Can wearing one outfit to work really boost efficiency, productiveness and happiness? The Stylist.co.uk team find out.
A month ago, one woman in a crisp white shirt, black trousers and neck tie became the subject of office chatter and dinner debates across Europe and America.
Matilda Kahl, a creative director in New York, wrote about how she has eliminated morning stress and boosted her productivity by wearing the same outfit to work every day for the last three years.
Her story was shared over 100,000 times and left many of us with one question on our minds: 'Is this the secret to a more organised and relaxed life?'
There’s plenty of science to back Matilda’s views. Research in decision fatigue shows the more choices we make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for the brain. Eventually it seeks shortcuts to cope.
It explains why successful leaders from Anna Wintour to Barack Obama dress in similar if not the same clothes (Wintour only wears Manolo Blahnik mules and Obama limits his suits to blue and grey tones). Other iconic examples include Angelina Jolie in head-to-toe black when she's off-duty, Alexa Chung in mini dresses and peter pan collars and Facebook COO Mark Zuckerberg in grey T shirts and blue jeans.
Of course, uniforms are common in a wide number of industries ranging from factory work to aviation and most of us spent our entire adolescence trying to break free from the same school shirt, blazer and tie at secondary school. But while there's definitely thrill, excitement and privilege in being able to choose your outfit depending on mood, comfort and weather, it seems we've fallen out of love with that choice. In a poll of 5,000 Stylist.co.uk readers, over 75 % of you said you would either consider or try a work uniform.
So that's exactly what writer Sejal Kapadia and junior writer Sarah Biddlecombe put to the test for a month. Piles of work clothes they collated over the years were traded for just five versions of the same top and a pair of jeans each: Sejal opted for a cream granddad collar blouse (£42, Warehouse) and grey stretch jeans (£34.90, Uniqlo), and Sarah went for a white sporty tunic (£32, Warehouse) and MOTO black leigh jeans (£38, Topshop).
How much time can they save in the morning? Will their colleagues judge them? Will they be sick of their outfits within a week? These were some of the questions they set out to answer. Thirty days on, here's what they learnt...
Time management and productivity
Sejal says: "The first thing I noticed was the sense of calm I felt when I woke up. It's the kind of feeling a hot bath or coffee couldn't replicate. Knowing I wouldn't have to stand in front of my cluttered wardrobe and badly-lit mirror to find an outfit that didn't require ironing was like waking up and realising it's a Saturday.
But the best part? It shaved 10 to 20 minutes off my morning routine. Instead of running out the door with a banana in hand, I got into the habit of making a fresh smoothie or avocado on toast for breakfast - the stuff lifestyle bloggers make look so easy and I presumed was beyond me. Turns out, it isn't so hard when you have the time.
Suddenly, I was more relaxed, assertive and full of energy when I arrived at the office. As an online writer I have to be ready to find and fire out brilliant news story ideas first thing and often write them before our competitors. It can be stressful and demanding. But for the first time, I felt I could handle it. By taking away the tension from my morning routine, my brain didn't collapse at the first hurdle at work.
At home, I'm in the midst of planning a four-day Indian wedding which has seen me unwillingly go from introverted writer (who hates planning birthday nights out) to an events manager. It was a massive relief to have one less thing to worry about."
Sarah says: "As someone who wastes a shameful amount of time in the mornings agonising over what to wear I was looking forward to the simplicity of a work uniform. I envisioned a daily lie-in and streamlined morning routine that would see me up and out of the house in less than 30 minutes.
However, a mistake in my prep meant that I only had three versions of the same top and I had to spend most mornings frantically blow-drying (yes, really) my outfit, having washed it late the night before.
That mishap aside, I'm still not convinced that having the outfit to hand every morning would have made me more productive as I just didn't enjoy looking the same every day. I would probably have just wasted any extra time desperately trying out accessories like belts and jewellery to see how I could miraculously transform the uniform to look different each morning.
The challenge definitely can't be done without the right prep, and I would advise anyone considering this exercise to get plenty of their chosen uniform clothes to avoid any last minute panic drying!"
Confidence and happiness
Sejal says: "I like to think I'm far too rational to let fashion shape my mood and productivity, but that's a lie. When I dress in clothes I feel uncomfortable in, I find myself sinking into a shell of self-consciousness at work and becoming increasingly short-tempered with my fiancé. The paranoia of looking uncool or scruffy consumes me so much that I won't feel relaxed until I get home and change into my extra baggy, extra soft joggers.
But over the last month, my uniform became my comfort blanket. When I was hungover or my hair needed washing, it transformed me into a smartly dressed professional. When I met friends for drinks after work, I felt chic without any worries of looking over or underdressed. When I was approached by a senior manager, I had confidence and reassurance in myself because I wasn't worrying about how I looked.
