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Clothing as Communication

by Sandra Macke-Piper, MSC, LPC

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression” has been attributed to several famous people—Oscar Wilde, Will Rogers, Andrew Grant and so on. However, it may actually have been the brainchild of some brilliant ad executive who coined the slogan for a 1966 Botany Suits print ad. It cleverly conveys something known centuries—what someone is wearing gives the observer a lot of information.

Or does it?

This sartorial form of communication, like every other type of human communication, can be easily misunderstood. The wearer may think they are saying one thing while the observer is getting an entirely different message. Clothing is art, expression, form and function. It is also a calling card.

Researchers McCracken and Roth (1989) talk about the messaging of clothing relying on a ‘code’. This code is dependent upon social and cultural norms shared by a community or group. The more people who understand the code, the better the communication (Howlett et al., 2013).

A few years ago, a foot of mine started misbehaving. It became clear, after days (or a year) of pain, my high-heeled shoe addiction needed to meet a timely demise. But my foot problem meant throwing out the sky-high beauties living in my closet, something my podiatrist said should have been ages before.

Not wishing to retire to black orthotics, the hunt for attractive, flatter shoes commenced. The new shoe closet occupants included low-heeled shoes, fancy tennis shoes, sparkly flats, etc. Along the way it was necessary to carefully curate outfits so as not to appear TOO casual. As a business owner, consultant and therapist the message I want to send is one of professionalism, competence and reliability. Rolling into work in uber comfortable crocs and jeans might be “code” for my feet hurt but it could just as easily convey a lack of success, incompetence or dearth of seriousness.

I am old enough to know, even if my younger self would have lamented the unfairness of it all, people will judge me by my appearance. I need to speak in a “code” they instinctively understand and not in the “code” I wish they knew.

Clothing has been shown to communicate credibility (O’Neal and Lipitsky, 1991), imagination (Damhorst, 1990), attractiveness, intelligence, popularity (Howlett et al.) and status (McCracken and Roth, 1989). People make these judgments, based on appearance, in less than half a second (Olivola and Todorov, 2010). Along with learning words, we learn the stylistic language of apparel and appearance.

In counseling, the spoken word is something to which we closely attend. Counselors are also heavily trained in non-verbals—body language, facial expression, eye contact, intonation and so on. Sometimes in counseling each week or month seems to have a theme; a multitude of clients, unknown to one another, bring in highly similar thoughts or issues. Recently the topic of clothing has cropped up. Parents being disturbed by the clothing rips, tears, dirt, wrinkles, length (or lack thereof) and kids, like myself of old, arguing they should not be judged for looking like they just rolled out of bed when going for a job interview.

Above is ammunition, based on research to support the need for careful clothing choices. Below are questions to ask those who think pink and purple plaid goes well with green and red floral damask.

Where are you going? (Venue matters)

What is your goal?

What message are you wishing to convey?

Are you sure the message you wish to convey is the one being telegraphed?

Damhorst, M. L. (1990), "In search of a common thread: Classification of information communicated by dress", Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, Vol. 8 No. 2, pp. 1-12

Howlett, N., Pine, K., Orakcioglu, I. & Fletcher, B.C. (2013). The influence of clothing on first impressions: Rapid and positive responses to minor changes in male attire. Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management 17:38-48. DOI: 10.1108/13612021311305128

McCracken, G. D. and Roth, V. J. (1989), "Does clothing have a code? Empirical findings and theoretical implications in the study of clothing as a means of communication", International Journal of Research in Marketing, Vol. 6 No. 1, pp. 13-33.

Olivola, C. Y. and Todorov, A. (2010a), "Fooled by first impressions? Re-examining the diagnostic value of appearance-based inferences", Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 46 No. 2, pp. 315-324.

O’Neal, G.S. and Lapitsky, M. (1991). Effects of clothing as nonverbal communication on credibility of the message source. Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, Vol. 9, No. 3, pp. 22-34.

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1 Comment

soooo true.... Thank you!

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