Dress for success
First impressions are still lasting impressions
HAVE you heard the latest gossip? No, not gossip about the latest Hollywood romance and/or the recent Angela Jolie-Brad Pitt wedding.
Believe it or not, the Internet is abuzz with online gossip about what U.S. President Barack Obama wore during a recent foreign-policy press conference. Really, it’s true.
The U.S. president appears to have suddenly ventured away from his dark-coloured suits and instead chose to wear a simple tan-coloured, tailored business suit, “breezy looking” as defined by one commentator.
However, according to reports, the change in colour style shocked the news attendees. Obviously, they lost focus, and instead of paying attention to the dire circumstances of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and the president’s responses, all the focus was placed on what he wore. Comments ranged from suit from dad’s closet and selling tornado insurance to you can’t declare war in a suit like that. An apparent tongue-in-cheek comment suggested the tan suit was the “boldest thing the president had done in months.”
So, it seems from these quick and harsh comments the issue of dress for success is alive and well. Frankly, I’ve been accustomed to reading critiques on how the U.S. first lady Michelle Obama dresses, but this is the first time I’ve seen a critique on male dress code. And the president yet.
The idea and the term “dress for success” originated with a famous author named John Mallory. Mallory initially participated in a research program studying the effect of teachers’ clothing on classroom learning. His conclusions were clothing substantially impacted credibility and authority. He was then asked to work with law firms to teach them how clothing can make them more credible in court. Next, he worked with sales-based corporations on how to use dress to increase sales. Over the next 25 years, Mallory wrote several books and became a syndicated columnist. Today, he continues to speak and is a frequent Internet blogger.
Over the years, as we all know, the popularity of a dress-for-success mindset has waned significantly. Although confusing to many employees, especially women, business casual and casual have become the name of the game in many business sectors. Yet, it seems with this latest critique of the president’s tan suit the mindset is not quite as fully passé as I thought.
In fact, dress for success may be experiencing a resurrection, especially as a result of recent musings by authors such as Malcolm Gladwell. His theory that people make sense of things really quickly suggests all of us make snap judgments about what we see and hear. In other words, people continue to make quick judgments about people they have just met, and this first impression, or halo effect, is hard to erase.
No matter how we look at it, the first thing we see when we meet someone is their clothing, their hair and their face. Next, we observe their body language, how they walk, stand, where they hold their hands and what they do with their hands. We next carefully watch where the person focuses their eyes and we listen carefully to their voice and speech patterns. Then, rightly or wrongly and with the blink of an eye, we make an assessment of their honesty, we guess at their apparent success and we pass judgment on their values and even their intelligence. Don’t deny it.
In other words folks, first impressions still count. And if that is the case, you need to pay better attention to deliberately molding your first impression. Obviously, from the president’s recent experience, you must admit that dress for success is still alive and well. I continue to believe, as Mallory did, clothing and dress are quickly interpreted by others and can make or break their perception of your credibility and authority.
At the same time, in today’s work world, we have to realize dress for success has a different meaning for each business and organization. If your workplace is business casual and you come to work every day in a suit (tan or otherwise), you will look out of place. You will not fit in. In this case, you may be harshly judged as someone who perceives yourself as better than your colleagues.
The opposite is also true. If your workplace is more formal and you insist on coming to work in business casual, or even less casual, you too will not fit into the cultural norm. You may be labelled a rebel, someone who doesn’t fit in or doesn’t want to fit in. You may be judged as someone who is unprofessional and/ or insubordinate. Remember, this judgment happens in just the blink of an eye and you would have to work hard to overcome these first impressions.
The entire issue of dress for success has become so confused over the years most companies now have stated policies outlining what you can and can’t wear. Some organizations have reverted to having employees wear uniforms as one way in which to create consistent customer presence and avoid any potential wardrobe challenges.
However, there are still a few good pieces of advice on dress for success to which readers might pay attention. For instance, if you are not obliged to wear a uniform, focus on dressing for the job that you want, not the job you have. This allows you to be confident, taken seriously and look like someone who is ready to take on more challenges. Dress to make an impression, yet focus on understated elegance. Women in particular who use flash and trash to get attention have the misperception that any attention is good attention. Sorry ladies, you lose.
Play close attention to the frequent flyers that arrive in your mailbox and your Internet inbox. What are people wearing to work these days? What can you wear that has a professional look about it yet be part of the culture of your organization? What can you wear that would ensure you are viewed the way you want to be seen and understood. What can you wear that would take you to the next step in your career?
In my view, the real challenge for today’s dress for success is not locating the clothes and dress that are popular, the challenge is putting everything together for your height, body size, job role and where you work. There is more to dressing than meets the eye. Be strategic about what you wear. I wonder if President Obama will now seek out some help, he did look a bit washed out in his tan suit. Source: Dress for Success, The blog, John T. Mallory, cbc.ca/newsblog,
August 29, 2014.