Does what you wear really matter in the creative world?

During the course of my 15-plus year career, I’ve worked in the following environments:

* Conservative accounting and consulting firm

* Conservative health care system.

* Small, boutique PR firm

* Mid-sized media company

* Small not-for-profit

* Small, private, family-owned business

Each environment required its own distinct dress code. At the PR firm, I frequently wore jeans with holes on non-client-facing days. At the accounting firm, a dress shirt and tie was standard fare. At the health care system, khakis and a sweater were par for the course.

But each employer had their own distinct dress code. And, I figured that out pretty quickly.

As a solo consultant, my dress code depends on the day. On days when I’m meeting with clients, it’s usually a jacket and jeans or dress pants (or a suit on some occasions). On those days when I don’t meet with clients, it can be as casual as shorts and my Homer Simpson slippers (oh, you think I’m kidding?).

But recently, I’ve found myself thinking more about the dress code. I’ve found myself wanting to dress more casually for client meetings–even the ones where I know it’s probably not the best idea. I find myself asking that one basic question:

Does what you were really matter?

On one side, I get it. If you’re meeting with the CEO of a conservative health care company you can’t show up in a jacket, jeans and some PUMAs. The CEO will never get past the PUMAs. She’ll never take you seriously.

On the other hand, shouldn’t that CEO be considering my ideas–not my get up?

On one side, social norms say we need to dress and act a certain way when we’re in a meeting with senior-level administrators of a publicly-held firm.

On the other hand, social norms also reward innovation and excellence–and neither is dependent on whether I wear PUMAs (I’m sticking with the reference) or Cole Haans.

On one side, suits make us appear authoritative. Respected. And successful.

On the other hand, it’s really what’s underneath the suit that matters, isn’t it?

So, that’s where my heads been at lately. What about you? What do you think?

Does what you were to work really matter?

Note: Photo courtesy of Paul Goyette via FlickR Creative Commons.

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39 comments on “Does what you wear really matter in the creative world?

  1. Anonymous says:

    While I agree with the point your make, unfortunately people do judge on the way you look/dress. Appearance is often the first form of “communication” we give out when meeting people and I guess people pick up on that and make a judgement. While it is possible to change the initial perception based on what happens after, your appearance will always be one of the things I would remember or most people you meet. In the end, what you wear to work does matter – not just on how your peers or colleagues perceive you but also your clients.

  2. I’d contribute that if the suit is so out of your norm your discomfort will show up in other areas like communication, fidgeting, and other non-verbal cues that will send out an inconsistency vibe the executives can sniff a mile away. Find your style and go with; you’ll attract the businesses who appreciate you.

  3. Bombatta says:

    It matters what you wear and where you wear it. We’re all aware of our wear but it is the words we use that are most important.

  4. Kirsi Dahl says:

    Interesting post. In an ideal sociaty we’d be “considered” for who we are on the inside (including the strategy behind our concepts). But the fact is people tend to judge on looks first.

    So, as much as me dressing in jeans and a sweatshirt is more of who I am than an Anne Klein business suit, I need to wear the later in order to get past that first impression screening.

    That all being said, as the demographics of corporate America change with Milennials coming into the work force and Baby Boomers retiring, I would not be surprised if there is a bit of a shift in dress-code ettiquette.

    @KirsiDahl = Twitter

  5. R.M. Fiske says:

    Arik,
    It matters a whole lot. I’ve been a full time professor for four years, but spent the 20 years prior to that working in corporate or agency. I heard from plenty of clients or bosses, “would you please talk to so and so about the way he’s dressed? It’s just not appropriate [or too casual … or too revealing … or too informal].” I even had a client once tell me that she wanted her AE replaced because she couldn’t possibly take someone who wore a “thumb ring” seriously. So, while we all agree that what’s truly important is what’s inside your head and not what’s on the outside, you’ve got to portray a certain level of professionalism in what you wear if you want people to give you a chance beyond first impressions. I’ve actually done some academic research on this. My findings confirm that the higher your level — specifically CEOs to SVPs — the more this matters when it comes to credibility.
    You can wear jeans with me anytime, btw.

    Rosanna M. Fiske, APR
    Chair and CEO
    Public Relations Society of America

  6. jlbraaten says:

    I have the same struggle, Arik! On one hand, you’re right. You could have a great idea in an empty sack of potatoes. On the other, people use all sorts of mental shortcuts to make decisions.

    Suits and the like convey authority and, for good or for bad, psychologically make our ideas better for those on the receiving end. It’s not right but it’s how our minds operate.

