I’m very uncomfortable. I needn’t be. A bright and airy Monday morning offers delicate shards of impending Summer and engaging agency work beckons. Yet the paranoia creeps in. Are they looking this way? Are management planning a serious talk with me? Was this a big mistake?
I’ve not done anything particularly wrong. I’m not suffering a bout of imposter syndrome. I have my normal faculties at my disposal. I’m in the right place, at work—a consistently held web design role—and all is normal.
Except for the fact that I’m wearing strange clothes. By choice. And for no apparent reason. I told myself this would be a great combination of light-hearted fun and an interesting social experiment. Now I feel like a clown.
For a couple of decades, the creative and tech industries have forged their own progressive dress code, away from the traditional stiff collars and three-piece suits of the 20th-century formal office.
Jobs and Zuckerberg made names for themselves with their passion for ideas and for thinking outside the box not for dressing sharper than their competitors. In fact, their surprisingly casual approach to clothing was a successful differentiator. It became part of their own brand.
Jeans, t-shirts, hoodies, and sneakers are now perfectly acceptable garb for the designer, programmer, project manager, or startup entrepreneur. Freedom! We can focus less on elitist, fabric status symbols and more on work/life balance, innovative technology and, you know, trying to improve the world a little bit.
But I’ve not always worked on the enlightened side. Stints in clerical positions, retail, and even catering have all required a less creative and more uniform approach to…uniform.
In the past, I actually appreciated the simplicity of identical uniforms while working at a department store. I used to take pride in a smart new garment for a formal office environment. I’ve felt empowered by donning a dinner jacket for certain functions.
There’s such a range of style and formality when it comes to covering our naked bodies. It’s no surprise that a lot of creative and tech agencies—a relatively new industry made up of relatively young people—don’t explicitly require a focus on dressing to impress.
Yet we meet clients, we pitch, we try to exude confidence, expertise, and authority. We posture ourselves just like any other industry and often while dealing with those other industries. But we don’t often dress in clothes that convey the same confidence and authority. We’re a demographic that has settled into going against the grain, reveling in a sense of otherness. I wonder if we’ve lost confidence in commanding the aesthetic language of clothing—one that almost anyone can relate to.
In an evolving world of gender categorization and increasingly complex patterns of inequality and prejudice, I’ve got the easy ride. For someone like me, it’s relatively easy to experiment without facing much scrutiny. For many others, the lack of “professional” dressing options can mean oppression and subjugation.
Hypotheses: Clothing, authority, and authenticity
As professional human beings, we subconsciously tailor our communication and body language in order to manipulate. If I want you to like and trust me when you meet me, I might shake your hand, smile and make a self-effacing quip. I’ll make an effort. I won’t belch, blow my nose on my sleeve, or pick at my fingernails.
If I want a logo to help its owning organization bond with its customers and sell more products, I’ll design it to be as convincing as possible at a glance—manipulating people to encourage a certain response. I’ll make an effort.
We try to be aware of how others will receive our work. In the same vein, it seems natural to dress in a way that also encourages certain responses. But a lot of us don’t make that effort.
This guide to public speaking suggests it’s possible to dress to project either a high authority image, low authority image, or a neutral image. The higher the formality, the more authority projected. I’d describe myself as dressing with a neutral image. My outfits generally involve a plain, buttoned-up shirt—untucked, dark, well-fitted jeans or chinos, and leather shoes or ankle boots. Some would call it “smart-casual”—nothing too fancy, nothing too sloppy. I normally fall somewhere in between formal and informal.
But it was the extreme ends of the spectrum I wanted to explore. I wondered if dressing in more traditional office garb would still work to project a high authority image, leading to a competitive edge. Or if dressing more progressively—projecting a low authority image—would actually express a casual authenticity. Does one approach provide a more successful image? Or do they both but only in certain contexts? To what extent has the latter approach simply replaced the former? How does that relate to authority?
So, for two weeks I decided to explore what it’s like to dress drastically different at work. I didn’t let anyone know what I was doing; I was keen to observe the authentic reactions of my colleagues, any differences in the dynamic with my industry pals, or the rapport I had with clients.
The experiment: Week one
I dedicated the first week of my experiment to the high authority approach. I spent a week dressed in suits, waistcoats, ties and smart shoes. I had trimmed my facial hair perfectly. My early stubble was fitting of a modern, sharply dressed young man. Hair slicked back, I was ready. The stripped wood floors of the office now felt the assertive clip-clop of a sharply dressed go-getter.
The unannounced black suit, white shirt, grey tie of the first day encouraged a barrage of incredulous faces in the office. My colleagues made jokes to hide their discomfort. Was this a prank? Was I heading off to interview for a job elsewhere? I had roused suspicion. No one liked it. Least of all myself. This change had created a strange atmosphere. Body sweating. Neck constricted. The tie made it until lunch time…
I persisted and tried again the next day. This time in a dark teal suit, with a pocket square and a patterned shirt. I still elicited a few comments and questions. A few wry remarks. This time the tie made it until mid-afternoon.
