It’s fairly well known that how you dress for work can increase your chances of success. While everyone should be treated equally regardless of fashion, in many situations how you are dressed matters. At a professional conference, a woman in business casual attire seems more important than a woman in yoga pants. In a business meeting, a man in a suit is taken more seriously than a man in jeans and a t-shirt.

Does the better-dressed person actually deserve the extra level of respect? It turns out that they just might. A new study from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University shows that when people dress up for a role, they actually become better at it.

In an experiment, a number of people were given a series of cognitive tests to perform. A small group of subjects were given medical lab coats to wear over their clothes. This group made only half as many mistakes on the tests as the subjects wearing their street clothes.

Researchers conclude that clothing “systematically influences wearers’ psychological processes.” That is to say that if you feel like you are dressed smarter and more professionally, you will actually act smarter and more professionally. The subjects in the lab coats took a more methodical and scientific approach to problem solving, and cut their errors in half.

So should you start wearing a suit to work every day? Study author, Adam Galinsky says maybe: “If you associate those clothes with power and confidence, it’s going to have a huge impact on your performance,” he says. But not everyone has that same association for power suits, so it really comes down to what Galinsky calls “the symbolic meaning of the clothes is to the person.”

Dressing in what you perceive to be the clothing of the most well-regarded and competent person for a role will have a psychological effect on you, allowing you to actually perform as a more competent person in that role.

So while in many workplaces it’s perfectly acceptable to wear jeans, not all jeans are created equal. A worn-out, torn, stained, ill-fitting or outdated pair won’t help how you’re perceived or how you perform.

So the next time you’re heading out to work without shaving or in the wrinkled shirt you pulled out of a pile on the floor, remember that you may be perceived as less professional or competent because of your appearance. And that perception may even have some truth to it. Your clothes don’t define who you are as a person, but they do have a powerful influence over how you feel and act.


Peter Harris