    If it makes you feel any better, we’re prone to the same mental shortcuts when it comes to height. Being tall gets you more credibility out of the gate due to how our brains work. That said, you probably get as much credibility in your Homer Simpson slippers as I get in a suit.

  7. Fabuliss says:

    Great question and dialog with comments. Did you know that 55% of VERBAL communications are attributed to physical appearance and 7% is attributed to the words that are said? Any guesses as to what the other 38% is attributed to?

    When you decide what to wear, consider that people are sizing you (and me) up based on the following criteria:

    *Credibility – are you believable and do you walk the talk?
    *Likeability – are you someone I want to get to know?
    *Confidence – do you believe in yourself?
    *Attractiveness – are you making the most of what you have?
    *Consistency – will I recognize you if we meet in a different setting?

  8. Deborah Lawrence says:

    What’s wrong with just asking the client or person you’re going to see how they’d recommend you dress for the meeting? No one wants a prospective vendor or job interview candidate to feel uncomfortable in a first meeting because he or she didn’t dress accordingly.

  9. traci browne says:

    I also came up the ranks when the suit was the standard corporate dress code. Especially on a client call. Now however, I’ve relaxed my dress code quite a bit. I do work for myself but I find it perfectly appropriate in some cases to go on a call in jeans (ok they are more slacks than yard work jeans) a bit of a heel and a jacket. When a sales person calls on me in a suit I find myself wondering what they are all dressed up for and who are they trying to fool.

    My first impression is based on how they look, that is certain. But I try to keep an open mind and listen to what they are saying and only judge on that no matter if that first impression was good or bad.

    I recently had a business meeting with two 17 year olds who showed up in jeans, sneakers and hoodies. The dress did not even cause a blip on my radar but their age certainly did. I remember thinking “how perfectly adorable”. It didn’t take long to realize we were dealing with the future Mark Zuckerbergs and Jack Dorseys. I started feeling old and over dressed in kitten heels and makeup.

  10. Verilliance says:

    You’ve hit the nail on the head here. There’s a world of distance between how we’d like people to behave (“oh, shouldn’t that CEO be considering my ideas — not my get-up?”) and how they actually behave.

    The brain is wired to take short-cuts as often as possible, and most of this is done at an unconscious level. One of these short-cuts is making snap judgements about others. Our unconscious mind reaches conclusions before our conscious mind does, and it is based on physical attributes (everything from clarity of skin to posture as only two of many examples) as well as how we present ourselves (i.e. the hairstyles and clothing styles we choose).

    What’s more, it is nigh impossible for a person to turn off these unconscious short-cuts.

    Verdict: Dress true to the services you offer.

  11. Fabuliss says:

    I tend to worry less about making someone uncomfortable and focus on what is going to make me feel successful, confident and position me in the best light.

  12. Fabuliss says:

    This reminds me of a meeting when I was a Target employee. My team was in suits and our agency, which we called for an impromptu meeting, was dressed casually. Because of their dress, they were apologetic and we told them it was fine – it was not a planned meeting. But I remember thinking that we clearly had the upper hand based on how we were dressed. This was an unexpected feeling. Having spent most of my career on the agency side, I should have been envious of their casual clothes. This is my long way of saying I agree with your comments and encourage people – especially agency-side – to a) dress “up” and b) be prepared.

  13. Abbie S. Fink says:

    You are right, we should be considered for our ideas and not for what we wear. So why encourage the distraction by wearing PUMAs and shorts instead of dress slacks and a tie? I doubt anyone lost a client (or job) for overdressing.

  14. Arik Hanson says:

    Good point. Personal style channels confidence. The question is: Is that worth the price for those that might frown upon your personal style?

  15. Arik Hanson says:

    It should be interesting to watch that play out the next several years. I think there’s some truth in your statement. But, I also think the perceptions people form when looking you up and down for the first time aren’t confined just to the Boomers. Millennials may have different opinions on the corporate dress code, but they still make quick impressions just like the rest of us.

  16. Arik Hanson says:

    My theory to date has always been to overdress. Can’t go wrong with over-dressing, right? But, I think the dress code is loosening a bit. I see signs of it every day. And I think some of that has to do with how the workplace is changing, too.

  17. Arik Hanson says:

    When I worked on the agency side, the mantra seemed to be, we need to look different. In some ways, that means bucking the corporate dress code. So, I think some of it has to do with the “role” you play in the game.

    It’s a good point about the Millennials. I think they’re going to force a lot of change when it comes to not only workplace dress, but also the workplace in general, in the years ahead.

  18. Arik Hanson says:

    Truth be told, that’s been my strategy to date, Abbie (over-dress, when in doubt). But, I see signs of change out there. I’m not saying I’m going to take a stand on the whole PUMAs thing. I’m not that bull-headed. All I’m saying is I think the norms of the workplace–and therefore workplace dress–are changing.

