Dressing For Work: The Psychology of Style

Depending on where you work, the official dress code can vary greatly; some companies uphold the formal tradition of wearing a suit and tie, whereas others are increasingly adopting smart-casual or casual policies. To what extent does your work attire affect your performance, confidence and how others perceive you? Several top psychologists have found some fascinating results!

The Lab Coat Effect

In a study by the Kellogg School of Medicine, students were given white lab coats to wear while performing tasks. The lab coat, synonymous with professionalism, doctors and scientific rigour, had a dramatic impact on the participants’ behaviour. The results showed that those wearing the coats performed tasks better and demonstrated increased concentration. It would appear – according to this study – that your clothing directly influences your ability to perform tasks!

Minor changes make a big difference

Fashion Psychologist Karen Pine studied the impact of minor changes in clothing. One man was rated on confidence, success, trustworthiness, salary and flexibility when wearing a) a bespoke suit and b) a standard ‘off the peg’. Interestingly, when he wore the bespoke suit he scored higher for all categories. As part of the experiment, a woman was also rated when wearing a) a trouser suit and b) a skirt suit. When wearing a skirt suit, she was scored more highly for confidence, salary & flexibility. It appears, therefore, that even something as seemingly irrelevant as the cut of suit or adjustment of the masculine/feminine image can have a huge impact on the way others perceive you. Making subtle changes to your interview outfit could have a significant influence on the outcome.

The expert

We caught up with top clinical psychologist Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner to find out her views on this topic. Jennifer had a career in fashion before training as a psychologist, and then combined her passions to study what we wear – the Psychology of Dress. Her latest book, ‘You are What you Wear’ further explores the fascinating relationship between appearance and internal experience.

(1)    Dr. Galinsky’s ‘lab coat’ study describes the interaction between our cognitive processes and the perceived importance we assign to certain items of clothing. To what extent do you think clothing can improve our ability to perform tasks, feel confident & change other people’s perception of us?

 “The power of our clothing’s effect on ourselves and others is an individual process and depends on how heavily we are impacted by the internal associations we make with the external. We do know from this study that overall clothing can change how we assess ourselves and how others assess us. What this study does not examine is the duration of this effect.” 

       “I believe there is a constant conversation between the internal self, the external self, and other-reaction to those two components. We can use clothing to create change in our internal and other-reaction toward us. For example, we may wake up feeling depressed, we decide to put on our favourite suit to boost our mood. We walk by a window, catch our reflection and feel good about how we look. This gives us a shot of energy. At work, we receive a compliment about our appearance. When presented with an opportunity, we take it because we feel increased confidence in our abilities.” 

(2)     Commonly, people are advised to dress smartly in certain environments to project an image of competence and authority. Some people, however, may only be comfortable in casual clothing or vice versa. If they dressing in a way which makes them feel uncomfortable, do you think the above might not apply, i.e. they may feel self-conscious and therefore less confident?  

      “The most comprehensive studies on the effect of clothing have been conducted on workplace productivity and attire. Interestingly, no consistent outcome is available. For every study that finds increased productivity when dressing up there is another that says just the opposite!” 

   “You need to consider the strength of how you feel in your outfit and how others react to you in the items. You may feel confident in sweats but when you meet with another, and he treats you poorly that decreases your confidence. When working with clients, I have found that the most effective way to use clothing is as an actor might use a costume. Your outfit should help you get into character for the role you are about to play. This helps both you and an observer draw associations between what you are wearing and the internal qualities that are present with someone who might wear those items. Why else would we wear a suit to a job interview, only to have that item collect dust in the closet for the rest of the year?”

 

(3)     Do you think wearing casual clothing in the workplace can have a detrimental impact on productivity? Do you think there needs to be a distinction between work attire and personal clothing to allow one to ‘switch off’ at the end of a working day?

 “For every study that finds increased productivity when dressing up there is another that says just the opposite! As for using clothing to transition from professional life to personal life, I am a full supporter. Because of technological advances, we can work 24/7. Using a change of attire as a transition can be an incredibly powerful to signal to our brains that we are finished with the work part of the day, and it is time to relax.” 

 

(4)    With reference to the ‘minor adjustments’ described in Karen Pine’s study, do you think it’s sometimes possible for an individual to appear accidentally overbearing when they simply intended to appear authoritative? Is it hard to get the balance right?

 “Thankfully, our assessments of others involve more complicated data (other nonverbal cues, verbal cues, etc.) than just what we are wearing and our assessment is fluid as we take in this data. If your outfit has pulled a negative reaction from another, it is up to you to be aware of this response and alter other components to compensate and correct. For example, if your outfit appears overbearing, and you feel someone is responding to you negatively, alter the personal space in between you, soften your voice, shift your eye contact, ask for their thoughts, etc.”

So there we have it – your choice of clothing and style for different environments and audiences is of paramount importance. Although other factors are involved, the way you dress affects the way you feel about yourself, your abilities and the way people perceive you and interact with you – at least while you wear certain outfits!

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