What to wear to work? Your clothing communicates a lot about you, more than you probably think! Andrea shares what some of the research says about how we dress and others’ perception of us. Then she shares some do’s and don’ts  when choosing your outfit. Here’s a question: what’s your most successful, happiest self wearing to work in five years?

 

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TRANSCRIPT

I have a question for you.  What are you wearing? Or more importantly, what are the clothes you’re wearing signalling or communicating about you? 

If you’re listening to this podcast, I’m guessing you believe me when I say that how you dress communicates a lot.  In both personal and professional contexts. But I also bet that you underestimate how much your physical appearance matters. 

Here’s the thing. According to research, your physical appearance, which includes your clothing, is the #1 most influential factor in employee selection, more important than other verbal and nonverbal behaviors like the things I just mentioned.

If we’re going to be effective communicators, we need to talk about our clothing.  Let’s do this.

I’m not a stylist.  I’m not going to tell you what brand of what shirt to wear with what pants and exactly how to style it.  I am going to share with you some factors to consider when you’re dressing yourself for work – when you’re shopping or when you’re looking at your closet and deciding what to wear.  What you wear signals or COMMUNICATES many things  I’m also going to share with you some of what the research says about that.  It’s fascinating!!!

First though, let me introduce myself. My name is Dr. Andrea Wojnicki and I’m your executive communication coach. Please call me Andrea!  I’m the founder of Talk About Talk, where I coach communication skills to ambitious executives to help them elevate their communication, their confidence and their clarity, so they’ll get noticed for the right reasons and ultimately get promoted!  That’s my goal here.  I want to help you accelerate your career trajectory.

If you go to the Talk About Talk.com website, you’ll find many resources to help you out. There’s information there about one-on-one coaching, online courses, corporate workshops, the archive of this bi-weekly podcast, AND, I really hope you’ll sign up for the Talk About Talk newsletter. That newsletter is your chance to get communication coaching from me every week. 

In this episode, I’m going to take you through the research, as I said, in terms of how our clothing affects others’ perceptions. I’m also going to share three things to consider when you’re choosing what to wear at work, 4 things to consider for what to wear in online meetings, and several don’ts.  As in what NOT to wear.

As always, you don’t need to take notes because I will summarize everything for you at the end and you can always check the transcript in the shownotes.  SO again, you don’t need to take notes cause I do that for you. You’re welcome.

All right let’s get into this. Let me start by saying that how we dress at work is changing a lot.  It’s like work-wear is having a moment.  Partly due to the pandemic and WFH for sure.  But even before the pandemic, people were wearing sneakers with their suit or dress.  And suits are less common. And ties are definitely becoming less common.

Then there’s the whole fascination with FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried.  A certified slob.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, try searching “Sam Bankman Fried.”  He’s a criminal and his story is bizarre. But what gets talked about is how much of a slob he is, in terms of how he dresses. 

I was gonna share this advice for the very end of this episode, but I think I’m just going to share it right now. It’s advice I learned from my friend Anne Muhlethaler. She’s a luxury brand consultant, also a Yogi podcaster and a very cool human. She worked for designer Christian Louboutin for years and years and even headed up his communications and PR department. 

Anne shared this exercise with me that I’m going to share with you now. First, close your eyes. Literally or physically? If you can, or at least get yourself into a state where you can be creative and think deeply. Then I want you to think about -imagine- your happiest and most successful self. 

Maybe imagine you are in your office. Standing up at your desk, looking down at some paperwork. Your laptop is on your desk in front of you and. Maybe there’s one individual in your office that you’re having a rather informal conversation with. What’s in the room? What does the furniture look like? What do the walls look like? What do you have hanging on the wall? Is it your degree? Is it art? Remember, this is your happiest and most successful self. This is where you want to be. Now I want you to zoom out and look at yourself. What are you wearing? Think about what you’re wearing on top and on the bottom. What colour is it? How does the fabric feel? What are you wearing on your feet? Are you wearing the watch? What jewelry or accessories do you have? What about a belt? Are you wearing glasses? What kind of glasses? Top to bottom, get yourself in the zone of thinking about your happiest and most successful self.

Do you have a vivid image in your mind of what you’re wearing? 

Let me tell you what this outfit is for me. It’s an impeccably tailored Navy blue pantsuit. Made of gorgeous fabric that fits me perfectly. I have a very plain white blouse underneath the Navy blue suit. And I have gold chunky jewelry. Earrings a ring. And a big watch, which is kind of weird because I just started. I’ve started wearing an Apple Watch, which I absolutely love, but for some reason I had a big chunky wristwatch on when I was imagining this. I was also wearing a very high quality black belt with a designer gold designer buckle on it. And. Chunky, high heeled. Black leather. Pumps with. Gold hardware. Pretty specific, right? 

