Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The Smart Creative's Guide to Dressing for Work

With designer labels and high heels, we’ve come a long way since clothing was about nothing more than modesty and warmth. And yet, for many of us, what we wear for work has become automatic and habitual. We drag on a suit each day, out of routine, nothing more. Or we slouch about in baggy casual gear because we’re freelance, or working remotely, so we can.

By dressing mindlessly like this we’re ignoring the large amount of evidence showing the profound effect of clothing on our thinking style, on how we feel, and on the way others perceive us. Starting today, you can use clothing and props to improve your work performance through these simple steps:

Dress for the task: the “Lab Coat” effect

Consider the findings of a study published last year by the Kellogg School of Management. They showed that students were far more accurate on tests of attentional focus and sustained concentration while wearing the white lab coat of a scientist. Crucially, spending time thinking about the lab coat didn’t have this benefit, it had to be worn.

These results suggest that donning symbolic apparel can alter our thinking style in beneficial ways that are consistent with the meaning that the clothing holds for us. So whatever project you’re currently working on, consider dressing for that role. Think what clothing symbolizes the attributes you need to succeed and wear those threads while you work. If there’s nothing as obvious as a lab coat, why not look to role models in your field and see what they wear – perhaps something flamboyant for when you want to be creative, a shirt and tie for when you’re working on the accounts. The important thing is that the clothing has the right symbolic meaning for the work you’re doing. In the study, the white coat had no attentional benefits when the students thought it was a painter’s jacket, not a scientist’s coat.

Be yourself and respect your own style

As well as affecting our mindset, our clothes can also alter how we feel about ourselves. U.S. research published in 2007 found that employees described themselves as feeling more productive, trustworthy, and authoritative when they were wore a business suit at work, but more friendly when wearing casual clothes.

An important detail here was the employees’ style preferences. It was smart types with a clear preference for wearing formal work attire whose feelings of productivity were most adversely affected when they’d worked in an office with a casual dress code. On the other hand, it was hipster staff with a strong preference for laid-back wear who felt most strongly that suits hampered their friendliness and creativity. Of course not all work places give you the freedom to choose, but if you can, these findings show it pays to respect your own style.

The white coat had no attentional benefits when the students thought it was a painter’s jacket.

Choose your weapons (and accessories) wisely

The psychological effects of clothing on performance extend to tools and props. A 2011 study led by Charles Lee at the University of Virginia showed that university students perceived a putting hole to be larger (thus making more putts) when they used a putter that they thought belonged to the pro player Ben Curtis, as compared with a standard putter

Whether it’s a lucky pen handed down from a mentor, or a mouse-mat from your first successful product launch, the symbolic power of the objects we work with is more than mere superstition or sentimentality. Their meaning can alter our mindset and improve our performance. The same principles also apply when choosing what to wear – that lucky tie or necklace really could give you an edge at an interview.

Dress to impress

If you want to appear authoritative it really does make sense to dress smart. A raft of studies have shown that people in more formal attire get served more quickly in shops, have more luck soliciting charity donations, and are usually judged to be more intelligent and academic. A study that looked specifically at female applicants for a managerial job found those who dressed in a smart masculine style were perceived as more forceful and aggressive and were more likely to get hired.

If you can, pay attention to detail. Research published this year using faceless photographs, found that a man dressed in a bespoke suit was rated as more confident, successful, and flexible than a man dressed in an off-the-rack suit. “Minor clothing manipulations can give rise to significantly different inferences,” the researchers said.

This suggests it could be worth going the extra mile when dressing yourself for an important meeting or interview. The same principles also apply when it comes to group image. A survey in 2009 found that business students rated companies with a formal dress code as more authoritative and competent, while those with a more relaxed approach, were seen as more friendly and creative. So if you’re a manager in charge of your organization’s dress code, think about the kind of image you’d like to cultivate. Which leads to the final point …

Studies have shown that people in more formal attire get served more quickly in shops and are usually judged to be more intelligent and academic.

Consider your audience

Formal suits aren’t always the way to go. Research shows that people who wear more daring outfits are perceived as more attractive and individual, which could be advantageous in more creative industries. Casual dress can also be more persuasive, depending on your audience. In 2010, a female experimenter reported that students were far more diligent in following her detailed instructions when she was dressed casually (like they were), as opposed to smart and professional. This similarity effect echoes a study conducted in the early 80s in which experimenters sought a dime for a telephone call. Smartly dressed researchers had more luck at an airport, where more people were dressed formally; casually dressed researchers had more luck at a bus station.

If you need to be persuasive at work, the lesson from these studies is that there’s no single rule for how to dress. You need to balance the power of authority, which you get from smartness, against the allure of camaraderie, which comes from dressing like your audience, and may require going more casual.

The next time you’re getting dressed for work in the morning, be mindful of the psychological impact that clothes can have. Your choice could literally affect your mindset, so try to match your outfit to the type of work you’re planning to do. If interacting with other people is on the cards – consider who they are, the impression you want to make, and especially whether you want to impress them or be one of them. A polished professional look can certainly give you authority. But if you’re collaborating with quirky creatives, or you want to cultivate a friendly atmosphere, you may find it’s advantageous to adopt a more casual, individual style for the day.

More insights on: Office Dynamics

Christian Jarrett

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Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s blog editor at the design collaboration platform InvisionApp.comcontributor to WIRED, and author of The Rough Guide to Psychology. On Twitter @Psych_Writer.
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