Bespoke Suit or Casual Attire? The Science of Dressing for Success.
Updated: Jul 17
The benefits of wearing a bespoke suit for work have long been acknowledged. Until relatively recently, dressing in anything other than a suit would have been unthinkable in many professions. And opting for a fine bespoke number was the surest way of creating an impression of confidence, professionalism, and success.
But as more people spend at least part of their week working from home, and casual clothing becomes increasingly acceptable in a professional context, does wearing tailor-made clothing still offer the same advantages that it did just a few years ago? After all, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has done pretty well for himself dressed only in jeans, t-shirt, and a hoody for practically his entire career. Is this a formula that could work for everyone?
Scientific evidence suggests that the way you dress in a professional context not only has a strong influence on the way you are viewed by others, but also on how you actually perform. Yet the effects aren’t always as you might expect.
Choosing how you dress each morning might be one of the most important decisions you’ll make all day. What’s the sartorial recipe for success? Sloppy tech-bro casual? Sharply-cut bespoke suit? Or somewhere in between? Read on for the full lowdown.
Closets in Crisis
Once it was relatively easy to dress for work. The rules were clear: you wore a suit. Either blue or gray. The biggest dilemma you were ever likely to face was simply deciding what color necktie to pair it with.
The old clothing rules effectively meant that you were dressed by your boss, with just a small amount of wriggle room for self expression. But today those rules have broken down. The suit is no longer a requirement in many workplaces. And in some contexts – Silicon Valley for example – many would probably consider a suit to be excessively formal. Even in regular business circles, a much greater degree of informality has become acceptable.
But with increased freedom comes responsibility. Now you have to make all clothing-related choices on your own. Is greater informality the secret to success? Or were the old-timers actually onto something with their sharp suits and crisp shirts?
Over the years a lot of research has been done into the effects that clothing has on both wearers themselves and on the people they meet. As it turns out, not only does clothing influence how the wearer is perceived by others, but also how the wearer actually performs – with certain types of clothing apparently resulting in million-dollar advantages in business negotiations.
Clearly, then, how you dress for work can have a profound effect on your career. And with so much at stake, choosing whether to wear jeans and t-shirt, business casual, or a smart bespoke suit is not a decision that should be taken lightly.
Where to begin?
Luckily scientists have already done most of the hard work for us. Let’s take a look at the evidence and find out how we should dress if we want to increase the chance of success in our careers.
Put Some Swagger in Your Stride
The most obvious professional difference that clothing can make is simply serving as a boost to self confidence. This is not to be undervalued. In fact one study of workers in the financial sector found that participants “felt more competent and authoritative when wearing either formal business or business casual.” And believing in yourself and your abilities goes a long way in business.
Of course, the fact that clothes make the wearer feel a certain way is one thing, but these are merely self-reported impressions. And just because a person feels more authoritative or productive doesn’t necessarily mean that they actually are more authoritative or productive.
Nonetheless, science certainly seems to support the idea that dressing in a particular manner will alter how others perceive you. And that this, in turn, can have a positive (or indeed, negative) effect in influencing how they respond to you. But what exactly are these effects, and how can we use this knowledge to the advantage of our careers?
Have you ever wondered about the psychology behind clothing? Many men simply throw on whatever they have to hand, without giving their attire much consideration. But just because the wearer hasn’t thought about the effect that their outfit will have on others, doesn’t mean that it won’t have an effect. Clothes are much more than mere body coverings. They convey meaning – whether we want them to or not.
What you’ll often find, though, is that highly successful men do consider their clothing and the messages it sends. In fact, some give very careful consideration to the way they dress.
Take Barack Obama for instance. During his term as the president of the United States, Obama and his team paid a great deal of attention to his public persona. He communicated an image of energy and dynamism; a down to earth, no-nonsense man who gets things done.
Obama achieved this, in large part, by taking off his jacket and rolling up his shirt sleeves. Creating the impression of a man who wasn’t afraid of hard work. It was a highly successful tactic that has since been emulated by countless politicians around the world.
But Obama also understood that the clothes that would make him appear a man of the people in the eyes of ordinary working class Americans wouldn’t put him in the strongest bargaining position when meeting with foreign heads of state. Instead, when greeting Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin, you’ll find Obama sharply suited with his tie pulled up into a tight knot. He clearly understood the psychological power of clothes and the messages they convey to others.
First Impressions Count
We often tell people not to “judge a book by its cover,” but on this particular front we rarely practice what we preach. Indeed we make assumptions about people based on their appearance all the time. We all know that looks can be deceiving, but we also know that they can indicate a lot about a person. And in many cases appearance is the only evidence we have to go on.
