You may think what you wear when you work from home doesn’t matter, but fashion experts say you’re wrong and science agrees. What we wear can have a big impact on how we and others feel about us—even if we only interact through a screen.
Research shows our clothes have the power to make us feel more competent and authoritative and even more trustworthy. What we wear also plays a role in how capable people think we are at our jobs. This is called the white-coat effect and has been largely studied in medical settings, where research shows white coats make doctors seem more professional, friendly, and experienced. The results strongly oppose our widely-held belief that what we put on our bodies doesn’t affect the way we perceive ourselves or others in a workspace.
“Fashion is our second skin. It enables us to construct and express our identity,” says Carolyn Mair, a behavioral psychologist and the author of The Psychology of Fashion. “As well as being functional and protective, clothing is the vehicle by which we promote ourselves to others.”
But in spite of knowing the power of the clothes on our backs, many of us haven’t updated our wardrobes to account for the fact that we might never physically go back to the workplace. Experts say it’s time to do just that—ditch those forgotten office clothes, but also those sweatpants you’ve probably been wearing for the past two years.
Decide who you want to be at work, in three words
Even if you are working from your kitchen table, you can decide who you want to be as a worker, and clothes can help you play that part. Nearly a decade ago, Northwestern University researchers determined that clothes can have symbolic meaning and make us embody the garments we wear. Jammie Baker, a personal stylist who moved from styling celebrities for commercials and the red carpet in Hollywood to working with mothers, uses this theory to guide her fashion advice.
“Even our basic abilities can be improved based on what we are wearing,” she says. “[We need to] take the time to be intentional about putting on clothes that represent who we want to be and how we want to show up.”
Data back up Baker’s approach. A 2015 study found that formal clothes can help you think more critically and creatively, while another from 2014 found that wearing a suit can lead to more successful negotiations and fewer concessions.
Baker recommends choosing three adjectives that represent who you want to be at work and editing your closet to reflect that. If you aren’t sure of your words, consider borrowing a few from Baker’s clients to get started. They strive to choose clothes that make them feel:
To make sure your three words work for you, Baker recommends looking beyond how an outfit looks and focusing on how it makes you feel.
“Nobody else can tell you if the outfit aligns with your three words, but you will know how you feel,” she says. “It takes some practice to connect the adjectives to the outfits, but after a little practice, aligning the two becomes a habit and a way to stay intentional about curating your closet and getting dressed.”
Stop forcing your clothes to multitask
If you are struggling to find the perfect work outfit, it might be because we usually need our work-from-home clothes to serve many purposes—you might want to walk the dog right after a meeting, or wash a load of laundry between deadlines. But expecting so much from our clothes is a mistake.
Baker says the “take the outfit from day to night” concept really doesn’t work, because workwear and streetwear fulfill many different purposes. This is especially true if you are working from home permanently. The key to solving this problem is choosing outfits you can easily transform with a few changes.
“I can wear pull-on trousers, a cami, and a knit blazer versus a super structured blazer, and I can go on a walk by popping off my flats and putting on some sneakers.” She is an advocate of choosing work-appropriate shoes over slippers, but what that means exactly can differ from person to person. It might be flats or a more stylized pair of sneakers—what’s important is that it aligns with who you want to be at work.
To make things easier, Baker suggests separating our loungewear from our workwear in our closets so we aren’t confused or tempted to go for cozy over more work-appropriate clothing choices—whatever that may be for you.
Use clothes to signify the work day’s start and end
One of the biggest conundrums of the work-from-home era is the blurred lines that separate work from personal life—if you work where you live, how do you know when to stop working? Well, clothes might be able to help.
Creating a routine to start and end your day with a clear beginning and ending time helps create separation between your work and home life, even if you never physically leave. Part of that ritual might involve changing, or showering before or after work and putting on clean clothes rather than pajamas.
But this doesn’t mean you need to wear uncomfortable clothes during work hours just to have some sense of relief when they’re over. Baker recommends going for comfortable pull-on work trousers that feel like casual pants but look more put together than sweats—they should have structure and the comfort of a fitted jogger. She suggests something like Everlane’s Dream Pant for women, while men can find multiple options with brands such as Express, J.Crew, or Mr. Porter.
Pay attention to your neckline
We’ve been staring at our own faces, necks, and shoulders for two long years now. Luckily, we’ve learned a lot from it, and Baker says we now have more specific tips for what looks best on video calls. These can help guide the move from snuggies toward a more definitive work-from-home closet.
For men, she recommends wearing a shirt and tie, but not every day. For women, she says V-neck or scoop neck style shirts look best on virtual calls. She says a crew neck isn’t the most flattering and can make you look like “a blob of clothing.”
Mair says people make judgments based on our appearance alone in under one second, and then seek evidence to support their preconceived notions.
“These judgments are often incorrect, but serve as an anchor for judgments about additional attributes,” she says.
Still, the most important thing is the way clothes make you feel and how they align with the person you want to be at work. Feeling good in our clothes gives us confidence, which then shines through our actions.