A post-pandemic bandage for success | Popgen Tech
Emily in Paris it’s a mostly empty show that relies on lazy stereotypes — a beautiful, young American woman defeats evil French women with her guts and fresh thinking — to sell a rudimentary fish-out-of-water story. But that’s not why anyone watches, is it? emily’The real appeal is in its juicy locations and of course in the wonderful working wardrobe of its main character. Emily nailed the “dopamine patch” in the office, which allegedly in the defining fashion trend after the pandemic.
The Dopamine Band-Aid is a hashtag-ready pop-neuropsychiatric concept that made headlines in Fashion, Harper’s Bazaar, and other publications throughout 2022. You’ve heard of the power pose – how about power clothes? The theory is that certain items of clothing or colors can make us feel happier, brighter, and stronger; and it can have noticeable performance benefits. Associating this sense of empowerment with the presumed release of dopamine, a neurochemical involved in creating feelings of pleasure or reward, fulfills the cultural need to find complex emotional experiences “in the brain” and is a satisfying alliteration. But according to Carolyn Mair, a behavioral psychologist, business consultant and author Psychology of fashionsaid, “The dopamine patch makes no sense if you understand dopamine.”
There just isn’t much scientific evidence that getting dressed gives us such a rush. If anything can trigger a dopamine release, this will most likely do it buying clothes than to wear them. However, the concept makes intuitive sense, as anyone who has worn an item of clothing that instantly makes them feel good can attest.
That’s because what we put on our bodies affects how we think, feel, and of course, act. “What we wear can make us feel bad, insecure, terrible, anxious, afraid of social embarrassment,” Mair said. “Or it can make us feel great—and the difference between the two is whether you feel comfortable, both physically and psychologically, in what you wear.”
What we wear can make us feel bad, insecure, awful, anxious, afraid of social embarrassment. Or it can make us feel weird.”
We attribute an incredible amount of social and personal meaning to clothing, from red presidential “power ties” to the blue robes of the Virgin Mary. How we choose to dress—or are forced to dress—reveals who we are and affects how we perceive the world. “The meaning we attach to the clothes we wear [has] influencing how we act and then, of course, how we feel.” – Shakayla Forbes-Bell, fashion psychologist and author Big Dress Energy: How the Psychology of Fashion Can Change Your Wardrobe and Your Confidence explained. “So when we attach different meanings to clothing, whether it’s happiness, sentimentality, sexuality, fitness or whatever, when we wear it, we’re going to evoke those responses.”
Scientific research on the relationship between what people wear and their performance has been limited, although it hints at interesting effects. In 2012, for example, two researchers from Northwestern University coined the term covered cognition to describe the effect they observed when people wore a lab coat, an article of clothing associated with scientific rigor. Their data seemed to show that wearing a coat helped the subjects perform better on tasks that required attention to detail, suggesting some scientific truth to the adage “getting dressed.” (Although some studies support this finding, others have failed to replicate these findings.) Similarly, a 2015 study by US researchers found a positive correlation between formal wear and abstract cognitive processing – when subjects wore the clothing , which they “dressed to the interview”, they demonstrated increased abstract thinking. (However, the results of later studies were less conclusive.)
So we know what we have some the link between clothing, emotion and behavior, but teasing out this mechanism remains elusive. And knowing exactly how clothing affects performance would be especially helpful when it comes to our careers.
It’s no surprise that what we wear to work has changed dramatically over the past century of office life. These changes tend to be largely informal as we constantly change our behavior and environment towards comfort and accessibility. By 2018, only one in ten British office workers wore a suit; according to a 2019 survey, 50% of US companies allowed their employees to dress casually every day, not just on Fridays.
The pandemic—when “clothing” meant from the waist up—accelerated this trend; it didn’t matter what we wore to the office when the office was at home. Even after offices reopened, many people maintained a more casual work wardrobe: one survey of white-collar workers in North America in 2021 showed not only an increase in the number of people wearing jeans, T-shirts and sportswear, but also a slight increase in the number of people wearing pyjamas to work
For some companies, workplace attire can be a big part of how the company reflects and communicates its values and culture, whether it’s the tacit tribalism of Tech-Bro hoodies or the increasingly rare Power Suits. But like much of today’s work, it requires new flexibility and nuance. In one of the few studies of clothing and emotions since the pandemic, researchers have found that employees are best suited to clothing that matches the location and activity. The study was conducted by two graduate students at Columbia Business School and Adam Galinsky, head of the school’s management department. They randomly assigned remote workers to wear casual “home” clothes, more formal “work” clothes, or “mixed” clothes—the so-called Zoom mullet on top, nap clothes on the bottom—during the workday. Among the findings: workers in the homewear category felt more authentic and therefore more engaged in their work; the situation with clothes greatly increased the subjects’ sense of power; and the Zoom mullet offered no “psychological or work-related benefits” at all. The researchers concluded that this translates into positive psychological and organizational effects when “clothing is symbolically relevant to the human context.”
Like much of the revised post-pandemic work landscape — office vs. home and hybrid, fixed schedule vs. flexible schedule — the question of what we wear comes down to balancing employee autonomy and company needs. “The pandemic has specifically made people realize that maybe you can work better when you’re not limited by a certain aesthetic, when you’re allowed to wear things that are more authentic to you, that make you feel good, and how that has a positive impact on performance,” Forbes-Bell said.
We all want and need freedom. But this flexibility can also be two-way. The paradox of choice refers to the negative consequences of too much choice; anyone who has looked into their overflowing wardrobe and declared they have “nothing to wear” can relate. The solution is a dress code that enforces necessary organizational standards while also providing personal style—fences that allow us to express our best, most authentic selves without being distracted by whether we’re inappropriate because we’re wearing the “wrong” thing.
Some research seems to support this. A study published in Journal of the Academy of Management in 2022 found that workers who felt confident and attractive in their clothing and felt that their clothing was unique to them demonstrated higher self-esteem and, crucially, made more progress toward their work goals. How much progress? It turns out that this is the same as when workers were asked to plan their days in advance. The researchers say this points to the need for a flexible dress code that encourages “personal flair” but within organizational requirements.
Emily in Paris should in no way be taken as a road map for good HR practice or indeed what to wear to work. Emily dresses like she’s standing in front of her closet and picking out the things that bring joy or strain to the eyes, depending on your point of view, and those rainbow platform heels on medieval Parisian cobblestones just scream Emily is in the ER. But her penchant for wearing clothes that speak to her true self is a model that works, even if her Eiffel Tower-print silk blouse doesn’t.