Can Dressing For Success Actually Lead To Success? Tips For A ‘Smart Casual’ Office

Posted May 31, 2016, by Zahra Campbell-Avenell

What you wear at work can have an impact on your performance.

Hard to believe, right? Think about it: surely what you’re wearing can’t actually improve your work…or can it?

In an era when even CEOs are no longer shackled to conservative dark suits (think Steve Jobs’ turtleneck and sneakers, Mark Zuckerberg’s hoodie and Richard Branson’s leather jacket), why should any of us bother dressing up for work?

In an ideal world, we would be judged on our merits, and our outfits would make no difference to people’s perception or our ability to succeed in the workplace. As it turns out, this is far from the truth! An increasing body of research on ‘enclothed cognition’ suggests that donning a blazer or a suit can have a marked impact on our productivity, our sense of self and even our ability to negotiate.

A 2015 study in Social Psychological and Personality Science demonstrated that wearing formal clothing increased abstract, big-picture thinking in cognitive tests. Perhaps this is not surprising given that people feel most authoritative, competent and trustworthy when wearing formal or business casual attire. The Journal of Experimental Psychology published a study in 2014 with similar findings: that wearing informal clothing can hamper your chances of a successful negotiation.

But that’s not all.

Researchers at Northwestern University found that wearing an item of clothing with symbolic association measurably improves performance in the skill it is associated with. The study demonstrated that since a doctor’s lab coat was associated with attentiveness, participants performed better when wearing a doctor’s coat in attention-related tasks. When told that the same piece of clothing was a painter’s coat, participants completed the task with less success. Using the same logic, if you’re like most people, you would exude power and authority when wearing a suit – because that’s what you subconsciously associate a suit with.

Mind. Blown.

And of course it’s no surprise that people’s opinions of you depend on what you’re wearing. Research has shown that women in traditionally masculine attire are more likely to get hired; teachers’ perceived credibility is impacted by their clothing; and people make assumptions about your socioeconomic status based on the brand you’re wearing. So your clothing choices don’t go unnoticed by people around you, if only on a subliminal level.

But wait! You say. I work in a business casual environment, so I can’t exactly wear a suit every day!

Given the career-boosting powers of the clothes on your back, I’d say it’s never a good idea to let your work wardrobe and your weekend wardrobe merge into one. 

While companies are increasingly moving towards a more casual dress code (or the elusive ‘business casual’) it can’t hurt to ramp up your style game at work just a tad. We’ve written about how to dress for success at work before, but if you work in a more casual office setting, here are some tips on how to look polished but not overdressed:

Tip 1: If in doubt, add a blazer

Guys and gals, a blazer is your secret weapon. Ask yourself: Would you wear it to the shops? If the answer is yes, you probably shouldn't be wearing it to work – unless you top it with a blazer. This often-overlooked piece of clothing can take your jeans or sundress from slovenly to smart in an instant. Find one in a dark colour that fits you like a glove, and keep it at your desk for instant office cred. And since most offices tend to overdo the air conditioning, it’ll keep you warm while lending you an air of authority and increasing your performance to boot.

Tip 2: No athletic wear – ever.

You might be one of those lucky people who work at a startup where the CEO wears shorts and sneakers. If you are said CEO, you can wear what you want (unless you’re in a negotiation setting – see above), but until then, the rest of us have to follow some basic sartorial rules. If your workplace is truly casual, and you notice people in higher positions wearing sneakers, then (and only then) can you wear sneakers to work. Even so, make sure that they’re non-athletic sneakers (i.e. you wouldn’t wear them to run in) and preferably in a darker colour like grey, brown or black.

Tip 3: I'll take one of each

A good rule of thumb is to pair one dressy item of clothing with another more casual piece. For instance, a pair of jeans worn with a collared shirt elevates the jeans from something you would wear to the footy to more work-appropriate attire. Similarly, a t-shirt worn with a pencil skirt can make the skirt look a little less formal. Mixing up casual and formal pieces allows you to be comfortable while still looking, feeling and being more competent at work.

Tip 4: Jeans in a dark wash

If your dress code allows jeans, you’re in luck! Darker jeans such as black and indigo are more sophisticated than a lighter wash, but are still relaxed enough to fit into a business casual setting. Bonus: darker jeans are more flattering!

Tip 5: Future mother-in-law check

Even if your workplace is on the extreme end of casual, anything that’s too revealing or torn (even deliberately) is a definite no-no. If you wouldn’t wear it to meet your potential in-laws, you shouldn’t wear it to work. It’s important to feel confident in your clothes, and it’s hard to do that in ripped jeans, short shorts or track pants. So go on, step up your business casual look a notch. You’ll look better, feel better – and work better.

It’s clear that clothes can have a profound impact both on how we are perceived and how we behave. What are your thoughts? Is there such a thing as too casual in the workplace? Share your experiences below!

Zahra Campbell Avenell
Zahra Campbell-Avenell

Zahra started writing at the age of 6, and hasn't stopped since. When she's not creating content about careers, learning and personal development, you can find her researching her next travel adventure, bingeing on Netflix or shopping online.

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