Do the Clothes Make the Man?
The psychology of dressing for success
Posted March 9, 2018
How others see you
“As the self is dressed, it is simultaneously addressed.” – Stone, 1962, p. 102
The old adage, “Dress for the job you want,” may be more than just a pithy saying, and psychologists who study identity have some interesting things to say on the subject.
It’s no secret that clothes, cars, homes, and even cell phones have more than practical functions. They are also used as forms of self-expression that can signal status, group membership, individuality, or personal taste. Through our clothing, we can send each other silent cues that signal to others how we expect them to treat us. This works because we tend to make very quick assessments of situations and people and put them into categories that we already understand. This cognitive shortcut, known as representative bias, saves us precious computational energy, but it also leads us to make sweeping generalizations with very little information. Representative bias is the tendency NOT to treat every person as an individual, but to make assumptions based on traits we observe that are similar to the traits of others that we already understand. A thin, blonde woman in yoga pants getting into a minivan? You already think you know what she’s about. A guy wearing a pinstriped suit, slicked back hair, and a silk pocket scarf? You’re assuming he’s not the janitor. One study even found that people who wore black were seen as more aggressive than those who wore light colors (Vrij, 1997).
How you see yourself
Dressing to impress can influence how others see us, but what’s perhaps less obvious is how it can affect our own sense of self. Some psychologists think that physical objects, like clothes, can be used to change our internal mindset, allowing us to transition more easily into roles that are unfamiliar by first dressing the part (Solomon, 1983). The theory here (technically called symbolic interactionism) is that when we surround ourselves with objects that symbolize a particular role (teacher, biker, executive, gym rat, etc.) our sense of identity begins to interact with those symbols, and we unconsciously begin to behave in the way we expect a person who wears such clothes to behave. This may explain our cultural love of dressing in costume (Halloween, cosplay, theme parties) since it allows us to temporarily don new personalities along with the clothing.
If symbolic interactionism is real, then dressing for the job you want may subconsciously change your behavior, helping you to perform better, and earn that promotion. There is a line you don’t want to cross, though. It is one thing to be your best self. It is another thing altogether to fake competence when you simply don’t have it.
Trying too hard – when clothes are compensation
“Almost all absurdity of conduct arises from the imitation of those we cannot resemble.” – Samuel Johnson
Sometimes, when we lack experience in a certain role, dressing the part can help us get our confidence up, our creative juices flowing, and our go-getter-attitude revved. Sometimes, though, dressing the part is an act of insecurity – masking a reality of incompetence.
When people are unsure about their ability to perform in a role, they sometimes dress the part to compensate for their own insecurity. A classic example of this is how the newly rich tend to engage in ‘conspicuous consumption’ to show their wealth (Warner and Lunt, 1941), while those with ‘old money’ tend to avoid making a show of it (Assael, 1981). One interesting study of business school students found that those who had poor grades and worse job prospects were more likely to wear the ‘uniform’ of a successful businessperson. Expensive watches, suits, and close-cut hair were more commonly worn by the incompetent than the students who excelled (Wicklund et al., 1981).
In short, it would seem that dressing for success has potential benefits beyond how others see you. It may also help you to see yourself in that new role you are working toward, and subconsciously help you to act, and not just look, the part. Be careful, though, since wearing the uniform does not truly compensate for lack of ability. Be honest with yourself if you are compensating and think about upgrading your skill set before you upgrade your wardrobe.
Assael, Henry (1981) Consumer Behavior and Marketing Action, Boston: Kent Publishing.
Rehm, J., Steinleitner, M. and Lilli, W. (1987), Wearing uniforms and aggression–A field experiment. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol., 17: 357–360. doi:10.1002/ejsp.2420170310
Solomon, M. (1983). The Role of Products as Social Stimuli: A Symbolic Interactionism Perspective. Journal of Consumer Research, 10(3), 319-329. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2488804
Stone. G. P. Appearance and the self. In A. M. Rose (Ed.), Human behavior and social processes: An interactionist approach. Boston: Houghton Miffin, 1962.
Vrij, A. (1997), Wearing Black Clothes: The Impact of Offenders' and Suspects' Clothing on Impression Formation. Appl. Cognit. Psychol., 11: 47–53. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1099-0720(199702)11:1<47::AID-ACP421>3.0.CO;2-H
Warner, W. Loyd, and Lunt, Paul S. (1941) The Social Life of a Modern Community, Yankee City Series, Vol 1, New Haven: Yale University Press.
Wicklund, Robert A., Golwitzer, Peter M., Castelain, P., Korzekwa, P. and Blasko, V. (1981) Various forms of self-symbolizing in Ideological, Occupational, and Domestic self-definitions. Unpublieshed manuscript, University of Texas at Austin.