Home / Opinion / Views /  What you wear to work matters

A recent plea in the Supreme Court that sought relief for lawyers from having to wear black coats and gowns in the apex court and high courts has raised some interesting questions about work dress codes. These questions are even more relevant in the present times of work-from-home. When working from home, should an employee dress for the home or the office? In a Zoom meeting, does it matter what the employee wears below the camera? And the most significant question here is whether, beyond the added discomfort of formal-wear and extra laundry bills, these outward appearances have any impact on the quality of one’s work.

No doubt, one’s work dress acts as a mark of identification. In a crowd, we can identify a policeman by his uniform. So it makes sense to insist on a particular type of work-dress in those professions where such identification is essential. A person who has a stethoscope around his or her neck will be identified as a health professional. If so, why should doctors have to wear a white coat?

A study, Public Perceptions of Physician Attire and Professionalism in the US, by Helen Xun and others of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that physicians wearing white coats were perceived as significantly more experienced, professional, and friendly, compared with those doctors who opted for more casual fashion choices. So it is not surprising that the study found patients preferring doctors who wear white coats.

A lot of pieces of clothing carry with them some symbolic meaning and thus result in certain qualities being attributed to their wearers. A judge’s robe, for example, stands for justice. A policeman’s uniform signifies authority. Studies have shown that those who wear coats are generally thought to be intelligent, precise and scientific thinkers and those wearing casual clothes are perceived as more creative. So words of advice captured in sayings like “clothes make the man" and “dress for the job you want, not the one you have" are all very relevant.

The most significant study on work dress was done by Hajo Adam and Adam Galinksy from Northwestern University. ‘Enclothed Cognition’, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, provided new insights on the issue. It established that the clothes you wear don’t just change the way others see you, they change the way you see yourself.

This research involved asking some participants to wear casual clothes and others to wear business attire while taking some intellectual tests. In these experiments, researchers found that the participants doing a task wearing white lab coats made only half as many errors as those participants who wore street clothes. Participants in a doctor’s coat spotted more differences than those wearing a painter’s coat. The lab coat, which symbolizes science and medical doctors, apparently elevated the efforts of participants to live up to it. They were much better at concentrating and more engaged in the activity at hand while wearing white coats.

Another study, The Aesthetics We Wear: How Attire Influences What We Buy, by Keisha Cutright, a marketing professor at Duke Fuqua School of Business, found that what we wear can affect our purchasing decisions. Shoppers in dressier clothing, such as a dress or blazer, bought nearly 18% more items than shoppers in casual outfits, such as T-shirts and flip-flops.

These experiments are part of a larger field of study called ‘embodied cognition’, where how one’s brain and body interact with the environment around and how that interaction constitutes and contributes to cognition is studied. As mentioned in their book The Body has a Mind of its Own, neuroscientists Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee argue that one’s self does not end where one’s flesh ends, but suffuses and blends with the world, including other things. So as you enter a parking garage with a low ceiling, you can ‘feel’ the nearness of your car’s roof to the height barrier as if it were your own scalp. This is why you instinctively duck when you pass under such a barrier. So it is logical to conclude that the clothes you wear, an external item that is closest to one’s body, will be an extension of oneself and will also have an impact on one’s cognition.

In these times of work-from-home, your attire plays yet another role—of enabling an identity transition. In earlier times, when one worked in a location away from one’s home, changing from one’s home dress to a work get-up was a daily ritual that allowed a smooth transition from one’s home identity to one’s work identity. Even though working from home doesn’t strictly necessitate it, it makes sense to keep up this daily ritual of changing into formal-wear.

Clothes have power over our mind. The clothes we wear are one of those non-conscious factors that have always affected our behaviour and will continue to do so. The next time you attend a Zoom meeting, what you wear above the screen level of the camera matters because it influences how others perceive you. This may seem obvious. But a significant learning is that not just what you wear above the screen, but even what you wear below that level will impact the most important person in that meeting—you.

Our debate over the need for lawyers to be in black upper attire in hot Indian conditions can continue. But the verdict on the overall relevance of dress codes is clear. The clothes we wear to work really do matter.

Biju Dominic is chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics, and chairman, FinalMile Consulting.

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