Your clothing choices speak volumes to who you are and how others perceive you.
As shallow as it sounds, we constantly judge people on their aesthetics. How they dress, their body language, even their hairstyle are key factors. This process is often unconscious, we don’t even know we’re judging people.
Studies show that first impressions are formed within seven seconds of meeting someone¹. This process is called ‘thin slicing.’ Thin slicing is the brain's way of creating automatic judgements, and happens within a matter of milliseconds².
Yet, the reach of clothing is far greater than how others perceive you. New studies are showing that clothing decisions impact your performance. Here, we’ve compiled a summary of these studies, and how you can dress to optimize workplace success.
Enclothed Cognition Theory
In 2012, a group of researchers aimed to understand this relationship. Scientists founded their research on the premise of embodied cognition.
Embodied cognition theorizes that cognitive representations are based on physical experiences³. The brain turns sensory stimuli, like visual or auditory experiences, into memory. In building memories, the brain creates a deeper meaning for physical experiences. Embodied cognition proposes that this symbolism turns physical experiences into abstract ideas.
Embodied cognition was the jumping off point of this study. Terming the phrase “enclothed cognition,” the researchers believed that clothing carries symbolic meaning⁴. They related clothing as an indirect form of embodied cognition, because it's an object, not an actual person/experience.
To test the theory, researchers had participants wear lab coats in a variety of settings. Lab coats carry symbolic meaning. Common associations are professional fields in medicine and science. They found that clothing wearing a lab coat increased a person’s selective attention. It also decreased their number of mistakes⁵. They concluded that clothing has a profound impact on behavior. But, it has to be worn (as opposed to on a hanger) and have symbolic meaning.
The theory of enclothed cognition applies to your everyday life. You can use clothing to boost your performance… Here’s how:
Various studies have shown that wearing formal clothing increases professional performance. If you want to be most effective in the workplace, dressing formally may be one tactic to consider.
Formal clothing manifests power. In a 2014 study, Yale researchers tested men in formal attire as opposed to sweats⁶. They compared the men's business negotiations and overall performance. The scientists found that wearing business suits increased dominance. Formal men were less likely to make concessions and had increased testosterone levels. On the flip side, those wearing sweats believed they were less powerful than the men in suits. They also had vagal withdrawal, which is indicated by lowered heart rates.
Formal clothing also increases social distance⁷. No, this isn’t the social distancing experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. This type of social distance measures formality and politeness. An example of social distance is referring to unfamiliar people by their formal titles. Formal clothing decreases approachability and increases social distance. This makes people more likely to treat you in a professional manner and with respect⁸.
A recent study found that social distance is correlated with abstract thinking. This involves holistic, broad cognition. Abstract thinkers focus on the big picture, especially long term goals⁹.
A concrete thinker would describe the purpose of studying as trying to pass a test. An abstract thinker would describe studying as a way to become more knowledgeable.
There are many benefits to abstract thinking. It’s less narrow minded than concrete ideas, and can lead to unique innovation in the workplace. It’s also associated with leadership and power. Abstract thinking has a symbiotic relationship to social distance. When one increases, it helps increase the other one.
The concept of ‘dressing to impress’ encompasses the impact of formal clothing.
Columbia University and CalState studied the effect of clothing on academics. They found that students performed better on standardized tests when dressed formally. Researchers connected this boosted performance to increased abstract thought¹⁰.
Formal clothing impacts much more than casting the right impression. It changes the way people treat you. It also increases your own perception of being powerful, and boosts cognitive functioning.
Authenticity is Key
Formal clothing shouldn’t come at the expense of trying to be somebody you’re not.
Often, perceived status is based on name brands. With hefty price tags, it’s tempting to buy fake knock-offs for a less expensive ‘label.’
One study measured the effects of wearing counterfeit accessories. Women who wore fake sunglasses had the intent of signaling positive traits such as wealth and success¹¹. In reality, it hurt the wearer's sense of self identity. They felt inauthentic. They were also more likely to act dishonestly and against their values.
Dressing formally doesn’t imply fancy name brands.
A Note on Self Objectification
In a social media orientated culture, it’s easy to compare your looks to others. This post isn’t focused on self esteem or confidence. But, self objectification plays an important role in clothing choice and performance.
Self objectification involves viewing yourself as an object instead of individual. It’s like looking at yourself from the perspective of a third party. Women, for example, are more likely to objectify themselves. 'Provocative dress culture’ in the media is a major contributor to this¹².
