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Can We Really Dress for Success?

Can We Really Dress for Success?

Up until around 25 years ago, office or work attire in the western world for the so-called “white-collar” workforce was fairly standard. For both men and women in this population it was the matching color coordinated suit for leaders and generally conservative attire for everyone else.

Although, it is not exactly the same in each western world country, it can be said that the strict dress-code expectations of past decades have lessened considerably and work wear has become a lot more casual in general. The suit is now a discretionary choice for leaders at all levels (and suit jackets all but disappear in the summer). Ties and Scarfs which were once ubiquitous are also worn much less than before and people are now freer to personalize their attire and use color to express themselves if they so wish.

Given this move to more choice in personal appearance, a whole approach called “dress for success” was born. This approach suggested that not only should and could individuals personalize their attire but that if they did this with some planning and style, it would make them more noticeable, have a direct impact on immediate job success and even help a person to enhance his or her career prospects. This was quite an ambitious claim but can the effort to be better “turned out” be justified and does it really work in practice in today’s world?

The Theory of Dressing for Success

Before we answer this last question, let’s at least briefly look at what dressing successfully should look like in the eyes of the experts in this area, or what it is recommended for men and women to wear at work in order to be noticed in today’s world.

Advocates of dressing-for-success claim that clothes in particular (often combined with a good hair style) can make a strong visual statement. And because some clothes and ways of dressing can lead to greater success, it follows that there are ways of dressing that are likely to work in the opposite way and send the wrong signal to others.  Training shoes or flip-flops, sweat-pants, jeans, cheap T-shirts, large and noticeable jewelry and revealing clothing (especially for women in this last case) may all express individuality (and even be very comfortable to wear) but will also send a strong signal that may do an individual no good whatsoever in career terms, at least in some people’s eyes, and perhaps also create the perception of the wearer being sloppy, overly relaxed, lacking discretion or even unprofessional.

So, what kind of non-plain or conservative attire is acceptable in most workplace scenarios?  Although it is far from a definitive list, the experts suggest the following:

For Women For Men
  • Solid color, with no floral patterns
  • Coordinated blouse buttoned high
  • Moderate shoes (noticeable and stylish but low/medium heels)
  • Limited jewelry-stylish and demure
  • Neat, professional hairstyle
  • Hosiery on legs at all times
  • Light or no scent antiperspirant
  • Conservative make-up and perfume
  • Manicured nails
  • Color coordinated handbag or briefcase
  • Solid dark color jacket outside summer
  • White/Pastel long sleeve shirt
  • Possible tie (can be bright but no jokes/cartoons)
  • Dark socks, professional shoes
  • Very limited jewelry
  • Neat, professional hairstyle
  • No-scent antiperspirant
  • A little aftershave
  • Neatly trimmed nails
  • Portfolio or briefcase

Added to this list, some experts suggest that quality clothing labels, expensive perfumes, tasteful jewelry, for women and Italian shoes and expensively branded watches for men can all send very positive messages too.


So, to answer the question we posed earlier, can you really dress for greater success? Well it depends upon the culture of your particular organization and what the culture says about the dress code in which you are working. What this means in practice is that at an interview (either internally or with a new company), you may not want to take any chances and thereby pay close attention to the expert recommendation in the above table. However, for the rest of the time, it really depends on both your personal preferences in terms of comfort and style as well as on what your clothes may communicate to others. Put another way, it is probably wise for each and every one of us to have given this at least some thought, so that we can adopt an approach that seems to work best.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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