When I shared this with my friend Anne, she said, Andrea, write it on your shopping list. Go buy the outfit. This is your happiest and most successful self. Go buy the outfit.

So again, I ask you, what are you wearing when you imagine yourself in your office as your most successful self? It seems like a no-brainer that this is the outfit that we should be going out and buying for ourselves. Am I right?

Now, I’m not encouraging you to go shopping on a major shopping spree after you listen to this episode. And I’m certainly not encouraging fast fashion. In fact, I strongly recommend the opposite. I recommend that you buy things that will last you for years and maybe even decades. A couple of years ago I interviewed the Executive director of Toronto Fashion Week, a talented woman named Carolyn Quinn. I’ll leave a link to that episode in the show notes. It was a long time ago. That was episode #16 and we’re now on episode 122 period. Anyway, Carolyn shares a lot of helpful advice. One thing that really stood out for me was she said that if you’re shopping and you pick up a piece of clothing that you can’t imagine wearing in 10 years, then put it back on the rack and walk away.

WHY IT’S IMPORTANT – WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS

Whole slew of research on the impact of uniforms.   Not talking about that.  We’re focusing on when you get to choose what you wear, top to bottom. At least within a dress code

  • nonverbal signals like clothing, hairstyle, facial expression, gestures, and mimicry, as well as on verbal cues regarding the content and manner of speech 
  • Clothing is an easily accessible form of self-presentation and is strongly incorporated into our daily routines 
  • Yes, it matters! Affect people’s perceptions of you. Sometimes you might not care so much about that, but sometimes people’s perceptions matter a lot.  Like when you’re gunning for a promotion, or selling something, or making an important presentation. Or maybe when you’re interviewing for a new job.
  • Here’s the thing. According to research, your physical appearance, which includes your clothing, is the most influential factor in employee selection, more important than other verbal and nonverbal behaviors like the things I just mentioned.
  • By the way, I had a lot of fun reading up and doing the research for this episode.  Like I said, I’m not a stylist, but I enjoy clothing and colour and fashion. And certainly I care about how I look. 
  • SO imagine how I felt when I read the research showing evidence of a clear relationship between one’s emphasis on appearance and two things: extraversion (yes), I’m an extrovert! And neuroticism.  Wait – what? OK, 
  • Anyway, it turns out that focusing on your physical appearance and your clothing choices is a smart thing to do. Research also shows that people judge all sorts of things about us based on how we dress. It also affects how we feel about ourselves.  Have you ever noticed how your mood changes when you get dressed up?  Or even when you get dressed down into your comfy sweats. 
  • How we dress can signal or communicate social values, desire for conformity, ambition, rank (as in your professional seniority) and of course social status, 
  • If you want to feel and act professional, then dress professionally. I read one study that looked at two factors: gender and clothing formality for dentists and lawyers.  So, this was in the context of professionals. 
    • Think of it as a two by two matrix. You have gender on one axis and formality on the other. You’ve got 4 conditions. You have females that are dressed casually, females that are dressed formally, males that are dressed casually, and males that are dressed formally. Can you guess which condition in this two by two matrix was judged as more suitable, capable, easier to talk to and friendlier than all the other conditions? Of course you can. It’s the men who were dressed in more formal professional attire who won. I’m hoping as gender dynamics evolve, the results of that study will also change. I could go on about this but let me get back to some other research that you might find interesting. 
  • One research study I read demonstrated that neatness and formality signals conscientiousness and  extraversion. Hmm.  That extraversion factor again.
  • Another study demonstrated that flashy and neat clothing impresses strangers at first glance. 
    • This is the antithesis of what FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried wore. Sam was infamous for wearing boring t’s or baggy sweatshirts, with sloppy walking shorts, black socks and tattered shoes. Not flashy and not neat.
    • When I think neat, I think Steve Jobs in his impeccable black turtleneck.  Not so flashy though. Flashy and neat would be the impeccably tailored suit, maybe in bright red. The reminds me, one of my favourite outfits to wear when I’m doing a keynote or a workshop is a bright turquoise Argent blazer.  Very well-tailored, fits me well, and the colour is bold.  Bold colours are an easy way to add some flash. 

I’m going to highlight for you more of the research as we go along with some do’s and don’ts.  But I just wanted to establish first that what you wear really does matter.  It is an effective and relatively easy way to reinforce your personal brand to others AND to yourself. And don’t worry, just because you pay attention to your wardrobe, it doesn’t mean you’re neurotic.  I’d say you’re being smart.

