We are living in unprecedented times, still in the midst of a global pandemic. Who could have imagined in our own lifetime that we would find ourselves under enforced lockdown with the majority of us working remotely? Lee Osborne investigates how elevating your dress sense can actually help improve your performance when working from home.
It’s easy to slip into the habit of rolling out of bed in the morning straight in front of your laptop and starting work. While it may be super comfortable to lounge in your PJ’s, it’s been scientifically proven that it can actually be counterproductive to your working day. That’s not to say you have to go into full-on three-piece suit and tie mode, but dressing as though you are actually going to the office really helps your brain differentiate between work mode, and home mode.
As a freelancer myself for the past 4 years, this is something I can personally relate to. I would like to think my colleagues classify me as a well-turned-out guy, but I do it for myself, not to show off to other people. It’s something I’ve become really accustomed to doing, and for me, a jacket and trousers have become a bit of a uniform that I feel very comfortable in. It undoubtedly kick-starts my day. On the odd occasion I’ve found myself untying my tie mid-way through the day, I’ve mentally felt myself switching off.
You should aim for a sartorial middle ground - aspire to a kind of quarantine chic and you won’t go far wrong. Tailoring doesn’t have to mean restrictive suiting, there are so many options available now which straddle the athleisure/tailoring divide. Soft tailoring really lends itself well to WFH. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, please allow me to elaborate.
A soft jacket has its origins in Neapolitan tailoring (ideally cut to allow a bit of extra room to reach and move around comfortably) with a lightweight canvas or even none at all can bridge the gap. Basically, any type of jacket with lapels will make you appear as though you’re more dressed-up, but instead of a more business-like jacket with traditional pockets and starched cotton shirt, swap it out for a patch pocket version with a semi-cutaway jersey knit worn open-necked without a tie.
The same goes for trousers. Instead of a pair of traditional suit trousers with a belt that will no doubt be digging into you, a pair of tailored drawstring (bear with me) trousers fit the bill perfectly. Soft tailoring definitely impacts your mood and leaves you feeling more at ease and professional. Once your brain is free from the worry of discomfort, believe me, the work will flow more freely. But you’re not just limited to suiting. Even a button-down Oxford shirt with a sweater straddling the shoulders and a pair of chinos, worn with shoes (yes, guys, humour me) - think suede loafers or brogues - very important you don’t revert to carpet slippers as these will dispel the myth.
For the more creative, daring types, a camp collar shirt (a shirt with a relaxed collar that sits flat against your skin) and Gurkha trousers are a great, slightly less formal without sacrificing the elegance, alternative - the side fasteners really come into their own in the comfort stakes particularly after you’ve desecrated that latest pack of biscuits.
Q&A with Rikesh Chauhan
Social Media Manager & Photographer at The Rake
Chauhan helped pioneer the #RakesAtHome movement during lockdown. Readers of the magazine, including myself, were encouraged to upload images of themselves in their WFH finery on Instagram, under the banner “Another week, another set of brilliant working from home looks”.
1. Have you been surprised by some of the great looks generated by your #RakesAtHome hashtag?
I wasn't massively surprised, no. We were fairly comfortable with launching this campaign based on the amount of imagery we would normally get tagged in. A lot of our followers are immaculately put together, so we were hopeful that the looks would naturally come through. What I was surprised by, however, was the variety of looks, particularly the paired back ones. It's incredible how items that are generally so straightforward, can look so interesting when the little details are paid attention to - colour matching, texture mixing, and especially how clothing fits and drapes. Scrolling through the hashtag is becoming a good time pass.
2. Talk me through your own ‘RikeshAtHome’ ensembles during lockdown...
My whole premise was, what would I wear if I were actually going into the office today? Given that I don't own a great deal of loungewear, it was harder for me to properly dress down, and plus, my shirts, trousers etc., I've spent a long while curating and it's all very comfortable. If it wasn't, it wouldn’t be in my wardrobe.
Some of my favourite looks would have to be the outfit shown below on the left - I love the versatility of larger pocket squares, and the colour palette for me was the thing that made it all click. Similar colours but a lot more relaxed, I love a knitwear-tailoring combo as seen in the middle image. And then on the smarter side, the majority of my shirts and ties are made by Turnbull & Asser (having worked there for two and a bit years prior to The Rake), and these burgundy pieces are some of my favourites - the contrast works beautifully when worn with my peak lapel DB jacket by Gieves & Hawkes.
