Your Work Wardrobe Could Affect Your Performance

White Coat Ceremony 3

White Coat Ceremony 3 (Photo credit: pennstatenews)

White Coat Ceremony 2

White Coat Ceremony 2 (Photo credit: pennstatenews)

woman in business suit

We already know that dressing appropriately for work is usually part of the condition of many of the jobs out there. Dressing inappropriately could result in not getting that job, getting fired for it, or even just giving the wrong impression.

Uniformed jobs have it the easiest, let’s face it that removal of choice makes it a hell of a lot easier to get out of the house in the morning. Men too have it easy. In office jobs men tend to wear suits, or in more ‘modern’ or relaxed environments, casual shirts can suffice. Oh no! someone came in for a short notice meeting? It’s ok I can stick a suit jacket over these tailored jeans and shirt and (given the work environment rules) hey presto, I’m business presentable again! Let’s face it if you work in an only suit and tie environment, this is not really a problem for you either as your lack of choice lets you blend with the rest of the suits, and let your performance stand out.

Women on the other hand seem to have more pitfalls in this area, in jobs where we are not required to wear uniforms. Sure, we have more choice overall, skirts gave way to trousers and now we have a plethora of attire to choose from for whatever work environment we are in. I personally like the choice of heels vs flats, jeans vs skirt but realise that there will be occasions I need to be suited and booted like the rest and as long as I can plan which days these are, tend not to have issues with wearing the ‘wrong thing’ for the day. However, I work in digital, which is a pretty relaxed environment for clothing and a lot of my clients don’t have it so lucky as while I can go to meetings slightly more smart casual or relaxed business style, while they are suited up. That is, if you consider dressing down as lucky, and not the reverse of course.

The point here is really not so much about personal taste, but how often do you feel better or worse depending on how you are dressed? We’ve all got it wrong at some point or another and felt horribly over or under dressed for the rest of the day or evening event. Now while I like the saying you can never be too overdressed or overeducated, there are occasions you should blend in!

This feeds directly into an interesting study that was done at the Kellogg Schoold of Management at the Northwestern Iniversity in America where they produced a paper called “Enclothed Cognition” which discussed the term “embodied cognition” essentially referring to how we feel bodily sensations can affect how we think and feel.  They studied subjects who wore similar white coats with half the group told they were wearing medical white coats, the rest artist’s white coats. The group who perceived they were wearing the medical coats performed better on the ‘stroop’ test than the artist coats, even though they were only different in perception.

Now this research paper does not directly move to discuss professional dress in other arenas, but the results are markedly interesting and should be tested in other industries. It is interesting that often how we are instructed to dress for work is to present a unified, business perception to those outside the organisation, but perhaps this is the wrong motivation. Similarly, dressing down is a sign of a relaxed ‘fun’ and often modern place to work, but again, is this meaning we are too relaxed and therefore paying less attention?

This is not to say that you are suddenly crap at your job on your dress down Fridays, but it does mean we should as organisations be paying more attention to the psychology behind our workplace dress codes. As individuals also, it is something we should pay more attention to than we most likely do. I am guilty of this. Sure, women need to be more careful than men in terms of dressing too provocatively to be giving the wrong impression, not just of being slutty, but possibly of being incompetent or an airhead, when in actual fact you might just have beauty AND brains (go you). It has been said that women get taken more seriously in business when they dress more masculine, however I’m curious how many women feel they had the advantage in a job interview because they are pretty, or dressed to show it off?

We don’t have the answers, but we should ask the questions until we get the research to hand. In the meantime, even though it’s the last thing we really want to think about first thing in the morning, we should probably think a bit more about what we are wearing each day, not just for the outside world, but if you feel good, you will most likely do a better job.


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Categories: Beliefs, Morals, Business, Multiculturalism, People, Psychology, Science, Technology


Digital and Comms nerd working in an INGO. PhD researcher (technology / gender / International development / fragile and conflict affected states / South Sudan). Bibliophile. Writer. Musician. Views my own.

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3 Comments on “Your Work Wardrobe Could Affect Your Performance”

  1. April 10, 2013 at 6:56 pm #

    great article Lou – more of this!

  2. James Hill
    April 10, 2013 at 7:06 pm #

    I work in a company that allows me to wear pretty much whatever I want as long as I’m not meeting with external clients. On quiet days, I can (and have) worn jeans, tshirt and sneakers to the office. However, I’ve noticed that I feel more focused and productive when I’m dressed more professionally, and coworkers respond differently to me too. Dressing differently won’t make you suddenly more skilled, but it can certainly help you feel more confident, which in turn makes others respond positively to you.

  3. April 10, 2013 at 8:52 pm #

    I actually work by this psychological rule, it is definitely true and not only in the way you perceive yourself but in the way the world inside and outside your workplace perceives you. And interestingly, it also translates even to things like Avatar choices for Google, LinkedIn, ticket tracking systems and so on. A face is personable so demands respect, a well dressed face even moreso

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