How to break the office dress code the right way

Breaking from the herd is a signal of higher status and greater creative range. And it might actually change the way you think

Man wearing jeans in a lineup of guys in suits.

(Peter Cade/Getty)

Every day, for 45 years, my dad put on a tie and jacket and went to work. He was a banker and, I suppose, didn’t have much of a choice. Had he a little more sartorial freedom, he might have left the tie at home some days. Or maybe not. Bankers are a reliable sort.

The male business uniform has changed a little or a lot, depending on where you work, since then. And we can pretty much thank Dockers for that. Back in the dot-com ’90s, the clothing brand was looking to lend its support for a little-known office ritual called Aloha Fridays, in which managers wore Hawaiian shirts. They released a “Guide to Casual Business Attire” and mailed it to 2,500 HR managers across North America. It included helpful advice like “consider the style and tone of your outfit when choosing belts, scarves and jewelry” and stressed the idea that “casual” was not a synonym for sloppy: “keep wrinkled, stained or dirty clothing out of the workplace.”

Our continental penchant for Aloha shirts waned, but our love of casual workwear remains. One glance along the aisle of any commuter train or subway reveals a parade of khakis, jeans, sneakers and flip flops, on men and women. And are we better off for this newfound freedom? The people doing serious research into such matters can’t exactly decide.

A recent paper in Social Psychological and Personality Science makes the case that when people dress more formally, it causes them to think more creatively. For the study, researchers at Columbia University and the University of California performed five experiments to determine not just how we think of ourselves when we dress up, but how we think, period. In one case, undergraduates were instructed to bring a change of clothes to the lab (“clothing you would wear to a job interview”). Participants were randomly assigned to change into their formal attire and asked to complete a series of cognitive tasks. Those in the better-dressed group consistently outperformed their peers at tasks that required abstract thinking. “We propose that the relationship between clothing formality and abstract processing is mediated by enhanced social distance,” wrote the authors. That is, dressing up makes us feel more powerful, more confident, which translates into the tasks we complete.

But that’s not the only recent finding about what we wear when we work. In 2012, a team working at Northwestern University in Illinois looked into the power of uniforms and found that when someone dons a white lab coat which they simply believe belongs to a doctor, they perform better on detail-oriented tasks. (When participants were told it was a painter’s coat, the effects disappeared.) It’s a phenomenon they chalk up to “enclothed cognition” and it suggests that what we wear has a systematic influence on our psychological processes.

But before you put a down payment on that five-figure Brioni tuxedo, consider this finding from Harvard Business School. In a well-publicized report titled the “Red Sneaker Effect,” doctoral candidate Silvia Bellezza explored the idea that high-status thinkers and business people tend to break free of the rules—eating with their mouths open, eschewing blazers for T-shirts and forgetting to shave for weeks on end. In her study, Belleza asked students, luxury boutique staff and country club members to rate the status and intelligence of a subject who appeared to be breaking dress code. In the golf example, a hypothetical man wearing a red bow tie at a black-tie gala was deemed to be better at golf than his sartorial-normative peers.

What you wear matters, affecting how you’re perceived, how you perceive yourself and how you think in general. Dressing the part helps, but above all else, dress to get noticed—you’ll probably see a knock-on effect in your work. And even if you don’t, your colleagues will be left wondering what you’re hiding up your sleeve.