While fashion certainly has a social, an emotional, and maybe even a spiritual, component, clothing technology can have a surprisingly high impact on physical well-being.
For millennia, what you wear has had a direct correlation to your place in society. It marked your gender, your age or marital status, your occupation, your social position, and your wealth and power. In many ways, modern, globalized fashion has broken those expectations down more than any other era in history, but we still define ourselves and the people around us in terms of our fashion choices.
High fashion is mainly the realm of the elite, those who have the socioeconomic status and purchasing power to invest in their clothing. Fashionable, trendy clothing shows concern for appearances and social mobility. Young people often experiment widely or make socially disruptive fashion choices as they explore their identities and their place in society. One marker of depression is having reduced interest in fashion and self-presentation. People often wear a certain type of clothing associated with the type and seniority of work they do. Carhartt workwear is worn for a very different type of job than a suit and tie, for instance.
These are all examples of how fashion choices shape and reflect our lifestyles, ambitions and fears, and our place in society. We say things like “dress for success” and “retail therapy” for a reason. Your clothing has the power to make you feel comfortable, secure, desirable, out of place, prepared, awkward, anxious, or happy.
In addition to these sociological and emotional impacts of fashion, the composition of your clothing can have real impact on you physically. Poorly fitted clothing can wear, rub, or chafe. Tight shoes, sagging socks, or a constricting waistband can make you miserable all-day long.
Some synthetic fabrics can lack breathability, grow bacteria, smell, abrade the skin, cause other skin issues such as fungal infections, and make you generally uncomfortable. Some natural fibers such as silk or linen can help you maintain a comfortable temperature and be easier on your skin. Others, like scratchy and possibly irritation-causing sheep’s wool, have their benefits, but are less universally acceptable.
Technical materials for sports and athletics can support you by making movement easier, wicking away moisture, strengthening joints, or providing compression for circulatory needs or to encourage better posture. There’s a reason why each type of athlete uses a different wardrobe, and it’s not (entirely) up to the marketing efforts of the retailers of athletic fashion items.
A cyclist’s spandex suit is aerodynamic to reduce wind friction, it protects against saddle sores, and resists rolling, bunching, or otherwise shifting during a ride—and causing an accident. A sprinter needs tight clothing that won’t bunch or create drag, while a long-distance runner like a marathoner or cross-country runner needs clothing that won’t chafe the skin even when saturated with sweat for hours at a time. Olympic and power lifters often wear clothing that reinforces and compresses their core to increase strength and reduce the risk of injury, while gymnasts tend to wrap wrists, hands, or joints, to stabilize and strengthen them against damage.
In fact, much of the next-generation engineering of clothing articles focuses on health and well-being. Technical articles are exploring the possibility of embedded wearables, health trackers, or bio-feedback features into (washable) items of clothing. Infused, blended, or alloyed fabrics combine beneficial materials, either to improve the performance of the fabric, or to offer an advantage to the wearer. Other advances focus on supportive design to enhance performance on a mechanical level, offering compression, support, correction, or enhancement.
Those with existing injuries or who are susceptible to injury have more and better options than ever before. The men’s posture shirt is a popular solution that combines a number of beneficial technologies. Copper-infused fabric relieves everyday aches and pains, reduces microbial and viral activity (reducing the risk of bacteria-based odors), improves skin, and is considered a health benefit. Compression and support are built into the design, to encourage better posture and movement, guard against injury, and support healing from past injuries.
Clothing can and does impact your well-being. What you wear reflects who you are, reinforcing or undermining your sense of identity, influencing how others see you and treat you, and contributing to a sense of uncertainty and anxiety or security and happiness. Your clothing choices not only impact your experience at a social and emotional level, but at a physical one. You may have sensitivities to certain fabrics, or lifestyle needs that can only be supported by specific fashion and understanding and meeting those needs can dramatically improve your experience.