Who doesn’t love a good story? From the Latin and Greek to the Chinese and Egyptians, storytelling is found to be a universal cross-cultural trait. Human beings are storytellers by nature and as the author Margaret Atwood well said, “the next time somebody asks you why you write, the short answer is, because I’m human”. We adore to immerse ourselves into narratives and live through every single ounce of emotion a character is experiencing. Preferably with a hint of nostalgic melodrama.
We are all guilty of sitting in front of a screen and deliberately crying out waterfalls. Young and old, we chose to attend a Shakespeare play and witness the tragic fate of Romeo & Juliet. We voluntarily bemoan the unfortunate circumstances of the brave and affectionate courtesan in Verdi’s opera La Traviata. Why do we select this alternative way to suffer if in de facto we avoid feeling miserable by all means? Another ironic anecdote about the multi-faced species we contradicting humans are.
Could it be that stories allow us to confront situations we fear? If so, storytelling could prepare us for life's challenges and make us more resilient. Interestingly, persistence is one of the character strengths on which positive psychologists built to enhance happiness and wellbeing.
By putting on clothes, we portray a narrative to others — and to ourselves — who we are, and who we wish to be. On a more philosophical level, you become the author. Your body is the book that carries the words: Garments. Your style is your character. What if I told you that by simply putting an outfit together, there was more to it than simply sending first impressions? What if I told you that it could improve the wellbeing of others and yourself? Am I, in effect, saying that the story my garments tell can make me and my surrounding happier?
What makes a good story?
There are however two sides to storytelling: Listening and narrating. Luckily, getting dressed can be both. A good story facilitates empathy and captivates audiences. In psychology, we use the terms narrative persuasion and transportation theory to explain how persuasive accounts can change attitudes and even alter beliefs. A good story creates strong emotions, transports you into its fictitious world and can suck the observer so deep into the narrative that he or she feels part of it and may even change his views. Just look at fashion shows and advertisements. Just like in movies there is a genre for everyone.
Telling your story allows you to rediscover your strengths and identities, separate from any illness or stress...
Burberry’s play on heritage and Maria Grazia Chiuri’s emphasis on feminism might speak more to people favouring rationalism and activism. Gucci’s oddly creative use of everyday situations and Jeremy Scott’s over-the-top 18th-century Marie Antoinette extravaganza may attract more open-minded individuals seeking to escape reality. These are all very distinct parties, but have one thing in common: They use storytelling to make you want to be part of their brand. Fiction and fantasy have negative societal connotations today. But wouldn’t natural selection have eliminated this storytelling trait by now if it weren’t advantageous?
Did you know that learning and developing relationships can be facilitated by storytelling? Plus, social wellbeing is essential when it comes to happiness. We need social acceptance, integration, contribution, coherence, and actualisation. Which is why narratives are great for our mental health. Stories facilitate and train our ability to feel empathy. Especially in this interconnected world, this ‘projection of one’s own personality into the personality of another in order to understand him better’ has become immensely important.
If we want to survive the 21st century, the ability to understand someone else’s behaviour is primordial. Novels train you to establish an empathetic personality and it is believed that mirror neurons, a set of recently discovered nervous cells in the premotor area of the brain are involved in this process. Interestingly, they are activated not only when performing an action but also when observing it. It is believed that these cells increase a human’s ability to understand behaviour. Plus, people who had a strong sense of empathy were found to be more successful in their work and personal life. But what does this have to do with fashion?
Narratives are becoming increasingly popular in treating mental health issues. Telling one's story allows individuals to rediscover their strengths and identities, separate from any illness or stress. It allows you to reflect on your self-concept without your friends or siblings interrupting for what feels like the 100th time. The self-concept is a collection of beliefs you hold of yourself and is made up of self-esteem, assumptions you have about yourself (self-image), and who you want to be (ideal-self). This self-concept is extremely important in every aspect of wellbeing. For you to be a ‘fully-functioning’ person, or the healthiest and happiest possible, your self-image should overlap with your idealised self. Only if your identity is in harmony with who you want to be, will you be able to move towards ‘self-actualisation’ which is key to wellbeing.
However, what if you don’t even know who you are and moreover, who you strive to be? Taking the time to make sense of yourself has become obsolete in this capitalist society. We define ourselves with the words of our job instead of our values. Nevertheless, fashion can help us in so many ways to combat these identity crises.
Relationships and interactions between people give meaning to objects and infuse bodies with significance…
A (Self) Reflection on Identity
So, how do clothes improve your well-being? To start, you have to figure out your ideal-self. Political theorist Hannah Arendt gave an eye-opening explanation as to where we get an identity from and stimulated thoughts on how clothes can help. She put her hypothesis forward explaining today’s postmodernist identity crisis. Arendt went on to define that being a person requires three ingredients: work, labour and action.
Work is the maintenance of one’s biological existence like eating. The creation of cultural artefacts is referred to as labour. However, the most important component is action or participation in the realm of the public-political. Relationships and interactions between humans give meaning to objects and infuse bodies with significance. She argues that it is by leading a vita activa that individuals ‘reveal actively their unique personal identities’. The political theorist would agree with the slogan commonly used in the 1970s that ‘the personal is political’.
Hannah Arendt criticised the Enlightenment with its rational approaches for creating an economy built on mutual self-interest. Their philosophy resulted in a vicious circle of labour and work, where jobs become a cheaper version of the sense of Self. In the twenty-first century, identity is defined by what one does and not by who he or she is. According to Arendt, constructing a personal identity can only happen through participation in the public realm, where one can state personal values. Interestingly, getting dressed can be an act of participation in the active life and consequently a means to construct an identity. As Mark Twain (1927) once wrote:
“Naked people have little or no influence in society.”
Garments can either enable humans to go out and engage in praxis, or they can be a part of the public-political realm itself. Clothes give you the opportunity to go out and tell stories or tell them through the imagination of others.
Choosing an outfit forces you to reflect on what message you want to send out about yourself. This taught process can be the only spare time you have in your busy life to really think about your strengths and character. Try assembling the outfit before going to bed and use this time to really deeply reflect. See it as an alternative journal entry because honestly, hats off to anyone who has the discipline of writing thoughts down every single day. Using garments instead of words prevents you from being too busy to engage in it (except if you go out naked, which is a very worrisome thought). Plus, studies explained that keeping a story to yourself won’t help you to achieve maximal results.
The Second Step
Once you’re past the stage of not knowing enough about yourself and created an idea of who you want to be (if you were not already there), fashion can help you fill the vacuum between self-image and ideal-self. You can chose either to be yourself or someone else depending on your state of mind. Imagine seeing yourself as a Kim Kardashian but you’d rather be a Caroline De Maigret for the day. The French style icon occupying your ideal-self can be met by imitating her style. Yes, you will know that this is not the real you, but this is about others seeing you in her likeness. Our Self, as the social mirror theory illustrates, is strongly influenced by how we think others perceive us. You might even start telling yourself that you are a Caroline and even adopt her behaviour. But this is about telling the De Maigret story to the surrounding.
How It Affects Others
Clothes allow you to tell your story to others and leave it to their imagination. When we sit in front of a person on public transport, we can’t help but create a story around who this individual is and you judge them by his or her clothes. Other people do the exact same thing with you. This very simple activity is a step further in unknowingly training someone else’s ability to empathise, which, as already mentioned, greatly helps in surviving in this globalized world and brings us a step closer to wellbeing.
Hopefully, I have convinced you in how many ways telling a story with your clothes can be beneficial for your own and someone else’s happiness. So next time you go out, think of everything that has been said and use your power. Be creative, start your self-discovery journey and help others.