3. Do you find dressing more smartly WFH helps you to be more productive as opposed to lounging in PJ’s?
For sure. It helps a lot with my mental health, too. I wrote a piece for CALM (a suicide prevention charity I've been an ambassador for since 2011) on the ups and downs of dressing up and down. To me, the way you dress can set you up for your day - similarly to making your bed. It's the first thing off your checklist, a little accomplishment to set you up for the remainder. It can boost your confidence, and make you feel good about yourself. Just because you don't have anywhere to go, doesn't mean you have to stop making an effort. I purposely don't own a lot of loungewear because, prior to the lock down, I would hardly be at home anyway, and I generally don't like days where I'm doing nothing with my time. Best left for when I'm a little bit older, I feel!
The Rake aren’t the only ones to have showcased WFH attire. If like many people, you have forgotten what it feels like to actually get dressed properly, then look no further than @wfhfits on Instagram. Scrolling through its feed will provide much needed style inspiration for all of us currently under enforced house arrest. What’s more, Working From Home Fits has racked up an impressive 23k followers since it launched in March - there’s hope for us all.
But don’t just take my word for it, there is a science behind all of this. Something experts refer to as ‘Enclothed cognition’ - the effects of clothing on the cognitive process, which can be defined as the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.
Cognitive processes use existing knowledge and generate new knowledge. The findings, published in July 2012 by Dr. Galinsky of The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, reveal that we think not just with our brains but with our bodies. Our thought processes are based on actual physical experiences that trigger associated abstract concepts, including those experiences surrounding the clothes we wear.
It has been a long-held belief that clothing affects how other people perceive us as well as how we think about ourselves. But the deeper question is how significantly does the clothing you wear affect your psychological processes? Does your outfit alter how you approach and interact with the world?
Dr. Galinsky and his colleague Hajo Adam assembled a group of 74 students and randomly assigned them to one of three different experiments in which the clothes did not vary but their symbolic meaning was manipulated: wearing a doctor’s coat, wearing a painter’s coat or simply seeing a doctor’s coat. Each group then underwent an exam which monitored their sustained attention: two pictures were placed side-by-side on a monitor in a spot-the-difference type scenario. The students were asked to observe four minor differences in the two images and to write them down as speedily as they could.
The results made for some interesting reading. Those who wore the doctor’s coat, which was identical to the painter’s coat, found more differences. They had acquired heightened attention just by the association of wearing the doctor’s coat. Those who wore the painter’s coat or were primed with merely seeing the doctor’s coat found fewer differences between the images.
A further experiment explored this priming effect more thoroughly. The scientists were keen to ascertain whether simply by seeing a physical item, such as a doctor’s coat, could affect the participant’s behaviour. Students either wore a doctor’s coat or a painter’s coat or were told to observe a doctor’s lab coat displayed on the desk in front of them for a sustained period of time. All three groups compiled essays recording their thoughts on the coats, before being tested once again for their powers of sustained attention.
Again, the group that wore the doctor’s coats showed the greatest improvement in attention. “You have to wear the coat, actually see and feel it on your body for it to influence your psychological processes”, Dr. Galinsky said. “Clothes invade the body and brain, placing the wearer into a different psychological state.”
These same principles of science can of course be applied to WFH. While you’re not going to be donning a doctor’s coat unless you’re a trained physician, the donning of a smarter jacket instead of a threadbare sweatshirt will reap similar dividends.
Those who’ve ever witnessed watching the rehearsal process of a play will be familiar with just how powerful clothes can be. As business professionals ourselves, we can actually glean a lot from this too. Even in the early stages of a project, actors, with script in hand will often don something as simple as a bandana or a hat to help them feel more in character and achieve the desired swagger for the particular part they play. The closer they get to opening night, dress rehearsals in real costumes come in to play, and it’s amazing how the right choice of clothes can help elevate performance to a whole new level.
Dressing for Success
Dressing for success has been a topic explored in numerous studies. One, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2014, even revealed that men wearing informal clothes had lower testosterone levels than those in formal business attire, and were found to secure less profitable business deals as a result.
Of course, dressing more elegantly is also important for your confidence and self-empowerment. But your style does more than just send messages, to your mind or to others. Research shows it actually impacts how you think. One study conducted in 2015 by a team of psychological scientists from California State University, Northridge and Columbia University found that professional dress increases abstract thinking and gives people a broader perspective. So that tie (even if it’s a more relaxed, slightly more loosely fastened silk knit) might actually be switching on your creativity button.
