What your clothes say about you and to you - the science

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Published by
Jan Hills
April 16, 2018

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You may have looked at the title of this article and thought “Really! Do we need this?” And yet when we asked man and women about their work place many of our research participants told us deciding what to wear to work can be a minefield.

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Dress in the office can be a sensitive subject many leaders feel uncomfortable about the need to cover this topic at all but the truth is how we dress has an impact on how others see us and the presence we create. The science would say it also has an impact on how we feel and therefore the presence we project.

We found there are some interesting studies which its worth understanding.

Scientific studies have shown that we register the smallest details of appearance within the first moments of meeting someone: within around 30 milliseconds we have made a judgement. Clothes are symbols of masculinity and femininity and are linked to stereotypes and their associations of how competent you are, how intelligent and how trustworthy.

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In this day and age, we like to think that clothing is a trivial, and trivialising subject

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Follow the rules?

When considering how you navigate the dress code at work following the rules may feel safe. The need to conform is a widespread feature of animal behaviour, observed in species from monkeys following the leader’s cues of when to eat, travel and socialise, to humpback whales following the pod. Scientists believe that learning to conform maintained our all-important membership of the social group which supported us in finding shelter and food, and a mate (much like the modern workplace, then!).

In this day and age, we like to think that clothing is a trivial, and trivialising subject– not one we should waste much time on. It feels wrong if we find ourselves commenting on what an authoritative woman speaker is wearing or how a man might be flouting the norms: It seems their clothes shouldn’t be worthy of our attention. Whilst most comment is made related to women we do notice what men wear, and men themselves are acutely aware of the fine distinctions in their own dress codes.

Our male survey participants certainly commented on it especially in sectors where there is more apparent freedom and fewer signals about what is acceptable. Non-conformist office dressers can face strong social sanctions.

How well you “fit” with the office dress code is a lot to do with how well you feel you personally fit with the organisation – or your perception of it, at this stage of your career. Can you be yourself, are they your kind of people, does it reflect your values? Do you wantto fit in?

Or is some of your unease about the idea of appropriate workwear a reflection of ambivalence about the organisation? We know from neuroscience research by Jay Van Bavel at New York University that when people want to be part of a group (in this case, the organisation you work for), they are highly motivated to conform to the norms of that group and will even change their own beliefs to fit with the group beliefs.

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There is research that shows, once you have proven your competence, having some distinctive or quirky aspect to your dress can be advantage

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What your clothes say to other people

The participants in the Head Heart + Brain research agreed that people need to be sensitive to workplace norms: dress codes will be different in a bank or a law firm to a design agency. But most believed that within those norms, you should choose what works for you and suits your personality, but don’t lose sight of the impression it creates for other people.

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. There is research that shows, once you have proven your competence, having some distinctive or quirky aspect to your dress can be advantage. A series of studies by researchers at Columbia and Harvard business schools have found that breaking the rules can sometimes boost your social standing.

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 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).

Dress and status

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?

Critically, research has also found that conforming to dress codes impacts on perceptions of our personality and our abilities. Women who dress in a masculine fashion during a job interview are more likely to be hired, and a teaching assistant who wears formal clothes is perceived as more intelligent than one who dresses more casually.

Glick wrote in 2016 that how women dress determines whether they are perceived as “warm” or “competent” (more on that in our other article on first impressions). If a woman dresses too attractively (she’s too “warm”), she risks not being taken as seriously as a more “competent” woman who dresses severely. And although Glick considers only the judgements made by men, other research has found women – finely attuned to reading these social nuances – are often the harshest judges of another woman’s appearance.

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Do you wear clothing that reflects your mood, or do you wear clothing to change your mood?

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What your clothes say to you

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 liketo 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 tous, 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 test subjects 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 actuallymore competent: they could think faster on their feet and had more creative ideas.

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we need to dress not to express how we feel, but how we want to feel

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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.

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Making changes at career transitions is a powerful way of signaling your ambitions

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Your brand

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.

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