Social identity, dress, and being happy

I recently conducted a research study which I asked participants to wear an outfit that made them happy; the findings linked the way in which participants dress to their relationships with others and shared values. Wearing the particular happy outfit they had chosen to discuss increased casual relationships with strangers, including connecting in a meaningful way with the researcher; Frank expressed it when he declared:

“I have worn this today for you… it is my gift to you. But I will never wear it like this again. I wanted to be happy today, I wanted to make you happy. I choose what the one to me was right today representing my transformation, this moment.”

Many of us will be aware of the way a stranger smiles at our outfit as we sit opposite them on the tube, sometimes this leads to micro-moments of connection; our mirror neurons match as we exchange a fleeting smile that signifies our common humanity. And then we may be lucky enough to find an exterior fit, a tribe, a subculture, where we can be authentic and share a set of common values that fashion fills, allowing strong bonds to be created as we communicate who we are with how we dress. ‘Wearing values’ creates duality in relationships that generates benefits beyond personal wellbeing and extends to a feeling of making a difference.

I have a signature style that starts from my shoes, I connect regularly with others when we start conversations about my footwear and sometimes that extends to long lasting relationships that are cemented by the way we dress. When I reflect on friends I have had for any length of time we share clothes as a mutual connection. All of the meaningful relationships I have in my life share a love of clothes as an underlying common denominator.

Fashioning positive relationships:

The lovely people who took part in my study dress in ways which are unique and unusual; this can stop strangers in the street and adds positive connections to chance encounters. Janie put it very simply “people do smile at me….they do, but I’m so used to it I don’t always notice it”. She smiles as she says this and is clearly happy to make a difference, even a small one, to the daily life of strangers.

Paul commented on the duality of these small connections, saying:

“We should make that effort to communicate, it’s what we need, it’s an amazing feeling for me to give that compliment and they like it too. Win Win. All those connections, a stranger’s words are way more powerful.”

Deeper connections are formed when friendships are created through sharing a love of dressing up, “I’ve found a sense of community with that. My tribe”.

And then these important friendships form a circle of influence:

“This has bought more into my life as we all become friends, we are a group. I get to know them, we wear for each other.”

The sense of purpose that dressing in a particular style provides meaningful connections that help others to discover who they are. We shape each others being by the way we dress:

“I did it for myself, but when you can influence others, well, I’m a bit of a local celebrity and I can help others express themselves. People are all different… we can accept everyone.”

“Let’s look at what makes you happy? How can I get to you as a person? When were you last happy with yourself? What’s that about? How can we go back to that? You need to connect with that side of you. Let’s get you back to that person darling let’s find the dress… connect with who you are…”

Shared values:

Shared values reflect the way our needs to make a difference, a common need to lead by example, reflect internal values of caring and sharing alongside a desire to show that being authentic is available to all. Sara’s view was that:

“I assemble myself. People say ‘I couldn’t do that’ as if there is something different about me. (laugh).. I’m a slightly overweight old lady come on, you can do it”

Inspiration, influence and collaboration were goals to aspire to, ways of being that led to a sense of achievement:

“It’s inspiring people in hope when I am daring. Not only dressing, but energising people with my motivation. You say I shouldn’t I say why not? I have a flame, if F has a flame them I can too. I can only start with me. We can choose, then influence.”

Making a difference can lead to connections that matter:

When I give a talk on the way we connect with others through our daily dressing members of the audience often have an ‘aha’ moment when they recognise that they can genuinely change the way their friends view the world by expressing their values in their dress.

“I think I can make people strong by giving them the confidence to dress differently. I can make people feel better…it’s like when the girls that come into the shop say oh I couldn’t wear that! But then they try it and feel great and change. It gives them a sense of freedom… I like that.”

The oldest member of my study population, Sara, was very aware of the responsibility of having a position of authority, because of her style and way of dressing connected her to others:

“And the secret is you have to make it work for others as well. You have to make it happen for them it’s the most wonderful life. I love the young people around me, I’m very lucky.”

Image courtesy of Unsplash

Fashion seems so surface to many people but the influence we have when we have a particular visual-value way of communicating can have an extensive reach. We can make strangers smile, we can initiate conversations, we can create relationships which allow us to thrive and we can love those who share our dress-codes. Perhaps this may not be the fashion in which everyone makes friends but it works for me.

Originally published at