Last Updated: December 5, 2020

The clothes we wear send a message about who we are, what we want, and how we choose to be perceived. According to “Effect of Garment Style on the Perception of Personal Traits,” a study published in the Clothing and Textiles Research Journal by Soae L. Paek, adults viewed “a person wearing conservative or casual clothing styles … as more self-controlled and reliable; people clothed in a dressier style conveyed a sense of social unease; and people dressed in a daring style were found to be attractive and individualistic.”

Apparel marketing takes advantage of the power that clothing has to transform women into someone else, and capitalizes on their desire to become a more put-together, attractive, carefree version of themselves. By putting on new clothing, women can assume a new identity.

This link between brand and identity is rooted in an understanding of consumer psychology and how customers process advertisements. Professionals in the women’s apparel marketing industry spend years designing a brand lifestyle that their clothes represent – and some have been more successful than others. Smart apparel marketers will take the time to learn the psychological underpinnings that encourage women to buy clothing.

The Psychology of Marketing Women's Apparel

Brand and CommercialExplanation of AdvertisementPsychological Response Elicited
GAP “Back in Black”Sets a clip of Audrey Hepburn dancing in “Funny Face” to ACDC’s “Back in Black”Nostalgia: At the GAP, classic is also trendy. By featuring an actress who has never lost her iconic position wearing black cigarette pants and turtleneck, women can aspire to this simple, timeless, and chic (yet somehow unexpected) look.
LOFT “All You Need is Love”A variety of women are shown enjoying scenes of everyday adventure, relaxation, laughter, and love – all while wearing LOFT skinny jeans.Lifestyle Envy: This commercial is aimed at women who would love to escape from their real lives and join the picturesque scenes depicted in this commercial. LOFT skinny jeans are stylish, comfortable and versatile enough to be appropriate in any of these enviable situations.
Victoria’s Secret “I Love My Body”Victoria’s Secret supermodels assert loving their bodies – and their bras, as well.Sex Appeal and Body Acceptance: While Victoria’s Secret fashion models have every reason to love their bodies, the Body By Victoria line offers seven different styles – so you can love your own look, no matter your

From H&M to Hermes

“It is impossible to wear clothes without transmitting social signals. Every costume tells a story, often a very subtle one, about its wearer,” wrote Desmond Morris in Manwatching: A field guide to human behavior way back in 1977. The sentiment remains true today. This is why marketing women’s apparel is about more than selling women soft fabrics, beautiful colors, and well-tailored designs. It is about selling women the opportunity to express and transform themselves, appear more acceptable to others, and create success through their clothing. As clothing designer Ralph Lauren once said, “I don’t design clothes. I design dreams.”

In his article “How to Increase Your Sales Using a Psychological Marketing Strategy,” Dr. Gary Austin Witt states that there are four types of psychological hot buttons that motivate customers to buy: needs, wants, desires, and fears. These are the things that women’s apparel companies use to appeal to women. Effective clothing marketers don’t sell apparel by mentioning their product’s features. Instead, they focus on the satisfaction that their clothing can provide.

Do logos matter?

In 2011, a study conducted by Lauren McDermott (Walden University) and Terry Pettijohn (Coastal Carolina University) had college students look at photographs of an African American or Caucasian female model wearing grey sweatshirts with Kmart, Abercrombie & Fitch (AF), or no logo. As the researchers predicted, participants rated models wearing the AF sweatshirt highest in socioeconomic status while participants rated the models wearing the Kmart sweatshirt lowest in socioeconomic status.

Source: McDermott, L. A., & Pettijohn II, T. F. (2011). The influence of clothing fashion and race on the perceived socioeconomic status and person perception of college students. Psychology & Society, 4(2), 64-75.

Effective apparel marketing show scenes that the average woman recognizes – only better. In women’s apparel advertisements, life is easier, happier, and more fulfilling than it is in reality.

What factors influence fashion brand choice?

  • Rational: the economic; material, and practicality aspects of purchasing
    Does it meet the shopper’s price point?
  • Product: the physical make-up and style of a piece
    Does the shopper like it and feel good in it?
  • Cognitive: goals and mental factors
    Does the piece match what the shopper was looking for?
  • Environmental: background music; customer service and rack density, etc
    Does the shopper enjoy the experience of being in the store?
  • Peer: the opinion of a friend or partner on a piece
    Will other people like it on me?
  • Cultural: symbolic brand meaning attached to the piece
    Does a celebrity or charity endorse this brand?

