Have you ever sat on a packed commuter train going into the city early on a workday morning and been struck by the bland and boring manner that most people are dressed in? And then looked at the glum facial expressions of those same commuters and wondered if there was a connection between grey suits and long-faces?
I regularly wear loud shoes, often silver or sparkly, I try to give fellow travellers something to smile about on their journey, and they do. Sometimes going as far as striking up a conversation with me, who would have thought footwear could get someone to look up from their mobile phone and talk to a stranger? Our clothes make social connections, communicate who we are, allow us to play with our identity, can be good for us and make others happier to.
I recently spent an evening in the company of a group of high-flying female finance executives in the City of London; they all looked polished and chic but, well, a little bit conformist, as if they all shopped from the same page. I understand the ease of a uniform, Arianna Huffington has written recently on how she has simplified her way of dressing to free up her thoughts to concentrate on things other than clothes, Mark Zuckerberg notably wears the same daily outfit, they have worked out what works for them but that may not be the best option for us all. When we dress for work we have to take context into consideration, however why does this imply that we must leave our personal identity in the wardrobe? Does a working wardrobe necessarily need to be nondescript? Couldn’t there be another option that was less corporate and more colourful?
I wonder what impact there would be on our wellbeing if we were able to express our personality at work by allowing a different approach to dress codes. More organizations are concerned with employee wellbeing, with creating environments where work coincides with thriving. Would it be possible that something as simple as encouraging autonomy of style could shift office culture to a place where individual difference generated holistic group flourishing without enforced interventions? I’m sure if I worked in an office I would much rather be surrounded by idiosyncratic colleagues who formed an imaginative patchwork as the backdrop to my daily routine than a sea of drabness.
Flourishing Fashion & PERMA
In a recent study I discovered links between the way we dress and happiness which led me to the conclusion that we can connect clothes to Martin Seligman’s theory of PERMA, a model on which to hang our wardrobe wellness and tweak getting dressed in the morning to enhance our working day.
The aspects of intentionally managing identity emerging from my research coincided to produce flourishing as explained by PERMA, (Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement) an acronym for the five features which create flourishing as authentic and sustained happiness and well-being.
How can we apply this in practice?
Positive emotions are the foundations of well-being. Hedonic pleasure and clothes go hand in hand, on the basic assumption that we enjoy clothes for the way they make us feel when we are wearing them. They are almost an extension of our bodies; garments touch us physically and psychologically. When we get dressed we can pay attention to how it makes us feel — is it a pleasure to wear this outfit, am I smiling at myself or have I noticed that putting on this suit makes me frown and feel grumpy? What could I add or take away that may make a difference? Does this dress always make me feel happy? Why is that?
Barbara Fredrickson has a theory which proposes that it is possible to influence not only our own feelings but the feelings of others; the participants in my study all related stories of how they dress and the impact on others, showing how dress improves personal positive emotions as well inducing them in others.
Being mindfully aware when we make choices, taking the time to stop and engage with the task of ‘what shall I wear today’ can become a habit, which in turn produces a magic moment of what Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’. This may seem far-fetched but tuning in to how we feel then just being aware of how that effects our choices may well add mindfulness into our morning routine without an app! Emotional intelligence has been linked to engagement displayed as emotional awareness, using emotions to enable problem solving and creativity, understanding the relationship of emotions to others and managing emotions reflectively with observation and adaptation. This mindful approach to getting dressed, to being aware of our needs at that moment takes us out of how do we look and into how does this feel ; we have an intention to get dressed which connects us to our emotional intelligence which could well linger beyond merely getting dressed in the morning.
Relationships make us happy; this is considered to be one of the fundamental aspects of wellbeing. The study I conducted explicitly links the way we dress with the need to be ‘social beings’ for whom it is crucial to form connections with others. From a casual micro-moment of a chance encounter in the street, where a stranger smiles at your shoes, to having a discussion at the coffee machine about how the colour of your tie works well with our pocket square, we can forge friends when we express our identity via our clothes. Finding one’s unique identity in a community, an aspect of which occurs through dressing creatively, encourages a culture of collaboration. When we wear our values, our belief systems, our personality, we create connections and enhance friendships; my research shows fashioning positive relationships can be formed without resorting to going shopping together in your lunch hour, but through shared values and a love of dressing up. This could be extended further with getting together clothes swap groups, or having events where you shared knitting patterns!
Discovering a purpose in life is considered to be a crucial aspect of well-being; to attend to something that is bigger than the ego, to establish a meaningful life that fulfils an existential need, is necessary for flourishing. Many offices support charities through fundraising events or sharing skills. Could the way you dress to work support and help others? Dress for Success is one such charity that uses fashion to assist others who need help getting into the corporate mode. Perhaps you are a female executive who could change the way younger women express themselves at work by openly challenging out-dated dress codes, or find ways to highlight sustainability, respect and responsibility as personal beliefs which can be shown through the way you dress.
A sense of accomplishment at both having and attaining goals encourages flourishing; when we take pride in way we present ourselves and dress to celebrate our achievement, we are exhibiting self-efficacy which has an impact on mental health and wellbeing. We don’t have to mark an achievement with a new outfit, but what if we wore something that we usually saved for best, to work? Is there a way we can dress which displays ambition and our hopes for others without it being about buying ‘new season’ from the same brands as everyone else? Hope theory emphasises the importance of unearthing things that bring joy, finding social connections that support values and growing hope through resolution based narratives. What story of your accomplishments are you relating when you get dressed?
Flourishing fashion, dressing with awareness to intentionally feel good, could be a way to add a dash of wellbeing into your working wardrobe by finding your own PERMA –wear solutions. Try starting small by testing out a splash of colour or wearing something to work on one day a week which begins a conversation with someone new, who knows you may find that others soon follow your lead. Before long you could be working in culture where individuality is recognised and creative dress codes are the norm.