The Psychological Case for Dressing Way Up (or Down) for Work

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At a talk at the James Beard Foundation last week, Tim Gunn — former fashion-design professor, forever fashion icon, only reality star that doesn’t make me want to vomit — gave a talk about dress and what it does to people. Gunn noted that his pinstripe suit helped him with the anxiety prompted by addressing such a crowd, Ephrat Livni reported at Quartz.

“I believe in the power and appropriateness of semiotics,” he said, referring to the study of signs and symbols. “The clothes we wear, the accessories we wear, the way we groom ourselves sends a message about how we want the world to perceive us. It’s a very important responsibility and we need to accept that. I don’t care how people [do it], as long as they own it.”

Indeed, psych research around dress shows all sorts of social effects. A 2012 study found that when people wear lab coats, they have greater sustained attention. What’s more, If it was called a “painter’s coat,” the effect wasn’t there nearly as much as if it was called a doctor’s coat. Conversely, a 2014 study found that a male professor in a beard and a T-shirt was more highly rated by students than one clean-shaven and dressed in a suit, earning the name “the red sneakers effect.” And a 2015 paper found that when people felt more dressed up than their peer group, they thought more creatively and abstractly. This is because, one researcher told Science of Us, people who dress nicely tend to be leaders, and leaders don’t have to focus on the details of the workday, and instead focus on the big picture.

That’s all pretty amazing evidence of how cut-and-sewn pieces of fabric carry all sorts of cultural symbols and interpersonal meaning. “We are performing our identites” in everyday life, and clothes are a huge part of that expression, says Kim Jenkins, a visiting assistant professor of fashion design at the Pratt Institute. Your wardrobe houses your personal history, your sense of place in the culture, your ethnic identity. And a uniform says something special. Gunn “has made a career of out being an authority figure,” Jenkins tells Science of Us, and his way of dress is aspirational, the sort of thing you might look up to. “I don’t find it surprising that you find him always in a suit, there’s something trusting in that, and that speaks to his sensibility or personality,” she says. “You can trust that, if you’re looking for an authority in fashion.”

This is also why, Jenkins says, the powerful are given to uniform, whether it’s Steve Jobs in his sweater and jeans; Karl Lagerfeld in any variety of jackets and trousers, all in white or black; or Mark Zuckerberg in his T-shirts and hoodies. But the benefit goes beyond streamlining your wardrobe, Jenkins says, it also communicates that you’re distancing yourself from the trends and fluctuations in fashion. “It offers the viewer a stability, knowing that every time I see Steve Jobs, I know what he’s going to look like,” Jenkins says. “I don’t have to be distracted by something new, I always know what his look is going to be.” To extend an unfortunately gendered phrase, clothes make the man — both what you think of yourself, and what other people think of you. And with a uniform, there’s less thinking, and, in a way, more reverence, whether it’s hoodies or pinstripes.