Does Dress for the Job You Want Still Hold Up?

What it means to dress for success in the age of hoodies and sneakers at the office

Image by  mathisworks/ Getty Images

The culture of work is changing, and with it, our office dress codes. As companies encourage staffers to bring their whole selves to work -- and people embrace style repeats and “personal uniforms” in an effort to de-stress workwear -- Thrive decided to take a deeper look into how what we wear to work affects our mental well-being, creativity, productivity, and authenticity. We welcome you to take a spin through our special section: The Psychology of What We Wear to Work


If you’re like most people, dressing for work -- finding something appropriate, true to yourself, and that you feel good in, can often feel nearly impossible. Throw in the fact that different industries and jobs have wildly different expectations, and the process can become a real psychological burden.

When Aliza Licht made the move from fashion executive to freelance consultant, she maintained her style sensibility, dressing up every day. The only thing that changed were her shoes. To better traverse New York City and visit her clients, Licht traded her usual stilettos for a lower kitten heel.

“That was a very dark time for me -- I’m not even kidding,” says Licht. While she says the shoe choice didn’t affect her work or her productivity, her disdain for what she says is an unflattering style made her dislike being a free agent. “My shoes are very important to me,” she says. Licht, the author of Leave Your Mark: Land Your Dream Job. Kill It in Your Career. Rock Social Media,” eagerly returned to her higher-heeled life as soon as she became an executive vice president at fashion brand Alice + Olivia.

Formal office dressing has been in a free fall for the last three decades: slipping from suits to khakis, khakis to jeans, jeans to yoga pants. Hoodies are more common corporate attire than ties for many professions these days. GM condensed its dress code from 10 pages to just two words: dress appropriately. The gig economy has all but eliminated the sartorial peer pressure that comes from co-workers, cementing casual as the new normal.

But in this brave, new, comfortable world, what does dressing for success look like? The old adage, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have,” is a little less clear when your boss is in sneakers. Don’t be fooled: clothing can still offer a boost when climbing the corporate ladder, experts say. Today it’s not about specific pieces (no one is calling for a return to mandatory suits at work, thankyouverymuch) but rather a focus on wearing the best version of whatever your office standard is. It’s not about dressing up -- it’s about dressing the part.

“Your clothes make a statement about you whether you want them to or not,” says Licht. And that, in turn, has a direct effect on our psychology in terms of how we think about ourselves -- and how we think about what we do at our place of work.

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It’s easy to point a finger at Mark Zuckerberg and his hoodie but the casual workplace trend began when the tech exec was still in diapers. The shift started in the 1980s, as women got more control of their careers and their bodies, says Deirdre Clemente, a historian and associate professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Definitions of modesty loosened, and written corporate dress codes that mandated things like pantyhose were (thankfully! finally!) called into question. The notion of occasion wardrobes grew tired, too; women wanted more versatility from their clothing, says Clemente, author of Dress Casual: How College Kids Redefined American Style.

Next came casual Fridays, the 1990s Gap-fueled era of khakis and a blue button down. What was limited to one-day-a week soon expanded to an everyday occurrence. Silicon Valley, with its T-shirts, its sneakers, its hoodies, “was the death knell of formality in the workplace,” Clemente says. Nearly all -- 85 percent -- of workplaces offer a casual dress code at some point in the work week, with 44 percent allowing casual dress every day, according to the 2017 Employee Benefits Report from the Society of Human Resource Management.

To be sure, geography and profession dictate a significant part of office dressing. An executive in New York will undoubtedly be more dressed up than someone in San Francisco or even Dallas, Clemente says. Most fields have their signature dress (a tweed jacket for an academic, or a suit for a banker) and that’s not likely to change. Would you want to be represented by a lawyer in shorts?

Still, there has been a definitive shift in thinking. “You are judged more by how you produce than how you look,” Clemente says. The shift was not solely a sartorial one, not by a long shot. It happened as walled offices were banished, in favor of cubicles and then open floor plans. Self-help books took hold and the idea of celebrating the individual became synonymous with authenticity. “Bring your whole self to work” is the new ethos. Maybe your whole self feels less like a pencil skirt and heels and more like cut-offs and Stan Smiths. Do you.

