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Is "Dress for Success" Still Relevant in a No-Dress Code World?

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

Last week, I gave a presentation to a group of students entering the advertising industry about personal branding as it relates to style. As a college student, I would have wanted to know what to expect when it comes to dressing in the workforce. Even though what they're most concerned with is first landing that job, I know that when the first day of that new job comes around, they'll be wondering (and stressing about!) what to wear to make that good first impression!

In the presentation, I shared new research about dress in the workplace - collected during the last two years of the pandemic, answering the question we've all been asking: Has our our work from home in sweatpants life helped or hindered us? (17% of which wore PJ's daily). I also contrasted the case for casual with research that shows the power of getting dressed. That good ol' "Dress for Success" adage we all know so well, and were taught from an early age.

The Case for Casual

As I was preparing for this presentation, I found something interesting. The research conflicted in many areas. On one hand, research shows that casual dress during the pandemic increased our productivity, was seen as a benefit for employees, improved morale, made you appear more approachable (especially for bosses and leaders) and differentiated you in a good way, especially when you dressed intentionally to stand out from the norm, conveying a message of status, confidence and power. Interestingly enough, research also showed that we love our new casual duds! A study reported that 46% of people, if they were offered two equal positions, would choose the employer who offered casual days every day.

The Case for Dressing Up

On the other hand, age-old research has shown time and again that "dressing for success" works. It certainly was the key to getting me out of my work from home pandemic funk! Studies show that dressing up increases your productivity, your focus on attention-demanding tasks, increases your ability to negotiate a better deal, and increases abstract thinking.

Do sweatpants or suits reign supreme?

So what gives? It sounds to me like you can argue either case - that going casual is the golden ticket to success - or that dressing up is what makes all the difference.

There's one final area of study as it relates to your dress and performance at work that really sealed the deal for me though. And it's this:

What you wear is proven to change how you feel and gives you a confidence boost.

The Batman Effect

Professor Karen Pine wanted to test this idea that what you wear changes how you perform on certain tasks. This study later became known as The Batman Effect because some children in the study wore superman t-shirts to perform these challenging tasks, while other children wore their normal clothing. What Professor Pine found is that "When wearing a Superman t-shirt the students rated themselves as more likeable and superior to other students. When asked to estimate how much they could physically lift, those in a Superman t-shirt thought they were stronger than students in a plain t-shirt, or in their own clothing.”

This doesn't mean that we all have to go find a superman t-shirt or cape for our next meeting, but it does tell me that our clothing choices influence how we show up when asked to perform in a big way.

The Brain Science Behind What We Wear

Brain science also proves that what we wear has a big impact our performance, behavior and mood. What neuroscience teaches us is that when we have a feeling, our brain activates and sends chemicals throughout our body. In the case that we have a good feeling, our brain activates and sends good chemicals throughout our body. And when we have a bad feeling, our brain activates and sends bad chemicals throughout our body, in worst cases leading to increased chances or depression and anxiety. What this brain science shows is that our feelings change the chemical makeup of our entire system!

So to put this into relatable terms: imagine a day when you put on something you really love. It's a color that lights you up, or it fits you really well. When you have those good feelings, the good chemicals that flood our body impact our day for the better. We are in a better mood, our attitude changes, our performances changes, it boosts our confidence, it changes our interactions with other people, and even affects our personality.

On the flip side, when we go to our closet only to find there's nothing clean to wear except one shirt that you don't particularly like, or when you try on that pair of jeans, you discover they won't zip up. On these days, your bad feelings about your clothing choice also impact your day - but for the worse. We may be more likely to hide or shrink ourselves, not showing up when it matters, not speaking up, and feeling less confident in our bodies. We may be short with our husband, partner or kids, or co-workers. We are less likely to reach out to a new business contact or colleague for coffee. In general, we're off our game. It's why I say, I'm nicer when I like my outfit! Funny yes, but also undeniably true.

Why Style Still Matters in a No-Dress Code World

What this research reveals to me is that what you wear matters, because it changes how you feel.

When we dress to please others, dress to fit in, or dress to meet a standard, it's a disservice to you - and those around you.

Dressing for others lessens the impact you can have on your world, because instead of showing up authentically as you, you show up as something else. Since first impressions are made in the tenth of a second, a blink of an eye; it can be tempting to dress in a way that we think the world will want us to be. But ironically, that's not going to be the key to your success. What matters is dressing to please YOU. That's the only opinion that matters - and research proves it (as we've now seen). In fact, a research study showed that:

The main reason women dress up is not to look attractive but to feel confident. - Prof. Karen Pine

I couldn't agree more.

Last week, when I was stressed about what to wear to the presentation (yes, I stress about what to wear, too!), I gave the advice on my IG reels to not poll others or your social followers for their opinions about what to wear. (Lord knows I'm guilty of doing this a time or two!) Instead, I took my own advice, and listened closely to my opinion, ultimately trust my own gut on what to wear that day. Why, you ask? At the end of the day, I had to choose something that only I know will make me light up, feel my best, most confident self, and give me the energy to show up on that stage in an authentic way.

My Challenge for You

This week, I challenge you to pay attention to what outfits or clothes make you feel good - and which don't. First, it's a simple act of noticing how your clothing choices impact your day, your behavior, your confidence and your mood. Do you notice you're floating on air and have more energy, or are you shrinking and hiding?

Then, I want you to take action. When you get dressed, instead of asking, "What will they think of me?" ask, "Does what I wear represent me in an authentic way?" When you lean into that second question, and ultimately answer, "What would I love?" in an honest way, nothing can stop you. And that my friends, is the golden key to "dressing for success."

About Me

Hi, I'm Ellie! I'm an Expert Stylist and Personal Brand Coach, and owner of Style Decoded, based in Omaha, NE. I'm a Midwest born style maven on a mission to help professional women show up with more authenticity and alignment at work and in their businesses through their style, and feel 100% confident in their own skin every day. Styling is my passion but it hasn't always been my job. I spent 20 years of my career in client service, advertising, developing brands, blogging, podcasting, and creating marketing and social strategies for my clients, ranging from Fortune 500 giants to individuals building their personal brands online. To say I know a thing or two about marketing and branding is an understatement! Now, I love teaching women how to define and own their unique personal brand through style. Oh, and I work exclusively virtual, so I can work with any woman, anywhere!

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Alesa Grant
Alesa Grant
Mar 08, 2022

Ellie, I LOVE your blog - especially this post. I've been concerned forever about new professionals interviewing. Some will ask for tips, which I think we'd all be happy to give, so we know they're taking their "packaging" seriously. The ones who I worry about are those whose parental influences haven't educated them on what is appropriate dress - because elders in their lives probably didn't educate them, either. If parents don't know enough to do it, then you wonder if anyone else in their life is doing it. I'm guessing not, because who wouldn't want to do everything possible - especially something as relatively simple as putting on what is generally considered professional attire, to qualify for a job…

Replying to

Hi Alesa! Thanks for reading this post and leaving me a comment! I think we are all at different points in working on our "Packaging." I remember a time in high school when someone I respected said something about my outfit for me to consider. I was mortified and embarrassed at the time, but I never forgot what they said, and it changed how I thought about dressing from that point forward. Sometimes I think that even when we give guidance, it may seem like it falls on deaf ears, but may be making more an impact than we know. As for your interview, I'm so glad you dressed for YOURSELF, and realized that connection to your energy. I know…

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