When it comes to judging others, we perceive a broad range of personal characteristics through clothing choice. We jump to conclusions about viewpoints, values, and professional competence based, at least initially, not on what someone says, but on what they wear. Yet research reveals that we apply the same standards to ourselves: Dressing for success exudes credibility, and instills confidence.
Men Suited for Power Playing
Research shows that well dressed individuals are more successful in negotiation settings. A study by Kraus and Mendes (2014) demonstrated that men in business suits benefit from a perception of dominance.[i] In their study, male participants wore either a business suit or sweatpants, indicating signs of upper class or lower class membership, to engage in a negotiation exercise.
They found that the men in business suits induced dominance, measured by successful negotiation. Participants observing the upper class symbol (the business suit) of their negotiation partner decreased their own perception of social power.
The findings by Kraus and Mendes also suggested a self-fulfilling prophecy related to how wearing clothing symbolic of higher status can increase self-confidence. They found that participants negotiating in a business suit increased profits and decreased offered concessions.
Role Playing: We Are What We Wear
Other research corroborates the reality that what we wear affects the way we feel and act. A study by López-Pérez et al. (2016) exploring the concept known as enclothed cognition found that participants who wore tunics and associated them with nursing scrubs, felt more empathetic and demonstrated increased helping behavior than those who merely wore the scrub, or considered only its symbolic meaning.[ii]
Their research cited previous studies demonstrating the impact that clothing can have on cognition. One study (Adam and Galinsky, 2012) showed that participants who wore a white coat and identified it as a doctor´s coat exhibited better sustained attention than participants wearing a white coat who identified it as just a coat, or as a painters coat. Another study (Van Stockum & De Caro, 2014) showed that students who wore a white lab coat demonstrated a higher degree of attention to problem solving.
No Such Thing as a Provocatively Dressed Professional Women
In addition to exuding status and power, clothing also impacts the perception of competence. Depending on their position, women can lose the perception of competence by dressing provocatively at work.
A study by Howlett et al. entitled “Unbuttoned: The Interaction Between Provocativeness of Female Work Attire and Occupational Status,” measured gender biased standards in the UK. [iii] They tested perceptions of the competence of professional women in different status roles (managers and receptionists), varying skirt length, and number of buttons unfastened on a blouse.
The raters (also women) perceived managers with shorter skirts and more buttons unfastened as less competent compared to when they were more conservatively dressed. This observed interaction between clothing and status did not exist for receptionists. This study demonstrates a link between provocative clothing and perceived competence, and also between clothing and status.
Findings like these are important because we are often treated differently depending on how we are perceived—which can in turn impact the way we view ourselves. This is particularly true when it comes to the perception of competence.
Suitability May be in the Eye of the Observer
Different observers have different expectations of professional dress—and consequently have different ideas about appropriate attire. Research by Ruetzler et al. entitled “What Is Professional Attire Today?” (2012), conducted on participants from the hospitality industry, measured contemporary professionalism trends. Their research showed that professionalism is indicated most significantly through business dress and grooming.[iv]
In their study, different categories of observers perceived different styles differently. Faculty members favored conservative clothing, while industry professionals and students believed trendy clothing created a more favorable presentation when worn by a job candidate, a finding the researchers suggested might have a generational explanation.
Their study further found that business casual clothing was preferred over casual attire, although there was a preference for business attire. Dark clothing was slightly preferred over lighter clothing. And regarding body art, study participants believed that any piercings should be conservative, and obvious tattoos were inconsistent with professionalism.
Style Impacts Success
When we intentionally dress for success, we gain confidence through the way we are treated by others, as well as the way we perceive ourselves. Strategizing professional attire appears to be a wise move regardless of your industry, and attire induced accomplishment can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor, business ethics lecturer, author, and behavioral expert. She is the author of author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House). She lectures around the world on sexual assault prevention, safe cyber security, and threat assessment, and is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own. Find her at wendypatrickphd.com or @WendyPatrickPhD, or see a full listing of Dr. Patrick's Psychology Today posts.
[i] Michael W. Kraus and Wendy Berry Mendes, “Sartorial symbols of social class elicit class-consistent behavioral and physiological responses: A dyadic approach,” Journal of Experimental Psychology 143, no. 6, 2014, 2330-2340.
[ii] Belén López-Pérez, Tamara Ambrona, Ellie L. Wilson, and Marina Khalil, “The Effect of Enclothed Cognition on Empathic Responses and Helping Behavior,” Social Psychology 47, no. 4, 2016, 223–231.
[iii] Neil Howlett, Karen Pine, Natassia Cahill, İsmail Orakçıoğlu, and Ben Fletcher,
“Unbuttoned: The Interaction Between Provocativeness of Female Work Attire and Occupational Status,” Sex Roles 72, no. 3, 2015, 105-116.
[iv] Tanya Ruetzler, Jim Taylora, Dennis Reynolds, William Baker, and Claire Killen, “What Is Professional Attire Today? A Conjoint Analysis of Personal Presentation Attributes,” International Journal of Hospitality Management 31, no. 3, 2012, 937–943.