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Can Wearing a 'Work Uniform' Help You Get Ahead?

If you feel great in it, the answer's yes.

Image: A woman chooses something to wear in her closet. :: kupicoo / kupicoo
Our clothes have symbolic value that influences the way we feel when we wear them. kupicoo / Getty Images
Our clothes have symbolic value that influences the way we feel when we wear them. kupicoo / Getty Images

There’s a reason people say “dress for success” and “dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” There’s truth to both. If you dress like the intern, others see you as the intern — and (perhaps most importantly), you see yourself as the intern.

A great outfit really can boost your mood, self-confidence, and productivity, says Carolyn Mair, PhD, psychologist and professor of psychology for fashion at the London College of Fashion. But there’s a catch. The outfit only counts as “great” if you think it looks great and you feel great in it, Mair says. “Individuals are different and so are their measures of success.”

A three-piece suit may be a status symbol of success if you work in investment banking — and might help you nail a presentation for the higher ups. But that same suit might make you feel completely out of place at a staff meeting in a tech startup’s Brooklyn loft office where everyone else is wearing hoodies.

Social psychologists have studied this effect, which is called “enclothed cognition,” explains Adam Galinsky, a professor in the Management Division at Columbia Business School. “The wearer takes on the symbolic value of the clothes they wear.”

Research says clothes affect how we work and act.

Galinsky and his colleagues conducted a set of experiments back in 2012 to test this theory. A group of students were given a set of tasks to do — half were given a doctor’s lab coat to wear and half were not. Those wearing the coats were more attentive and focused than those not wearing the coats. In a second experiment where another group was given a set of tasks to do, everyone was given lab coats to wear — but half were told the coat was a doctor’s coat and half were told it was a painter’s coat. Those wearing the “doctors’ coats” were more attentive and focused in completing the tasks than those wearing the “painters’ coats.”

The bottom line, Galinsky says, is that clothes do affect how we work and act — but just as important is our interpretation of what those clothes mean.

That means picking a “great” outfit may not just be a matter of copying the latest runway look or choosing the most expensive suit. Instead, it’s about finding the clothes that make you feel stylish and appropriately dressed for the situation you’re in, Mair explains. Those are the types of clothes that are going to make you feel good, feel confident and do your best.

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Yes, You Can Love Your Job. Here's How.

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Here are nine ways to construct a winning work wardrobe. Read carefully — these fashion tips won’t go out of style.

1. 'Check in' with yourself every morning

Before you even look at your closet, take a moment to evaluate how you feel and where you’re at for the day, Dawnn Karen, a fashion psychologist who teaches at the Fashion Institute of Technology, explains. What emotions are you feeling? How do you want others to see you? If you’re feeling tired and groggy, dressing up a little bit can help energize and uplift you, Karen says. On the other hand, picking out a more casual outfit might take some of the pressure off the day — and make tackling your to-do list a bit more doable.

“It’s about creating some congruency between the emotions you’re feeling and what you wear and how you present yourself to the world,” Karen says. We’ve all had those days where we think to ourselves, “I just can’t wait to get out of this outfit,” she says. The goal of doing a self-check in before you get dressed so you pick the outfit you want to be wearing. “You can’t make it about others,” she says.

2. Get ‘comfortable’

Comfort means more than feeling like you could curl up on the couch and nap. It’s about whether the fabric feels good on our skin — and how appropriate we feel we look for a situation, Mair says. “Being comfortable in our clothes is really important as it allows us to forget that we are wearing them and concentrate on the task.”

Picking out a more casual outfit might take some of the pressure off the day — and make tackling your to-do list a bit more doable.

Picking out a more casual outfit might take some of the pressure off the day — and make tackling your to-do list a bit more doable.

Take note of what colors make you feel confident and specific brands, styles or garments that work for your lifestyle, Karen adds.

3. Wear clothes that fit

This may sound like an obvious one, but it’s important. The perfect suit that’s now one size too small is no longer the perfect suit. Well-cut, well-fitting clothes boost confidence, Mair says.

4. Stand out in a good way

A little black dress may always be an elegant choice if you’re headed to a cocktail party, but it can also make it easy to fade into the background, Mair says. Sometimes we want to stand out in a good way, she says. If you’re on a job interview and want to do well, you don’t want to fade into the background — and wearing a bright color or an outfit that boosts your confidence can help, she says.

The perfect suit that’s now one size too small is no longer the perfect suit.

The perfect suit that’s now one size too small is no longer the perfect suit.

A series of studies have shown that wearing the color red can actually make the wearer feel more attractive. And in one experiment in particular, a group of individuals who were wearing red were rated as more attractive by another group of individuals — despite the fact that the first groups’ clothing wasn’t visible to the group do the rating.

5. Don’t be afraid to change it up

Ads use the word “timeless” all the time. But in reality, styles change and so do our perceptions of what they mean, Galinsky says. “The hoodie turned from being a sign of a slacker to tech creativity,” he says. “The fringe of today can become the mainstream of tomorrow.”

Just because you swore off wide-leg pants or patterns at one point, doesn’t mean your opinion about that look won’t or can’t change over time. That once-banished item may become a wardrobe staple.

6. Dress for the occasion

Wearing the outfit that makes you feel appropriately dressed depends on a gazillion variables — from the occasion to your mood to cultural norms to the role you’re partaking in for the event. (There’s no one right outfit for a wedding — it depends a great deal whether the wedding’s on a beach, in a barn or on a yacht, as well as whether you’re the bride, the bridesmaid, the mother of the bride or the caterer.)

“In any social situation, it’s important to understand the ‘rules’ so that what you wear and how you behave are appropriate for that situation,” Mair explains. If your outfit makes you feel like you missed the dress code memo (whether you’re way over- or underdressed), you’re going to feel uncomfortable.

7. Don’t dress your “age”

There are no hard and fast rules for what you can and can’t wear at a certain age. “Dress for how you want to feel,” Karen says.

That’s not to say you’ll feel comfortable in every outfit at every age, but if you do like something and it makes you feel good, wear it, she says. If you want to wear a mini skirt at 50, go ahead. “It all depends on the individual,” she says — “and the person inside the garment.”

8. Find clothes that work for you

Clothes should make you feel confident and most authentically you, Galinsky says. If you're someone who associates a suit with a sell-out or a fraud, wearing that so-called “power” outfit could backfire and undermine your confidence, he says. “Dress in a way that feels consistent with success and with the job.”

The “right” outfit depends on your personality, your likes, your dislikes and your mood, Mair adds. Some people may be able to be super productive working from home in their pajamas — and others may need to get up, shower and get properly dressed to get anything done, even if they never leave their front door. ''

9. Try a uniform

It works for Mark Zuckerberg (grey T-shirt) and it worked for President Obama (blue or grey suit) during his eight years in the White House. The theory is that wearing the same thing day after day frees up the brainpower you would have put into picking out an outfit to make other decisions, Mair explains. (“I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing,” Obama told Vanity Fair in 2012. “I have too many other decisions to make.”)

For others the strategy boosts confidence, Mair adds. They know what works and they stick with it. But rest assured fashionistas, it’s not necessarily a winning strategy for everyone. Remember: you do you.

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