    I just had drinks with a friend who works for one of the major Fortune 500 companies here in town. She also mentioned how their corporate dress code is easing up a bit. And, this is one of the more conservative companies in town when it comes to dress.

    Bottom line: I think most people a little younger than me and older agree with our perspective (overdress), but I think everyone younger embraces a different mentality. And, I think that may drive some fairly large change on the corporate side in the years ahead.

  19. Arik Hanson says:

    That’s a hilarious story about the AE–thanks for sharing Rosanna.

    So, your research found the higher you go the more dress matters, right? That’s not surprising, considering who you’re dealing with at that level. But, do you think that mentality will change in the years ahead? Do you think the current attitudes will fade as Millennials start taking on leadership positions? I think they have different attitudes about corporate dress than Xers and Boomers do.

    Thanks for stopping by, Rosanna!

  20. Arik Hanson says:

    Let’s be clear. I only wear those slippers within the confines of the Hanson Manor. Nowhere else ūüėČ

    Interesting point about height. I really never thought about that. Have you seen any research that’s proved that hypothesis?

  21. Arik Hanson says:

    Figured you’d have an opinion ūüôā

    For that exact reason, that’s why I think this is an interesting discussion. As I mentioned below, when I worked on the agency side, we got paid to dress differently than the clients. Usually, that just meant wearing fashionable clothes (I’m mostly talking about the women of the office–no way I’m anywhere near “fashionable). So, while wearing a suit and tie would certainly connote credibility and confidence, we were seen as consultants and there’s a certain perception that goes with that, too. In a way, I guess I’m proving your point here. We put people in mental boxes–agency people are fashionable, corporate people are suits, etc.

  22. Ericakdao says:

    I completely agree. Appearance is the very first thing people see and is a basis for judgement, whether one likes it or not. It is your chance to make a statement, a great first impression, especially in a professional setting. It also gives people insight into what kind of person you are. If your hair is neatly brushed and your clothes are noticably pressed, one may percieve that you are organized and a hard worker. If you’re making the time and effort to do those things, then it may transfer over to the kind of work you do. On the other hand, if your hair is messy and your ‘sloppily’ dressed, people may perceive that you don’t care enough about your appearance, so you may not care about your job. Now this may not be true for many people, but unfortunately our society has. Been conditioned to draw conclusions about people based on appearance.

    I’ve always tried to adhere to the saying, “Dress for the job you want.” In my current job, many dress casual and although it has been very tempting for me to do the same, I still dress up for work every day – even if I don’t have meetings scheduled. In the field we’re in, spontaneous meetings never fail. I think it’s important to be ready should those situations occur.

    So what do you want to tell the world?

  23. Anonymous says:

    This is a great question, Arik. For starters, I love the fact that you rock out the Homer Simpson slippers on casual work days. I think on those casual work days, where you aren’t meeting clients face-to-face wearing casual attire, like holey jeans, is perfectly acceptable. I don’t know about you – but I tend to be more productive when I’m wearing an outfit that’s comfortable and/or builds my confidence. However, there’s no replacement for common sense and good judgment. If everyone in your office comes to work every single day in a suit and tie, wearing holey jeans and a blouse may be frowned upon (and career suicide). But if you work in a more casual environment (for instance I work at a creative agency), wearing jeans is pretty much the norm. That being said even in the most laid-back companies, I’d urge against being too casual. Your office is still a public place. Save the sweat pants and PJs for at home.

  24. Matt LaCasse says:

    I think the bottom line here Arik is that while I wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing Homer Simpson slippers to a client meeting of any kind (though I’m incredibly jealous you own a pair), I would feel fine wearing a jacket, nice jeans, button down shirt and nice shoes to meet any client. Be that a conservative accounting firm or the owner of the new comic book store. By dressing more casually, I feel like we’re sending the message that yes, I care about my appearance, but I’m more concerned about being comfortable enough to be myself no matter what situation I’m in; or who I’m meeting with.

  25. Abbie S. Fink says:

    Don’t get me wrong, I have no desire to go back to suits, panty hose and pumps. Especially in Arizona’s summer. I agree that we have loosened up a bit, I’m just concerned with how far we will take it.

    Might be the age thing.

    Love the comments you’ve received — clearly something we’ve all given some thought to.

  26. Arik Hanson says:

    I think that was Sasha’s sentiment above, and it’s one I agree with. As a Millennial, Matt, do you think this is a age/generational issue?

