Nancy Etcoff of Harvard in her book Survival of the Prettiest says that “appearance is the most public part of the self the visible self that the world assumes to be a mirror of the invisible inner self.”
I think that in general we don’t take clothes seriously enough. We think fashion is frivolous yet all human societies have adorned themselves in some way. We are rarely naked in our day to day life. We let the homeless live on our streets but if they take off their clothing they get arrested.
Fashion gets covered by every news source in print, TV and on their websites. Appearance is so important that it shows up on the diagnostic lists of mental health professionals for both depression and dementia. Our clothing signals our place in the world. We judge others quickly by how they are dressed because until they start to speak that is often the only clue. Friends tell me stories about their little kids becoming hysterical when their clothing choices are thwarted. Teenagers have to have the “right”, “cool” or “in” item and without it it’s a blow to their self esteem. When we send our children to schools that have them wear uniforms the first thing the kids do is personalize their outfit in some way by modifying it. I’ve been on the subway with uniformed Catholic schoolgirls and while they are all wearing the same basic clothing they have all made it different in one way or another. Parents, teenagers and schools all fight about what the kids wear.
There are non-verbal messages given by clothing that range from Boobs = Bimbo and glasses that make you look smarter and we all know what hooker clothing looks like. Yet often we are in denial about our own appearance - we say we want to be comfortable or that clothes shouldn’t matter.
Clothes are associated with rebellion, from the 60’s hippies to punks, Goths, beatniks, hip hops and all sorts of political, social and cultural groups. Each one of those words conjures up a strong visual image for us all.
Most importantly we tell others what to think of us with our clothing and often we send the wrong message. People are judged by how they look. If I had turned up inappropriately dressed at a speaking event the audience members would have looked at me and thought to themselves “That’s tonight’s speaker? I’m also pretty sure that they wouldn’t think "HUMMMM she'd be a lot more attractive if she just dressed better so I'm going to focus on her inner beauty".
We all make assumptions about others based on their appearance. Clothing is like the interior of your home people make judgments based on what they see but those judgments are more about your values than they are about your square footage or the colour of the walls. The body is just a container like your house is. If you go in see a lot of clutter, its dirty or everything is shabby we make judgments about the value people hold for their own home. If you see people dressed with no thought to their appearance we make a judgment that they don't value themselves and consequently we stereotypically don't value them either.
Clothes = Social communication
I think that others are often not reacting to how you look they are reacting to what your look says about how you value yourself and using that as a clue to how they should value you. We all have a list of flaws that make us feel self - conscious, everyone focuses on what they think is wrong with their bodies rather than on their clothing and I think that’s a mistake.
Clothes Matter! A friend told me a story a while ago. She and her boss interviewed 6 people for a position in her firm. All 6 were equally qualified so they were looking for a good fit with the team. A couple of months later I asked how the new hire was working out? My friend told me things were OK they had the usual learning curve issues at first and then she said but there was one really strange thing that happened. I asked “what’? And she told me they were really surprised to see that their new employee was quite a large lady, neither of them even noticed during the interview! She did tell me as well that the new hire is beautifully and appropriately dressed for work. That story tells me that people are not always judging you for your physical flaws but for your appearance in the bigger sense. And they do it fast, in the moment, and then move on. Seeing only the negatives is something we do to ourselves.