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Dress vs. Success: How the Clothes Make the Man – Or the Woman

A man and a woman who dress to impress

The world is awash in study after study about how clothing influences attraction between men and women, but there’s relatively little talk of how our clothes influence us in a professional setting. How specifically does wearing certain clothes in the office affect people’s perceptions of us? For that matter, how do the clothes we wear affect our own perceptions of us? Can they? As it turns out, they can, adding an interesting twist to the ubiquitous employer-employee or job interviewer-interviewee dynamic.

Do the clothes make the man (or woman) after all?

A study conducted last year by Northwestern University brought to light a phenomenon called “enclothed cognition”, which essentially boils down to you are what you wear. Different clothes carry different symbolic meanings for people, and those meanings not only influence those who observe the wearer, but also the mindset of the wearer themselves. For instance, Northwestern had their subjects don white lab coats before having them perform cognitive tests. Some were told the coats were artists’ smocks while others were told they were doctors’ coats. Individuals who thought they were wearing a doctor’s coat displayed greater attention to detail than those who thought they were wearing an artist’s smock, presumably because of the meticulousness associated with doctors. Basically, those who believed they were wearing doctors’ coats “thought” more like doctors.

Instituting enclothed cognition in the workplace – making “dress for success” a must

There are many documented reasons for instituting a dress code at the workplace: ensuring everyone in your organization looks professional in front of clients and creating a certain level of uniformity that subtly prevents any one employee from dressing too eccentrically are just two examples. However, probably the most beneficial aspect of instituting a dress code for an organization is directly linked to enclothed cognition. Studies have shown that workplaces with business-professional dress codes (as opposed to the more ambiguous business-casual code) have employees who feel better about themselves and are more productive, and the reason is simple: When you dress like a professional, you feel like a professional, and therefore act more professionally as well, i.e., more productively.

In contrast, arguments in support of a more casual dress code include better morale because the workplace feels more comfortable (just like the clothes) and coworkers, including managers, feel more approachable. Certain industries, such as tech, also tend to be associated with more casual clothing, almost as if it’s an extension of the brand; the recent successes of tech giants like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame for instance have created a parallel between casual clothing and innovations in technology. But, by contrast, lawyers are almost always expected to don a full suit. But why? Why shouldn’t lawyers look more relaxed and approachable?

Once again, outfits carry different symbolic meanings even within the business world. In a sense, “dress for success” can vary by profession, and that’s important to keep in mind when instituting a dress code. You’re more likely to hire a lawyer in a suit and tie than one in a hoodie and jeans. Likewise, you may wonder just how tech savvy a developer really is if they show up to a meeting meticulously dressed by Harry Rosen. But remember, the concept of enclothed cognition refers to how the wearer perceives themselves. It’s actually very possible that the lawyer in a hoodie and jeans would perform better in a suit because the suit makes them feel more like a “real” lawyer. So when you’re instituting a dress code, it’s important to keep the symbolic meanings that are tied to your industry in mind in order for it to be successful.

How to see through the dress-to-impress veneer

People tend to make snap judgments about those they don’t know, and clothing is one of the indicators we use to do this. Employers conducting job interviews should be particularly aware of this aspect of human nature so as to ensure they don’t become captivated by a cleverly contrived getup. Remember that with enclothed cognition, it’s almost as if the interviewee could literally be wearing a different personality, skewing the interviewer’s perception of how they’ll perform on a consistent basis – they may even test better than they normally would!

While a candidate should always look professional for their interview, the employer needs to consciously draw a line beyond appearance and focus on asking probing, detailed questions based on the candidate’s work history, all the while watching for telltale body language, such as the inability to maintain eye contact or fidgeting, which could indicate dishonesty. Only then can an employer ensure they’re talking to a qualified applicant. To quote poet Nikki Giovanni, “If you don’t understand yourself, you don’t understand anybody else.”

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. ferheen #

    Very True!!! Clothing is one of the ways of communicating. It’s as equivalent as the marketing concept of packaging.


    September 23, 2013
  2. I was wondering if you ever thought of changing the layout of your blog?
    Its very well written; I love what youve got to say.
    But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could
    connect with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for only having one or two pictures.
    Maybe you could space it out better?


    April 16, 2014
    • Thank you! We’re very happy that you’re enjoying the blog and we appreciate the feedback we get from our readers. We will definitely take your feedback into consideration as we have had some discussions about altering the blog layout for even better readability. Thanks again and stay tuned!


      April 16, 2014
  3. Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an really long comment
    but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up.
    Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyhow, just
    wanted to say wonderful blog!


    April 21, 2014

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