In the way that Marge Simpson wears her hair high and blue and Mrs Flintstone dresses in a one-shoulder white dress, my cream shirt and grey leggings became my personal signature look so no matter how I felt or where I was, I always felt like me. By finding the one perfect work outfit, instead of many, I had the ultimate boost to my self esteem."
Sarah says: "Just before the challenge started my boyfriend and I broke up and for the first week I loved the ease of wearing the same outfit to work every day. Removing the daily decision process of what to wear was, at least, one less thing to worry about.
However, it wasn’t long before I was craving the comfort of wearing my favourite clothes. I wanted to pull on the snakeskin trousers that always make me feel invincible or my beloved oversized knit that I’ve had for years. It sounds shallow but I quickly realised that feeling good in an outfit has a genuinely positive effect on my confidence and happiness, which in turn improves my performance at work.
Waking up and having to wear the same thing over and over again made me feel, quite honestly, rubbish. One of the positives of a breakup is being able to rediscover your sense of self and the work uniform forced me into a dressing rut that I found painfully restrictive. I wasn’t confident or comfortable in the outfit so putting it on every day was just a constant hit to my self esteem that splashing out on a haircut and an unnecessary amount of new shoes simply couldn’t shake."
How our colleagues and friends reacted
Please note: other than our immediate team, most employees at our company did not know we were conducting a 30-day uniform experiment
Sejal says: "Picture this: We're a fortnight into the experiment. I'm walking around the ShortList Media office proud and confident in my new uniform and I can't wait for someone to ask why I've dressed in the same shirt and jeans all week. I brace myself for jokes about smelling or wearing dirty clothes (of course I have enough shirts to wear a freshly washed one every day, so that's not a genuine problem). But here's the thing - not a single person in the whole month noticed I wasn't changing my outfit.
I approached peers whom I often cross paths with in a week and they were just as surprised as I was in their absentmindedness. Unless you're dressed in something bold, exceptional or extravagant, people are too busy in their own lives to notice what you're wearing. We see our colleagues so often that they're a part of the office furniture.
My best friend, on the other hand, is a different story. She recently got a job near the Stylist office, which allowed me to see her multiples times during the week. Without fail, she noticed I was in the same ensemble every time. But rather than asking me about it, she just assumed she caught me on the days I was wearing my favourite outfit. After all, we all have one."
Sarah says: "I’m hardly an outlandish dresser who wears eye-catching prints and neon coloured clothes on a regular basis but I thought someone would notice if I started wearing the same bland outfit to work every single day.
And, as a new addition to the ShortList Media office, I panicked that wearing the work uniform meant I would forever be branded as the weird girl who only owns one top and a rapidly greying pair of black jeans. I needn’t have worried; I didn’t get a single comment about what I was wearing and no one noticed when the challenge was over and I went back to wearing different clothes every day. One colleague still doesn’t believe the challenge even took place.
The reaction from my friends was much the same. They all responded with horror when I told them what I would be doing over the next month before promptly forgetting the whole thing; I had to constantly remind people that I was wearing the same outfit, including the housemates who saw me every day. And I can’t blame their observation skills as they all noticed when I showed off new shoes or braided my hair in an effort to make myself look different each day.
Perhaps if I had worn a more memorable uniform each day the reaction would have been different..."
Did we get bored?
Sejal says: "On cold days, I did miss wearing colour or a cosy jumper, but the idea of coordinating it with jeans and shoes made me grateful that I had a uniform. Thankfully, there were a few easy ways I could refresh my look: my shirt could be styled tucked in or out of my trousers; I accessorised with statement necklaces; I kept my hair in its natural curly form or straightened it; I swapped my parting from side to middle and back; I wore red lipstick in the evening and more blusher to define my cheekbones on a day I was especially tired; and I changed my shoes from brown chelsea boots to gold loafers depending on the weather."
Sarah says: "Absolutely. I don’t own a lot of statement jewellery and I’m not keen on the maintenance involved in wearing a bold lipstick or elaborate hairstyle to work, so I looked almost exactly the same every day. The only thing I really played around with were my shoes and when I’m sitting at my desk no one can even see them, so wearing a daring pair of heels was hardly game changing.
I will happily admit that I’m a creature of habit; I’ve been wearing the same eyeliner for over 12 years and I will joyfully eat the same sandwich for lunch every day. But wearing an identical outfit to work over and over again? I think I’ve found my limit."
Would we do it again?
Sejal says: "Yes. I'm currently sitting in a grey T-shirt and blue jeans and I miss my uniform. Since the experiment ended a week ago, on a particularly rushed morning, I pulled out the cream shirt and all those feelings of comfort and confidence came rushing back. Let's say it's become an old fabric friend. Otherwise, I'm back to sifting through my cluttered wardrobe, meeting unfamiliar clothes I haven't seen in a while, and I'm sad to say I didn't miss them one bit."
