To many people, the phrase “dress for success” conjures up the image of a man wearing a suit and tie with combed hair and a clean-shaven face. Business attire has come to represent the epitome of what it means to be successful. To a certain extent, this makes sense. When you picture a meeting room full of C-level businessmen, you almost certainly picture them being meticulously dressed, all wearing similar outfits that conform to the social norm of “business attire.”
However, studies have shown that those who make it a point to always wear a suit and tie are seen by the general public as being less prestigious than those who buck the system, choosing to wear whatever they please.
One study, conducted at Harvard University, had 159 participants read a short story about a professor. The participants were given two descriptors of the professor: one group read that he was well-dressed in suit and tie, cleanly shaven, and neatly groomed. The other group was told he came to class wearing a regular T-shirt, had scraggly hair, and wore a shaggy beard. Other than the description of the professor, the story was the exact same.
When asked about the professor’s probable qualifications, the participants who read that he came to work unkempt and wearing “regular” clothes reported that he must have held more prestige than his colleagues. Their thought process was that, since he was able to dress that way and still keep his job, he must be incredibly good at what he does. The other side of this coin is obvious: the professor who feels the need to dress to impress every day has to give off an air of elitism in order to appear competent.
A similar study conducted in Italy asked shop assistants to read a story about a woman who came into a store wearing either a variety of different clothing: a dress and fur coat, gym clothes, high heels and an expensive watch, or flip flops and a cheap watch. They were then asked which woman would be most likely to purchase something from the store. Ironically, the shopkeepers reported that the women dressed in gym clothes and flip flops were more likely to buy items from the store. They believed these women to actually be more successful and well-off than those who came in dressed to the nines, as the ones wearing sweatpants didn’t feel the need to get dressed up just to buy something fancy.
There has been a recent paradigm shift in the definition of “dressing for success.” As previously mentioned, it’s those that dress the part that now often appear as if they’re simply playing a role rather than actually being the person they present themselves as. On the other hand, those who dress their own way are often seen as so important that they don’t have to conform to societal norms. Steve Jobs was famous for wearing a simple black turtleneck during Apple’s major press releases. He didn’t have to wear a suit to impress anybody; it was his ideas that made people stare in awe. Mark Zuckerberg can almost always be found wearing a grey T-shirt and jeans; he’s gone on record saying he doesn’t have time to waste trying to look perfect every day of his life. If you saw these people on the street and had no idea who they were, you wouldn’t think they were billionaires. But that’s the point: they want their ideas to define them, not their looks.
So what does dressing for success mean? It all depends on the situation. Doctors can wear white coats, scrubs, or sometimes business-casual dress depending on if they are performing care, surgery, or a simple consultation. Policemen or security guards may or may not be uniformed, depending on if they want to keep the peace by making their presence known or if they want to catch someone committing an illegal act. Athletes, of course, wear their team uniform on the field, but will immediately suit up afterward for the press conference.
The phrase “dress for success” makes it seem as if all it takes to experience greatness is to put on the right clothes. In truth, it’s the person inside the clothes that define what success looks like.
Featured photo credit: Clark Kent / Nana B Agyei via farm4.staticflickr.com