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The Smart Creative’s Guide to Dressing for Work

Research tells us that what we wear affects how we think.

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 Posts by Christian Jarrett

Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s a senior editor at Aeon. His next book will be about personality change. He is @Psych_Writer on Twitter.

Comments (61)
  • Ritika Trikha

    These are all some great points. But I immediately thought of that article in Vanity Fair on Barack Obama’s routine… “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” So, do you think this type of mentality doesn’t really apply to creative industries?

    • Christian Jarrett

      hi Ritika, thanks that’s a really useful quote for discussion. I think it’s probably about striking a balance. You don’t want to end up paralysed by indecision over what to wear each day. Obama’s approach protects against this and is time-saving and efficient. But I reckon you could combine the best of both by devoting some considered thought to your wardrobe and accessories when you’ve got the chance, and setting up some simple rules for yourself to follow, depending on what work you’re doing and who you’re going to be with. Also, I wonder how accurate that quote is from Obama – if he really does just wear the same old suit when he has an unusually important challenge in the day, like performing in a TV debate. Above all, do what works for you and the stage you’re at in your career. If you’re overloaded with decisions like Obama (and you’ve already made it to the top) then maybe it’s not worth dwelling on what to wear. But if you’re still making a name for yourself and you’ve got time to reflect on these things – well, hopefully I’ve made the case that how you choose to dress could make a difference.

    • Mike

      Creativity comes from the individual, not the materials or fabric. If that were the case, politicians should dress like clowns to have some creativity. Thinking that clothing helps people being creative is superstitious, since many people are superstitious that’s why it works. Social Engineering.

    • TeleDavidOgundeko

      A person like Obama already has a name and reputation that precedes him, his power and authority is more from his social status and not social perception.

      He doesn’t need to impress anyone really.

      In third world countries, where most people have a subservient approach to authority, dressing smart can get you far in almost every situation, either at the airport or at the bus station. Dressing smart can also get respect from authority such as the police, they believe you are less likely to commit a crime than a casually dressed person, most especially if you’re young.

      In some African countries like Nigeria, people tend to have a keen eye for fashion, they obsess over the smallest detail. So if you’re going to dress smart, overtkill is an option you should most likely consider. A suit from Saville row, Polo by Ralph Lauren, shirts from Enzo, a vacheron constantin watch series, and killer shoes from selected brands (prada, gucci etc). Be armed with these, and there is no social war you cannot conquer, either business or pleasure.

  • Danuta

    Really great article. I have always knew that dressign tells a lot, but I wasn’t aware that it has so deep subconsciuos impact on us. Thank’s a lot for sharing the knowledge!:)

  • Kurt

    A quick note: Your link in the last section (Consider your audience), links to the 1980s study on asking for a dime, not the 2010 article. It’d be great to have a link to that one.

    Nice article otherwise.

  • 123elle

    I’m female, work as a marketing communications writer. I was freelancing a lot several years ago, so that meant walking into departments full of strangers in some of the larger companies. The departments were almost entirely female and gay male. I am very tall, thin, white; I tried to be non-controversial and make clothes a neutral issue by dressing in dull colors — grays, blacks and navy; very basic styles. One morning I grabbed a skirt I didn’t usually wear to the office: it was a pencil skirt, slightly shorter than my usual mid-knee; it was light gray wool pinstripe and in the back, a large grosgain bow whose ties were stitched down the back of the skit to the hem. The minute i walked in in that skirt, all of the woman started talking to me; complimenting me and being friendly. It was a “office sexy” skirt; very conservative but the bow made it flirtatious, and the women just loved it. For one day I was a “clothing celebrity” and people went out of their way to chat me up, seek me out and as my opinion on work matters. The next day I was back in my rather dull wardrobe, and people retreated (but not entirely) to the distance they often keep with freelancers and temps.

  • Jack Isay

    Good article. Thanks

  • Tom Daley

    I work in a mortuary…… no matter what I want to look like, the PPE on offer is pink/purple gowns and purple gloves. I don’t have a choice if I want to look professional. The only thing I choose was the wayfarer (nerd) safety glasses.

