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Why NOT to wear sweatpants on Zoom

If you - like most of the Western world - have recently entered the realm of online meetings, you have surely encountered an abundance of expert advice regarding online meetings. Many people have chimed in with helpful hints regarding what clothes to wear, how to style your surroundings, and how to train the people you live with not to interrupt meetings, etc.

woman in a sweatsuit lying in bed on her MacBook.
The wrong way to appear in an online meeting. Image courtesy of Ekaterina Bolovtsova/Pexels.

And even though we are slowly emerging from this lockdown and reintegrating into our former routines, virtual meetings are here to stay.

So what do I - as a personal stylist - have to add to the already-saturated list of suggestions?

Why, a stylist's perspective, of course!

I've come across the following advice on numerous occasions: "Make sure to wear a nice top; no one will see your bottoms. You can wear sweatpants for all anyone will know or care." As a result, many people have gotten into the habit of wearing "mullet outfits" (business on top, party on the bottom). [The "mullet" - for my non-anglo friends - was a haircut in the '80s, with short hair on top, and long hair on the bottom.]

And true as it may be that no one can see your bottom half on a video conference, the fact of the matter remains: Even if no one else sees you, YOU know what you're wearing on the bottom.

We all know that the clothes we wear affect how other people perceive us, and science backs that up.* However, not only do the clothes we wear affect others' estimation of us - our clothes impact us, the wearers, as well. The effect that clothing has on our mental processes is commonly known as "enclothed cognition". This term was coined by social psychologists Adam and Galinsky, who discovered that the clothes we wear - and the characteristics we attribute to those clothes - have an effect on our cognitive abilities.

one side has a doctor's coat and the other has a painter's paintbrush

The study, in a nutshell, found that participants who were instructed to wear "a doctor's coat" made less mistakes and were able to concentrate longer than those who were told to put on "a painter's smock".** The kicker? It was the exact same lab coat for everyone. The researchers ascribed the increased mental capacity among participants wearing the "doctor's coat" to the characteristics generally attributed to doctors, namely, attentiveness and carefulness.

In another study, social psychologists Kraus and Mendes observed the negotiations between men wearing SWEATPANTS and men wearing high-powered business suits. Guess who negotiated more successfully and made less concessions? Guess who felt more powerful and exhibited more dominance? Guess who had more testosterone by the end of the negotiations?

one picture of a man in a business suit and glasses, the other is of a man in a t-shirt and slouchy pants

If you guessed the men in the sweatpants, you guessed wrong.

So if you want to negotiate more successfully, feel more assertive and have powerful hormones coursing through your veins, you're probably better off in business clothes. (While this experiment only used men, I think it's safe to assume it would yield similar results with women. At least, it would if my friends and I were participating in it.)

Kraus and Mendes concluded that "...the benefits of “dressing the part” at a job might be that it helps individuals more easily shift their behavior to match their desired position in society."

In conclusion...

Not only does our apparel affect how other people perceive and respond to us, scientific research also shows that it affects how we, the wearers, think, feel and act. While you might be very comfortable wearing sweatpants, the traits commonly associated with sweatpants - slouchy pants for lazying around, watching tv, and relaxing - might cause you to feel a little less professional and put you at a psychological disadvantage, even if you're the only person who knows you're wearing them. Conversely, if wearing more professionally appropriate attire can increase your sense of personal power, thereby giving you a business edge, why not take advantage of that?

I would be remiss if I didn't address one last thing. There are some people (the more "natural" personality style) for whom comfort is of paramount importance in selecting clothes, far beyond any other consideration. (Yes, comfort is important to all of us to some degree. But there are people for whom it is supreme.) To these people, I say: Choose clothes that are suitable for business AND also happen to be comfortable; and wear these pieces in online meetings, as well as in the office, if permissible.

Just some food for thought, as you prepare for your next online meeting.

And if you want, experiment with this yourself. Attend one meeting in sweatpants and another one in more professional garb, and gauge the outcome...

Let me know how it turns out!

* Light and easy-to-read article, here! Hard-core scientific article here: “Social benefits of luxury brands as costly signals of wealth and status”, Nelissen & Meijers (2011).

** In case you're wondering - as I was - about the cover story the researchers gave the participants... The researchers told the participants that previous research subjects had worn lab coats while the lab was undergoing renovations (to protect their clothing) and therefore these participants should also wear lab coats, in order to maintain the same circumstances for all the experiments. Sneaky.

Another awesome detail: The study was inspired by an episode of the Simpsons, in which Bart and Lisa and the other students were forced to wear drab, gray uniforms (watch it here). As a result, they behaved like obedient, lifeless zombie-students. Researchers Adam and Galinsky wondered... could this really happen? Thus the idea for this particular area of research was born.

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