Business dress: you are what you wear

You may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but when it comes to our colleagues, we certainly make a valiant effort to do so. Specifically, in a sad statement about our evolution from middle schooler to cube farmer, a plethora of research shows that we are quick to judge our coworkers based on how they look.

For example, researchers recently found that men wearing tailor-made suits were assumed to be more confident, successful, flexible, and higher earning than those wearing an off-the-rack version. And these are guys in suits! What might your colleagues think of your “vintage” Coachella T-shirt or “dressy” flip-flops?

While factors like a coworker’s age and overall work environment influence their perceptions, a 2013 study conducted by the York College Center of Professional Excellence found that an appearance deemed unprofessional might have a negative effect on your career. The study, which surveyed 401 human resource professionals, states the findings pretty emphatically:

“The importance of proper appearance cannot be emphasized enough. When rating the impact of attire and appearance on likelihood of being hired, 80.6 percent of the respondents give a rating of either 4 or 5, great impact.

The influence of attire and appearance goes beyond the hiring process. It has an impact on the perception of one’s competence. Using the same rating scale, respondents rated the impact of appearance on their perception of an employee’s ability to perform their job requirements. Over half (56.9 percent) assign a rating of 4 or 5, great impact.”

The report does indicate a generational difference when it comes to weighing the importance of appearance, however, so the trick is figuring out what “proper attire” means in your particular workplace. What flies at a start-up run by a 27-year-old will probably be very different from what’s expected at a decades-old law firm.

But dressing for success in a way that makes sense for your workplace is not just good for your rep, it’s good for your self-perception. At least one study found that feeling fashionably on par with peers affects performance, basically because we connect better with people who we identify with clothing-wise.

Research also shows we are not immune to our own critical eye, and what we wear can influence how we work. For example, a Northwestern study found that the symbolic meaning of clothing (in this case, a lab coat) may affect your ability to pay attention. And while dressing like Dr. Bunsen Honeydew for your job at a title company may not inspire you to work harder, starting the day wearing your “quitters” may zap your motivation.

In a perfect professional world, we’d all be judged based on accomplishments rather than appearance. But whether or not it’s fair, or middle school-esque, our coworkers and employers do make assessments about our abilities based on how we look. And some experts, like Jennifer Baumgartner, author of You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You, believe that our clothing actually does say something about our priorities and who we are.

Of course, how you dress is completely up to you. But bear this Monster survey in mind before thwap-thwapping your (presumably well-manicured) flip-flopped feet into the office. Sweltering heat or not, 77 percent of the more than 10,000 respondents said they were unprofessional. Were they just reacting like catty tweens, or making a reasonable judgment?

Jill Coody Smits
Post by Jill Coody Smits

Jill Coody Smits is an Austin-based freelance writer and proponent of research-backed communication. Interested in psychology, health, fitness, and human rights. Wife, mother, traveler, reader, dog-lover, unaccomplished athlete.

11 Responses to Business dress: you are what you wear

  1. Ekus

    OK, so you agree it’s unfair and childish, and yet you defend it? Also, flip-flops are rather extreme example, even if – coder – say so myself. Still, they are not more pointless and ridiculous than suits and ties in hot climates. There is so much space in between these extremes, than one can easily look good without bowing to 19th century worldview.

    • jcoodysmits jcoodysmits

      That’s great, Rob. There’s nothing inherently wrong with dressing casually, particularly if your employer is okay with it, too.

      • Rob

        I do like the article, though. You made some good points. I think it depends on personality. Some people work better when they are comfortable. Others may actually need to dress nice and feel more “important”. If that is what works for them, so be it. But we are all different.

  2. jessix

    Dressing as someone you are not is EXHAUSTING, NOT PROFESSIONAL!

    One who is good at his/her job cannot keep up the good work when energy is being drained by wearing “correct” clothes and make-up up to match everyone else’s perception of how you should look to be “professional”.

    Take cues from hospital physicians and surgeons who wear scrubs when working. Underneath are comfortable t-shirts, jeans, and flip-flops!

    America continues it’s downward spiral to mediocrity, hastened by its preoccupation with appearances instead of substance!

  3. zestigtwee

    I tell new employees at our university medical school (where we primarily work with outside organizations) that they should come to work in clothes that cannot be confused with a trip to the gym, the beach or the nightclub. If a stranger on the street looks at them and wonders if they are on their way to any of those locations, they are not appropriately dressed for our work environment. That means no yoga pants, logo t-shirts, tennis shoes, flip-flops, shorts, tank tops, mini skirts or plunging necklines. It’s all about context. You’ve got to conform to what’s appropriate to your specific work environment. If that’s too difficult, find a job where the appropriate dress code better suits your personal style.

  4. No Tie, No Sweat

    I value being very good at what you do versus how you are dressed. I am nearly 50 and in somewhat of a traditional environment that bows to business casual. But a tie? Please…nothing more than a male fashion accessory in the same way that a scarf or earrings are for females. And it be it a narrow or wide tie, it has remained largely unchanged since the late 1800’s. Why not just wear colonial wigs or bowler hats or cravattes?

  5. Damian

    I am in the Aerospace/Engineering field. The guys I work with (including myself) all wear jeans and tennis shoes…..and I am sure we make more then 75% of the guys wearing suit & ties

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