The Symbolism of Workplace Attire

Clothes communicate a message both to yourself and to others.

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Based on research by H. Adam and Adam Galinsky

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, the market for men’s suits has decreased 8 percent since 2015. This downturn in sales backs up recent stories about the rise of not only business casual, but casual attire.

Even though office workers are changing their workplace wardrobe, there is one constant -- the symbolic value of clothes, which has long been an interest of Adam Galinsky, the Chair of Management Division and the Vikram S. Pandit Professor of Business. In a 2012 paper published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Galinsky and his co-author Hajo Adam now of University of Bath, coined a term, Enclothed Cognition, which describes the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes.

“With enclothed cognition, the key idea is not just the wearing of clothes, but the symbolic meaning of the clothes one is wearing,” Galinsky says.

The term grew out of a famous concept in psychology, embodied cognition.

“It is this idea that the way we move our bodies, or how we direct our gaze, affects the way we think, feel, and act” Galinsky says, “That is, changes in posture, or head tilt can affect or physical and psychological orientation.” Galinsky also cited as inspiration a classic study that found that when people smile, they feel happier and, conversely, when they frown they feel less happy.

Drawing on existing research, Galinsky and Adam performed a systematic test of the symbolic meaning of clothes using a plain white lab coat. The experiment involved 74 undergraduate students at a university in the Midwest who were told that officials across the United States were thinking about making certain kinds of clothes compulsory for various professions. After a pre-test, where the research demonstrated that people associate doctors as processing greater intentional focus, Galinsky then set up three different conditions for the study.

In one condition, participants put on a lab coat and were told it was something a doctor would wear. In another condition, participants put on the same lab coat, only this time they were told it was a painter’s coat, akin to a smock a studio artist would wear. In the last condition, the researchers displayed the same coat on a table and describe it as doctor’s coat. This design allowed them to test whether it was wearing the lab coat, describing the coat as a doctor’s coat or wearing a lab coat described as a doctor’s coat.

Galinsky discovered that only when participants were told it was a doctor’s coat and physically wore the coat, there was a greater capacity for intentional focus. “It is the combination of physically wearing that coat and the symbolic meaning,” Galinsky says. “That is enclothed cognition.”

Galinsky likened the effect of enclothed cognition to that of a uniform, particularly when seen through the lens of power and status.

“I think clothes are interesting because they are simultaneously communicating information to yourself and to other people,” Galinsky says. “When (someone) is wearing that doctor’s coat, their cognition is affected by enclothed cognition processes but other people are also interacting with them differently. Thus, the clothes we wear seep in to our own cognition, through our own psychological force, but also impacts us through interpersonal constraints or opportunities people give us on our clothes.”

The notion of enclothed cognition also provides insight into the changing norms in workplace attire especially in the tech world, where the heads of companies are often depicted in hoodies and other casual clothes.

“You can see the difference when a Wall Street executive walks into Facebook and they look like a fish out of water,’ Galinsky says. “It’s less so if Mark Zuckerberg walks into Goldman Sachs where Zuckerberg doesn’t look less foolish for wearing a hoodie. You can see the power and status of tech companies [reputation as] being the hip and desirable place to work.”

Galinsky says it is difficult to predict what will the next evolution of acceptable office wear is going to look like, but it’s like going to be an intersection of events and culture. “High end, strict attire changed when the financial crisis hit,” he says. “And maybe the hoodie outfit will lose its luster with Google and Facebook taking a beating with the misuse of data. That tech uniform may become stained.”

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