• Merran Brown

Dressing for Success. Hint: It's Not Just Your Clothes



In Hans Christian Anderson’s classic tale The Emperor’s New Clothes, the relationship between dressing sharp and feeling powerful is taken to comical extremes. Although he cannot see the invisible garments draped upon him, the emperor believes they are real. He walks before his subjects feeling confident—until he realises the unfortunate truth of the situation.


The problem here is not really the emperor’s instinct to be well-dressed, but rather his lack of common sense. Clearly this individual was not cut out for executive office!


Modern-day research tells us that looking powerful—both in clothing and body language—is, in fact, a productive instinct, and can have a profound impact on our professional lives.

First, clothing. It’s obvious that you want to be “put together” when showing up for a job interview or meeting. You want your choices to be well-considered and appropriate to context. At first glance, other professionals should have a visceral impression of your competence. But is it really as simple as looking sharp? What advantages can clothes really offer us?


“Enclothed cognition” is newly minted term with compelling research behind it. Professor Adam Galinksy of Northwestern University subjected two groups of undergraduates to a series of cognitive tests. There was only one difference between the groups: One took the tests wearing white lab coats over their street clothes, while the other wore street clothes only.


Guess which group consistently showed higher mental acuity and focus?


The implication is not, of course, that we should all wear lab coats to work. Galinksy’s research suggests that wearing clothes associated with success and intelligence can produce those same qualities in people who wear them. In business, this means dress habits matter—because of how others see you, sure, but mainly because of how you see yourself. Self-perception is the root of shared perception. When we wear the right clothes, performance and confidence can soar. Even if you’re telecommuting, there’s a good case for getting out of your pajamas and into something business-like.


What’s more, the “right clothes” are not always the same. An impeccable suit and buffed shoes may do more harm than good when interviewing with a social media company led by a 27 year old CEO. You may be seen as too traditional. On the other hand, formal business attire is still the best bet for many industries, due to the confidence it allows you to project.

There are so many situations where clothing can be used to define your position and enhance your relationships. An executive visiting the factory floor may choose to dress down a notch or two, in order to better connect with the factory workers. Meeting a client who is in a difficult situation may warrant calm, cool accents of blue and green, rather than more aggressive tones of orange and red.


However—even though context may vary, impeccability and attention to detail should not. The cufflinks, the fancy pen, the tailored suit—these are all ways of communicating nonverbally. Successful. Confident. Professional. Getting dressed is a way of strategising the day ahead. What do I need to accomplish? What will make me feel “at the top of my game?” What will inspire others to have confidence in me?


Clothes are only half the equation


Imagine a group people sitting around a conference table. Some are hunched over and closed in, with hands brushing their necks or faces. Others sit up straight, shoulders back, opening themselves up to the room. Who will be perceived as more commanding, more confident and ready to contribute? The answer is obvious, and the reason is not only anecdotal but scientific.


A Ted Talk given by Harvard Business professor Amy Cuddy is one of the most talked about examples of this research. She demonstrates how posture and body language can change our self-perception—and therefore how others see us.


As it turns out, the levels of testosterone (the dominance hormone) and cortisol (the stress hormone) in our bodies will change depending on the pose we strike. Broad, “open” poses—also known as power poses—increase testosterone and decrease cortisol. Narrow, “closed” poses have the opposite effect. What’s more, we can manipulate these hormones in our own bodies by striking power poses before and during important engagements.


There is, of course, a natural limit. Pure testosterone is a recipe for disaster in most business situations. Nobody wants to deal with a chest-pounding gorilla who gives no credence to others. A truly confident posture is both open and receptive.

This is where facial dynamics and gestures go a long way. A confident smile is calming and disarming. Mirroring someone’s facial expressions, when done correctly, demonstrates empathy and a collaborative spirit. Incorporating hand-gestures and head movements into your verbal interactions shows an engaged, problem-solving attitude.


These are the proverbial cufflinks of how we communicate—little things that make a big difference. The actual cufflinks matter too. In business and in life, communication is bound to happen—whether we open our mouths or not. The more thought we give to the sizeable part of communication that is nonverbal (dress, posture, body language), the more effective our own thoughts and words will be. The result is a greater professional impact.


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