- Talent Management
With Halloween just around the corner, costumes are everywhere, and this year, Donald Trump masks have predictably soared to the top of popular costumes. In reality, however, most of us wear a “costume” to work everyday of the year. But does wearing the right “costume” to work really matter?
One recent survey of 1,172 adults 18 years of age or older discovered that 90% of people think that being well-dressed or appropriately dressed at work is important and that only 2% of respondents believe that one’s workplace attire isn’t important at all. Other surveys have found that for some people (most notably, visible minority employees) the expectation to “dress the part” is so great that there’s even a strong tendency to avoid participating in casual Friday events. So why do clothes matter?
In 2011, two researchers from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern, Hajo Adam and Adam D. Galinsky, published a study on the subject of “enclothed cognition.” As they explain, “We introduce the term ‘enclothed cognition’ to describe the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes.” They further note, “enclothed cognition involves the co-occurrence of two independent factors—the symbolic meaning of the clothes and the physical experience of wearing them.” In their study, they carried out two experiments:
As a first test of our enclothed cognition perspective, the current research explored the effects of wearing a lab coat. A pretest found that a lab coat is generally associated with attentiveness and carefulness. We therefore predicted that wearing a lab coat would increase performance on attention-related tasks. In Experiment 1, physically wearing a lab coat increased selective attention compared to not wearing a lab coat. In Experiments 2 and 3, wearing a lab coat described as a doctor’s coat increased sustained attention compared to wearing a lab coat described as a painter’s coat, and compared to simply seeing or even identifying with a lab coat described as a doctor’s coat. Thus, the current research suggests a basic principle of enclothed cognition—it depends on both the symbolic meaning and the physical experience of wearing the clothes.
What does this mean? As the study’s authors emphasize, “The clothes we wear have power not only over others, but also over ourselves.” Simply put, the study suggests that the clothes do make the man or woman and not simply in onlookers’ eyes.
While Adam and Galinksy’s findings are compelling, do employees agree? We asked two employees in two professions–one with a standard uniform and one without a standard uniform–to respond to the findings.
Dr. Christopher Kantor, a family doctor in New York City, readily agreed with Adam and Galisnksy’s findings: “I hate to say it but yes, when I arrive at work and put on my white lab coat, I switch gears. When I got my first coat in med school, I never wanted to take it off. I no longer feel like that, but the symbolism of the coat is very important in my profession and it impacts how I interact with clients and how I focus on specific tasks too.”
Professor Gloria Sellers, a professor of philosophy at a small liberal arts college in New Hampshire, doesn’t have a standard uniform but over time, she has adapted a self-styled “uniform” for the classroom: “If you’re a woman in higher education, especially in philosophy, which has traditionally been a male dominated field, you need a uniform. You can’t wear the exactly same thing everyday or students notice…men can wear the same jacket for years without a peep from students. But even with the variations on a theme, women need to wear something very banal. Basically, all the women I know wear dark colors while teaching, slacks or jeans, a shirt without any cleavage, and a cardigan or blazer–no dangling earrings or flashy jewelry. You want to be covered up, and quite frankly, you should look a bit somber.” When asked why her self-styled uniform is so important, Sellers was emphatic:
In philosophy, students have expectations–you walk into class and if you’re a woman, they are disappointed. They want to see someone with a pipe or better yet, a long gray beard–like the 21st-century version of Socrates! So my uniform, which is really very unremarkable, is about taking their minds off my body and gender and putting it back on to my mind!
Does her self-styled “uniform” also help her think? Unlike Dr. Kantor, Professor Sellers does not personally relate to Adam and Galinsky’s findings. “The findings are intriguing,” she admits, “But honestly, I do my best work at home in my pajamas. They’re totally faded and tattered. What does that say about me?”