Dress Code or Not, What You Wear Matters

May 23, 2012
7 Min Read

The effect of your clothing choices might be much more powerful than you think. Fair or not, people judge us by the way we look and that includes the way we dress. For example, women dressed in a masculine fashion are perceived as better managers. And people dressed more formally are perceived as more intelligent.

Effect on Others

According to a series of studies published in the Evolution and Human Behavior journal last year, flashing designer brands can provide an advantage. When wearing perceived high-status clothing, people gained cooperation from others more easily, scored job recommendations and higher salary, and received higher contributions for charity.

  • Man wearing a polo shirt featuring a designer logo was rated as higher status as same man with logo photoshopped out.
  • A female wearing a sweater with a designer logo got response rate of 52% (versus 13% of female wearing sweater sans logo) when asking passerby’s to fill out a survey.
  • Participants watching a man interviewing for job on video rated the one with a shirt with a designer logo as more suitable for the job and deserving of a 9% higher salary than the same man without a logo.
  • Wearing a designer logo resulted in twice as many contributions when soliciting for charity.

The logo-versus-no-logo design eased drawing conclusions from the experiment, but you can see how these findings might also extend to a well-dressed/well-groomed versus average appearance. The researchers explain that designer labels communicate underlying quality—the subconscious thought pattern is that only the best can afford them so this person must be among the best.

Effect on Yourself

It may be obvious that what you wear affects others’ perceptions of you. But one interesting aspect of dress is that what you wear can affect how you behave. One study observed behavior at a roller rink. On nights with a strict dress code, there were fewer accidents and less noise. In an old article in the Academy of Management Review, scientists theorized that exhibiting actions not in line with the expectations of how one would behave when wearing that clothing creates a psychological conflict called cognitive dissonance. And to relieve the conflict, people will change their behavior to match their dress. Of course, this is all going on without us explicitly being aware of it.

Effect on Your Performance

What is it about clothing that has such a profound impact on our behavior and our self-perceptions? In a recent study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers ran an experiment and found that students who thought they were wearing a doctor’s coat showed a heightened sense of attention than students who thought they were wearing a painter’s coat. It was really the same coat. The influence came from the symbolic interpretation of the article of clothing.

The clothes we wear—specifically, the meaning we have associate with them and the feelings they evoke in us—put us in a different mindset. We associate pajamas with lazing around whereas we associate a suit and tie with hard work and professionalism. This carries over into our work (for better or for worse).  So if you work from home or have a phone interview, dress in line with the image you want to portray. Even though your outfit will not be seen, its impact on your performance is worth the effort.


One might say that men have it easier in terms of dressing for the office. There is a standard uniform of sorts for formal wear and business casual attire, while women have almost endless options, some of which may work and some not depending on the rest of the outfit (the whole is greater than the sum of its parts). In an old, but arguably timeless book, a very interesting list is printed. It is an ordering of the “most appropriate” clothing choices for women at work (with the most appropriate near the top), as was rated by male executives using extensive comparisons. Now granted this comes from research in the 1970s or thereabouts, but in more conservative offices or formal events, this might still be relevant (and if not--at the very least, interesting!).

1. Skirted suit

2. Dress/skirt with blazer

3. Dress with matching jacket

4. Tailored trouser suit

5. Simple dress

6. Skirt & blouse

7. Slacks & blouse

8. Skirt & sweater

9. Slacks & sweater

This is not to say that formal is always better. Dressing more casually can reduce stress and increase collaborative activity. Whatever you choose to wear, consider how it might impact what you do, how you perform, and how others interact with you.

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