Dressing the Part

Clothes may not make the woman but they do help signal who she is and where she’s going.  

Research shows observers pick up cues from appearance that enable them to quickly (and surprisingly accurately) judge another’s status and even infer aspects of personality. Can getting too casual about business casual hurt your chances for advancement? 

Relaxed Dress Codes Increase Need To Dress The Part  

When dress-for-success was the mantra, mornings were easy; put on a suit. Today’s looser rules and casual workplaces can create pitfalls where personal style and comfort go too far and the whole business aspect of business casual is forgotten. 

Because dress codes are wide open to interpretation today, how you dress actually takes on greater significance. It offers an opportunity to demonstrate personal judgment, a solid read of company culture, maturity and even where you are headed.   

Snap judgments and research results 

“Impression formation happens quickly, and has long-lasting effects on attitudes, expectation and behavior,” a study exploring the role of clothing in creating first impressions and published in the Journal of Research in Personality found. Style of dress, for example, helped observers form opinions about someone’s conscientiousness. Looking at nothing but someone’s shoes, study participants accurately predicted personal status and even traits such as creativity.  

Perhaps even more mind-bending than how much, how quickly and how accurately observers predicted personal characteristics from the briefest clothing cues, what we’re wearing can also influence how we think. Psychological scientists from California State University at Northridge and Columbia University found that wearing more formal clothing enhanced people’s ability to engage in abstract thinking.  

In one experiment, researchers had university students wear either clothing appropriate for a job interview or clothing they might wear to class. Those in formal clothing exhibited greater global cognitive processing (big picture thinking) whereas the more casually dressed students focused on details.  

A Monster.com poll of 18,000 people found that bright prints tended to alienate colleagues, body-hugging clothing discounted authority and shorts signaled vacation mode.  

Get it right and move on 

Clothing isn’t the most important thing on your mind but your attire can build or diminish your personal brand. You may also not receive helpful feedback from supervisors because many are uncomfortable addressing the issue head on. Creating a game plan that works for you can enable you to check this box and move on.  

“In a world that is becoming increasingly casual, to dress with care is a wonderful way to stand out and position yourself as success ready,” advises career strategist and author of Be Bold. Be Brilliant. Be You., Katrina McGhee. “You have two goals when deciding what to wear: first, make sure your inner brilliance is reflected in your outer appearance, and second, make sure your outer appearance isn’t a distraction from your excellent performance.” 

There may not be hard and fast rules for how to dress today, but consider this advice. 

  • Within your budget, start with well-made clothing that really fits. You will present a more powerful presence in one or two well-made jackets that fit perfectly than five or six poorly made or overly trendy pieces.  

  • Maintain shoes in top shape. In the study that demonstrated how quickly people read cues from appearance, researchers focused on shoes. People notice them. Make sure they are not worn and that they are workplace appropriate.   

  • Dress for your next role. You can demonstrate your ability to read office culture by dressing in ways that are similar to those in leadership and by dressing up for client meetings or when a special guest will be on site.  

  • Keep things simple. Work is not the place for clothing with distracting embellishment or excessive amounts of jewelry that jangle when you walk. Opt for basics with clean lines and simple styling. You can add a splash of style with blouses, a scarf or simple jewelry. Studies show bold and busy prints and fussy fabrics distract.  

  • Consider color. You have options beyond gray and black, but investing the bulk of your wardrobe in foundation colors will enable you to create more outfits from fewer pieces and signal authority. Neon colors and a lot of pastels suggest an after-hours look.  

  • Pantyhose re-emerges. Used to be you wouldn’t be caught dead without them and then they became a fashion taboo. Consider whether they make you look and feel more put together and authoritative.  

Your clothes start talking before you do so take care to make sure they stay on message.

Sign Up For Newsletter

Stay connected and learn about the latest news and events in our community!