Giving Dressing Up a Dressing Down


WorkAwesome has offered quite a few articles about dressing professionally. Some suggest that helps you to get promoted and gain respect in the workplace. It’s certainly good advice; dressing well is a positive statement about your attitude and preparedness. But, how big of a statement is it? Should we be taking such care to “look sharp,” or have the effects been embellished?

There’s an obvious correlation between higher-level jobs and better dress, but perhaps it’s a classic “chicken or the egg” conundrum: Which comes first? Are people promoted or hired due – in part – to their professional appearance, or do their high-level jobs enable (or require) them to dress better? Maybe the only reason that executives dress well is because they have to.

I was skeptical. I know a sweater from a suit, but I didn’t think clothing had much influence on the way you’re perceived, respected, promoted or paid. There are plenty of wildly successful people who don’t dress particularly well. For every suit-wearing Donald Trump there’s a Steve Jobs wearing a black turtleneck with bluejeans. They’re both successful in their own ways, suggesting that dress doesn’t matter much.

So, to determine if dress really matters, I dressed very poorly for one week, and then I conspicuously overdressed for a second one.

The “bad duds” consisted mostly of poorly-patterned shirts, threadbare slacks with small holes, mismatching colors, and ill-fitting garments. My absolute worst was a hideous button-down shirt – tight at the shoulders, billowy at the waist and patterned like diagonal, faded graph paper. Don’t ask me where I got it. Combined with a pair of khaki pants that would make MC Hammer jealous, I had a perfect outfit for dressing poorly at work.

The better clothing is newer, more expensive, more stylish, more formal, and a much better fit in all cases. The best outfit I could put together is an expensive suit tailored perfectly for… the friend that loaned it to me. Fortunately, we’re the same height, weight and body type. I’m not one to care much about style, but I must admit, I feel good in the suit. It has a silk-like fabric, with nearly-invisible stripes that join perfectly at each seam. I never got to see the price tag, which is probably for the best.

A more precise, more controlled experiment would be much longer; I’m sure appearance-related changes – if they truly exist – take more than a few weeks to develop. It wasn’t a perfect test by any means, but I was observing carefully for appearance-driven differences.

The Week of Geek – Week 1

Dressed carefully in my worst, I looked haggard, and people took notice. I was called a “goofball” and a “propeller-head” separately, both times in front of several other coworkers. In terms of work, It was suggested that I do not write any of the marketing copy for a website I had just built, as in “if you let the geeks do the marketing, who knows how it will turn out!?”

I suspect words like “goofball,” “propeller-head,” and “geek” have as much do with my personality as it did with my clothing, but those seemingly-harmless comments somehow led to the notion that I wasn’t able to write effectively or connect with customers. In a roundabout way, my abilities were inferred from a quick look at my appearance, and I was pigeonholed as a “code geek” who communicates better with a computer server than a fellow human. In their defense, I was intentionally dressing the part, but appearance – apparently – can have a strong, albeit indirect effect on perceived abilities.

A few close coworkers made some friendly jokes about my wardrobe. They weren’t in on the experiment; were they laughing with me or at me?

Finishing With Flair – Week 2

Week 2 felt notably different. Somehow I felt more relaxed in more formal dress. I looked good, I felt good, and I worked more productively. My coworkers did notice the sudden change in appearance, and their lighthearted teasing turned to genuine complements. Whether it was the clothing itself or the compliments, I took myself more seriously. Maybe they did too.

During week 2 I was invited to attend several executive-level meetings about up-and-coming projects. I had never been invited to these before. Coincidence?

Conclusions:

  • Good or Bad, People Notice: When my dress went from normal to bad, bad to fantastic, and fantastic back to normal, every change was noticed. It seems you can impress just as easily as you can underwhelm, and people unknowingly make inferences about your skills from your appearance.
  • Looking Good Feels Great and Works: Even if dressing better had no other effects at all, it made me feel good, It improved my attitude, and in turn increased my productivity and work quality. It’s probably the after-effects of dressing well that can elevate your status, not the clothing itself.
  • Importance Varies: My appearance, whether dapper or dismal, didn’t have a tremendous impact on my work. But, had the same “fashion statements” been made by a director or a “C level” executive, they would have been saying “I take this seriously” or “I don’t care” much more loudly than I ever could.

Two weeks is just a glimpse into the effects; given more time, looking sharp (or looking shoddy) could have a much larger impact. Dressing well won’t single-handedly improve your status at work, but according to my makeshift experiment, it does have some subtle, indirect benefits.


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Peter is Vice President of Digital Marketing at an investment holdings company in Washington DC and Co-Founder at True North.

Discussion

  1. Tom on the 11th July

    Reading this post I’m sitting here on my patio in some shorts and a bright orange t-shirt that is severly wrinkled from spending the last two years at the bottom of a box of similarly styled shirts. And I must say: It really does have its advantages working from home 😉

    Dress is all about people’s expectations. If you deviate too far from what most people expect in a given setting, you might get undesirable reactions.

    For example, you will most likely run into problems wearing shorts working at a bank (not to mention that you probably wouldn’t even make it through the front door), while you would probably look quite awkward to people if you were wearing a suit working at the local butcher shop.

    Those are of course extreme examples. But if you want to “fit in” with others you will have to conform to some sort of dress code. Only after you “made it” can you dress the way you want. Look at some old videos of Steve Jobs doing presentations: he was wearing suit and tie or even a bow tie. Nowadays he could probably get away with wearing anything.

    On the other hand people like Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer have always dressed horribly and yet they seem to be doing OK.

    I guess in the end it’s about the environment you’re in, people’s expectations in that environment and what you want to achieve. If you want to fit in you will want to meet expectations and dress accordingly. If you want to stand out, your clothing is a great way to make statement. There are, of course, limits.

  2. Corvida Raven on the 11th July

    Wow, that’s a very transparent change of actions and reactions to your dress code. Thanks for sharing this and I have a question for you:

    What if you can’t afford to buy new items or clothing or better clothes while you’re trying to get a job? Would you go about explaining that to people with their comments? Would you continue to ignore it? What do you do in a situation like this?

  3. Freelance forums on the 11th July

    The first week wasn’t OK in my opinion. No one in his right minds would go to his job or client meetings looking as if he’s the janitor, no offense. The “dressing down” was too exaggerated in my opinion. Dressing in CLEAN, well fitted and quality casual clothes is one thing and looking like a homeless guy is something different. even if I am an advocate for casual wear, I do have clothes that look stunningly well on me, I match the colours and still look good, even if I have Adidas shoes, jeans and a t-shirt.

    I agree that wearing suits makes people see you in a different way, but in some cases this can mean overdressing and it would make you look funny among your coworkers.

    It’s indeed important to know how to dress and I agree with your main idea: that having some good clothes on you makes people react differently.

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