Dress to Express — A Challenge to Pull You From Your WFH Slump
A look at how intentional dressing can increase creative thinking and boost productivity when working from home.
As I sleepily stumbled towards my wardrobe recently, I reached for my what had become my go-to working from home uniform — pyjama bottoms and the biggest jumper I could find. Pulling it on, I felt cocooned, safe, but also sleepy. Squinting at my computer as it fired up I simply wasn’t mentally prepared for what the day would bring.
Things haven’t always been this way. Back when I was office-based, pre-coronavirus, I revelled in choosing my outfit for work. Fingering each garment I would muse on which combination would make me walk taller and smile broader. I’ve always had an affinity with fashion, in fact I give it credit for helping me recover from an eating disorder in my teens. But after six months of working from home, any spark of creativity in this department had been well and truly snuffed out.
It was the morning after Boris told the UK that a second wave was looming and restrictions needed tightening. Hearing him ask those who can work from home to do so, for potentially another six months, I realised I needed to pull myself out of my WFH slump.
I decided to start with my wardrobe.
For some, working in their PJs is a luxury they’re happy to indulge. When I did it however, I never felt fully awake. When I looked into the psychology behind this I learnt that this is down to the intrinsic connection we make between pyjamas and sleep; the very act of wearing them lulls us into a sleepy state. Wearing something a little more formal however, something you would have worn to the office for example, has the opposite effect. It shifts our mindset to one of work and this was the shift I was desperately seeking.
Knowing I’d never do it without a little accountability, I told my Instagram followers I would be challenging myself to dress intentionally every morning for a week. A couple of people piped up in response, wanting to join in too, so I gave the challenge a name: Dress to Express.
The aim would be simple. Each morning pick an outfit that expresses who you are and makes you feel good. I immediately felt excited about picking my outfits. Each morning I posted a little video of my look and shared videos and pictures of those who were doing the same. By the end of the week, the internal shift I was seeking was palpable. I felt more capable, more empowered and, dare I say it, more creative.
Research from Solomand & Schopler (1982) backs this up, showing that the mood and performance of workers can be affected by the appropriateness of their attire. Stumbling upon an interview with Shakaila Forbes-Bell, founder and editor-in-chief of the website Fashion is Psychology, I learnt more about the way our clothes impact creativity.
“Research has found that wearing formal clothes makes people think more broadly and holistically, opening you up to new ideas and challenges.”
“Wearing formal attire also encourages people to use abstract processing more readily than concrete thinking. Concrete thinking refers to the thinking on the surface, whereas abstract thinking is related to thinking in depth.”
Shakaila tells Happiful. This doesn’t mean we have to go full-blown corporate with our outfits though — being comfortable plays a crucial role. Apparently comfort can boost morale and increase productivity at work, according to research from Peluchette and Karl (2007). Theories behind this include reducing a sense of corporate ‘pressure’.
So it seems it’s about striking a careful balance between dressing smarter while remaining comfortable and feeling good about yourself.
I noticed another benefit of dressing more intentionally during the challenge; at the end of the work day, which currently takes place at a small desk nestled between my sofa and the TV, the act of changing out of my work-wear and into leisure wear helped me switch out of work-mode.
Again, there’s science backing this up with research from Rafaeli, Dutton, Harquail, and Mackie-Lewis showing that dressing differently affects the personal roles we embody in our day. With the line between work and life feeling perpetually blurry right now, this ritual of changing clothes is small yet powerful.
When I spoke to those who joined in, asking how the challenge made them feel, I was pleased to hear it not only affected their attitude to work, but their overall wellbeing.
Sarah shared what she learned from the experience.
“It’s made me remember that it’s the little things that make a big difference, especially on days when I’m not feeling great — it’s the yellow cardi or the cup of tea that add up to make that positive effect.
“On days when I feel like I can’t do anything or I’m more run down, it’s good to be wearing something comfy, something nice, something that feels like ‘me’ rather than neglecting myself in that way — that’s not to say I won’t be indulging in pyjama days now and then, I’m a big believer in these, but it’s made me think about the fact that getting dressed and looking after myself is really important and small things make a big difference.”
On the surface fashion may seem frivolous, but dig deeper and we see how dressing with intention can truly be an act of self-care. And if it happens to also help us be more productive and creative at work, then all the better.
So, the next time you feel in need of a boost in this department, why not set your own Dress to Express challenge and see how it makes you feel? If you do, tag me on Instagram (@katbluejay) and let me know how you get on.
Read more about me and my work at Blue Jay of Happiness.