  • Alexandra Beck

    Great article! I think, however, that it overlooks an important set of factors for women – body shape, age and face. For instance, while slightly sexy office outfits work well for young(ish) women with ‘regular’ features and body shapes, it may undermine the credibility of women who are too young, too curvaceous, too pretty, too old or too overweight…

    • Katherine Tattersfield

      Too young and too pretty to dress sexy. Oh, the irony LOL

  • Mike

    This also proves that superstition influences people by making them think an object “is more valuable or useful” when it’s perceived or marketed as such by someone else.
    In reality it’s the individual using the item or product that gets used instead of the individual using the product.. All thanks to good marketing and superstition.

  • TeleDavidOgundeko

    Great article, highly perceptive and painfully true.

  • Stefani

    I really enjoyed this read. I am in the midst of applying to B-School for my MBA and I now realize how I dress may have impact if I get in or not 😉

  • chrisP

    Great article! Currently having a debate on whether we should go smart casual at our office or stick with the suits.

  • Angelina Sereno

    It took me years to find my own balance between dressing professionally (like the CEO that I am) and dressing casually (like the Creative Director that I am).

    I think it is most important to feel well put-together and stand confidently in your own skin. Posture, eye contact and tonality make a huge difference in how you are perceived. Before an important meeting, I always set the intention to be a good listener, to speak with confidence and to make a good impression. I think dressing for success is half of the equation and mindset is the second.

    Angelina Sereno
    Skybox Creative

  • Anonny

    Interesting, but I actually clicked on the headline hoping to see a sort of fashion show of outfit ideas!

  • Katherine Tattersfield

    It’s a shame that a woman has to dress in a “smart masculine style” to be taken seriously by a prospective employer. Nevertheless, I find most of these statements ring true from my experience. When I wear a skirt suit or a pantsuit, I get an instant boost in the respect department. I personally don’t like coming to work in formal clothes, but I don’t wear t-shirts either for the reason you mentioned. I feel unprofessional in street clothes, and my comfort level affects my performance.

    • marybaum

      Have you experimented with a combination? My uniform, fwiw, is jeans and a well-made jacket – either a traditional blazer or the cyan silk tweed jacket that’s in all my brand pages. When I want to be formal, I upgrade to comfortable dress pants and a chunky necklace.

  • Katherine Tattersfield

    Guys have it way easier for interviews. They don’t have to ponder the difference between a skirt or pants, hair, etc.

    • Greg Jessiman

      This is mostly true Katherine but the tide is turning. I had a hilarious experience where my clothing was THE main discussion point during a job interview.

      In 2007 I turned up for a job interview for a Danish shipping company called Mærsk, which was/is, let’s just say conservative. I was not in a suit, however I was contemporary sharp with v-neck, trousers, shirt & tie, shoes etc.

      During the interview the HR rep looked me up and down in such a condemning manner, then said “did you not get the memo”, I had to hold my tongue and not reply “Wow, I didn’t realize that Initech was a subsidiary of Mærsk”.

      They went on to tell me that my choice of clothing was totally inappropriate, and that company policy required a suit jacket, which must be worn at all times. I assured them that had I received the memo that I would have respected their dress code, however I had not received it. This was dismissed, and they said that it was “highly unlikely that I hadn’t received it” and that I had a “potential attitude problem”…this was HR.

      I assured them that my choice of clothing would not impact my performance, and that I didn’t feel that their attitude was justified simply because I had chosen a v-neck over suit jacket. I offered to remove the offending “v-neck if they felt that the shirt and tie alone would reflect a more professional image”, the reply was pfft.

      Just to test them I asked if the rest of my attire was suitable, and the HR woman informed me that “now that you mentioned it, I don’t really like your shirt & tie”. At this point I stood up and asked them to walk me to the door as “the interview should be assessing my skills as an IT technician, and not on my suitability as a contestant for the next series of project catwalk”. They sat their with mouths open for around 60 seconds, and I had to ask them again to show me to the door.

