Our clothes affect how other people see us and what judgments they make about us. But they also affect our own thoughts and behavior.
So if you work from home, like me, and you think it doesn’t matter what you wear because nobody else will see you, think again.
1. The way your clothes compare to others’ can change how you think
It can be awkward to be the odd one out, overdressed in a room of your casually-dressed peers. But there’s also a benefit to this embarrassing situation.
Being overdressed compared to others in the room, according to one study, can make you think more abstractly than you might otherwise. A 2015 paper shows that study participants who were overdressed compared to others in the room thought more creatively and abstractly.
Michael Slepian, the first author on the paper, says being more formally dressed makes people focus on the big picture:
… basically, holistic or big-picture thinking—so not focusing on the details but seeing bigger ideas, seeing how things connect from a more high-level perspective.
The researchers suggest this result may come from having more confidence, or feeling like a leader among your peers, as previous research has shown feeling like a leader can make people think more abstractly.
Then again, this research was done using college students, who aren’t typically known for wearing formal attire, so we can’t rule out the possibility of the effects coming purely from the novelty of being dressed up.
2. The clothes you wear can affect your behavior
Our clothes can affect us in other ways, too. For instance, a phenomenon called “enclothed cognition” refers to the way we behave differently depending on the clothes we wear.
A 2012 study tested this effect by asking participants to wear a white coat. Some participants were told the coat was a doctor’s lab coat, while others were told it was an artist’s smock. Just believing the coat was normally worn by a doctor, rather than an artist, led those participants to pay more attention to certain tasks.
We take on characteristics of our clothing without even realizing it. Other research has found we tend to describe ourselves differently depending on what we’re wearing. For instance, people who are dressed up tend to describe themselves as competent and rational, while people dressed more casually describe themselves as friendly and laid-back.
3. Your clothes affect how others see you
It’s not just how you think of yourself that’s affected by your clothes. The way others see you depends a lot on what you wear, as well.
And we make these judgments extremely quickly, too. One study showed participants a photo of a man wearing either a bespoke tailored suit, or a pre-made suit in the same fabric and color. The man’s face was blurred to avoid his facial expression having any impact on the participants, who were asked to rate the man’s qualities based on seeing his photo. Despite only seeing the photo for three seconds, participants who saw the man in the bespoke suit, which fit him ever-so-slightly better, rated him as being more confident, more flexible, and a higher earner than those who saw him wearing a pre-made suit.
Another study had participants look at one of two photos of a woman. Both women in the photos were dressed conservatively, but one had a button open on her blouse and her skirt hung slightly above the knee rather than slightly below. Participants were shown one of the photos, told the woman depicted was either a receptionist or a senior manager, and asked to rate her on intelligence, confidence, trustworthiness, responsibility, authority, and organization.
When participants were told the woman was a receptionist, their ratings were fairly similar no matter which photo they were shown. But when told they were looking at a senior manager, participants gave the woman lower ratings when shown the photo with the shorter skirt and open button.
So while we judge people based on what they’re wearing, our judgments may depend on our expectations for a particular person.
And we don’t just judge people on how we think they should dress. Someone’s clothes can also give us clues about whether they’re similar to us or not—which, it turns out, can be quite important.
A study showed we’re more likely to help people we deem to be similar to us by having two women ask strangers for help in an airport and at a bus station. One of the women was dressed up, while the other was dressed casually.
At the airport, the more formally dressed woman faired better. You might think we’re always more inclined to help someone who appears well-dressed, but at the bus station the formally dressed woman fared worse, with people more likely to help the woman in casual attire.
The researchers posit this is because we like people who are similar to us, and at the bus station the formally dressed woman would have stood out, whereas at the airport she would fit in with other well-dressed travelers.
Whether you’re preparing for a job interview and want to make a good first impression or you’re simply looking for some guidance on your work wardrobe, keep in mind that what you wear can affect your own thoughts and behavior as much as how other people see you.