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CLOTHING: ALTERING YOUR PERFORMANCE at WORK
“The way you look directly affects the way you think, feel, and act . . . When you dress down, you sit down — the couch-potato trend. Manners break down, you begin to feel down, and you’re not as effective” (Kaplan-Leiserson, 2000, p. 39).
Psychology and clothing are so interlinked that it’s difficult to avoid a contentious discussion when we begin to contemplate what sort of clothing is both appropriate for work and conducive to a positive work performance.
Where two employees within the same company dress in contrast to one another, their individual, opposing clothing choices – dependent on the function of the company – are likely to draw equally contrasting views about the person behind the outfit, based merely upon a facade. The effect of this may be that one is trusted over the other with bigger, more complex tasks, or that one may be spoken to in a more positive, professional manner. This may only be an initial reaction – and one that may be proved wrong – but it is one based on the first impressions communicated by their outfit choices. It would be fair to assume, then, that this is the same first impression they communicate to colleagues and bosses.
So, while you can manipulate the way you are seen through your clothing for positive effect, it can just as easily backfire and send a message that runs counter to the one intended. And it’s not just the effect that your clothing has upon others that needs to be considered, but the effect upon your own productivity.
In 2012, the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology published a study entitled Enclothed Cognition. The journal, which explores the psychological process behind the clothing that we wear, highlights an experiment that has since become more widely known.
The controlled experiment explored the effects of wearing, and not wearing, a white lab coat. The results? In a nutshell, those wearing the lab coat had an increase in selective attention. In addition, when described as a doctor’s coat, the wearer was found to have increased sustained attention in comparison to those who were told it was a painter's coat. This research has suggested that the symbolic meaning behind clothing has just as powerful an effect as the physical aesthetic and experience of wearing said garment.
This is just one example that begins to explain how our clothing impacts – whether adversely or favourably - on our careers.
Influencing your career through your outfits comprises consideration of a whole host of factors. Colour, texture and – as explored in Enclothed Cognition – symbolic meaning. Think of a fashion spread presenting power suits, or the vaster and more modernistic version, power dressing. What affiliates clothing with its symbolic counterpart, power? Is it an androgynous characteristic? A way of pattern cutting, colour, or lack of embellishment?
Stemming from its inauguration into womenswear in the 70s, the notion of ‘power dressing’ has been depicted as a style enabling women to establish authority in professional and political environments that were traditionally dominated by men.
American costume designer Edith Head said, “you can have anything you want in life, if you dress for it”. After all, the basic principles of designing costumes for the big screen encompass visuals that must indicate multiple aspects of a character, purely through the visual medium.
This does reinforce the arduous task of defining what exactly constitutes correct work attire, but it also proves that you can alter your performance – as well as the impression you make – through your clothing choices.