The following is an excerpt from Women in Clothes, a collection of essays, illustrations and interviews centering on style and its deeper meanings. The below essay is by author Emily Gould, and details a major purchaseshe made with her first tax refund:
In the early spring of 2004, I was twenty-two and had just received my first tax refund. I didn’t have any money, but I was close to money all the time. At the slick corporate publishing offices on the Upper West Side where I worked, the profit-and-loss statements were for hundreds of thousands of dollars, which it was my job to calculate, and I fetched coffee for established authors and agents—daily interactions that reassured me that my modest circumstances were only temporary. The hazy future would deliver me a big payday, so there was no need to save. I spent every penny I earned, which was easy to do: rent took most of it, food pretty much covered the rest.
When I unexpectedly got a check in the mail from the federal government for $342, I went out to buy a large, rectangular, pale pink Marc by Marc Jacobs handbag.
Why a purse? Why pale pink? Why Marc by Marc Jacobs? In 2004, Marc anything was the ultimate status symbol for a specific kind of New York City woman, the kind I aspired to be: someone with natural charisma, a cool job, effortless and understated sexiness, and plenty of cash. These garments seemed to represent a reaction against the blingy, logo-obsessed late ninties–early aughts. They were a credible imitation of clothes you’d find in a thrift store, but perfected and updated with better quality and cooler details: cashmere instead of polyester, and clever prints that invited a second glance or started a conversation (“Are those foxes?”).
By the time I received the check I had been lusting after those clothes for years. I felt a purse that I would carry every day would cast the glamour of Marc over my entire existence and transform my thrifted clothes into their classier renditions.
So I dressed in what I considered a subtle-yet-glamorous outfit, something the kind of person who frequented West Village designer boutiques would wear for a day of casual shopping: slouchy flat black boots, tight black jeans (then fashionably low-waisted), vintage black velvet blazer over a shrunken black perfectly worn-out and semitransparent T-shirt.
No one greeted me when I walked in the door of Marc Jacobs. I tried to make subtle, casual, "I'm not a shoplifter" eye contact with the pretty, dark-haired salesgirl, who was wearing an outfit like mine except with a halo around it, that intangible aura of expensiveness that designer clothes have. She didn’t smile back.
"Let me know if I can help you find anything," she said without a question mark.
She closely monitored me as I picked up purses and modeled them one by one in the mirror.
I did my best to ignore her as I faux-casually compared price tags. The larger, heavier bags that I really wanted were $500 or $700, but after only a few minutes in the store that was starting to seem normal. The pink purse had soft leather and pretty clasp details, an inner pocket for my wallet and phone, and two outer pockets that could hold the many lip balm–type products I was equipped with at all times. I chose it quickly. I carried it to the register and paid with cash. I did not at that innocent time possess a credit card.
The purse made its debut at work the next day. As the editor in chief’s assistant, I had a cubicle just outside his office. Everyone waiting to see him had to linger in my cube region, chatting with me. The women -- all the important editors were women -- treated me with a mix of admiration and exasperation. The most glamorous, P., was the first to notice my purse -- casually hanging from a handle on the file cabinet behind me.
"Oh my god. Is that Marc by Marc Jacobs?"
"It is. I bought it with my tax refund."
She looked at me with a mixture of condescension and compassion. “Wow. Well, you’re lucky. I wish I could go out and buy myself a Marc Jacobs purse."
I felt genuinely confused. “What’s stopping you?”
She sighed. “When you’re married, when you have a child, you’ll understand.”
I’m still not married and I do not have children, but I do understand. I had spied on every document that crossed my boss's desk, so I knew her approximate salary -- it was a number that seemed enormous to me then, and still seems healthy now, except I know people with that salary who struggle to pay their mortgage in studio apartments in this beautiful, appalling city. Back then I had felt betrayed by P. If she couldn’t buy a Marc by Marc Jacobs purse, what was I working toward? She owed it to me, to all us assistants, to give us something to aspire to. She owed it to us to dress for the job and the life we wanted.
