What We Wear to Work//

How to Dress for Work When Going Through a Difficult Time

Outfit choices can have dramatic effects on a person’s psychology and well-being.

Image by Sean Gladwell/ Getty Images

The culture of work is changing, and with it, our office dress codes. As companies encourage staffers to bring their whole selves to work — and people embrace style repeats and “personal uniforms” in an effort to de-stress workwear — Thrive decided to take a deeper look into how what we wear to work affects our mental well-being, creativity, productivity, and authenticity. We welcome you to take a spin through our special section: The Psychology of What We Wear to Work


I survived relationship abuse, and it completely changed how I thought about my clothes and how I present myself. I went from planning my wedding with the love of my life, to suffering abuse at the hands of that same person, within a matter of hours. When I looked in the mirror, I could see that suddenly my personal dreams were shattered.

What do people normally do when they experience a traumatic life event like this? At least for me, I knew I had to dress up and show up for school and work. I opened my dresser drawers and closet to pull out one of my favorite outfits. I went through each piece of clothing I owned, meticulously mulling over how each look would make me feel during the next day of school and work. I settled on a floral dress with beige gloves. I figured that flowers could lift the spirits of any woman, and I desperately needed that.

I pranced to school and work in my floral dress with gloves to try to alleviate the confusion and disappointment I felt. My life had unraveled at the seams, and I felt naked in my pain. Still, I made it through the first day. I stuck to this same technique, only selecting and wearing clothing that boosted my mood. Most days, it was difficult for me to get out of bed, and I’d question why I had to go through such a traumatic life event. Truthfully, picking out an outfit that could boost my mood kept me going. Day after day, it facilitated my healing, and gave me a sense of control. Dressing in a way that brought me joy made me feel like I was the designer of my own life again.

For me, dressing to improve my mood was an emotional gut reaction that stemmed from my longtime fondness for fashion. I thought that if I felt good in my clothing, I would feel good about myself. Now, I call this mood enhancement dress: dressing to enhance one’s mood in a way that optimizes one’s current emotional state. Science backs this up: Research conducted at Queensland Australia found that when women dressed in a garment that they liked, their mood improved, even when they did not feel good internally.

Truthfully, mood enhancement dress facilitated my healing. Wearing brighter colors, tall heels, and makeup, was for me an act of self care. Often, when we are faced with struggles, we are still required to work — just like I was after I was abused. Dressing up your pain by utilizing what we all have in our closets allows you to acknowledge and examine your emotional wounds — moving you from suffering to a sense of well-being. This epiphany had a ripple effect on my own healing, as well as my clients’ and students’ healing, all of which inspired my invention of the fashion psychology field.

I defined the field of fashion psychology as the study of how color, shape, style, and image affects human behavior, while addressing cultural norms and cultural sensitivities. In our careers, we sometimes can’t express our affect on our faces, but we can do so through our clothing to aid in our own self-healing.

Over the years, in seeing clients, I noticed that after most people experience a traumatic life event, they tend to dress in darker colors at their place of work. They would dress in a way that expressed their melancholy, reflecting their current emotional states.

For example, a former client of mine who had experienced a divorce might still wear his normal suit and tie, but would miss a button or two, or would not notice his shirt was untucked. This particular client felt visibly overwhelmed, and could no longer worry about the small things. He felt his problems were massive, and the last thing that he wanted to worry about was a button on his shirt. Looking in the mirror for this client was a reminder of who he had become, a divorcé — separated from his spouse and children, unhappily and unexpectedly alone.

In working with this client, I educated him on dressing to improve his mood, as I had done in my own life, and he began to do it. Indeed, focusing on taking the time to meticulously button each button of his shirt allowed him to gain a sense of control. Tucking in his shirt in a thoughtful 360 degree motion also manifested that control. Although everything was chaotic, this invoked a sense of mindfulness, focusing on what was occurring in that precise moment. Eventually, learning to label his feelings and selecting clothing as a mood booster created another way to move through the traumatic event of divorce instead of being immobilized by it.

In working with my clients, I now realize that many people communicate their trauma through their clothing. And by attending to that trauma, and deliberately choosing ensembles that bring people smiles, instead of allow them to wallow in suffering, outfit choices can have dramatic effects on a person’s psychology and well-being. 

Follow us on Facebook for all the latest news on how you can keep Thriving.

More on the Psychology of What We Wear to Work:

7 Lessons from Jonathan Van Ness and DVF About Life, Confidence and Fashion

5 Fashion Tips to Get Out the Door 20 Minutes Faster

Rethinking Your Work Style After Maternity Leave 

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres. We publish pieces written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Learn more or join us as a community member!
Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.