Every self-employed person talks about the joy of wearing your pajamas to work. As a business owner, I was happy in my comfy pants and T-shirts—until I read a study indicating that dressing up can change the way you think and work.
The researchers concluded that wearing formal clothing enhanced abstract thinking and created more social distance. Sharpening my thinking was appealing, but as an executive coach, the idea of social distance concerned me. In order to be effective, I need to access my emotions and connect with others. Still, the lure of feeling more professional and shifting in my thinking was appealing, so I decided to test this out myself by dressing up for 30 days.
I’m not the first self-employed person to give this a try but, unlike many people who work from home and can wear whatever they please, I knew my wardrobe choices would be more public. I regularly conduct video calls and meet clients in person, too.
I also work in technology, an industry known for its hoodies and dressed-down culture, where a T-shirt is typical and a button-down with non-jeans considered formal. A Twitter poll I ran confirmed this: 85% of respondents said they never wear a suit or blazer.
Given that my work isn’t technical, I’ve often used my clothing to demonstrate that I fit in. Rather than dress up, I tend to dress down—along with everyone else. I was concerned that I would stand out, signaling that I didn’t belong. This experiment would likely kick my imposter syndrome into high gear.
For 30 days I wore formal clothing every day, even if I was alone in my office working on client deliverables. I interpreted this to mean “real” pants (no jeans), a blazer, and a shirt that wasn’t a T-shirt. I also picked out shoes for every outfit, but didn’t wear them in the apartment since I live above neighbors and I didn’t want to annoy them. (I’m all for increasing productivity, but it’s not worth starting a war in my apartment building.)
The first day I put on a dark blue plaid suit jacket with a crisp long-sleeve shirt and matching slacks. Despite the soft and flexible fabric, I felt wildly uncomfortable. On my first video call, my colleague mentioned my look immediately: “You’re wearing a suit?! Did you just have a meeting with a bunch of bankers?”
My fear of looking out of place had materialized and I hadn’t even finished one day of the experiment. While I laughed it off and continued our conversation, the worry that I didn’t fit in lingered. Given the norms of my industry, this experiment wasn’t just psychological. It was also sociological. It’s not just about dressing up for yourself; it’s how also about how it makes others feel when you do.
The next day was focused on writing and deliverable work. Despite this, I dutifully got dressed in a pair of linen pants, a blouse, and a suit jacket. I even put on jewelry. I immediately felt different—more serious somehow. I sat down and got right to work, even forgetting to eat breakfast. Although I generally find it easy to motivate myself, I do get distracted at times. That day, however, I was focused and productive. But I still felt hyper-aware of my outfit choices. Even though no one else mentioned my clothes, I couldn’t help but notice that no one else was wearing a blazer on any of my video calls.
The second week I had an in-person meeting with the CEO of a startup. Since he was speaking at a conference, he was dressed nicely too. We connected right away; there was no social distance. While we had much in common, I wondered if it was also because we were both dressed formally.
This was something I thought about a lot during this period. I was worried that my jacket and heels would make people think I was an outsider, despite the fact that I’ve worked in tech for years. When I met with others who were more casually dressed, I fought the urge to remove my blazer so I would look cooler or more approachable.
My social anxiety about being out of place remained throughout the experiment. Though I tried to resist, at times on calls I admitted that I was dressing this way as an experiment, rather than just owning it. My fear of putting a distance between myself and others was just too strong.
What I learned
There were many positives: I felt less distracted, and putting on a suit was a helpful way to tell myself that it was time to get serious about work. I found that I was still just as able to access my emotions with clients, even while being uncomfortable in a suit.
One unexpected benefit was that I found I didn’t swear as much. This is a habit that I’ve been trying to break, as I think can be off-putting and even more unprofessional than dressing too casually.
There were downsides, too, though. I can’t say that I noticed any difference in my abstract thinking. Worse, dressing this way sometimes made me feel anxious and socially unsure, which was an unfamiliar feeling for me. Rather than feeling more professional, I often just felt awkward. Perhaps if I worked in a field like finance or law, where true business casual is the norm, I would have felt more comfortable and experienced more of the benefits formal dress is supposed to bring.
In the end, this experiment made me think a lot about what formal wear signals to others. While we might choose to dress up to show our credibility or to give ourselves a confidence boost, what might we lose in connecting with others—especially if they’re dressed more casually? Because of this, I don’t think I’ll switch to dressing up all the time. But I might just pull out a blazer the next time I really want to focus.