Sarah says: "While I wouldn’t want to restrict myself to wearing an identical outfit to work every day again, I can definitely see the attraction in having a capsule wardrobe of work staples to choose from.
I got into a (very expensive) habit of buying new clothes that I could wear when I went out with friends after work and, looking back, I can see they are all just a variation of my work uniform. I own an embarrassing number of white tops and black jeans are my ultimate wardrobe staple, so if I could put together a selection of tops and trousers around this theme I would quite happily do it again."
The uniform experiment in numbers
Number of clothes: 5 shirts, 1 pair of jeggings
Total cost of uniform wardrobe: £224
Time saved daily: 20 minutes
Number of days I missed changing my outfit: 2
Number of clothes: 3 tops, 1 pair of jeans
Total cost of uniform wardrobe: £134
Time saved daily: minus 5 minutes
Number of days I missed changing my outfit: 25
What the expert says
We spoke to Chartered Psychologist Dr John Pooley about the mental impact of wearing a regular uniform to work every day and he believes the effects are mainly positive.
Differentiating work and weekend
"Having a work uniform is a really good idea. When it comes to the weekend, one can dress completely differently and not feel as though one is at work. By keeping such a demarcation in your clothing, it helps reinforce the difference between work and home, a positive influence in terms of well being!"
Carving out your own identity
Dr Pooley believes the work uniform can help you create your own identity in the workplace, which could help you get ahead.
He says, "Having a ‘work uniform’ enables one to develop your own signature, for which you become known. Mine is, bow ties, cuff links and happy socks! This makes you memorable, and being memorable for jobs well done is advantageous in securing positive work outcomes. A stylish dresser in a recognisably acceptable but consistent fashion choice will be noticed and identified more easily than someone who is always changing their fashion choices."
Building team spirit
Finally, it could even help you to bond with your colleagues, and encourage you to become a 'team player'.
Dr Pooley adds, "Wearing a ‘work uniform’, even if different from others in terms of fashion choice, encourages team type behaviours for the positive benefit of all in the organisation. Remember that for teams to be effective they need to be composed of different styles of operators! The same would be true of ‘work uniforms’, where everybody is not the same, but everyone does have a common standard of acceptability (conformity), but difference is celebrated (creativity, problem solving and identity)."
(Credits: 1. Shirt, £79, johnlewis.com; 2. Trousers, £36, warehouse.co.uk; 3. Blouse, £32, warehouse.co.uk; 4. Trousers, £110, reiss.com; 5. Shirt, £35, oasis-stores.com; 6. Red trouser, £34.99, mango.com; 7. Shirt, £29.99, zara.com; 8. Printed trouser, £38, oasis-stores.com; 9. Blazer, £64.95, gap.co.uk; 10. Breton top, £65, toa.st; 11. A Gold E jeans £147, johnlewis.com; 12. Blouse, £65, karenmillen.com; 13. J Brand leggings, £150, houseoffraser.co.uk; 14. Shirt, £39.99, zara.com; 15. Jeans, £79, reiss.com; 16. Shirt, £40, warehouse.co.uk; 17. Jeans, £40, topshop.com; 18. Wrap jacket, £39.99, zara.com; 19. T shirt, £12, oasis-stores.com; 20. A-line skirt, £110, reiss.com; 21. Shirt, £38, warehouse.co.uk; 22. Leather skirt, £79.99, mango.com; 23. Sweater, £34.99; mango.com; 24. Pencil skirt, £59, cosstores.com; 25. Boat neck sweater, £39.99, mango.com; 26. Jacquard miniskirt, £34.99, mango.com; 27. Cardigan, £19.90, uniqlo.com; 28. Dress, £144, johnlewis.com; 29. Dress, £59, cosstores.com; 30. Dress, £46, warehouse.co.uk; 31. Dress, £169, reiss.com; 32. Blazer, £45, warehouse.co.uk)
What fabrics should I look out for and which should I avoid?
We consulted experts at Whistles and Warehouse who unanimously said that cotton, polyester and viscose are the most durable fabrics that will withstand months of washing. Crepe and mohair should most definitely be avoided, because they're hard to keep in shape. Any garments containing wool will shrink in the washing machine, so it needs to run on a wool-only cycle.
How many items of the same clothes shall I buy?
To last you the year, we recommend 15 versions of the same top, five pairs of the same trousers, jeans or skirts, and/or 10 dresses. Of course, it largely depends on how frequently you get around to doing your laundry and how long it takes for your clothes to dry in the summer and in the winter.
What’s the best way to place a bulk order in stores?
This is the hardest part - it wasn't easy locating five tops let alone 15. We contacted a few stores on the UK high street and all suggested approaching a store manager or personal shopper who can help you to locate the stock and have it delivered to you.