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Personal branding in work attire… is “dressing for success” relevant?

The idea of dressing for success used to be relatively straightforward; wear formal clothes, the smarter the better. In traditional offices, those at the top of the pyramid would invariably be found in a suit; dressing for the job you wanted meant emulating this style.

The rise of the tech sector shifted this stereotype. Picture some of the worlds most high-profile leaders, and the clothes that spring to mind are jeans, hoodies and black turtlenecks. In the tech world, success has a different kind of uniform – one markedly more casual than the suits of the past. This trend towards informality has spread to other sectors.

Then, in 2020, the widespread switch to remote work upended work dress codes altogether.

During the pandemic, workers mostly saw colleagues from the shoulders up on video calls – if they saw them at all. From home, employees could easily put in a stellar performance in a meeting in a collared shirt, sweatpants and slippers. If the cameras were off, they could even be in pajamas, working under a duvet.

Now, as workers drift back into offices and companies trial new hybrid models, few firms are demanding a return to formal wear. So, what does this mean for dressing for success? Turning up to work in a suit no longer sends the same message, but wearing a hoodie hardly feels like power dressing. With so many different dress codes at play across companies, is it still possible to ‘dress for the job you want’?

The right clothes send the right message

Dressing for success has always required a degree of subtlety. The idea is to observe the people in your organization who have the job you want to understand how they dress, and how you can imitate that with an individual twist.

“You’re sending a message about where you position yourself and what you aspire to,” says career confidence coach Sarah Archer, from Career Tree Coaching in London. “We might dress similarly to our peers to help us feel like we belong. Or if you're wanting to move forward in your career, you might dress as you perceive the leaders dress to show that you’re ready to move into this group.”

Drawing attention to similarities between yourself and more senior workers is an effective strategy. We think favorably of people we see as similar, a phenomenon known as affinity bias. Studies have shown that managers are more likely to hire and promote people they see as similar to them, including in terms of how they present.

Aligning your style with people in more senior positions can also help you look and feel the part. Studies have shown wearing more formal attire can make workers feel more self-assured and actually improve work performance, something Archer has seen with her clients. “For a lot of people, choosing to focus positively about how they dress and present themselves can help them feel confident about what they do and how they operate at work.”

These days, there’s another element to dressing for success: showing you’ve correctly interpreted the rules of your workplace and can adhere to them. Before, when everyone wore formal wear, decoding the unspoken rules on dress was easier. Today, particularly in companies where dress codes are more liberal, identifying and hitting the right sartorial notes can be more nuanced – and a well-judged outfit indicates that you understand and align with the company culture.

“It shows attention to detail, commitment, consistency,” says Joey Price, based in Baltimore, US, founder of Jumpstart: HR and host of the While We Were Working podcast. “It shows that you are attempting to own your personal brand and how you show up in spaces.” It also, he adds, sends a clear message to the higher-ups. “The more you align yourself with signs and signals that represent you want to take that next step in your career within that organization, the more that's going to be noticed by executives.”

Getting the balance wrong by overdressing can send a negative message. An estimated 79% of workplaces in the US now have a casual dress code. Turning up in a suit to signal ambition or promotion hopes could actually damage your reputation. “You're going to look and feel like a fish out of water,” says Archer. “Overdressing shows that you haven't read the culture, or you haven't been observant, and that you don’t necessarily fit in.”

It's important to note the rules around dress aren’t exactly the same for all workers. For example, some workers have more license to show originality through clothing than others. A study investigating the “red sneaker effect” found both men and women who wore non-conforming clothing at work were attributed with higher status and competence if they worked in respected roles at prestigious organizations. In short, bosses who already have respected status can increase that status by dressing with flair in ways that employees looking to climb the career ladder cannot.

Gender and race also play roles in unspoken dress code rules. Even a slight change in skirt length can impact how competent a female manager is seen to be, for example. And for ethnic minority workers, deciding how much authenticity to express at work can mean navigating a clash between perceived ideals of professionalism and cultural dress. “We can exclude people for dressing in a manner that's authentic or that honors their customs and heritage, and that's unfair,” says Price.

Codes still matter online

It might seem that remote work would remove both the challenge of navigating work dress codes and the chance to signal leadership ambitions through your personal presentation. After all, most workers might feel video meetings reduce opportunities for scrutiny or judgement, and allow for more casual dress.

That’s not quite right, says Archer. “If you're not paying attention to what people can see, then you're missing an opportunity to be remembered, because you've got to work harder to be seen in the organization.” For workers seeking promotion, limited opportunities to see colleagues in person mean video calls are a rare chance to make an impression. “You've got to find a way to stand out, especially when you’re in that little box on a screen,” Archer says.

Wearing eye-catching clothes and jewelry can be one way to do this, but the same risks of over and underdressing still apply. The worker who logs in to an online meeting wearing a collared shirt when everyone else is in hoodies will stand out, not necessarily in a good way. Online, as in person, dressing for the job you want is a tricky balance of dressing to fit in, by mirroring people in higher positions, and to stand out in the right ways by showing some character, all in the individual context of the sector and company where you work.

For all the difficulties of doing this, there is one huge caveat: even employees who crack the dress code perfectly still need the skills to back up their career ambitions. If a manager notices an employee has aligned their wardrobe with the role they want, it is a positive sign – but perhaps nothing more. “It is a part of the equation, but if I were to prioritize dressing for success, it would absolutely fall underneath whether the person has proven that they can do the work at a high level,” says Price.

Still, dressing the part can help position you for success – and the key to getting it right is careful observation. The right outfit might look very different in different workplaces, and showing you understand the unspoken rules of dress code could give you an edge.

Dressing for the job you want is still good advice. As long as you have to impress somebody on the way up or laterally, your appearance really does play a role in that.

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