While it might not be wise to give too much weight to first impressions – and we would certainly do well to revise them if presented with evidence to the contrary – it turns out that superficial judgments can actually reveal quite a lot of accurate information about a person.
As the authors of one study say, “surprisingly minimal appearance cues lead perceivers to accurately judge others’ personality, status, or politics.” And in this case the research was restricted to the wearer’s choice of shoes.
Just think, if a viewer can accurately understand your character, income, and social position merely by looking at a photo of your footwear, what else can they piece together about you by looking at the rest of your attire?
Hone Your Sartorial Diction
As we’ve seen, then, a bespoke suit is not merely a fine item of clothing. Rather, as with all clothing, the concept of a bespoke suit comes with a whole bucketload of symbolism, derived from culture, society, and history.
The symbolic meanings associated with a bespoke suit are many; ranging from masculinity, power, and authority to elegance, luxury, sophistication, and finesse – and a whole lot else besides.
A man in a bespoke suit takes his business seriously. He cares about outcomes, and possesses the necessary focus, determination, and attention-to-detail to deliver them. But he doesn’t need to tell anyone this; his choice of attire says it all for him.
If dressing is a form of language, then jeans and t-shirt are crude and inconsequential chit-chat. Meanwhile a bespoke suit is an altogether much more concise and eloquent form of prose. By perfecting the art and science of dressing for success, your clothes do the talking for you.
Dress For the Job You Want
Several scientific research projects have confirmed that the color of the clothing we wear has a marked effect on how we are viewed by others. One study demonstrated that women wearing red received many more positive responses from men on dating sites. Another showed that the tactics and behavior of sports players were seen to be more aggressive when wearing black shirts.
What these studies illustrate is that by understanding the cultural meanings of clothes, and the real world effects these meanings can have on others, we can positively influence how we are perceived by the people we meet.
You’ll likely have heard the old sayings “you are what you wear,” “the clothes make the man,” or “dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” Most of us probably interpret these maxims to mean that by dressing in a certain way – donning a fine bespoke suit rather than scruffy casual clothing, for example – the wearer creates such a strong impression on those he meets that eventually he is elevated to the position he aspired to. Fake it until you make it, effectively.
In itself this isn’t entirely surprising. Want people to treat you with respect? Then dress like the kind of person who typically commands respect. Certainly, if you give the impression that you don’t have much self-respect, it doesn’t seem reasonable to expect that others will make up for this.
Admittedly, a lot of the evidence we’ve looked at so far largely just confirms what most of us already know from common sense; namely that dressing well has a favorable influence on other people. More interestingly, though, several studies suggest that the way we dress not only affects how others view us, nor merely how we see ourselves, but also how we act.
For example, in one particularly surprising study, researchers found that by trying on different types of clothing before a math performance test, participants’ abilities to complete the test were significantly impacted (main take-away; don’t wear swimwear to a math exam!).
Other studies have highlighted equally surprising ways in which clothes can change not just perceptions, but also attributes. Of course, that clothes can help to make people appear more attractive is hardly earth-shattering news. But it turns out that clothes don’t just make people appear more attractive, but can actually make them behave in ways that are considered more attractive even if the clothes that created this effect are not visible to the viewer. In other words, clothes aren’t just “packaging” that make the wearer seem more attractive, but can actually change the physical appearance of that person.
We know this because, in one study, participants were asked to rate the attractiveness of a range of different people who had been photographed wearing either red, white, or black t-shirts. Those photos in which men wore red t-shirts always received higher votes, even when the t-shirt had been digitally altered using Photoshop so that the original color was no longer visible to the viewer. Meaning that it wasn’t the color red that looked attractive in the photo, but the effect caused by the color red on the wearer that was attractive.
In short, certain clothes will not only make you feel good, but also look good. Not merely look good in the obvious sense that, because those clothes look good on you, you make a good impression – although there’s that too. But also in the sense that, by feeling good in the clothes, you actually change for the better physically. And this change is very noticeable to the viewer; even if they can’t see the clothes that caused this change in the first place.
But it gets even more interesting. In one intriguing experiment, researchers wanted to understand what effect “upper class clothing” (a suit) would have on business negotiations compared to “lower class clothing” (t-shirt and sweatpants). The results were highly revealing: “Wearing upper-class, compared to lower-class, clothing induced dominance—measured in terms of negotiation profits and concessions, and testosterone levels—in participants.“ Indeed, those participants who wore a smart suit consistently had the upper hand in these simulated business deals.
