If No One is Around To See Your Outfit, Does It Matter?

March 20, 2020 by Anabel Maldonado

In this sudden, Coronavirus-induced age of social distancing and working from home, everyday dressing has become deeply confusing. Wearing what you’d normally wear to the office feels jarring and unnecessary (who wouldn’t rather catch up on an extra 15 minutes of beauty sleep?), yet sweatpants don’t exactly trigger the focus required to get through your ever-growing inbox of all-around dire news.

In what is perhaps the ultimate tell-tale sign that things have changed, even our foremost fashion influencers’ take on quarantine-style is all over the place, each with their own version of what to wear while in isolation. Some persevere in Chanel jackets to make a point, such as Man Repeller’s Leandra Medine Cohen, while Chiara Ferragni—currently quarantined in Milan—opts for cozier athleisure-and-slippers looks. Ultimately, what the optimal thing to wear at home right now is unclear.

During such a surreal time, when there is no style rule-book and occasions are non-existent, it’s especially useful to look to fashion psychology: the study of why we wear what we wear.  

Fashion psychology has given us the term, ‘enclothed cognition’, to explain why certain clothes make us feel the way they do. Coined by Northwestern psychologists, Hajo Adam and Adam Galinksy, they believed that what we wear influences the state of our minds and mental performance (something we fashion devotees have always known, of course). After conducting a series of studies, they confirmed the direct impact that clothes have on our psychological processes—thinking, attention, memory, perception, and creativity.

But, for the first time in recent years, we don’t need fashion’s psychological boosts to feel powerful at the office, charming for a date, or regal at a gala. We need it in isolation, to fight off the inertia and anxiety that is sweeping through our world.

And while fashion’s transformative power has always been useful for justifying all our new fashion rentals or purchases, understanding how clothes affect our mindset can be particularly crucial in our current era of social distancing.

For someone who has been working from home for the last six years—and who repeatedly broke the rules of enclothed cognition—I can vouch and warn that there are repercussions if we don’t keep dressing for ourselves. When I first went freelance and began working from home, I experienced a big shift; going from what was once a chic morning routine with little comforts such as an Uber to the office, a bottle of cold-brew, and my many white tops and black leather shorts, to a zombie-like walk to the coffeemaker before pounding away at the laptop all day at the kitchen table.

You would think I’d have thrown on some cute loungewear, but in reality, I couldn’t be bothered. There was always something more important. I was constantly scrambling to meet a deadline to avoid an angry editor, and so I lived in coffee-stained pajamas or tee-and-sweats ensembles with my hair in a bun, and sometimes barely enough time to wash my face. As you can probably already guess, a downward spiral ensued. I felt increasingly irritable and pessimistic.

Nevertheless, I learned a few things along the way that clothes can trigger beneficial qualities, which I hope can be useful to those social distancing and new to working from home.

1. Soft textiles for anxiety about anything at all

While no one has carried out experiments testing stressed-out people in sweaters of varying thickness, our life-affirming appreciation of all-things-soft is evident. Sumptuous textiles are fashion’s chill pill. When we say something is “cozy”, we mean that its texture not only brings physical comfort, but emotional consolation as well. Those who are more prone to worrying especially, like to feel cocooned: It’s why weighted blankets are used for the treatment of anxiety and insomnia—the protected sensation feels grounding and calming.

2. Neutrals & natural elements to fight stress

Earthy hues that remind us of natural elements can be calming. Cream, beige, sand, stone, and green—colors typically used in spa interiors and wellness branding—are also known to reduce stress and promote relaxation. You can also opt for botanical or floral prints, as well as flowy blue pieces that emulate water.

3. Statement details for confidence during video conference calls

For most of us, Zoom and Google Hangouts video chats provide the little bit of social interaction we can get right now. And especially for those currently job-hunting, holding interviews, or looking to make a good impression, it’s important to come across as confident and peppy as you would in person—which isn’t always easy to spur from days on end at home. Go bolder to remind yourself of life before the pandemic to trigger self-esteem – especially when it comes to all that’s above the shoulders: collars, turtlenecks, earrings, headbands. These stylized details remind us of our professional identity, and the effort we’ve made will make it easier to be proud of the reflection that’s staring back from the screen.

But don’t forget that what makes you feel motivated can be deeply individual, so it might take some reflection. I got back on track in the same monochromatic combos I used to wear to the office. For some reason, they foster the grit I need to do my best work – even at the kitchen table.

Anabel Maldonado is a Canadian, London-based fashion journalist and founder of the platforms PSYKHE and The Psychology of Fashion.