Among the more glamorous people I follow on Instagram is Amber Venz Box, founder and president of RewardStyle, a monetization platform for digital influencers. Her fire-red hair is always done, her heels are almost always high and her dresses make me swoon. So I was surprised to hear that for Venz Box’s 250 employees, in seven offices across four continents, there is no dress code. Some choose to style themselves like fashion bloggers everyday, while others prefer yoga pants and a sweatshirt.

“Either is totally fine,” Venz Box says. “Today, at least in our environment, it’s much more output- and contribution-driven than about what someone’s wearing.”

And yet, workout clothes are less likely among the six new vice presidents Venz Box has hired. If they wear jeans, it’s usually with a steamed shirt; most of the women wear makeup. “It’s still a communication tool,” Venz Box says of a workplace wardrobe. The message these higher-ups are sending is: “I have my sh*t together and I’m going to help you get your sh*t together.”

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Indeed, wearing a suit sends a message to employees -- and the subsequent reaction from those employees has an effect, too. It boosts one’s own confidence and sense of professionalism, says Jaehee Jung, professor of fashion and apparel studies at University of Delaware. Professional uniforms have a similar dual impact, providing a clear signal of a person’s social role for the public (just think of how you approach a physician or a police officer). For the wearer, the clothing creates “a strong psychological bond,” says Jung.

If you aren’t required to wear a uniform, Jung believes in dressing for comfort. Not physical comfort, necessarily, but the comfort that comes with representing one’s self. People need to feel good about themselves in a professional environment to feel confident, Jung says. Confidence allows someone to maximize their productivity. She tells her students: “If you don’t like how you have to dress to work, then you may have to change your job since you wouldn’t be able to change yourself.”

But what does our clothing do to our way of thinking? Consider the research of Michael Slepian, an assistant professor in the management division of Columbia Business School, published in 2015 in the academic journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. Slepian and his colleagues began by examining the the definition of formality. “In the most broad sense, it’s social distance,” he told me. Most of us wouldn’t run up a hug a stranger upon meeting for the first time. There is a bit of reserve, some space afforded by both parties.

Formal dressing has a similar effect, Slepian found. Participants in his study reported that more formal workwear fostered abstract cognition, a grasp of the big picture, and new ideas. It’s the equivalent of taking a step back and seeing the forest for the trees. On the other hand, Slepian’s research found casual dressing led to more concrete thinking, solving detailed problems, as well as diving in and getting the task at hand done. That’s not to be discounted, Slepian said. It is a good and necessary thing, especially for those in the trenches.

An important note here: both “formal” and “casual” were defined as relative terms as compared to one’s workplace peers. “Formal” dressing, in an office filled with jeans, could just mean wearing nicer jeans, and maybe a button-down shirt. “You’ll still feel more formal than the people around you,” Slepian says. The good news is that the mindset brought on by clothing isn’t a constant, it’s a variable, essentially a switch that can be turned on and off.

And you will want to turn it on if you have your eye on the corner office. Power, as a concept, has a similar distance associated with it. It tracks that management -- the people charged with making the big plans -- would dress more formally, too.

These days, some executives are turning to uniforms, not the ones that are required but the uniforms people adopt for themselves. President Obama famously stuck to navy and gray suits to cut down on the choices he had during the day. For others, it becomes a personal style statement and part of their personal brand. Think of Steve Jobs and his simple black turtleneck, or Carolina Herrera and her crisp white shirt.

“There is something very strong about making an artistic decision for yourself and making that your signature,” says Brooke Jaffe, a style expert and former women’s fashion director at Bloomingdale’s. Finding something specific that represents you but isn’t too generic (not, say, khakis and a white button down) is a total power move, Jaffe adds. “It shows a lot of confidence.” (For more on how repeating outfits can change the way you think about dressing for work, see Arianna Huffington’s piece, here.)

Whatever you wear, Jaffe recommends doing so intentionally and with purpose. When she switched from her corporate job to a position at a startup, Jaffe adopted her own casual wardrobe with care. There is a difference, after all, between a pair of jeans that looks more like trousers and a distressed pair with countless holes in them. That thoughtfulness is important, she says, because of the message it sends. “There’s an energy, a spirit, a confidence that comes with putting effort in,” she says. 


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More on the Psychology of What We Wear to Work:

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I’ve Dressed for Work as a Man and as a Woman -- Here’s What I’ve Learned

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