FACTORS TO CONSIDER

For when you’re shopping or when you’re looking at your closet and wondering what to wear to work. I have three general suggestions. The first is WRT

FORMALITY:

  • If you’re not sure, dress up, not down. The research in this is pretty conclusive.  If you want to be perceived as a leader and as competent, trustworthy, intelligent (yes, were judging that by your clothing, scary, right?), then you’d be well-advised to dress formally, In many cases, that means in a suit.
  • This is consistent with that advice for dressing for work that I’m sure we’ve all heard: Dress for the job you want, not the job you have. 
  • Need some evidence for why?  One study showed that people attribute higher intelligence to students and to teachers when they wear more formal clothing. 
  • If you’re a therapist, you should know that research shows your clients are more likely to return if you wear more formal rather than casual clothing.  I guess as a coach, I should keep this in mind!
  • Research shows that simply putting on a suit, or if you’re in an online meeting, a blazer or suit jacket will communicate power, status, and rationality.

Speaking of online meetings, the pandemic has been a catalyst for a lot of change in many different contexts. One of those contexts is what we wear at work. The culture of suit and tie has evolved to business casual to sometimes frumpy. 

  • For example, one thing that’s changed is how men are wearing ties less frequently.  Of course, when they’re going business casual, but even when they’re wearing a suit. They’re leaving the tie at home. 
  • And the short from dress shoes to sneakers is pretty widely accepted. Often now those sneakers cost a lot more than dress shoes!
  • Generally, though, our attire, our work wear is becoming less formal, more casual.
  • There is research out there showing that wearing less formal or even casual attire leads to feelings of friendliness and creativity.  Both of those are good things. 
  • But I encourage you, whenever you’re wondering how formal to go, err on the side of formality. Especially if traits like competence, trustworthiness, intelligence, power, status and rationality are things you want to be known for.

I also encourage you to Be prepared for the unexpected: keep a basic blazer on a hanger in the back of your door that you can put on when you have an unexpected meeting with a client.

INTEGRATE HOW YOU DRESS WITH YOUR PERSONAL BRAND

We talk a lot about personal branding on this podcast. So how exactly can you integrate how you dress with your personal brand? Well, remember your PB is comprised of prioritized themes that describe you in a way that is positive, unique and relevant to you.  The same can go for how you dress.  And you can make some part of your style, how you dress into part of your personal brand.  For me, it’s all about turquoise. I love turquoise. It makes me happy. It’s a vibrant, energetic colour.  And people often tell me that they appreciate my energy.  . Some of my colleagues have even made comments when they see me after not seeing me for a while if I’m NOT wearing turquoise! 

So, it could be a signature colour.  Or it could be a brand that you love.  Or a classic piece that you often wear, like Steve Job’s black turtleneck, or maybe it’s flashy neckties.  Or gorgeous shoes.  Or silk scarves.  You get the idea.

I’m thinking about a woman I know who wears a lot of green because it looks gorgeous with her green eyes. It’s part of her personal brand. Another woman I know always has long, impeccably manicured nails. That’s part of her brand. Another who purposefully dresses in bold colours.  She tells people that her clothing matches her personality, which is big, as opposed to her stature, which is small. I love how she dresses for her personality, and she calls it out, explicitly. Lori, you’re a star. Then there’s the chair of one of the boards I was on who was known for having high quality impeccably pressed, or starched, dress shirts. Not a bad thing to be known for,  Remember the research I was telling you about at the beginning?  Imagine how being known for wearing perfect dress shirts would impact people’s perceptions and assumptions of you as an executive

Are you feeling inspired?  Maybe you’re wondering how exactly you integrate your personal style with your personal brand? I’d start with something you love.  It could be a colour or a style or a particular piece of clothing or an accessory.  Then ask yourself what someone with your expertise, your ambitions, and your values would do with that.  Then go for it and have fun.  Make it part of your identity.  Make it part of what people remember about you.

SO that’s the 2nd thing to think about. The first is formality.  The second is integrating how you dress with your personal brand.  The third is an adage that I learned from a  friend of mine who IS a fashionista. I, talking about YOU, Tania!

Tania was a model in her teens.  I met her when we were both in our 20s.  We talked a lot about fashion.  She shared this adage with me that I still think about.  It’s this:

Hair, hands, and feet.

When we pull together an outfit, we typically think top and bottom.  Shirt and pants.  But we need to pay a lot more attention to 3 other things: our hair, our hands, and our feet.  If you want to look really pulled together, you need to look after your hair, you need to have presentable hands (that means your nails and possibly jewelry, and you need clean, polished shoes.  

