Charlotte Weatherly, Assistant Head at Knighton House School, on enclothed cognition and dungarees

No mention is made of dungarees in John Carl Flugel’s 1930s article ‘The Psychology of Clothes’ published in issue 18 of International Psycho-analytical Library. Much is made of how particular items of clothing “serve the motives of decoration, modesty, and protection”, but nothing about the dungaree.

That we undergo profound psychological changes when we put on specific clothes has long been known, although it is only quite recently that the concept has been given its own name. ‘Enclothed Cognition’ (H. Adam, A.D. Galinsky – Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2012) was created to describe “the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes”, but with the caveat that the influence of clothes depends on wearing them as well as their symbolic meaning.

The history of dungarees

In the deep past (the 17th century to be precise) dungarees were squarely in the category of workwear; of a cheap, coarse, thick cotton, either blue or white, they were originally worn by the very poor in India.  In the boom years of 19th century American expansion, they reappeared as the go-to attire of railroad and construction workers, savvy pioneers looking to get ahead and get rich.

Not so in 2019 – dungarees (and their cool sister the jumpsuit) feature in fashionable and celebrity wardrobes because they are so versatile. According to fashion blog Love Thirty, they are particularly great when you don’t know what the weather is going to do (a full-time job for the British) allowing for plenty of layering and showing off your marvellous knitwear.  What the blog fails to mention is that dungarees are the go-to attire for modern girls totally focused on their learning. Too busy being optimistic in the classroom and collaborating with their peers, dungarees are for girls who have no time for fussing about the length of their skirt.

Enclothed Cognition is not a new branch of psychoanalysis but revealed within it is our complex relationship with what we wear and how clothes influence our psychological processes, including how we learn. What we have known since around 1965 is that when they are red and worn by girls at Knighton House school, wearing dungarees means great attitudes to learning and better learning altogether.

So why and how do dungarees promote better learning?

• Pond dipping and exploring habitats is easy (Science lessons)

• No fuss about changing when lessons move outside (the outdoor classroom)

• Accepting difference is commonplace; no-one else wears dungarees and we dare to be different (PSHEE)

• They have proper-sized pockets, room for at least two good books (reading for pleasure)

• Experiments for measuring and calculating speed are realistic (Science and Maths)

• Instruments such as the cello are accessible (Music)

• No one is excited by the thought of writing ‘Ode to My Grey School Skirt’, but ‘Ode to My Red Dungarees’ is another story; just as an aside, in studies about the influence of colour on learning, red is said to encourage creativity (English)

• The Battle of Hastings (and other famous fights) can be re-enacted authentically (History)

• You get stress-free Biology – no problems being in messy locations identifying invertebrates (Science)

• Running up hills and generally yomping in fields to study microclimates is easy (Geography)

• Every type of chemistry experiment is possible: no fiddling with lab coats (Science)

• Games of 40-40 in dungarees develop our competitive edge (Sport)

• Girls are less self-critical and more confident (attitudes to learning)

• Practising our jumping (a.k.a. pony jumps in the Greenwood) means we have some of the best scores in athletics competitions (Games)

Encompassing other philosophies about education, the list could go on. Rousseau for example, although not a documented advocate of dungarees (I do not think they get a mention in Émile, Où de l’Éducation) was very keen on children interacting with their environment to further their learning, rather than simply drawing knowledge from books – how better than in a pair of red dungarees? On the practical side, wearing dungarees in our countryside environment just makes sense. When you need to leap a fence to catch a runaway pony or you fancy picking a Russet apple from the orchard for your breaktime snack, dungarees make it a blush-free exercise, modesty guaranteed.

Nothing at Knighton House school ever happens without the solution-seeking mindset being applied. In the case of our iconic ‘everyday’ uniform, (we have a further uniform for out of school events) it was a simple choice based on the principle of how girls could be supported to get the most out of their learning; and lo, behold, the red dungaree.

If you enjoyed this article, why not read ‘How to nurture self-esteem in teenagers‘?