Dress for Success

belt-952834_640My son Andrew received a very important phone call last week. One of his best friends was preparing to ask his girlfriend to marry him. Following the proposal, family and friends were being invited to a surprise reception for the couple. The night of the event came and Andrew headed out the door – wearing a t-shirt and shorts.

Like it or not, the way you dress is important. In fact, style is a cultural obsession here in the U.S. We ooh and ah over what designers create for the latest celebrity event. We have TV shows dedicated to helping people craft their wardrobes. We even create websites dedicated to fashion disasters; peopleofwalmart.com, anyone?

There’s no doubt that what you wear communicates a great deal about you. We make any number of assumptions about someone based on how they are dressed. Various studies have shown that, as part of our first impression of someone else, we assign characteristics such as financial status, political affiliation, and educational background after just a brief glance at someone’s clothes.

The assumptions don’t stop there. How you dress also influences what others think about your ability to perform your job, and the effects of clothing choice can be very subtle. Dr. Ben C. Fletcher cited two different experiments in which men and women were asked to examine a series of pictures involving people dressed in a variety of outfits. In both experiments, the outfits worn were very similar – suits for men and blouse/skirt combinations for women. All clothing was conservative in nature and colors were kept the same. Faces were blurred, and only slight differences were made in the style of dress. In some cases, the suits were tailored or the skirts fell just above the knee vs. just below.

After viewing the images for only five seconds each, participants rated the models in terms of six dimensions – intelligence, confidence, trustworthiness, responsibility, authority, and organization. As you can probably imagine, those models whose attire was just a step above the rest were rated higher in all dimensions. Men in suits better fitted to their body were seen as “more confident, successful, flexible, and a higher earner.” Women who wore longer skirts and fastened an extra button on their blouse were viewed more favorably than their slightly more casual counterparts.

Of course, businesses have known about these tendencies for decades. That’s why so many have some sort of formal dress code or uniform as part of their personnel policies. It makes sense to protect the brand in this way. If people make unconscious assumptions about an individual’s capability, then it stands to reason that the same assumption would carry over to their feelings about the company as a whole.

But the way we dress also impacts our perceptions of our own capabilities. Just like posture, what we wear influences our sense of power and confidence. Researchers studying the influence of clothing on performance repeatedly confirm this theory. Olympic athletes dressed in red are able to lift heavier weights and tend to win more matches than those who wear blue. Subjects make half as many mistakes on tasks that demand high concentration when wearing a white lab coat. Men wearing suits during negotiations generate more testosterone and walk away with better deals than those who wear sweats.

This phenomenon – the impact that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological state – is called “enclothed cognition.” It involves two aspects of our chosen dress code. First, there’s the symbolic meaning of the clothes we wear. That is, what attributes do we associate with certain types of clothing? White lab coats for instance carry a certain connotation; we see them as belonging to people who are intelligent, trustworthy, and thorough.

The second component of enclothed cognition involves the physical experience of wearing a particular outfit. Putting on the lab coat is a significant act. Actually wearing one increases your attention to detail while simply looking at one does not. Putting on clothes associated with specific professions causes us to adopt – both physically and mentally – the characteristics we associate with that line of work. “Dress for success: starts to take on a whole new meaning now, doesn’t it?

Experts offer these tips for making sure your wardrobe has a positive impact on your success:

  1. Don’t show too much skin.
  2. Never wear dirty clothes.
  3. Don’t wear wrinkled clothing.
  4. Wear clothes that fit you well.
  5. Follow the dress code, or dress one step above it.
  6. Wear appropriate shoes and accessories.
  7. Don’t wear shorts.

Back at the Voland house, my wife and I stopped Andrew before he made a fashion mistake. We convinced him to lose the t-shirt and shorts in favor of jeans and a nice long-sleeved shirt. He immediately stood a little taller. He walked with a bit more confidence. He looked, and felt, like a different person. Plus, he made a great impression.


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