Challenge: What Work Clothes Can And Cannot Say About You
While it may sound frivolous, I think we can all relate to making snap judgments about people without knowing the facts. Yes, dude, #youtoo. One study discovered teachers made assumptions about academic ability based on clothing.
Clothes matter. They’re also just clothes.
So how do we be mindful, but not overthink this? To unpack this one, we’ll challenge this traditional career mantra:
“Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.”
What does this mean in a business casual culture? Or when your CEO regularly wears a hoodie with ripped jeans?
At the end of the day, we cannot control what other people think. Although it behooves us as individuals to be aware of the larger associations that are governed by the culture-at-large.
I believe there has been a shift. Yes, if you look like Mark Zuckerberg and wear a hoodie, you may be assumed to be a millionaire. And if you don’t look like him? You may be mistaken for a college student.
Popular media creates the baseline by which unspoken expectations are set and, in some cases, need to be confronted — not with words, but with choices. Try these situations on for size.
We mentor a lot about building trust as a basis for better communication. And nowhere are the stakes higher than during an interview. In particular, interview clothes reflect our attitude about the opportunity and how we feel about ourselves.
What are those words for you? Start with the impression you want to leave and then dress yourself accordingly. The safe bet is some version of a suit.
If you want to do a little extra legwork, many companies put together promotional videos for recruiting. You can get a good sense of workwear and then plan to dress a cut above to ensure a solid interaction.
I also personally like to be mindful of colors. Some pop psychology to take with a grain of salt:
- Black – implies confidence
- White – can mean detail-oriented, innocent
- Blue – infers honest, trustworthy (hello Gordon Gekko!)
- Green – the army shade suggests rigidness, lighter shades can mean natural
- Brown – appears down-to-earth and conversational
- Gray – denotes reliability
- Red – hints at action and power
Selling, Pitching, Presenting
Similar to interviewing, in this case, it’s worth thinking about what impression you want to leave your audience. This should be amplified by the department, conclusions, or product you are representing.
For instance, sales people do a great job of projecting a positive image. They know they are trying to close a deal based on a promise of fill-in-the-blank. They look polished and trustworthy. On the other hand, creative folks like writers have a lot of leeway because there’s an understanding that they’re “creative”.
My last firm outsourced a study to an external research firm. On the presentation day, the lead analyst moderated an executive panel in an ultra mini bodycon dress – something that she never wore to prior planning meetings. We later heard that this was her dressing up for an important occasion.
It’s understandable. My perspective is everything is allowable, but not everything is beneficial. Were we being judgey? Probably. Did the attire make the collective group uncomfortable enough to say something? Yes. In the game of work, there are bigger fish to fry. You don’t want to burn equity on this one.
One litmus test is to imagine your boss wearing the outfit you’re considering. If that makes you cringe a little too much, maybe leave it for weekend jaunts.
I met an engineer once who shared how she was suspicious of people who dressed nice. She wasn’t joking. And I don’t think she’s alone.
Is it possible that “dressing nice” can hinder your career?
What we feel comfortable wearing to work says a lot about the company’s culture. Remember clothing does not represent your experience, capability, or intelligence.
So for the everyday, I’m a believer of wearing whatever makes you comfortable. If that makes anybody noticeably uncomfortable, then balance the interaction with approachability. For example, make sure you’re speaking with people at eye-level, not “down”. Treat others to coffee to get to know them better.
Read more: Difficult Personalities Decoded
“The best fashion advice I’d say would be just to do what makes you comfortable and what makes you feel cute, and that’s how you’re gonna look your best ’cause when you feel your best, everybody else can feel it, too.”
Lastly, mistakes will happen. Once I boldly wore my pair of Vibram Five Fingers to the office. They’re good enough for Sergey Brin, a co-founder of a small company named Google, right?
I can’t tell you how much eyerolling ensued followed by side comments like, “Of course, you would.” You win some, you lose some. Just be proud of your choices when you make them knowing you can change your mind later. That’s always your right.
For what you wear, what you do, and who you choose to be.