Studies have shown that self objectification negatively affects performance. One study asked individuals to try on swimsuits before taking a math test¹³. Both men and women performed significantly worse after trying on swimwear. They also found that self-objectification caused people to eat and snack less. Nutrition can be a vital fuel in mental clarity, cognition, and performance.
The key point of these studies is that confidence is crucial to performance. You should never dress “in spite of your body.” Simple examples of this include wearing things that are uncomfortable, too small, or distracting.
Remember to stay in control of what you wear. Avoid dressing to please others or societal norms that aren’t healthy.
One simple way to boost confidence is to always dress yourself. Don’t let others, even friends or family, pressure you into wearing something that doesn’t feel authentic¹⁴.
Remember enclothed cognition? That comes into play here. Clothes have symbolic meaning. Picking out your own wardrobe creates emotional connection between how you feel and what you wear. It’ll boost your confidence, decision making skills, and sense of authenticity.
Stand Out in a Good Way:
“The Red Sneaker Effect”
It’s always important to dress appropriately for your environment. But, you can still stand out.
Adding subtle touches to your outfit that stray away from the norm will prompt positive attention. In one study, a man wore a red bow tie to a black tie event. While against the grain, he was viewed as having higher competence and uniqueness¹⁵. Similarly, one professor always wore red converse during his lectures. His students perceived him as having increased intelligence.
The color red has been analyzed for decades. Color psychology and the color in context theory suggest that red is associated with attractiveness and intimacy. Recent studies show that men are more likely to ask women wearing red intimate questions¹⁶. Men are also less likely to maintain social distance from women wearing red. Compared to blue, men placed chairs significantly closer to women in red clothing.
While an attention grabber, red isn’t the best choice for professionalism and boundaries. But, being unique comes in many forms. Again, add subtle touches that make you feel most confident and authentic.
You have the power to optimize your performance. Clothing is one of many ways to do so. Here’s a few key tips on how to dress for success:
Wear formal, professional clothes in the workplace. This boosts abstract thinking, perceived power, and social distance
Clothing with symbolic meaning, such as lab coats, improve attention to detail
Chose clothing that embodies who you are
Never wear clothes that comprise your sense of authenticity
Comfort is crucial, and not something to compromise on
Pick out your own wardrobe to boost confidence
Add unique touches while still dressing appropriately to stand out
Gibbons, S. (2018, June 20). You And Your Business Have 7 Seconds To Make A First Impression: Here’s How To Succeed. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/serenitygibbons/2018/06/19/you-have-7-seconds-to-make-a-first-impression-heres-how-to-succeed/#52490e5b56c2
Louis, M. (2017, June 08). Research Shows That the Clothes You Wear Actually Change the Way You Perform. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.inc.com/molly-reynolds/research-shows-that-the-clothes-you-wear-actually-change-the-way-you-perform.html
Adam, H., & Galinsky, A. D. (2012). Enclothed cognition. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(4), 918–925. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2012.02.008
Kraus, M. W., & Mendes, W. B. (2014). Sartorial symbols of social class elicit class-consistent behavioral and physiological responses: a dyadic approach. Journal of experimental psychology. General, 143(6), 2330–2340. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000023
Slepian, M. L., Ferber, S. N., Gold, J. M., & Rutchick, A. M. (2015). The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing. Social Psychological and Personality Science. doi: 10.1177/1948550615579462
Slepian, M. L., Ferber, S. N., Gold, J. M., & Rutchick, A. M. (2015). The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(6), 661–668. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550615579462
Gino, F., Norton, M. I., & Ariely, D. (2010). The counterfeit self: the deceptive costs of faking it. Psychological science, 21(5), 712–720. https://doi-org.ezp1.villanova.edu/10.1177/0956797610366545
DJohnson, K., Lennon, S.J. & Rudd, N. Dress, body and self: research in the social psychology of dress.Fashion and Textiles 1, 20 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40691-014-0020-7
Leblanc, V., Dr. (Ed.). (2018, October 28). How What You're Wearing Can Affect Your Anxiety. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.calmclinic.com/anxiety/clothing-matters
Hutson, Matthew & Rodriguez, Tori. (2015). Dress for Success. Scientific American Mind. 27. 13-13. 10.1038/scientificamericanmind0116-13a.