Meet The People Using ‘Dopamine Dressing’ To Boost Their Mood

The transition period between coronavirus restrictions lifting and travel restarting was deemed 'Hot Vax Summer' by the masses (namely TikTok users). The weather might not have complied but the fashion certainly did. As it poured down outside, the latest fashion trends centred themselves around enthusiasm and optimism, with the plethora of bright colours and optimistic prints earning the nickname 'dopamine dressing' from Net-A-Porter's Libby Page, after the neurotransmitter considered to give your brain a happiness hit. Bright colours have spent the summer erupting all over social media and are so in demand that fashion retailers are quickly changing up future collections to supply pieces featuring bold hues. "We’ve just finished buying resort and pre-spring where the trend is very much continuing," Page told Vogue Business. "We anticipate that this ‘dopamine dressing’ mood is here to stay."
Those who favour dopamine dressing extol the theory that wearing brighter colours and bolder patterns – i.e. your happy clothes – can elevate your mood. And after a miserable 18 months, people are getting good at finding little ways to conjure joy – even if it's just a bright knit or a colourful dress. 
Kayla Marci, senior editor at retail intelligence company EDITED, says the dopamine dressing trend evolved from boosting consumers’ moods in lockdown and is sticking around to induce joy through aesthetics as we head towards another season shrouded in uncertainty, thanks to the Delta variant.
This mixture of uncertainty and optimism means colour has taken over the usually neutral and rusty autumn fashion scene, with psychedelic runways and brightly coloured collections. "The fall transition period is slated to be unseasonably bright as retailers emulate viral trends set by cult brands and designers," Marci tells R29. "The Jacquemus pin top shown during its Fall 2021 runway in bold hues like hot pink and red is an example, inspiring mass brands to continue to inject colour into their ranges."
According to Marci, the love for dopamine dressing has been reinforced by Generation Z’s fondness for Y2K fashion, a trend that favours playful clothing in bright colours and pays homage to the early 2000s. Marci says that retailers are investing in brighter hues (especially "Gen Z green" – a sister shade to millennial pink) and recent catwalks and investments have proven it's not just a temporary reaction to pandemic-induced misery but a lucrative trend that holds longevity. "Ultra bright shades like lemon, orange, lime green and magenta were key shades across the pre-spring 2022 circuit," explains Marci. "Happy hues also extended to Copenhagen Fashion Week, where green was a core colour story and designers such as Ganni and Gestuz paired orange with blues and pinks."
So does dressing with colour to boost your mood actually work? Influencer, author and journalist Ben Pechey started playing with colour as armour for their insecurities. "It took a few false starts to get to university [and] when I finally got there, I realized that even though I was so shy and terrified, I had the opportunity to play a confident extrovert. I took dressing as the tool to help me do this. Suddenly I was a big character, full of joy. Colour was an obvious choice to help me do this," says Ben. 
"I always dress for the person I want to be. I do a lot of public speaking and even when it is online only, I still dress in the way that makes me feel the most authoritative and confident – and that is always colourful," they add.
Photos courtesy of Ben Pechey.
Influencer, author and model Jamie Windust frequently dresses in bold colour and interesting patterns, documenting their outfits on Instagram. They see bright clothing as an opportunity to elevate their mood, regardless of the setting. "[I wear] a colourful suit or rollneck combination for a big day of meetings, or a trip to meet friends I haven't seen in years, or just going for coffee – it’s all an opportunity to elevate my mood." 
Jamie rarely reserves clothes or colours for 'best'. "What's the point? Just wear it now, it doesn't matter what's going on, I could die tomorrow and if I have spent money that I have earned on a beautiful colourful suit, why just wear it three times in my lifetime? Right now, it's a Monday morning and I am going to get my second vaccine in 30 minutes and I’m in a double-breasted, red two-piece suit. Why? Because I can!" they say. 
It isn't just the young who are embracing dopamine dressing. HR assistant Helen and Sue, both in their mid 50s, agree that embracing bright colours as they get older has done wonders for their confidence. "Larger women basically grow up being told to wear black and navy," Sue explains. "But as I get older I want to access the happiness I feel when I wear bright colours regardless of what might come with it."
Helen, who has been trying to wear more colour since the pandemic, says simply: "I love to run and wearing red makes me run faster. I can't explain why but it's true!"
Alice Skelton, a research fellow in colour and development at the University of Sussex, says the jury is still out on whether the dopamine dressing theory has legs. "Often studies looking at these questions will overreach in their conclusions – for example, only testing a limited number of colours in a limited number of situations and then saying, 'purple does X'."
Skelton says some studies show that working under more natural lighting (meaning more like daylight in colour and phase than your typical fluorescent light) might boost mood, possibly because we find it easier to process more ‘natural’ things.
People undeniably make very strong associations between colour and emotion, both directly and unconsciously. Often, this is based on cultural influence. "A lot of people in the UK might say red represents anger, for example. This association isn’t the same across the world, so this suggests there’s not something inherent in colour itself which causes any possible effects," says Skelton.