      I either do have an attitude problem or just dress so badly that I evoke crazy behavior in those interviewing me? Personally I like to think that a higher power intercepted the memo, and then possessed the lady from HR in order to help me see sense!

      • Katherine Tattersfield

        Wow, that’s just WRONG. Maybe I have an attitude, too, but there’s no way in hell I would want to work at a place like that. I see nothing wrong with your outfit, so long as you didn’t wear like an orange v-neck with a purple shirt and green tie lol I think you’re right—someone else’s oversight saved you a lot of frustration.

      • Sean Blanda

        Fantastic story.

      • bo

        You probably don’t want to work in such environment anyways. Their loss.

    • Rasmus Lukas

      Well – I always saw it the other way around – that women had more options to angle their style than guys – OK we have beard and so to customize – but still 🙂

  • Brian McInnis

    Think you meant ‘creator’s’ guide.

  • serlene

    I’m more in the construction area and I dress in suits to interviews. I see a lot of younger persons going to interviews with piercing and their hair in the latest styles. Would you consider that to be appropriate dressing code to go to an interview?

    • Francisco Galárraga

      Depends on what message you want to send to your prospective employer. Generally a well tailored suit will impress more than being “all crazy like.”

  • Francisco Galárraga

    Great article Christian, very informative. IMO, if you are a creative, treat your attire according to what you’ll be doing the day, or what goals you are trying to establish in your workplace, or with your work companions, or finally, your clients.. I am lucky to have my own design studio, so for example, if one day I’ll go workout after office, I’ll go sporty, to make it easier for me to enter sport mode. Generally when I just work, I’ll try to go casual, but not too casual either (shorts, jeans, etc). I try to dress up different, to make me stand out from the usual urban crowd. But when it comes to business, I’ll definitley try to go the “suit” route, in a more Andy Warholesque approach to creativity and business. Dress well, and people will treat you accordingly, even if your workmates or partners make fun of you. Clients and people will “know” who has the authority in the matter, it’s kind of like magic.

  • Venetia Pristavec

    In an effort for us to spice up our wardrobes, a couple of us ladies have launched #slapfash with a new theme each week to be inspired by! Head into your closet every Wednesday and then snap a picture and tag it with #slapfash to join 🙂

  • Petr Chutný

    There’s something about it. Thanks for the article!

  • Miriam Benson

    Clothing is packaging for humans. It’s no surprise that your wrapper has a psychological impact even upon yourself. Once all the practical considerations of comfort and utility have been met, you are dealing with what role you wish to portray by the manner of your dress. I learned this by reading the classic “Dress For Success” by James T. Molloy. He based his recommendations on studies of people’s reactions to photos of the same model in different outfits. While styles have changed, the basic principle has not. We are paid not only to do the job, but also to act the part. The trickier problem is blending conservative and open messages successfully. If you want to be creative and professional, I recommend an innovative splash of color in one’s shirt or blouse and/or unique jewelry. If you want to appear friendly but competent, wear casual attire in classic styles, like khakis, subdued polo or camp shirts and no jewelry. Unless you actually work for the fashion industry, never take advice on work dress from a fashion column anywhere. Instead, look at the news photos of successful people in your profession while they are on the job. That’s the only way to know that you might consider wearing Hawaiian shirts to fit in at Pixar Studios.

  • Jay Gohil

    A Gujarati language proverb says 1 value : a person then 1000 value : clothes and 10 value manners and 100 values to (I dont remember) !!!!

  • Greg Jessiman

    Great post Christian.

    Perhaps it’s worth having a few blazers & lab coats hanging around the office for when people need to quickly change their mindset. Would make for a stack of fun office photos as well as great brainstorming, role reversal sessions too.

    Keep it coming.

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  • Julia Williamson Jackson

    Love it. My major was Fashion Merchandising, and this couldn’t be more true.

    • ksfkay

      no surprise someone from Fashion Merchandising would agree on such a superficial point of view. Warning, this article was created for fake people who do not actually care about design.

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