Six years later -- not half as secure, materially or otherwise, as my twenty-two- year-old self assumed I'd be -- I set out a bunch of my belongings on my friend’s Fort Greene stoop, including the once pink purse. Despite repeated professional cleanings, the color hadn’t held up to the heavy wear I inflict on all my possessions. Also, pale pink is an impractical color for something you’re going to set down on the grimy subway floor. The purse had lost its rectangular shape and sat slumped in a leathery pile. I sold it for $10 and, along with some other things, netted $40 that day -- cash I needed and felt lucky to have.
Copyright line for the text: Reprinted from WOMEN IN CLOTHES by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton with permission of Blue Rider Press, a division of Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2014 by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton
Emily Gould is the author of Friendship and And the Heart Says Whatever and the co-owner, with Ruth Curry, of a feminist publishing startup, Emily Books, which sells new and backlist titles via a subscription model.
Does what you wear affect how well you work? (KAREN BLEIER/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Quite possibly. We’ve all had the experience of feeling more motivated and focused when we’re dressed up for work—whether that means donning a suit when our usual office dress is khakis and a golf shirt or, for those who work from home, simply getting out of pajamas. But new research shows that wearing certain items of clothing identified with certain qualities could help improve performance, too.
A recently published study from professors at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University shows that when research subjects wore a scientist’s or medical doctor’s white coat, they performed better on a test known as the “Stroop test,” which asks participants to say the color of a word being shown on a flash card, rather than the word itself. The group who donned white jackets identified as lab coats performed better on conflicting flash cards, such as when the word “blue” is spelled in red letters. Those wearing the lab coats, which people typically associate with care and attentiveness, made about half as many errors as their peers.
The researchers, Adam Galinsky and Hajo Adam, call their paper “Enclothed cognition,” a play on the term “embodied cognition,” the idea that bodily sensations can affect how we think and how we feel. For example, the folks over at Miller-McCune point to a 2010 study that found that body positions we think of as powerful (such as standing and leaning over a table or pumping out your chest) makes people act more confident and even raises testosterone levels in the body.
Interestingly, the study subjects who wore similar white coats but were told they were artists’ coats did not perform above average. As a result, Galinsky says their findings show that it’s not just the experience of wearing the clothes, but the symbolic meaning they hold for people. “It’s the simultaneous combination of the posture or the clothes and the symbolic meaning of them that matters,” he says.
Other than artists’ coats, Adam’s and Galinsky’s paper does not study the affect of clothes associated with other professions. But the findings do lead to questions, the authors write, about whether wearing the robes of a priest or a judge could prompt people to act more ethically, or whether putting on a firefighter’s coat could invoke courage. And what about suits and ties? “If you associate those clothes with power and confidence, it’s going to have a huge impact,” he says. “But for some people, wearing suits makes them feel like a phony, as Holden Caulfield would say. So it’s really about what the symbolic meaning of the clothes is to the person.”
What does this mean for leaders? I’d guess it should prompt more thinking about workplace dress codes and fashion norms. Such policies are often instated to make sure people look a certain way to outsiders (think bank tellers who wear suits) or they become common practice in order to fashion a certain workplace culture (“we wear khakis, so this is an informal, fun place to work”). Much of the research on clothing has been focused on how we’re perceived, rather than how it affects our own behavior; just as most dress codes and workplace dress norms are established in order to set up a certain perception of the people who work there, rather than to actually make those people feel, think or perform better.
But before you rush out and tell your employees to wear suits every day for work so they’ll feel more powerful and confident, keep a few things in mind. Again, some people may not associate the clothes with those emotions. Additionally, as Galinsky asks in the paper, “do the effects of physically wearing a particular form of clothing wear off over time, as people become habituated to it?” The focused power that comes from donning a suit (for some people, at least) could get old when it becomes the standard dress code. And finally, are the qualities many people associate with a suit—power, confidence, being a professional representative for a client—what you always want people to be feeling at work?
Like all such studies, it’s hard to know how this research translates to the actual workplace. But it’s a good reminder that leaders should think through dress codes or workplace fashion norms not just in terms of how employees’ attire is perceived by others, but how it makes the employees themselves feel, too. “It reminds people that clothes aren’t just a device of perception, but a tool that can really affect how you perceive yourself,” Galinsky says. Clothes may not make the man, the saying goes. But as the authors write, “they do hold a strange power over their wearers.”
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