I kid you not: the dress code (or lack thereof) is one of the primary reasons I decided to take the plunge into freelance writing.
Sensitivity to uncomfortable clothing has always been one of my hallmark quirks and I was eager to let it thrive, unhindered by the corporate world’s stringent wardrobe standards. I mean, have you tried wearing a pencil skirt all day?
These days, I flutter home from my part-time job every afternoon with visions of leggings and sweatshirts dancing in my head. I stumble through the door of my apartment and make a beeline to the bedroom where my comfiest of clothing awaits. When I’ve settled on an outfit to whisk me off to writing-land, I plop down on the couch (gasp, how unprofessional!) and let my writing take flight. It seems my creativity and confidence are at their peak when, ironically, my clothing suggests I am at rock bottom.
Apparently, this is not how I “should” be doing things. Every single freelance advice-giving article I’ve read has urged me to dress for success and compartmentalize my work self from my home self.
Even my good friend, who was homeschooled for the entirety of her education, echoes this advice. Every single day, she woke up early and put on a tidy little outfit, sat at her desk and learned everything she needed to know to get a high school degree. Most days she looked even better than public-school-educated me. And she got better grades, too.
Could that have anything to do with her wardrobe choices? It turns out, multiple studies shout a resounding “YES.”
And there is even a name for it: enclothed cognition. The term describes “the systematic influence that clothes have on a wearer’s psychological processes” through both the “symbolic meaning of clothes and the physical experience of wearing them.” It was coined by Adam D. Galinsky and Hajo Adam, two researchers who studied this phenomenon. Their study found that selective attention was at a much higher level in participants wearing a lab coat versus participants wearing everyday attire.
Further, to prove the perceived symbolic importance of clothing, they dressed two groups of participants in lab coats, telling one that they were wearing doctor’s coats, and the other that they were wearing painter’s smocks. The “doctor” group was overwhelmingly more successful at sustaining their attention, while the “painter” group showed no improvement in attention span.
So, it’s proven, at least according to this study - clothing that you associate with productivity or intelligence will help you stay focused. But does that only mean a doctor’s coat? Or can we associate these traits with a something else, like a military uniform or even, dare I say, a painter’s smock? It’s more about context than the type of cut, material, or color.
When working from home, freelancers contend with a lack of motivation, the short commute that means it’s just as easy to go to bed as it is to work an extra hour, and attempts to stop working at five or six p.m. every evening.
Athleisure lover Stephanie Vozza challenged herself to a week of wearing only “office clothes” while working from home. She found that her outfits helped her maintain focus, and when she changed into casual clothes at five o’clock, she felt a distinct shift in her day. “Wearing work clothes, however, kept me in work mode. I felt more focused,” she wrote for Fast Company. It even curbed her urge to respond to after-hours emails, leading to an immediate improvement in her life’s balance.
While the clothes may have helped her, think of other ways you could end up with the same result. Working in a dedicated office space, limiting the amount of notifications enabled on your phone, or asking friends and family to hold you accountable could all help you achieve a better work-life balance. Because let’s be real: fancy clothes don’t stop emails from popping up in your inbox.
OTHER’S PERCEPTION OF YOU
It’s not shocking that someone’s perception of you is largely based on your clothing - why else would we spend an average of $1,600 per year on our wardrobe? This is all the more true in traditional business situations. And as a freelancer or independent contractor, chances are you’ll need to step out of your home office and talk shop with a real person at some point.
As Matthew Hutson writes in Scientific American, informal clothing can actually hurt the negotiation process: “In a study reported in December 2014 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, male subjects wore their usual duds or were placed in a suit or in sweats. Then they engaged in a game that involved negotiating with a partner. Those who dressed up obtained more profitable deals than the other two groups, and those who dressed down had lower testosterone levels.”
Next time you’re negotiating your rates or terms, even over the phone, it could be a good idea dress yourself for success. But don’t overdo it - if you were hired for creative work, it probably had nothing to do with your suit collection. In fact, stressing over your outfit may only distract from specific areas where you can make long-term improvements in yourself and your work.
DON’T LOSE YOUR ART IN THE DATA
Though I truly do feel like the best version of myself when I’m tucked in a good sweatshirt, these studies are hard to ignore. They challenged the ideas I have of my own self-image and worth as a writer. If I choose to wear a t-shirt and leggings every single work-day for the rest of my life, does that mean I believe my highest potential to be only of the t-shirt variety? Well yes, it probably does. But I also believe that folks who wear t-shirts to work tend to understand how to regulate their own work-life balance. I’ve never had a problem ungluing myself from the computer, or resisting the urge to email a client back at nine p.m., so a casual approach doesn’t necessarily mean being doomed to failure.
Creative work is messy. And it’s unrealistic to alter your routine because of a few statistics. While data can help you keep track of your progress, you also need to keep a clear focus on what works for you personally.
If your work thrives alongside your paint-splattered jeans, I see no reason to squeeze yourself into some chinos for a day in the studio. You can bet that as long as I’ve got these leggings on my legs and creativity running through my brain, pencil skirts won’t make an appearance any time soon.