Do you wear clothing that reflects your mood, or do you wear clothing to change your mood? Researchers from the University of Queensland interviewed people and observed their clothing choices to find out.
The answer was that, more often than not, we dress according to how we’d like to feel, or how we’d like others to think we’re feeling. And it works, especially if you wear clothes that have won compliments in the past, inspire confidence or bring back positive memories. This is the concept of “enclothed cognition”: the influence clothes have on the wearer’s thoughts and feelings (that is, what our clothes say to us, not about us: how they make us feel).
University of Hertfordshire psychologist Karen Pine has also tested the link between mood and clothing and found that “happy” clothes – the ones that make us feel good – are well-cut, figure-enhancing, and made from bright, quality fabrics. “Clothing doesn’t just influence others,” says Pine, “it reflects and influences the wearer’s mood too. Many of the people in the study felt they could alter their mood by changing what they wore. This demonstrates the psychological power of clothing and how the right choices could influence a person’s happiness.”
Clothes also affect our perception of our abilities: Pine gave her students superhero t-shirts to wear and found that those dressed as superheroes thought they were more likeable and rated themselves as physically stronger than students in plain t-shirts.
The same results are found with more conventional work-wear: researchers have found that people given a number of challenging cognitive tests felt significantly more powerful and in control of the situation when dressed in formal business attire compared with their casually-dressed peers. And the results showed they were actually more competent: they could think faster on their feet and had more creative ideas.
And in a bazar study psychologist Barbara Fredrickson found that women scored lower in a math test when they were wearing a swimsuit. (Though men’s scores were unaffected by what they wore.) Fredrickson suggested that self-objectification consumes mental resources, but men are less concerned by it and so are able to keep focused on the task.
All of which suggests that we need to dress not to express how we feel, but how we want to feel. We need to find a style of clothing for work that is the acceptable equivalent of the superhero t-shirt: actively boosting confidence, and competence, without becoming a distraction.
Clothes, whether we like it or not, are part of our personal brand: “This is me.” And having a consistent image is reassuring for the people we work with. But clothes can also signal you have changed. The wardrobe you established when you first started work may not send the message you want to convey now that you’re leading a team. As you progress you have an opportunity to communicate with your clothes: “This is the advanced me.”
Making changes at career transitions is a powerful way of signaling your ambitions. The brain is a pattern recognition machine: it likes to be able to predict. When you subtly change your style you communicate your readiness for promotion, or let people know that they now need to relate to you differently.
And just as the brain desires certainty, it also responds to novelty; this is your opportunity to ratchet up your style, and possibly add a little more personal flair that will make you memorable. Jay Van Bavel’s research on out-groups and in-groups has found that once our membership of the in-group is firmly established we have more leeway to express our individuality.
And this has been verified. In a series of studies by researchers at Columbia and Harvard business schools it was found that breaking the rules can sometimes boost your social standing. The research suggests if you want to change the rules and, for example, run the first real estate firm where your agents wear jeans rather than suits, first of all you have to work your way up to being the boss. Or being seen as super successful. There is research that shows, once you have proven your competence, having some distinctive or quirky aspect to your dress can be advantage.
Researchers call this the “red sneaker effect,” and we all know someone like the ace computer technician who can turn up to work wearing a t-shirt and low-slung jeans because he’s essential to the smooth running of the organisation’s IT system.
The studies demonstrate that people ascribe higher status and competence, and a perceived autonomy, to people who don’t completely conform to the dress code norms. But it’s a delicate balance to achieve. Whether your quirky dress code is seen as an expression of your presence and competence or poor judgement depends on the value placed on uniqueness in the person making the judgement – that’s usually your boss or your client. And the positive judgements can disappear when the nonconforming behaviour is seen as unintentional (you’re just “not quite getting it right” rather than deliberately expressing your personality).
Psychologist Peter Glick confirms that your dress sends a message about social status: should you be deferred too, looked up to or dismissed? And our brains keep a very careful check on our social ranking: is our reputation better than the others in the group, or worse?
So before you dress tomorrow think about how you want to feel and how you want others to perceive you.