you, and that feels good. Communicating who you are is always a satisfying and enriching experience because we are social beings. We strive to be known. We need to be known. Trends come and go, but the art of picking and choosing pieces from those different trends, and even from different time periods, is what surpasses fashion and becomes style. Lauren Hutton, American model and actress, once said that “Fashion is what you’re offered four times a year by designers. And style is what you choose.” Style is the message you send out to the world. “This is a taste of who I am!” it proclaims. And because of our social nature, the mere act of courageously making that proclamation is one which can bring about happiness and self-assurance. Harmonizing what you wear with your very soul is a celebration of your history, your memories, your loves and appreciations. It encourages a sense of deep personal pride. Finding your style means you have found yourself, and that is always a worthwhile journey to undertake.
The psychology of fashion is an area few are aware of, and fewer use to their advantage. As in every part of your life, awareness of self is one of the keys to happiness—know what you love, and, just as importantly, what you don’t.Be aware of how choosing to engage with fashion and establishing styles affects you on a physical, emotional, and psychological level. Be aware of how it affects others, their perceptions of you, and of the opportunities that arise from both looking and feeling great. And know, in the end, that it isn’t enough to simply look nice. Confidence and happiness arise from within—they’re often locked inside our true selves, which lie in wait to be discovered. Great personal style is merely one of the results of purposeful examination of our own lives. So look within, find your roots, and express them in a purposeful manner. Look at your own soul in the mirror, love it, and smile at how beautiful it is. Be a little vain.