Source: Mullarkey, G. W. (2001). The influence of brands in the fashion purchasing process.

Model-size and purchasing behavior

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Most retailers populate their fantasy lifestyles with models that the average woman would love to look like – tall and thin, with perfect skin and shiny hair. However, new research shows that this isn’t actually the most effective way to sell clothes.

In 2011, Ben Barry of Cambridge University surveyed 3,000 women across the U.S., U.K., and Canada, and found that women are much more likely to buy clothes when the models look like them. “The vast majority of women significantly increase purchase intentions when they see a model that reflects their age, size, and race. If you speak to consumers on the street about my research, nobody is surprised – consumers are light years ahead of the fashion industry in that they want to see diversity,” said Barry. Additionally, his research showed the following results:

  • Women increased their purchase intentions by more than 200% when the models in the mock ads were their size
  • Women increased their purchase intentions by over 175% when they saw models who reflected their age
  • Black women were 1.5 times more likely to purchase a product advertised by a black model

This research shows that although women do want to buy into the dream that apparel marketing creates, they also want it to be an attainable dream. They want to be able to picture themselves actually living in their new clothes, not just posing. Smart apparel marketers can use this psychological research to carefully choose a selection of diverse, happy, natural-looking models that women will respond to.

**Source: University of Cambridge Judge Business School: News and Media. (2012). Does my bottom line look big in this?

The Psychology of Marketing

As psychologists continue to understand more and more about how humans process information and make decisions based upon this information, their work will continue to affect the art of women’s apparel marketing. For more information on how psychology and marketing intersect, explore consumer psychology in other industries.

Why do ovulating women buy sexier clothes?

Research from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management finds that women at peak fertility (during the handful of days each month when they are ovulating) are unconsciously drawn to purchase sexy, revealing clothing.

Interestingly enough, this phenomenon occurs not to impress men, but to outdo rival attractive women. “If you look more desirable than the competition, you are more likely to stand out,” says Kristina Durante.

This research provides a look into how consumer behavior is influenced by hormonal factors. The researchers believe that since ovulatory effects greatly influence women’s buying behavior, the findings may have practical implications for marketers. For example, marketers could hire attractive women to peruse their racks and encourage feelings of competition in fertile women, since it appears that women are spurred to buy sexy clothing when they become aware of other attractive women locally (their competition).

Source: Kristina M. Durante, Vladas Griskevicius, Sarah E. Hill, Carin Perilloux, and Norman P. Li. (2011). Ovulation, female competition, and product choice: Hormonal influences on consumer behavior. Journal of Consumer Research, 37(6), 921-934.

Related careers

Women’s apparel marketing is based in a psychological understanding of how to make women look and feel their best. To gain a bigger picture of what these consumers want, advertisers turn to some of the following professionals:

Art Director

Art directors create and communicate design concepts and marketing approaches. They oversee employees engaged in art work, layout design, and copywriting for visual communications media, such as magazines advertisements. They use their knowledge of the psychology of imagery, color, and music to create marketing materials that really speak to customers. Learn more information about art directors.

Consumer Insight Manager

A consumer insight manager is responsible for conducting quantitative research (such as surveys), and qualitative research (like focus groups), that dive into the psychology of marketing and what affects potential buyers. The candidate will work with brand teams to develop marketing strategies and insights that will identify and shape market entry and branding. Learn more about consumer insight managers here.

Marilyn Monroe and the Vanity Sizing Phenomenon

For years, research has shown that women are more likely to buy pieces that have smaller sizes printed on the tags – even if they’re the exact same amount of material as a piece with a larger size on the tag.

Over the decades, the criteria used to determine clothing sizes has experienced gradual and significant growth. According to a 2000 study published in the journal Clothing and Textiles by Jane Workman and Elizabeth Lentz, a 1997 size 8 was the equivalent of a 1986 size 10. Since 2000, sizing trends have continued on the same trajectory. Some clothing designers even pushed all their clothing down a size and added 00 to their lines for petite women.

What does this trend mean for the recent body-acceptance mantra that Marilyn Monroe was a size 14? According to her dressmaker and modern sizing, this is untrue. In fact, the curvy starlet’s measurements land her squarely as a size 8 in today’s off-the-rack sizing.

Sources: Workman, J. E., & Lentz, E. S. (2000). Measurement specifications for manufacturers’ prototype bodies. Clothing and Textiles Research Journal , 18(4), 251-259.