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?
- 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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