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Dressed for Success

Emily Law

Wilson College of Textiles doctoral student Emily Law wants to know if changing your outfit can change your perspective — and perhaps even your life. Her master’s thesis research indicated that clothing choice has a notable effect on student participation and focus. Now, she is taking her research to the next level and further examining the psychology of fashion, including the possibility of increasing one’s performance at work and in social situations through dress.

“What I’m really interested in is people’s own perceptions of themselves being changed, and their performance in various physical and mental tasks being changed by what they’re wearing,” said Law.

Her master’s thesis explored the concept of enclothed cognition, the power of our clothing to affect our thoughts and feelings. In a seminal study, Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky found that a simple white coat could improve the wearer’s focus and attention to detail — but only if they thought the coat belonged to a doctor. When students were told the same garment was a painter’s coat rather than a doctor’s, there was no such improvement — suggesting that the symbolic associations of certain clothing affect the wearer. Think putting on a power suit to boost confidence for a job interview or lacing up new running shoes for an extra burst of energy in a race.

Law hypothesized that the clothes students choose to wear to class could help or hinder their focus, so she set up a study to test her theory. As a teaching assistant for Dr. Cynthia Istook last year, she observed students as they sat at their computers in class. The students came in each day and ranked their outfits on a scale from 1 (most casual) to 10 (most formal). During the lecture, she scanned the room at five minute intervals, checking to see which students were paying attention and which students were distracted; ultimately, she found a strong correlation between students’ casual clothing and an increased level of distraction. Conversely, those students wearing more formal clothes tended to be more engaged in the class.

“One day, I had the students come in dressed in sweatpants,” she said. “On that day, they were distracted around 70 percent of the time and the day I had them come in wearing formal clothing, they were distracted only about 30 percent of the time.”

Law presented her research at the International Textiles and Apparel Association conference in Vancouver in 2016 and was pleased at the reaction to her presentation.

“It was this huge convention where everybody presents their research,” she said. “I was a little bit nervous, but my research was really well received by everyone. They were asking a lot of questions and were really enthusiastic about it.”

Since then, she worked with Dr. Lori Rothenberg on a survey study to gauge the influence of fashion on working professionals. They sent out a questionnaire to various types of local companies and found that being in vogue mattered more to workers than the type of clothing they wore.

“If you were wearing something stylish, you felt better about your performance, every aspect of competence and every aspect of emotional performance,” she said. “Fashion really matters to people — the interesting thing is that it mattered more than the style. People would rather be fashionable and completely unprofessional for work than they would be professional for work and in something out of style. For example, if they were wearing an Adidas sweatsuit that’s really in style, that would be better than showing up in a blazer with a big collar way out to here.”


Law believes her interest in textiles is genetic. Her maternal great-grandmother was the seamstress of a small German village, making the townswomen’s bridal gowns to measure; both grandmothers were accomplished seamstresses, sewing all their children’s clothing. She developed an early interest in sewing, playing Barbie Fashion Designer on her computer for hours and once asking her first-grade teacher for some fabric to make her own dress.

“She gave me a pillowcase and I cut armholes and a headhole and I made a dress,” she laughed.

I want to continue looking into the way clothing affects people’s thoughts, feelings and performance, and I want to discover more about the unknown, deeper role clothing plays in our lives.

She came to the Wilson College of Textiles at NC State in 2011 and has been here ever since, earning her bachelor’s degree in Fashion and Textile Management with a concentration in Fashion Development and Product Management in 2015 and her master of science in textiles from the department of Textile and Apparel, Technology and Management with a focus on consumer science in 2016. She is currently working toward her doctorate and hopes to become a professor.

“I love teaching,” she said. “When Dr. Istook had me as her TA I just fell in love with teaching…having (all that information) in your head and being able to give it to somebody else — I just fell in love with it. It’s super rewarding, super fun, being able to share my knowledge and make it really accessible for people.”

Law credits several professors with her success to date. One is Dr. Yingjiao Xu, who invited her to apply to the accelerated master’s program and who she said “set me on this path of thinking that I can do more.” Another is Dr. Istook, who she said “was very supportive and very open to what I wanted to look into, even though it wasn’t her area of expertise.” She is also grateful to Dr. Rothenberg, who was on her thesis committee and is, according to Law, “supportive, one of those people who just brings you up every time you talk to her,” and Dr. Marguerite Moore, who she said is “another very positive, wonderful person, (who) sees a really complex thing and says, ‘This is doable. We just have to figure out how to do it.’”   

Law is currently designing another experiment to delve into the psychology of fashion, an area so broad and so under-studied she believes she can carve out her own academic niche. She wants to know more about the influence of fashion on mood and self-perception, about the affordability of fashion and how not being able to buy stylish clothes can impact individuals, about who one’s clothes proclaim one to be.

“How is the clothing that people are wearing every day on the street affecting them?” asked Law. “Sometimes, you have a bad day and you dress for that bad day. If you wear sweatpants, is that one of those self-fulfilling prophecies? Are you making that day bad? If you dressed up would your day turn around? I have so many different questions…I want to continue looking into the way clothing affects people’s thoughts, feelings and performance, and I want to discover more about the unknown, deeper role clothing plays in our lives.”