Footwear makes a big impact, but in my opinion, footwear is underappreciated.  Literally last night I went out for dinner and made this mistake…. I went out for dinner with some girlfriends.  I put on my favorite black wool dress pants and a lovely sweater.  I remember spending some time choosing my jewelry. My footwear didn’t cross my mind until my friend rang my doorbell and was standing in my front hall.  In retrospect, my boots kind of wrecked the outfit.  So, I need to step it up when it comes to pulling together my outfit in terms of my footwear. 

Again, Hair, hands, and feet.

The one time your footwear might NOT matter at work is you’re in online meetings.  You can wear your comfy slippers or even get your dogs out, as my kids might say.

I have a list of four suggestions for what to wear in online meetings. Are you ready?

WHAT TO WEAR FOR ONLINE MEETINGS

1. Solids – not patterns.  Solids just look better on camera.  So, no stripes, no plaid, no florals, no geometric designs.  Keep it solid when you’re online.  Then, when you go into the office, bring out the patterns and prints.

2. Blue. Wear blue.  Apparently blue looks great on camera. I think that’s true,  Sometimes browns and greens and other colours can look off on camera.  Blues are safe.   I happen to love blue, but that could be part of the point here too.  Blue is more people’s favourite colour than any other colour.  So, if you’re wondering what colour, choose blue.

3. Dress quietly.  What – what? I’m talking mostly about jewellery or other accessories that might clang and make distracting noises. Like big earrings that clang on your air pods or a watch or bracelets that clang on your desk. If you’re wearing corded earbuds, make sure your speaker, on the wire, isn’t brushing against your clothing.  That’s super annoying. Watch jewellery and accessories that clang!  Quiet accessories. I heard a news reporter on the radio a few days ago who clearly had something rubbing against his microphone.  SO annoying.  OK, so when you’re in online meetings, dress quietly.  Especially take care of your accessories.  The next thing, number 4 is really for your sake. Its: with clanging…

4. Wear something that’s comfortable for sitting. Of course, remember what I said at the beginning. You’re not just signalling to others, but also to yourself. If you want to feel professional and productive, then dress that way. But balance that with the fact that you’re sitting, and you want to be comfortable. 

So those are the 4 points about what to wear for online meetings. 

Now we’re shifting gears and I’m going to get into the fun stuff.  What NOT to wear.

DON’Ts: WHAT TO AVOID WEARING

The first thing I have to say  Don’t violate the dress code:

  • If there’s an event dress code and you don’t know what it means, maybe google it. Or even ask the organizer. These things are fluid as our culture changes, so too do dress code definitions.  Trust me, what my daughter and her friends wear to a semi-formal is very different from what I wore to a semiformal when I was her age. Similarly, what qualifies as cocktail dress or even work casual isn’t always clear,  Don’t be afraid to ask!
  • So there’s the event dress code.  There’s also your firm’s dress code. Your firm’s dress code may be formalized, with rules written out.  My son had a summer job last year at a tech company that had a surprisingly strict dress code.  It was written out Other firms have dress codes that aren’t written out, They are implicitly understood.. Regardless, look around the successful senior folks and it should be pretty clear what’s acceptable.
    • Some firms and industries also have written or unwritten rules about what to wear for different types of activities.  Like when you’re in internal meetings versus meeting with clients.  That’s important. 
    • My suggestion is to Be prepared for the unexpected: keep a basic blazer on a hanger on the back of your door.  And maybe a pair of black leather shoes that you can use to dress up an outfit.
  • When it comes to dress codes, there’s also a sort of a code by season, isn’t there? What’s ok to wear in the summer is different from what’s acceptable in the winter. One violation I read about again and again when I was reading up for this episode was how easy it is to mess up with summer wear. It can be easy in the summer to get more casual, perhaps too casual, and also to show too much skin for some contexts. 

Alright, so were talking don’ts.  Do not violate the dress code.  What else?

