Why your outfit could make or break your day at school

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Our clothes influence how others see us and, more importantly, how we see ourselves, according to research. So, to send out the right signals, teachers need to plan ahead rather than grabbing the first item of clothing that comes to hand, says Gemma Corby

What you wear could make or break your day

It’s 6am, and you can only half-see what’s in your wardrobe. There are too many things on your to-do list and, with Christmas around the corner, it is the point in the year when viruses are gathering in your sinuses like pupils hovering around the school canteen. Somewhere downstairs, your children are shouting for breakfast.

You sigh. Does it really matter what you pluck off a hanger to wear today?

Unfortunately, the answer is yes. That’s not just because of school dress codes; more importantly, research indicates that what we wear influences not only how others see us but also how we feel about ourselves – and, therefore, how we project ourselves. Your decision in the half-light may well determine how your day in school is about to unfold.

The concept of “enclothed cognition” is used to explain the connection between what we wear and how we feel. As social psychologist Gauri Sarda-Joshi says in a 2016 article for Brain Fodder: “The term ‘enclothed cognition’ is used to describe the effect that our clothes seem to have on various psychological processes like emotions, self-evaluations, attitudes and interpersonal interactions.”

First up, if you hate what you are wearing, that is going to impact on how you act, and thus how people act towards you. I think most of us have made a choice that looked great at 6am, before looking in a mirror at 10am and pledging to let as few people as possible see us for the remainder of the day. What you wear may in fact make you more reclusive, less likely to engage and probably quite grumpy (the reverse is true, too, of course).

But whatever you think of your choice, society ascribes meanings to different types of clothing, which we then use to (either consciously or subconsciously) form an impression of ourselves and others. This explains why power dressing – think sharp tailoring, big shoulder pads and even bigger hair – was so popular during the money-hungry Reagan and Thatcher years.

Research by Slepian et al (2015) tested the hypothesis that wearing more formal clothing enhances abstract cognitive processing. In plain English, this is big-picture thinking – ie, the ability to pursue long-term goals.

Dressing big to think big

People who can process in an abstract manner are more likely to think creatively and to think big. Slepian et al reason that wearing formal clothing signals situations that are not casual and familiar, thus enhancing social distance and feelings of power. Therefore, if you are suited and booted in front of your class, they know you mean business – and so do you.

The above is not an isolated experiment. In a study by Adam and Galinsky (2012), when people wore a white coat that they believed belonged to a doctor, their ability to pay attention increased. Out of the 58 undergraduates assessed for selective attention, those who wore lab coats made half as many errors as those in regular clothes.

In a second experiment, the undergraduates were divided into three groups: those wearing what they had been told was a doctor’s coat; those wearing an identical coat that they were told belonged to a painter; and those who just looked at a doctor’s coat for a period of time. Again, the results showed that those in the “doctor’s coat” were more attentive.

So, why did those in the doctor’s coat fair better than those in the painter’s coat, even though they were wearing identical clothing? Galinsky explains that this was due to the symbolic meaning associated with the clothing, with the effect only occurring if the wearer was aware of that meaning. Doctors are known for being attentive, precise and rigorous, and this was reflected in the outcome of the experiment, with people’s view of themselves shifting to embody these qualities.

“It is the combination of physically wearing the coat and the symbolic meaning that is enclothed cognition,” Galinsky says (Chupaska, 2019). He likens the impact of enclothed cognition to that of a uniform symbolising status and power: “Clothes are interesting because they are simultaneously communicating information to other people. When wearing that doctor’s coat, [a person’s] cognition is affected by enclothed cognition processes but other people are also interacting with them differently. Thus, the clothes we wear seep into our own cognition.”

This is exactly why women (and it is predominantly women) who sell expensive cosmetics often wear white lab coats; subconsciously, we are more likely to believe their pseudoscientific sales patter if they look like scientists.

Other experiments, reinforcing this connection, have shown that women who dress in a manner perceived to be “masculine” are more likely to be successful at a job interview than those with a more “feminine” sense of style.

Likewise, teaching assistants who dress formally are likely to be considered more intelligent than those who dress casually. This could explain why PE teachers are given such a hard time in most staffrooms.

Now, this is all very interesting, but where does it leave a teacher’s fashion choices?

Teaching is such a multifaceted role; it’s not just about getting children to look at you in awe, so power suits shouldn’t be your go-to. Teachers need to be able to connect with their students, but also with parents/carers, colleagues and other professionals. Is it really possible to reassure a sobbing eight-year-old when dressed like a 1980s Joan Collins?

I would guess not, and the science supports this. As Slepian et al explain: “Casual clothing is related to intimacy and familiarity …people who wear casual clothes describe themselves as more friendly and laid-back.” Those who dress more casually are, according to the enclothed cognition theory, better at the detail, at teamwork and at social interaction.

I think we would all agree that these are essential qualities when it comes to teaching. But it’s a tough call – teachers need to command respect, while simultaneously being viewed as approachable. No wonder it is such a tough job. Perhaps having a black gown and mortarboard to pop on, Superman-style, could be useful for those more tricky classes?

Or we could just use this research as one factor in our daily decision making when it comes to what we wear. It is, perhaps, something we should give particular weight to on World Book Day: if you truly live the part you dress, Miss Trunchbull and Where’s Wally may not be the best choices.

Gemma Corby is a freelance writer and former Sendco. She tweets @gemma_e_corby

Full references can be found on tes.com

This article originally appeared in the 22 November 2019 issue under the headline “Beware: what you wear could make or break your day”