Suit Up: How Clothes Influence Our Career Performance

“You can have anything you want in life if you dress for it.” — Edith Head, Academy Award Winning Costume Designer

Alley Lyles
Dec 11, 2018 · 3 min read
2018 Women Helping Women Event — Hosted by Dress for Success; Credit: Dress for Success Houston Facebook Page

Time is a finite commodity. Unfortunately, our schedules do not always allow us to give back to our communities with a sustained volunteer commitment. I support my favorite non-profit, Dress for Success, with in-kind and monetary donations twice a year. Dress for Success empowers women to achieve economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire and development tools to help women thrive in work and life. At the beginning of my career, I relied on “hand me downs” to get by. My experience validates workplace psychology academic findings: the right clothes can boost confidence and catalyze career performance.

A fraction of the donations at a recent Dress for Success Houston event

Disregard the adage that “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” While lack of judgment is ideal, it is unrealistic. Studies show that people judge a person upon the first encounter within approximately five seconds of interaction. First impressions — when interviewing, presenting a quarterly report to stakeholders, and attending networking events — are unavoidable. You may blow the first impression and flounder to recoup. But, accept the perception of being ingenuine if your public appearance does not align with your expressed values. While this isn’t fair, work through it and prepare to dazzle.

If you want a boost of confidence, suit up. A study published in Social Psychological and Personal Science asked subjects to change into formal or casual clothing before beginning a battery of tests. The subjects wearing formal business attire demonstrated increased abstract thinking. The study concluded that those dressed in formal wear expressed more feelings of power. Additionally, a survey completed at Yale University found that people who dress better have more confidence, feel more powerful and are more focused on details. Polished attire can enhance work ethic and achieve maximum results.

One of my first professional jackets in the giveaway pile

It’s a matter of psychology. I wake up every morning at 5 am, and, I grab a cup of coffee from the kitchen. Then, I reach for a tailored dress and high heels off the rack in the closet. A dress puts me into beast mode; the heels help me stand taller with proper posture. Ten years ago, at the start of my career, the only suit I owned was a hand-me-down from my aunt which I gratefully accepted. The Calvin Klein suit was too big and a faded black. I used two safety pins to hold up the oversized pants. I made it work. I wore that suit into the ground and replaced it when I made bank. Professional appearance is influential to others — and yourself. Accordingly, I put my best high-heeled shoe forward.

I am donating a big chunk of my closet to Dress for Success. The clothes will set-up the next boss marketer — without the need for large safety pins to hold up pants.

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