Can the Clothes You Wear to Work Make You Happier on the Job?

As office dress codes loosen, deciding how to dress at work has become even more complicated. Thrive Global and The Business of Fashion surveyed 2,700 people to explore the psychology of workwear.

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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.

For this editorial feature, Thrive partnered with The Business of Fashion (BoF), the leading digital authority on the global fashion industry, to survey 2,700 professionals about how the way people dress for work affects their psychology.

When analyst-turned-entrepreneur Sarah Miyazawa LaFleur launched MM.LaFleur in 2013, she and designer Miyako Nakamura dreamed up “Samantha,” a 35-year-old human rights lawyer modelled on Samantha Power, the diplomat who went on to serve as the US Ambassador to the United Nations during President Barack Obama’s second term.

By 2017, MM.LaFleur was generating north of $70 million in sales, up from $30 million a year earlier. However, its wasn’t just Samantha shopping.

“Initially, when I launched the business, I thought the target customer would be someone in her late-20s, early-30s, a lawyer-banker type working in a traditionally corporate environment. One of the things that has caught me by surprise is just how different she turned out to be,” LaFleur said. “When we look at our customer, we actually have equal distribution from age 25 all the way up to 55.”

And it’s not just age that varies. As the way people dress in their everyday lives has become increasingly casual, the wardrobe needs of working professionals have become increasingly disparate. While wearing jeans on days other than Fridays may be more accepted now than it was 10 years ago in some workplaces, there are certain professions where one must always wear a suit.

But what does “wear to work” mean in 2018? Thrive Global partnered with The Business of Fashion — the leading digital authority on the global fashion industry — to survey 2,700 people from more than 20 countries about their work-clothes habits. The mostly female respondents represented a broad swath of the population. While over 60 percent were between 25 and 44 years old, over 10 percent were over 55. In terms of annual salary, they’re making anywhere from under $50,000 to over $200,000 (with the largest chunk, 26 percent, making between 100 and 200K). More than 28 percent are working in “management, business and finance,” nearly 12 percent in “technology” and 18 percent in “sales and marketing.” About two-thirds define their roles as mid or senior-level.

While some of the findings were expected — nearly 60 percent of respondents said that their workplace dress code is “informal,” and a little more than that say they wear “business casual” attire to work — more than 44 percent still do not wear sleeveless clothing to the office. Nearly 37 percent wear “flat but professional” shoes to work, while sneakers or high heels were each the choice of about 15 percent.

In the beginning, MM.LaFleur was squarely focused on business-casual attire: sharp trousers, pretty blouses and sleek shift dresses. This year, LaFleur launched two new categories — creative casual and formal suiting — in order to meet the needs of a broader spectrum of professionals. For instance, female lawyers living in conservative cities or towns may be required to wear a skirt suit — not a pant suit — to court. And for women who work in industries where dress codes are loose, there’s a confusion around what work clothes should look like.

“We were meeting a lot of women in tech who were saying, ‘I don’t want to go to work in jeans and a hoodie, but if I dress up too formally, people think that I’m interviewing somewhere,’” LaFleur said. “At the same time, we had a fervent fanbase asking for suiting because these women can’t show up in court without a proper suit. That’s a story that doesn’t get told because it’s not a sexy story…but the need is definitely there.”

While demand for formal workwear is shrinking in the wake of the casualization of the workplace, (the global market for women’s suits, for example, is waning), over 62 percent of survey respondents still believe the idiom “dress for the job you want, not the one you have,” still holds true in most industries.

With that said, 83 percent say the dress code in their office or industry has loosened up over the years, and only 27 percent say their boss dresses more formally than they do (51 percent say they dress similarly with their boss). All told, it makes sense that workers are confused about what to wear.

And that confusion may not bode well for people’s contentment at work. The survey results also indicate that what people are wearing to work deeply affects their happiness and fulfillment in their jobs — either positively or negatively, depending on whether they believe they can be their authentic selves at work.

Of the survey respondents who say they don’t feel happy and fulfilled at work, nearly double (55 percent, compared to an overall 29 percent) feel the way they dress at work does not represent their true/full personality.

And of those who say their attire has positively affected their career advancement, 66 percent believe the way they dress at work represents their true selves.

Whether they dress as their authentic selves or not, consumers continue to spend real money on their professional wardrobes. Over 29 percent of respondents said they’ve spent $500 or more on work clothes over the past six months, with 19 percent claiming $300-$499 and 20 percent estimating $200-$299. Only 14 percent said they spent less than $99. Over half said they believe they spend an appropriate amount.

And the constant pressure to keep up with trends and wear new clothes to every meeting and presentation can also weigh on workers, especially women, 49 percent of whom reported that they have felt self-conscious about repeating outfits at work.

“What will never go away, regardless of what happens in the workspace, is a lot of the angst and anxiety over what to wear to work,” LaFleur believes.

Because the survey findings indicate that reduced anxiety about workwear correlates to more happiness and fulfilment on the job, it’s important to keep that angst to a minimum.

One simple way to do this is by repeating outfits. It’s a way for women to close the “style gap,” a discrepancy in which men are able to repeat clothes without judgment. Just a few suits can easily get men through most of the formal events and workdays of their lives, while many women don’t feel they have same privilege. This discrepancy puts extra pressure on women, adding the burden of constant shopping and outfit assembly to their mental and financial loads. Plenty of female thought leaders are joining the repeat movement as well: Thrive founder Arianna Huffington, Kate Middleton, Tiffany Haddish, Padma Lakshmi and Diane von Furstenberg among them. Indeed, von Furstenberg told Thrive that embracing style repeats is a sign of developing a strong personal style.

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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

I’ve Dressed for Work as a Man and as a Woman — Here’s What I’ve Learned

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