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appropriate business attire

Science: Dressing for Success Means Appropriate Business Attire

What We Wear Matters

Choosing appropriate business attire consumes precious time in our busy lives. Suit? Dress? Slacks? Neutrals? Colors? Don’t get me started on “business casual Friday.”  We aren’t inclined to do as Einstein did — streamline by wearing the same clothes every day. Doing business on Zoom or Google put us comfortably in pajamas but now that we’re back in the office, how do we dress for success?

The level of formality in your workplace garb is, in part, dictated by your profession and your employer. Lawyers and bankers typically wear suits.  Teachers are more likely to choose khakis or slacks. There is more leeway than ever for  professional wardrobe options, but you would not want to show up in a power suit for a Silicon Valley tech company interview. Having so many appropriate business attire options doesn’t really make things easy.

We get it — it’s important to dress appropriately. But exactly what does that mean? What if I told you the color or pattern of your tie can command more or less attention? Or that opting for a tailored look changes the way co-workers respond to your ideas?

Science shows that our wardrobe affects how we feel about ourselves. Those feelings impact body language, attention span, and work ethic. Wardrobe affects how others perceive us, especially in areas like trustworthiness, creativity, and leadership. What we wear matters. Appropriate business attire can indirectly impact our careers and the size of our paychecks.

Appropriate Business Attire Can Be Fun and Colorful

Color is the first thing people notice, but clothiers debate color’s role in the workplace. People should notice you — not your clothes. Clothing makers who are conscious of this idea are all about neutrals and classic styles. But is it smart to deny the existence of color, or can you use it to your advantage? Is color part of appropriate business attire? Simple guidelines take away the mystery and stress:

  • Reds evoke feelings of danger and excitement, but some find them intimidating. In surveys, CEOs often show preference for shades of red and magenta. Those colors are excellent for an established CEO wielding power and influence. But what if you’re new or working your way up? You may want to leave the red power suit, tie, or scarf at home and opt for a blue instead.
  • Shades of blue positively impact mood, fuel creativity in co-workers, and promote calm feelings or trust.
  • People dressed in darker colors — charcoal, black, chocolate brown — are perceived as authoritative and knowledgeable. Want to encourage co-workers to be more receptive to you? Opt for darker tones.
  • Lighter earth tones — khakis, pastels — make you appear warm, friendly, and approachable. These are excellent professional attire options to build and cultivate workplace relationships.

Style Affects Mood and Language

Workplace culture influences proper business attire, but you can still elevate your personal style to enhance your mood and language. I’m not saying wear a suit while the rest of the staff is in jeans. Rather, you can substitute a collared shirt for a T-shirt or choose dress shoes and a stylish jacket.

Does proper business attire impact performance? Private schools claim uniforms help improve student performance. While public schools have been resistant, 20% now require uniforms. Since employers expect emerging workers to be job ready, kids benefit from learning appropriate business attire early on.

Does Appropriate Business Attire Impact How You Perform?

Researchers studied the concept of  “enclothed cognition.” Enclothed cognition involves the symbolic meaning of clothes and the physical experience of wearing them. Researchers dressed test subjects in formal and in casual attire. Subjects who were casually dressed made informal language choices and responded in a leisurely way to casual language. Subjects dressed in appropriate business attire used sophisticated language and responded quickly to formal speech patterns. Attention spans dramatically increased when subjects wore lab coats compared to wearing a painter’s coat or no coat.

How Does Wardrobe Affect Your Career?

What does all this science mean to you professionally and financially? If your place of employment falls on the casual end of the workday attire spectrum, step up with a tailored jacket. Make your own casual a bit sharper. A small shift like that could increase your job performance and boost others’ perceptions of you. Better job performance leads to promotions, raises, and more clients.

If you are a company leader, elevating the level of staff formality without undue pressure may increase the rate and quality of work product. There isn’t a company president alive who doesn’t want higher quality output.

Will Professional Attire Solve All Your Problems?

Wearing appropriate business attire, even in perfect colors, isn’t going to get you a corner office if you don’t have the right stuff. But, it could get you that second job interview, get your ideas taken a bit more seriously, or tip competition in your favor. Tomorrow, when you stare into your closet — think science. Focus on what you want to accomplish that day, and make sure your clothes deliver the right message.


[Editors’ Note: To learn more about this and related topics, you may want to attend the following on-demand webinars (which you can listen to at your leisure and each includes a comprehensive customer PowerPoint about the topic):

You’ll find additional good reading in these articles:

  • How to Dress Professionally with Style (Without Breaking the Bank)

This is an updated version of an article originally published on May 9, 2018, most recently edited by Nora Willi]

©2022. DailyDACTM, LLC d/b/a/ Financial PoiseTM. This article is subject to the disclaimers found here.

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About Mercedes Holmen

Mercedes is a business owner and the Executive Consultant with Rodan + Fields. In addition, she works in the field of behavior analysis for children with autism and their families, specializing in preschool-aged children. She also has her Masters in Science from the University of California at Davis. Share this page:

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