  • Never ever wear anything that’s dirty or stained.  
  • Also, don’t wear anything that’s torn or frayed.  That should also go without saying, but I see a lot of torn and frayed clothing, especially pants, and especially jeans. 
    • Torn, frayed jeans may be stylish (are they anymore? I’m not sure,  I lost track) Regardless, they send the wrong message.
  • And as for messages, watch those graphic t’s. That should also go without saying.  Watch what your clothes are saying.  Sometimes literally.
  • Oh – here’s a DON’T.  Not exactly clothing, but it’s something you wear,  Fragrance.  Whether it’s cologne or perfume or aftershave, don’t wear it at work. Scent allergies are a real thing.  And you might be sending the wrong message.  Save the fragrance for your day off.
  • Next, avoid clothing that’s too revealing. Short shorts and short skirts are a no no. And no bare midriffs, despite what they show in the fashion layouts. Hey – if you’re the CEO, maybe you can make the rules and show off your six pack. But until then, cover your belly. 
    • I read somewhere that sleeveless is definitely a nono for men. Short sleeves are ok in the summer if the shirt has a collar. And for women, sleeveless is ok if it’s a well-tailored top and as long as you’re not showing too much skin elsewhere. 
  • That reminds me: Footwear. No flip flops.  (And of course, no Crocs – please.  DO I have to say it?).  Those rules stand.  But the good news is that footwear is getting a lot more comfortable.  As long as they’re clean and crisp, you can get away with sneakers with a dress or a business suit. 
    • Bare toes? That’s less clear. The advice about open toed pumps is inconsistent.  A few articles I read said strappy, toe revealing sandals are ok for women, but more of them advised against it. My recommendation is cover our feet. You can find some cute pumps that cover your toes.
    •  Plus, as some of you may know, I have three teenagers.  And lately I keep hearing them talking about how feet are disgusting. Not MY feet. We’re talking feet in general. Have you heard this? Of course, they get it from social media. They call people’s feet their dogs.  And if you see bare feet, or even toes, they’ll say “EEEWWWW! Your dogs are out. Yo. Whose dogs are these? Put those dogs away! I guess it’s a thing.  Don’t show your dogs.  Cover your toes.

And that feels like a good place to stop.  We’ve covered you now from the top of your head – your hair, down to your toes.

Now, as promised, and as I always do, let me briefly summarize. As I got through this list, I hope you’ll consider a few pointers that will help you next time you’re staring at your closet and feeling uninspired. CLOSING MUSIC – NOT TOO LOUD

SUMMARY

We started with what the research says about how what we wear affects or signals how we are perceived – by others and by ourselves. 

  • your physical appearance, which includes your clothing, is the most influential factor in employee selection
  • How you dress impacts people’s judgment of you in terms of extraversion, neuroticism.  social values, desire for conformity, ambition, rank ,  social status, charisma, conscientiousness, and extraversion. 

So, what look should you go for? Three suggestions:

1. FORMALITY – There’s tomes of research pointing to formality.  That said, what qualifies as formal is evolving. But if you’re not sure, dress up, not down.

2. Integrate how you dress with your personal brand.  If you want to be known for your energy, try bold colours. If you want a job, dress the part. If you have a favourite colour or a favourite accessory, you love scarves or ties, go for it, and make it part of your PB.

3. HAIR HANDS & FEET – it’s not just what you’re wearing on top and on the bottom.  Consider your hair, hands and feet.  And especially your footwear.

Four suggestions for online meetings:

  • Solids – not patterns
  • Wear blue.
  • Dress quietly – watch your jewellery and accessories for noise
  • Wear something that’s comfortable for sitting

What not to wear.  These are the don’ts:

  • Do not violate the dress code. It could be an event dress code, it could be your firm’s dress code. , or it could be the code of what’s acceptable by season.
  • Never ever wear anything that’s dirty or stained or torn or frayed. 
  • watch the messages on those graphic t’s.
  • avoid clothing that’s too revealing – we got into a lot of detail there.
  • And last:  Footwear. You can have fun now, wearing sneakers . But no flip flops.  No Crocs, and  – please, no bare toes.  Put those dogs away.

TRY EXERCISE AGAIN.

Now one more thing before I let you go. Remember at the beginning of this episode, I took you through the visualization exercise.  I encourage you to try it again.  Now that we’ve talked about some of the research on clothing and how what you wear affects specific judgments of you.  We’ve talked about formality and your personal brand and hair hands and feet. And more. So, I ask you again.  Imagine yourself in 5 or 10 years.  You are your most successful self.  What are you wearing? 

That outfit belongs in your closet NOW, not just ten years from now.

Got it?

OK, that was fun. 

Before you go, I’m wondering whether you have any questions or suggestions for me. Perhaps you have a suggestion for a future podcast topic? There are two main ways you can contact me.  You can email me at andrea@talkabouttalk.com or go to the talkabouttalk.com website and leave me a recorded message there. While you’re on the website, please please sign up for the weekly communication coaching newsletter.

You can also connect with me on LinkedIn. 

And if you enjoyed this podcast episode, I hope you’ll share it with your friends who might also be seeking to improve their communication skills.

Thanks for listening.  And talk soon!