Dressing for success has come a long way, here is how you can look professional in the modern workplace.
The 1997 American film Picture Perfect has given us one of the most memorable phrases about corporate dressing: “In business, we dress for the job we want, not the one we have.” Even those who may not have seen this film must have heard the quote being used, especially when it comes to dressing up for a job interview.
But in the past several years, the world has undergone many changes. Some of the most successful business leaders (like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg) have popularized the idea of dressing up casually with their black turtlenecks/grey t-shirts and jeans combinations. Besides this, the pandemic also saw people shifting to dressing more casually—with a formal shirt up top and comfy pajamas at the bottom. Given all these changes, one wonders, does dressing for the job you want still hold true? Let’s take a look.
Benefits of dressing up professionally
The main idea behind dressing up for success at work has always been that if you dress like those in leadership positions and less like your peers, you would subtly hint to upper management that you fit in with them. This leads to an affinity bias, where those in leadership unconsciously gravitate toward those who look like them. Dressing well not only makes other people take you seriously but also makes you feel more confident and self-assured.
According to a 2014 study by organizational behavior professor Michael W. Kraus, clothes that project a high social status can improve job performance in high-stakes work environments. The study tested how people in different kinds of attire performed when negotiating the sale of a hypothetical factory. Those in suits went only US$830,000 below their asking price whereas those in sweatpants and comparatively informal attire moved US$2.81 million below the asking price.
So, does this mean you should wear a suit?
Just because wearing suits helps you perform well in some circumstances doesn’t mean you should don them every day for work. Imagine twinning with your boss every day, I’m sure it would be equally awkward for both you and them. Instead, you should probably look around the office (if you work in an in-office setting) to see how other people are dressed. You can make simple changes, like wearing slacks as opposed to khakis, to lend your ensemble a more professional look.
If you are interviewing for a new job, experts advise that you should try to dress more conservatively and avoid wearing tight-fitting or revealing outfits. They also suggest against wearing loud shoes or jewelry so as to not distract others with your presence. You can also call ahead and ask a human resources executive about the office dress code to avoid showing up over or underdressed.
The “remote- job” equivalent of dressing professionally
As we expressed right at the beginning of the article, a lot of offices today are opting for remote work. This has meant that dressing halfway is good enough, provided you don’t have to stand up at any point during your work calls. But the half of you that your co-workers and boss see does indeed affect how you are perceived. According to a study by Harvard Business Review, having business casual attire along with a plain background is the best choice when it comes to video conferencing. For reference, business casual attire usually means shirts and trousers with optional ties for men and to-the-knee dresses and skirts, trousers along with shirts or blouses for women.
Of course, this might vary depending on the industry you work in. If you work in banking or consulting, you would have to dress up quite professionally. But if you work as a writer or a social media manager, chances are you wouldn’t be required to wear shirts and ties.
Can you ever wear casual clothes to work?
Buying a completely new wardrobe just to look good at work can be expensive. A good workwear suit can cost as much as US$1,000. Given how you can only use this piece for limited purposes, spending so much on work clothes wouldn’t make sense to most people, particularly generation Z and millennials. And so, some of them have begun incorporating pieces from their everyday closet — like crop tops—into work outfits. They pair high-waist pants or blazers with the crop tops to make them more work appropriate. This way, they aren’t spending money buying pieces they wouldn’t wear outside of work and are still able to maintain a professional appearance.
While we discussed the benefits of looking polished, experimenting with workwear can have a positive effect on your professional life as well. According to a Harvard research paper, if you intentionally wear something that isn’t a part of the dress code (like sneakers with your formal clothes), it can make you come across as competent. Ultimately, while how you dress is important, it is not everything. You can be successful irrespective of whether you dress in business casual, formal or mix-and-match casual and formal pieces. Professional-looking clothes are simply an added bonus to a diligent employee. In the end, all that matters is producing quality work. Do so and success will follow.
Header image courtesy of Envato