Co-author of the study, Yale University’s Michael W Krauss, commented that “Target participants in our study showed substantial differences in their behavior and even their biology as a function of the clothing change.” He went on to add that “suit-wearing participants gained on average more than US$2 million in profits during the negotiation, while their rival negotiators wearing neutral clothing were willing to forfeit $1.2 million.”
That’s a considerable increase in profit. And all it took was investing in a bit of classy tailoring!
Symbolism You Can Wear
As impressive as these figures are, what’s really significant about this last experiment is not merely how much money is potentially at stake when you dress yourself in a nice bespoke suit rather than sweatpants, but also that your own mental and physical performance can be altered by outward appearance. Indeed, in this study, the dominant effects of wearing a suit were evident not only in the financial outcomes, but also in the testosterone levels recorded in suit-wearing participants following the negotiations.
In another equally intriguing case, researchers claim to have identified what they call “enclothed cognition.” No bespoke suits or sweatpants here, though; instead the researchers either clothed the test groups in simple white lab coats, or left them dressed normally.
In the first round of tests, those who wore lab coats carried out their assigned tasks with greater care and precision than those who did not. Even more interestingly, though, lab coat-wearing participants in the second round were split into two groups. One group was told that the lab coats were “doctor’s coats,” the other group instead received what were referred to as “painter’s coats.” Those who believed that they were dressed as painters carried out the tasks with the same degree of care as those dressed normally in round one had done. Those dressed as doctors, however, performed the tasks with greater care than anyone.
As the researchers note, then, the performance effect of clothing “depends on both the symbolic meaning and the physical experience of wearing the clothes.” So when you put on the right clothes, you’re not only dressing in fine cloth, but also in any symbolism associated with those garments. And let there be no doubt; few items of clothing are more charged with symbolic meaning than a bespoke suit.
A Change of Clothes; A Change of Perspective
The last scientific experiment we’re going to look at here was truly in-depth, conducted as it was over five separate studies. Here the researchers were keen to discover whether wearing formal clothing resulted in changes to the participants’ cognitive abilities. What they discovered is that the "formality of clothing might not only influence the way others perceive a person, and how people perceive themselves, but could influence decision making in important ways through its influence on processing style.”
What the researchers mean here by “processing style” is essentially the way in which participants approached the problems they were set in the experiment. Their problem solving attitude and methods, if you like. What the researchers found was that “more formal clothing was associated with higher action identification level (Study 1) and greater category inclusiveness (Study 2). Putting on formal clothing induced greater category inclusiveness (Study 3) and enhanced a global processing advantage (Study 4).” Effectively, then, it seems that clothing effects the wearer’s own behavior and abilities as much as it influences external perceptions.
Want to get in the right frame of mind for the job? It’s as easy as putting on the right clothes.
Dress Like You’re Broke? Or Go for Bespoke?
From what we’ve seen, then, it would appear that you can actually become better at your job by dressing in a certain way. On the face of it, this might sound a little far-fetched. But it’s actually not so improbable when you think about it. If you present yourself to the world (and, importantly, to yourself) as someone who cares about the smaller details, who understands the finer subtleties, and who values quality and precision, then it does indeed seem likely that you will try to act in a way that lives up to this (self) image.
I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t enjoy the experience of disappointing myself. And if I present myself to the world in a certain way, it’s not just about superficial appearance; I actually strive to be that person. And, having committed to a certain self-image, I will be more likely to try to live up to this. For my own satisfaction, if nobody else’s.
To return to the language metaphor I used earlier, a bespoke suit is the fluent and confident verbal expression of a highly lucid, articulate, and persuasive speaker. And by dressing in a bespoke suit, not only do you assume all the highly charged symbolism associated with your attire to create a strong impression on others, but you are also more likely to live up to this image in your actions.
Of course, dressing smart doesn’t necessarily mean donning a bespoke suit. Good quality read-to-wear items can also make for a highly professional appearance. But to stretch the metaphor even further, off-the-rack suits are like the competent but dull diction of a public service announcer. They are certainly preferable to unimaginative stock phrases or the crude bellowing of an incoherent moron, but appear characterless and pedestrian when compared to the inspiring tones of a great orator. And, metaphorically speaking, the most skilled of speakers is undoubtedly the bespoke suit.
Obviously there is a place in the world for both slang-filled banter and high literature. But if you’re looking to make an impression of great professionalism and competence, the sartorial equivalent of inarticulate grunting is not the way to go about it. In fact, from the evidence I think we can probably conclude that Zuckerberg is successful despite the way he dresses. Not because of it. Perhaps even he might want to consider investing in a bespoke suit or two after all.