Style and Styling

Did I Say That Out Loud?

One of the most frequent questions I am asked when people find out that I am an Image and Wardrobe Coach is “Well, how’d I do?” accompanied by a head to toe waving gesture of the hands pointing out their sartorial selection. My answer is usually “That depends… What did you want to say?” A quizzical look usually follows my reply. I find myself explaining that dress is communication; what you put on in the morning speaks volumes before you ever open your mouth. What you wear does matter, whether you are working, or not.

People often tell me that what they wear doesn’t matter because they work at home, or no one sees them at work because they are not “client-facing.” In contrast, data shows that even if when only dressing for yourself, it does matter what you wear. Not only does how we dress affect those around us, and how we are perceived, it affects our own mood, and perception of ourselves. This effect is called enclothed-cognition.

In a study done at Northwestern University, subjects were tested while wearing a “doctor’s coat,” a “painter’s coat,” (identical to the M.D.’s coat) and no coat at all. Subjects performed better at a test of observation skill when wearing what they thought to be a doctor’s coat, versus the painter’s coat, or no coat at all. The had to be wearing the coat. Hanging it over the chair, or looking at it did not produce the same effect.

“Dressing up” is not only good for us, but it is good for business, too! People perceive women dressed more (business) formally and conservatively as more intelligent, and these same women are more likely to be hired, promoted, and paid more. We hold ourselves differently in dress clothes than in casual wear, and we behave differently, too. In fact, correlations have been found between relaxing dress codes and rising rates of harassment. More casual dress = more casual (read: less appropriate) behavior.

The biggest complaint people have about “dressing up” for business is that they are uncomfortable. For some this is a physical discomfort, trousers are too tight, or heels make feet hurt, but those are all problems with the clothing purchased. There is no reason to buy uncomfortable clothes. If you have an issue with comfort (often the case with people who rate themselves as highly kinesthetic) then you need to be extra careful when selecting items for work. It takes careful research and effort, but will pay for itself (literally!) in the end.

For others the discomfort is mental. They never have dressed in traditional office wear, or they are uncomfortable in their required corporate dress, and feel like a fraud. For new entries into the corporate world who have spent their lives in jeans and athletic shoes, the discomfort can feel overwhelming. This is a real concern to address and requires a little more mental exploration than the physical discomfort issue. Unless you wear a proscribed uniform with no customization options, there are ways to make your workwear more mentally comfortable.

If you work in a very traditional environment that requires a suit and tie five days a week, but have a more relaxed personality, there are ways to bridge the disconnect that may cause your mental discomfort. One option could be as simple as keeping a sweater on the back of your chair to wear with your shirt, (loosened tie if male,) and trousers when you are not in meetings. (Yes, this may smack of Mr. Rogers!) Often, purchasing business wear in colors that better suit your personality and personal coloring can bring your business dress in sync with your physical self, and reduce discomfort.

What we wear creates a feedback loop that we can use to our advantage. Say what you mean with your words, your actions, and your clothing.

Does your workwear reflect your business environment and personality, or do you feel out of sync? Please share your experience in the comments below!

Thanks to Katherine of Not Dressed as Lamb for the link-up!

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