Dress The Part, No, Literally

Dressed To Impress

“Dress the part” is a frequently used phrase you may hear time and time again. It’s used in numerous contexts and it generally means dressing or having an appearance which, Slepian et al. note is “usual or expected for a particular situation, activity or job.”  

This could be dressing in a professional manner for a job interview, going to a costume party dressed as Chewbacca or wearing a Christmas jumper for Christmas jumper day – these are perfect examples of the idiom “dressing the part.” 

But wait, there’s more to this phrase than meets the eye…

Did you know dressing the part is a literal thing and clothing, or the way you dress, can have the ability to affect your brain? 

As it turns out, how you dress can impact the way you communicate and interact with people. Research titled, The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing from Columbia University, used a series of five studies to support the hypothesis that wearing formal clothing enhances abstract cognitive processing. 

In this article, we will unravel the hows and the whys of these findings. 

Wondering what “abstract cognitive processing” is? Don’t worry, we’ll get to this a couple of paragraphs in.

Formal Clothing

“Dress the part”’ is a frequently used phrase you may hear time and time again. It’s used in numerous contexts and it is much more than just an idiom.

Formal clothing is usually worn in a professional environment and dons a high level of formality, connoting ideas of officiality, importance, convention and etiquette. It’s often worn in the following environments and events:

  • Work
  • A job interview
  • Meeting someone new
  • An important occasion. 

This suggests that people tend to wear formal clothing to make a positive impression or appear a certain way. For example, ask yourself what you would wear to a job interview? 

It probably wouldn’t be a shell suit and a clean pair of Air Force 1’s because unfortunately, that’s not going to promote a level of professionalism and seriousness that a suit would. 

This is due to a few different reasons. 

Firstly, formal clothing can suggest a series of values and levels of expertise, which is why some offices and places of work have strict dress codes, ensuring that employees maintain a level of appearances that are in-line with the company’s brand and values. 

Secondly, this also applies to the job interview process. Slepian et al. found that those who wear formal clothing describe themselves to be “more competent and rational” and this is linked to the idea that formal dressers have higher goals. 

However, research does suggest formal clothing can also make you less “approachable,” which may be exactly what you’re after and that’s okay.

In direct contrast to this, people who dress casually describe themselves to be “more friendly and laid-back,” which is why the shell suit is often not a popular choice of clothing for important occasions. 

This is crucial as it enables us to understand how people view you and how you view yourself, based on your clothing decisions alone. 

Abstract vs Concrete

“Dress the part”’ is a frequently used phrase you may hear time and time again. It’s used in numerous contexts and it is much more than just an idiom.

Now, back to the brain bits.

Slepian et al., conclude in their study that “wearing formal clothing was associated with enhanced abstract processing, as measured by higher levels of action identification.”

Cognitive processing is something we have talked about before and refers to the mental processes we use in acquiring knowledge and then using that knowledge. 

Processes include: 

  • Thinking
  • remembering
  • Understanding
  • Learning. 

When it comes to cognitive processing in this particular context, it is divided into two categories:

  1. Abstract processing  
  2. Concrete processing. 

Abstract processing consists of superordinate, holistic, and broad mental representations, whereas concrete processing includes more subordinate and narrow mental representations.

(Slepian et al., 2015)

In layman’s terms, abstract processing refers to higher-level functions of the brain and superior level of thought, such as, thinking about the bigger picture. Whilst concrete thinking is lower rank and a more basic level of thought processing. Another way to understand this is through the adjectives’ meanings. Concrete is surface thinking and abstract is a fluid, deeper thinking. 

Formal clothing has always existed and the author of Clothing, R. Ross, notes throughout history it has been seen as a way of “maintaining personal discipline” and was closely linked to the “foundation of bourgeois society.” These ideas no longer exist today in the same capacity through progression and understanding. It’s important to note, some industries tend to prefer a more casual look so dressing smart isn’t as necessary as it may have once been. 

As we gain more scientific knowledge and insight into how attributes of daily life affect our brains, we can learn and adapt to do what’s best for us. 

So, maybe it’s time to throw out the shell suits and trackies, buy a suit and start dressing the part. Your brain will thank you for it. 

Sources Cited: 

Slepian, M., Ferber, S., Gold, J. and Rutchick, A. (2015). The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(6), pp.661-668.


Ross, R. (2013). Clothing: A Global History. Oxford: Wiley.


Sajal Azam

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