"Instead it might be a learned association – think about how [purple] is associated (at least in Western cultures) with royalty or luxury historically. Not because of something about purple but because purple pigment was expensive in the past and so used in paintings of royals and nobles to show off their wealth." 
Photos courtesy of Beth Ashley.
Though it’s a fun theory to think about, there’s currently no evidence to support a change in neurotransmitters as a result of colour itself. We can’t prove there’s a direct, psychological change caused by interacting with colour, whether that's through consuming art or wearing particular clothes.
Anecdotally, however, an abundance of people report feeling happier when wearing bright clothes. Skelton explains this as the colour-emotion association idea. 
"People tend to say happy colours are brighter so this 'bright = happy' [association] might be lingering when people are choosing what to wear. It’s not the colour itself – there might be a culture somewhere where 'dark = happy' and they might choose to dress entirely in black to cheer themselves up."
The ecological valence theory states that people make positive associations with particular colours through positive experiences or exposure. "The example often given is people like their own university’s colours more than a rival university's colours, or people like oranges more in autumn as the leaves start to turn. People aren’t necessarily aware of why they prefer these colours more," Skelton explains. 
Basically, dopamine dressing doesn’t necessarily need to be about bright colour. It’s about wearing the textures, patterns, pieces and hues that make you feel good. That could be jumpers, joggers or your favourite jumpsuit.
For Jamie, yellow and pink offer the association-based comfort mentioned by Skelton. 
"Yellow and pink for me is such a sign of the rebellious times of my life, when I really didn't give a fuck, but reactions were tough. The yellow and pink hair was essentially me saying, 'How far can I take this and still feel as me as possible? What are my limits?'" says Jamie.  
Yellow and pink became comfort colours for Jamie and offered them happiness, along with anything bright or colour-clashing. "I do enjoy clothing that is almost an assault to the eyes. Too much colour and pattern-clashing is always a bonus and a definite way to get me into a happier mood. It's the ridiculousness of it all that puts me in a good mood." 
Skelton points out that the arrival of the dopamine dressing trend may be due to the colours we clung to during difficult parts of lockdown. "You might have had lots of positive experiences in the pandemic with your favourite grey PJs. You might end up feeling positive about grey, and wear grey because of that positive association."
It’s not the first time a huge, traumatic event impacting society has triggered a trend for 'happy clothes'. 
Ninety-five-year-old retiree Gwendoline has never liked dark clothing, finding it "miserable", but noticed herself grabbing more bright, colourful pieces – and her friends joining in – after World War II ended in 1945.   
Gwen in 1956. Though this picture is black and white (colour cameras weren’t super accessible in the UK during this time), she assures me this dress is bright pink!
Speaking on her behalf, her daughter Lynn says: "After the war was Gwen’s favourite time. She was always dressed smartly and never went out without brightly coloured clothes and makeup. She never wore black and detested beige, finding them to be dreary colours (and they’d been through enough dreariness!)." 
"She wore brightly coloured clothing her entire life, insisting they were happy clothes and dark clothes meant misery!" adds Lynn. 
Skelton points out that embracing colour after WWII might have also been a celebration of the return of resources. Brown skirts and grey shirts were classic wartime pieces due to a lack of materials. "Perhaps people chose to dress in bright clothes because of a limit on what was available during WWII," says Skelton.
Another interesting dopamine dressing titbit from World War II? Soldiers' epaulettes found their way into fashion and women donned shoulder pads as a symbol of solidarity. After the war, research has found that shoulder pads had a positive effect on working women, helping them feel more professional and powerful in male-dominated roles. In the '80s classic Working Girl, Melanie Griffith’s character wears shoulder pads to affirm her position as a respected businesswoman, birthing the era of power dressing. Later, Alexander McQueen and Dolce & Gabbana showcased shoulder pads on the runway, all in the name of dressing for power.
Skelton notes: "The classic roaring 1920s looks following WWI and The Depression are not known for being brightly coloured after all. Dopamine dressing in the 1920s might have involved the positive associations with the textures of fringe, beading and furs."

Keen to reap the benefits that Gwen, Jamie, Ben and so many others speak of, I tried dopamine dressing for a week. I love bright clothing as it makes me feel theatrical and camp, and I feel more connected to queer fashion and culture as a bisexual person. I have also had a tumultuous time trying to access exciting pieces as a plus-size woman, making my bright clothes all the more precious to me.
Much to my surprise, it worked. Dressing in the brightly coloured clothing that normally only sees the outside of my wardrobe in July elevated my mood and made me feel more relaxed and confident. I felt particularly powerful in my rainbow-striped Monki top, usually my ‘Pride top’ but which will now take regular pride of place on my person.
The biggest difference was in my work. The perceived power and connection to myself garnered from bright clothing meant I was more productive and more confident about the work I was creating.
Of course, bright clothing isn't the answer to deep-seated emotional troubles – this trend isn't a replacement for therapy or even a day simply going really well – but it’s worth putting your favourite pink jumper on for some added joy after 18 difficult months inside.
This story was originally published on Refinery29 UK.

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