What Should a Therapist Wear?

How should a therapist dress? They say to dress for the job, but what about when your job is meant to help people? It may sound silly to some, but the right outfit plays a big part in the patient-client relationship. Does it make more sense to wear an outfit that can start up a conversation and encourage a client to open up, or is it more beneficial to dress entirely in one color so as to appear like a blank slate? What about adopting a uniform? 

What you wear to work as a therapist can affect not just how people see you, but how they trust you, and how much they’re willing to open up to you. Remember that the best way to start a therapy session and quickly improve your therapist-client relationship is to have a good first impression. Let’s examine how to choose the right outfit for in-person and online therapy or treatment sessions that won’t negatively impact your clients. 

What Should Therapists Wear to Work?

First off, presenting yourself as a professional is key. Patients need to feel they’re in the hands of a trained therapist who is qualified to help find solutions to their depression, deal with grief, or uncover childhood trauma. Wearing too casual clothing conveys the idea that they’re talking to someone who’s not entirely professional, which could impact how much they’re willing to open up about deep feelings or traumatic events. Secondly, leaving your ego at the door will help clients feel a sense of ease. It doesn’t mean having a complete lack of style, but it does mean that you have to take into account what’s going to put someone in the right headspace. 

That’s why, ultimately, the easiest way to think of it is “business casual.” If you wouldn’t wear it in an office environment, don’t wear it in front of your clients. Aim for calming, serene outfits with neutral colors and pairings. Solids are preferred over stripes and patterns. Accessories and jewelry shouldn’t overwhelm the outfit. Think slacks, pants that fit well without being too tight, button-down shirts, nice blouses, blazers, cardigans, and close-toed dress shoes. 

Some therapists prefer to wear a tie as a sign of respect to honor the client-therapist relationship; others prefer stretchier materials and soft cottons so they can be comfortably seated for hours and not have a blazer or button-down shirt gap in a conspicuous manner. It’s up to you and your personal style, but keep in mind you’ll be sitting for hours at a time, so choose wisely for your comfort. 

While these “rules” might seem stifling (“But I like fashion!”), it’s more about looking appropriate and respecting your patients. Remember, what you wear is the first thing clients, referring partners, and so on notice about you, creating conscious and unconscious decisions where you may be judged on your appearance.  

What Should Therapists NOT Wear? 

As mentioned earlier, sessions aren’t the ideal time to show off your fashion sense (as fabulous as it may be). Just as therapists are trained to pay attention to nonverbal cues, clients are likely to notice if you’re wearing something distracting. Eliminate visual distractions by sticking to neutrals over loud, wild prints or super vibrant colors. Similarly, keep accessories and jewelry simple. Of course, a huge cocktail ring could lead to a breakthrough moment, but it’s probably best to err on the side of caution. The same goes for distracting bare midriffs, cutoff shorts, exposed bra straps, t-shirts with slogans, and so on – opt for decorum, even in casual climates. 

Likewise, make sure your outfits are put together. Visual distractions can come in the form of a floppy cardigan, missing buttons on a shirt, or skirts that are too short. These all add up to say “unbalanced,” “sloppy,” or “unprofessional” – all are verbal cues that could lead your client to misconstrue your intentions. Jeans may work in certain environments, but they should be paired with more professional pieces, such as button-down shirts, blazers, boots or heels, and so on. Basically, you don’t want to come off looking too relaxed. You’re at work, not a barbecue – don’t wear shorts and a t-shirt. 

Furthermore, your clients are putting their trust in you. By presenting yourself too casually or sloppily, you indicate that you don’t care. Why should they open up about their most difficult moments or deepest traumas to you if you don’t seem to even care about how well you look? This doesn’t even take into account patients who may suffer from OCD or depression, where shifts in appearances could possibly affect their mental state. While you may be considerate about heat, comfort, or something else, think about your clients and swap your athleisure for something more office appropriate. 

Creating a Therapist Uniform and Wearing All Black

It’s up to you what you feel suits your practice, but whether darker colors, lighter neutrals, or something else, creating consistency will put clients in a better headspace. If you’re a suit-and-tie kind of therapist, it’s going to be jarring for clients to see you walk in wearing jeans – not because you don’t look amazing, but because it’s different from what they’re used to. Suddenly, their thoughts during the session could end up focused on what brought about your new apparel instead of working on themselves. Rather than having them focus on you, settle on a “uniform” you know you can go to so clients aren’t thrown by new style changes. 

Some therapists opt to wear only darker colors or black, as it creates a blank slate and lets the therapist fade into the background so that the client and their concerns are front and center. Others note never to do so as it evokes funeral imagery. Either way, the idea of a uniform can be very helpful in determining what to wear as a therapist. Keep your outfits consistent so that it doesn’t derail a session. If you always wear a more formal attire like a sweater, slacks, khaki pants, and dress shoes, stick to that. 

Have a few work outfits you know fit well and allow you to move ready to go. You can always rethink or restyle your work wardrobe later – and think of how to introduce new elements slowly so as not to distract – but to start, consider a couple of go-to outfits as your main workwear. Moreover, whether you work in a hospital setting or a private clinical practice, you’re likely to run into colleagues. Wearing something professional and presentable in front of fellow therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists will establish you as a professional on their level. 

A Note on Casual Environments

Some therapists happen to work and live in extremely hot or humid climates. Others live in areas where everyone else around them dresses not just casually, but extremely casually. Again, consistency is key. Tailor your outfits to the casual environments around you without taking it to an extreme. 

For example, if it feels like “business casual” in your neck of the woods includes jeans, then by all means, consider dark wash jeans as part of your therapist uniform. The trick is to not dress down the jeans with a tee and sneakers. Elevate the jeans with something like a blouse or button-down shirt and boots. Swap out stuffy formal attire like wool slacks or dress pants for maxi casual dress and skirt that won’t lead to distractions while still keeping it professional. Opt for light linens and cottons that are breathable throughout the day. 

In short, there are no hard and fast rules to dressing for your therapy session. Simply consider what kind of working environment you’re in, whether you need to match that level, and how you can present yourself as a calm, trustworthy individual to your clients. Ultimately, sessions are about them, not you. Save your most daring fashion show looks for when you’re not in a therapy session! In the meantime, play around with outfits that will work for you and your clients so that you’re not distracting or upsetting them and taking away from their needs.