Are You Really Going to Wear ‘That’ to Work?

The importance of wearing the right clothes for doing your work

Business on top, party on bottom. Credit Aaron Gouveia

Hawaiian shirts, baggy cargo shorts, flip flops. Is this some pool party in August or just casual Friday at work? Some days it’s hard to tell but should it matter what you wear if you are getting your work done?

I was thinking of this recently because my boss is a chameleon of sorts when he does sales. When he visits a big pharma company based in Germany, he struts in with a freshly pressed suit; in Silicon Valley, he wears jeans and an untucked button down shirt, and when he’s at the office, he wears whatever he wants because he’s on the phone.

There’s no arguing that people judge you by what you wear — this is why my boss changes his “skin” when he meets with different clients. And plenty of articles talk about how to dress for success to climb the corporate ladder. But what effect does your outfit have on the actual work you do in the office?

Does it matter if you’re wearing shorts, slacks, skirts, or nothing at all?

Enclothed cognition aka what you wear affects how you do your work

In 2012, Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky decided to find out if what you wear affects how you do your work. In their study “Enclothed Cognition,” they compared people doing work while wearing a lab coat to people doing work while wearing a painter’s coat.

Their idea was enclothed cognition or “the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes,” will affect productivity. Simply put: what you wear affects how you act. This happens partly through the symbolic meaning you associate with the clothing and the physical experience of wearing them.

They did three experiments comparing subjects who wore lab coats with subjects who wore painter’s coats. The idea was that people wearing a lab coat would feel like doctors or scientists and people who wore a painter’s coat would feel ridiculous or at least wouldn’t have any symbolic association with how they did their work.

By the end of their experiment, they discovered people who wore lab coats had increased performance on attention-related tasks.

A pretty clear case for what you wear is important, or at least lab coats are important. That is until experimenters tried to replicate the results.

Enclothed cognition part two: a lab coat by any other name

The positive effects of lab coats on how we do our work is not as clear cut as it seems. Later experimenters found that lab coats also had negative effects on problem solving or no effect at all on work, depending on the experiment.

When Charles Stockum and Marci DeCaro did a similar lab coat experiment, they found that while wearing lab coats might increase performance on attention-related tasks, it also led to negative performance on tasks that involved insight problem-solving. You know, thinking “out of the box” and being creative, which is what all companies say they want.

To further complicate the issue, when the lab coat study was replicated a few years later by Rebecca Womack in “Enclothed Cognition: The Effect of Attire on Attention Task Performance,” she did not find any significant results. Wearing a lab coat had no effect on increased performance in attention related tasks.

The effect of formal clothes on work

So that’s all great for lab coats, but what about formal wear? You know, wearing a suit at work, since not all of us wear lab coats to our jobs. Well there’s a study for that too. In the experiment, “The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing,” the team of researchers discovered wearing formal clothes can affect the way you think about your long-term and short-term goals.

In the study, researchers found when undergraduates wore clothes they would wear to a job interview as opposed to clothes they would wear to class, their behavior in “formal clothes” resulted in more abstract cognitive processing. Simply put: people who wore formal clothes could concentrate more on long-term goals than short-term goals.

So does that mean you should put on your three-piece suit when you want to make your five-year plan? Maybe. Or maybe not because not all people have the same symbolic associations with formal clothes.

Dress codes and all that

In fact, there is only some small evidence to suggest what we wear affects how we do our work. And that evidence only shows it helps in certain task areas.

So should we do away with the formal office dress code if you don’t face the public as long as you get your work done? To a certain extent, the answer would be yes. If what’s important is results and bottom lines, then why care about tucked shirts and hemlines?

So if you work remote and want to show up to the virtual meeting sporting a business jacket on top and pajamas on bottom, then it doesn’t matter as long as you have good results.

Full Disclosure: I wrote this article wearing khakis and a henley t-shirt.


Kyle Crocco is a Content Marketing Coordinator at BigSpeak Speakers Bureau and is widely known not to have very good fashion sense. However, he does look cool in his new Duh Professor music video Setback City.