"The formality of clothing might not only influence the way others perceive a person, and how people perceive themselves but could influence decision making in important ways through its influence on processing style," the study found. Clothing impacts our thinking.
Professional attire creates social distance, a term du jour we have come to accept as the norm in these times of lockdown, but as fashion history attests, the art of social distancing began long before the outbreak of Covid-19. When we are more socially distant, i.e. as we are right now, working from home, typically on our own, we tend to think in more distant, abstract terms.
Study authors Michael Slepian, Simon Ferber, Joshua Gold, and Abraham Rutchick conducted five experiments and discovered that dressing to impress actually enhanced people’s ability to engage in abstract thinking. Abstract thinking is the ability to understand concepts that are real, such as freedom or vulnerability, but which are not directly tied to concrete physical objects and experiences. As well as the ability to absorb information from our senses and make connections to the wider world.
“The formality of clothing might not only influence the way others perceive a person, and how people perceive themselves, but could influence decision making in important ways through its influence on processing style,” the researchers established.
Formal clothing is worn in settings that are explicitly non-intimate—essentially making formal items “socially distant” clothing.
“Specifically, as formal clothing is associated with enhanced social distance, we propose that wearing formal clothing will enhance abstract cognitive processing,” the researchers reported in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
In one series of experiments, students, turned out in their everyday clothes, were asked to rate the formality of their attire relative to those of their colleagues. They then performed a series of standardised tests to measure their cognitive processing style.
The students were given a list of actions and asked to choose between abstract and concrete explanations for the action. For example, the description for ‘‘voting’’ could be either a broad term for ‘‘influencing the election’’ or a more concrete interpretation as ‘‘marking a ballot.’’
Even after controlling for socioeconomic status, students who wore more formal clothing displayed a stronger preference towards abstract processing.
In another experiment, 54 college students were asked to bring two sets of clothing to the laboratory for a study based on how people form impressions simply based on clothing.
The formal attire was described as being something the student might typically wear to a job interview, while the more casual set would be more typical of something the student would wear in a classroom type scenario. Students were randomly assigned to either change into their formal or casual clothes.
A test of the students cognitive processing ensued, in order to determine whether they were more focused on the big picture or the finer details. Students were shown a series of large letters incorporated by smaller letters (a large letter L or H composed of eight smaller L’s and H’s) and challenged to identify each stimulus as either the big letter or the series of small letters using a computer keyboard.
Unsurprisingly, students who wore more formal clothing favoured global processing (the big letters) over local processing (the smaller letters) more often than the students wearing their ordinary everyday clothes.
So it appears that processing style can actually influence many important aspects in the workplace, from the way we approach decisions to the way we focus on a specific task.
As one full-time freelancer to another, here are three reasons why you should dress to impress (even just for yourself) when working from home.
1. It Affects Our Self-image
Whether we like it or not, people judge us on how we present yourselves, even on a zoom call. What we wear, how we wear it, our personal habits and so on. Everyone does it subconsciously. If we spend day after day hunched over our laptops in sloppy clothes then we tend to personify that same sloppiness ourselves.
2. It Makes You Impromptu-call Ready
What happens if your boss rings for an unscheduled impromptu catch up? By making yourself presentable each morning, you don’t run the risk of scrambling to look presentable for that Zoom conference call or Teams meeting or be embarrassed to encounter the postman or delivery driver at the front door for that matter..
3. It Boosts Your Productivity
Workplace dress codes are often put in place to help influence outsiders’ perception of a company and its employees. These same principles can be applied at home. Suits, even more softly-tailored ones, or sports jackets worn with separates, exude a certain power and professionalism, while khakis and a camp collar Hawaiian shirt can communicate a fun and informal mindset.
The bottom line is that what you wear while working from home can either help or hinder your productivity. If you associate relaxation with pajamas, you’ll probably end up slacking off while working in them. If you dress the part, you may find yourself more easily fulfilling your daily tasks.
As the fashion industry as a whole struggles to cope with the impact of Covid-19, we should make it our civil duty to shop online and support small businesses in these dark times. Look at it this way. The money you’ve saved on those monthly season tickets and all those daily caffeine hits and beers after work can go towards sharpening up your wardrobe. And you’ll be doing your bit to help save the economy in the process.
Lee Osborne is a men's style writer, photographer and blogger.
He is founding editor of Sartorialee: dressing the globe-trotting man