This is a story of sartorial glory and dressing for success, yet not to impress the boss or anyone in your office. It’s a tale for the internally driven and the growing number of us who work from home.
Last year, more than 5% of US employees worked from home full-time. A 2016 survey of 15,000 people found that 43% of workers spent at least a part of their time working remotely. That means nearly half of us could labor naked if we chose to do so. No one would ever know.
So why bother getting dressed?
Clothes do not truly make the man or the woman. Still, psychologists have found that what we wear impacts our thinking. A 2015 study in Social Psychological and Personality Science measured how subjects performed on a series of five cognitive tests when dressed in both formal and casual clothing. Dressing elegantly, it turns out, increased abstract thinking, which is associated with creativity and long-term strategizing.
Researchers believe that the reason for the improved performance in formal clothing is that people simply feel more powerful and capable when dressed for business. “The findings demonstrate that…the clothing worn influences cognition broadly, impacting the processing style that changes how objects, people, and events are construed,” they conclude.
Style and substance are intertwined. Form and function work together on an unconscious level. Besides sending signals to others, what we wear influences self-perception, so wherever you work and whether or not anyone shares the space, it’s worth trying to make a good impression on the one person you’ll never escape—you.
The associations we make with garments affect cognitive processes, a phenomenon psychologists in 2012 named “enclothed cognition.” Wearing certain things gives us a sense of competence, and even how an item is characterized will change the way we perform in it.
Call a white cotton smock a doctor’s lab coat and people feel more focused, according to a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Yet the same garb, dubbed a “painter’s smock,” made subjects no more focused than they had been wearing street clothes. “[E]nclothed cognition involves the co-occurrence of two independent factors—the symbolic meaning of the clothes and the physical experience of wearing them,” the researchers argue.
If you work from home, wearing a lab coat would feel absurd. And donning a three-piece suit to sit alone at a computer is absolutely unnecessary. Indeed, that level of elegance isn’t called for in almost any setting today, given the casual tendencies of the postmodern workplace.
Silicon Valley in the 1980s brought us not only new technology but the advent of “business casual,” a relaxed approach to workwear that transformed our idea of power dressing. Looking like a billion bucks does not require a business suit anymore. Tech magnates don’t dress up (except when testifying in Congress). They wear turtlenecks, expensive T-shirts and hoodies, or increasingly, vests.
Meanwhile, the rest of us have taken a cue from these dudes who profess not to care about how they dress. For example, Katie Notpoulos of Buzzfeed News tried a one-week experiment wearing a “power vest” to see if it would make her feel like a “tech bro.”
It didn’t work. ”Instead of feeling powerful, I felt like a fucking dork,” she writes. “I’m not the most fashionable person in the world, but I like to look nice and I care about clothes. A good outfit can make me feel good, and wearing a blazer makes me feel professional.” She decided the power vest is a form of male privilege.
As a vest-wearing woman, I have to disagree with this conclusion specifically but not the underlying sentiment. I see Notpoulos’ angle on blazers (wear one over a power vest!) and certainly agree that what works for Jeff Bezos doesn’t necessarily work for the rest of us, especially not women.
Notably, even the seeming carelessness of Silicon Valley superstars is contrived, as stylist to the tech set, Victoria Hitchcock, tells Vox. Her clients spend thousands of dollars to be coached in the art of ”effortless style.” They hire her to create a wardrobe that only seems uncontrived but is actually carefully studied.
“I want my clients to look like they don’t care,” Hitchcock explains. Yet she also wants them to understand that being invested in their appearance isn’t stupid or superficial. It is life-affirming.
The spirituality of superficiality
As Hitchcock points out, dressing well is a recognition of personal value. You could dress to impress your colleagues and probably pull off going to meetings in your underwear with just a shirt on if you work from home. But doing so robs you of the power that a good outfit provides.
It’s also living a lie, as if we exist only in the eyes of others, as if we need to dupe people into believing we’ve got it together while secretly being whatever it is you are when you work in your skivvies. If anything, it’s more important to have a personal sense of order than it is to prove to anyone else that you are somehow normal or appropriate.
Your colleagues probably don’t mind if you wear a ball gown and tiara, a tuxedo or boxers, or your pajamas. But we don’t exist for others to approve of us. Ideally, we do the things we do to impress ourselves and be our best, to express a sense of inherent dignity, whether in a T-shirt and jeans, a power vest, or a dress.
I’ve worked at home full-time for more than two years and no editor will ever know what I wore while drafting stories. The creatures that do see me—a cat, a dog, and a man–do not visibly pass judgment. Still, I get dressed every morning, donning my uniform of the moment. Usually it’s just jeans and a button-down shirt purchased in four different versions which I switch every few months—my last few phases were flowered, all white, then pastels, and I’m currently into overpriced striped T-shirts. Sometimes I wear a dress to sit alone at a desk where no one will see me, and like the lab-coat experiment, I’ll also don a blazer on occasion to adopt a professorial or lawyerly mindset or to channel the writer Ray Bradbury.
Even if my colleagues saw my look, they would probably not be impressed, nor would it register as dressing for work necessarily. That’s not the point. My uniform, though simple, works for me. It demarcates the line between night and day, rest and labor. It imposes order, sends my mind a signal. It’s like making the bed in the morning, brushing my teeth or washing my face, a way to mark the official start of the day.
Clothes serve as meditative aids. Getting dressed is like ringing a meditation bell. The superficial is spiritual. According to the Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa in his classic book Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, caring for oneself and one’s appearance recognizes that the gift of existence involves upkeep. It’s not egotistical as much as it is mindful—and it doesn’t matter what we wear as long as we choose our clothes carefully.
The 17th century Japanese poet Ueshima Onitsura didn’t dress for anyone else. In a haiku, he put it best. “Though I have no lover, I too rejoice: the change of clothes.”