  27. Arik Hanson says:

    Right–I think we’ve all probably seen those folks who take “casual dress” too far. But, when I say casual, I mean nice jeans, jacket and some nice shoes (that may or may not be PUMAs). To me, I think that’s acceptable in just about any environment (save uber-conservative office spaces).

  28. Arik Hanson says:

    Good point about spontaneous meetings. Let’s say you work at an agency and you don’t have any client meetings that day and you choose to wear more informal jeans, a t-shirt and your tennis shoes. Then, your client pops in. Whoops. I had a friend, actually, that always keep a blue blazer in his office for that very reason. If he was in the most casual out outfits he’d throw that on and presto, he’s got a reasonably acceptable look for just about any meeting.

  29. Anonymous says:

    I completely agree. Office dress is definitely becoming more casual and jeans with a nice blouse, blazer or jacket should be perfectly acceptable in most workplaces. I definitely think it will be interesting to see if this trend progresses as my generation- Gen Y- begin to take more management roles.

  30. AdamSinger says:

    In a word…no ūüôā

  31. jlbraaten says:

    There is research that supports the hypothesis. In Dr. Robert Cialdini’s Influence: Science and Practice, he describes a Cambridge experiment in which a man was presented to five different classes. In each class he was presented with a different title (student, demonstrator, lecturer, senior lecturer and professor), each title being progressively more authoritative.

    The students from each class were then asked to guess the man’s height. They guessed the man’s height to be taller with each step up in authority. The perceived student was guessed to be a full 2.5 inches shorter than the perceived professor (and each step in between was a half inch, making for a linear relationships).

    The resulting conclusion made by the researchers was that title and height were both symbols of authority and we associate them with one another when we have no other information to go on. Crazy, huh?

  32. Fabuliss says:

    To ad to the point about height, there is research that finds a woman who is 5′ 7″ makes $5,250 more than a woman 5’2″. http://www.forbes.com/2009/12/05/appearance-work-pay-forbes-woman-leadership-body-weight.html

  33. Fabuliss says:

    Whoa, you think you got paid to dress differently? When I was client side and selecting agencies, it was all about the creative ideas and I expected them to present themselves professionally. My two cents ūüôā

  34. Anonymous says:

    Here’s my rule of thumb: if you have to think twice about whether they way you’re dressed may be ‘pushing the envelope’ with a client – or other members in a meeting – change your clothes. Sure, we all like to dress they we want – really, wearing jeans shouldn’t make a difference.

    But, think about it: do you want to make a point with your clothes or with your intellect?

  35. Rose McChesney says:

    ¬†Check out the book “Why Work Sucks and How To Fix It” for some great reading on politics of showing up early and staying late, participating in meetings, and yes, dressing right. ¬†I don’t have any specific stats, but my own experience has taught me that if your client works in a dress-coded world, you need to exceed that dress code. ¬†Even the nicest, friendliest, most-integrity-est person has most likely been subtly taught to expect certain norms. ¬†If you don’t show up ready to prove yourself at the very first glance, you’ll be dismissed when they see another person who does. ¬†And if you’re lucky enough that your work “speaks for itself”, and they do choose you, they’ll be asking themselves about it the whole time and wondering if they made the right choice.

    The sad truth is that few of us get it: results are what counts. It’s the work you do, and how well you do it, that really matters. But most of us don’t get it. Most of us associate a promotion with being the first there in the morning, the most interactive at meetings, and the last one there at the end of the day – but all those gaps in between can be filled with solitaire and shmoozing. ¬†Some of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen have been passed over time and time again, because they don’t meet those expected norms. ¬†They put out the best results but they don’t kiss up. ¬†They work the hardest during the day, but they are running 5 minutes late each morning and leave on time at the end of the day. Or, heaven forbid, they want to go to their child’s school event more than once a year.¬†

    I think you should be able to work in your pjs or your grubby jeans or your holey t-shirt if you want, as long as you’re doing a great job. ¬†But most of the world wouldn’t support that, even if they say they do. ¬†They’d drop you, demote you, hide you, or forget about you. ¬†That’s sad.

  36. Phillipscommun says:

    I edit and publish an online social magazine (mainly to assure my p.r. clients a respected place for their legitimate news) and our success has been in dressing like the guests at every event we attend.  Generally, media people dress very casually, so we are able to get images and conversations to which they are not privy.  Only problem:  at a recent college graduation ceremony at which Jill Biden was speaking, I was mistaken for a parent walking down the aisle to get a picture, and had to straighten it out with the Secret Service. My thought:  Mirror the dress of the person you are interviewing. (Can get expensive.)www.NewportSeen.com

  37. beth says:

    I hate to say it, but you lost me at “were” instead of “wear”