For the rest of the week, I experimented with leaving the jacket on the chair, losing the waistcoat and keeping to an open-collar—for comfort and to turn down the formality just a notch. I threw a linen shirt into the mix. It was full steam ahead into the experiment, but the team was now desensitized. There was nothing left for them to say. The novelty had worn off.
It was certainly an unusual experience. Largely due to the fact that I was the only one dressed to this extent—I felt like the definition of overdressed. But I secretly enjoyed the pomp and circumstance that week engendered.
When wearing comfortable clothing, it’s a forgettable part of your skin for the day. When wearing a suit, there are constant reminders that you’re wearing a suit. Sitting down, standing up, and simply walking around all provided sensory feedback informing me that I was draped in significant cloth—a confident reminder that I looked smart.
But as the days passed I wondered if others were actually taking me more seriously. As normal work tasks progressed I, perhaps self-indulgently, sensed others were treating me with more respect. Perhaps my work persona had shifted. But was I actually more focused or just more aware of my surroundings in order to monitor the reactions? I felt prepared but was I achieving anything more than normal?
The experiment: Week two
In week two, I took casual to its extreme. In order to do justice a low authority image, the second week involved the cheapest, gaudiest, worst-fitting sweat pants, sneakers, t-shirts and baseball caps I could muster. The designer stubble had matured into an untidy facial thicket. My naturally wavy head hair was not given any attention, beyond being dry.
My edges had roughened. I now cut a figure of scruffiness and immaturity. But the joke was old. Management had obviously hoped I’d tire of the endeavour, that I’d forget about it over the weekend. I hadn’t. I was determined to see this through but people already knew something was up.
On the first day of the scruffy week, I sported an oversized, heavily detailed, and unnervingly cheap fashion t-shirt, black jogging bottoms that exposed bright white tube socks, colourful running shoes and a baseball cap. The boss’s face sported a pained expression. The color-coordination was long gone. Sartorial sensibility was a distant memory.
This time the comments took a more passive-aggressive turn. There was obvious hostility under the surface, politely restrained through gritted teeth. Was I breaking an unwritten rule? Was the apparent lack of seriousness I gave my appearance going to affect the seriousness I gave my work?
On day two I found my scruffy stride thanks to a college-style sport t-shirt, better fitting jogging bottoms, and sneakers. I managed to feel slightly more comfortable. I’d found a more common approach to informal wear. Rather than having questionable taste, I merely looked like an overly casual, sporty version of myself.
But over the course of the second week—whilst not wearing anything offensive, nothing technically inappropriate—my determination steadily morphed into paranoia. Lunch time walks through a nearby courtyard surrounded by legal and accountancy firms only added to this feeling—their occupants unknowingly mocking me with the same high authority uniform of my experiment’s first week. High authority image met low authority image face to face, and treated it with confused, alienating looks.
Week two was most removed from my typical approach to clothing. Not only did I feel uncomfortable, I started to fear that others—colleagues that typically dress more casually than I do—would think I was parodying them. It was an unexpected reaction that I was not at all prepared for.
Results: Reflecting on the aftermath
During the experiment, I initially received a combination of withering looks, confused silences, and suspicious questioning. But these eventually fizzled out, leaving only apathy.
Turning up to the workplace looking smarter than normal seemed to fall within the realm of expectation—something I might be capable of. It was unusual but relatively easy for others to process.
Regardless of differences, we all want to feel appreciated. We want to feel wanted and respected. We want to feel indispensable, good at our jobs, and in control of our own destiny.
However, the second week, during which I suddenly presented a much more sloppy version of myself, didn’t compute with what others knew (or thought they knew) about me. This image wasn’t within my natural, expected range. I felt like I was more likely to be seen as fooling around, mocking, or lampooning others—things that maybe could be considered inappropriate.
In the end, it was fascinating to observe and record the different reactions, comments, and mannerisms by those around me during the experiment. I collected frank responses with an anonymous survey. I asked questions about the suitability of my various clothing choices within our agency environment (decidedly not suitable). I inquired whether it made a difference to team members’ perceptions of me (they immediately identified the choices as disingenuous) and whether the experiment itself was a waste of time (yes—a conclusion they seemed to think was obvious).
It was also interesting to track how changes in apparel made me feel about myself, to think about the psychological difference that dressing atypically has on a person. For one, this experiment exposed how much I can’t help but compare myself to those around me. Whether or not I’m dressed appropriately is often a relative feeling; it’s something that’s gauged in comparison to others—it’s based on context.
However, throughout this experiment I’ve been speaking from the privileged point-of-view of an averagely-built, white male with no cultural or religious inputs guiding my appearance. In an evolving world of gender categorization and increasingly complex patterns of inequality and prejudice, I’ve got the easy ride. For someone like me, it’s relatively easy to experiment without facing much scrutiny. For many others, the lack of “professional” dressing options can mean oppression and subjugation.
Findings from other experiments
Other, more famous examples of fashion exploration also exist. Some of these experimenters explicitly try to de-emphasize what they wear.
Mark Zuckerberg said about his consistent monotonous grey t-shirts: “I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community.” He argues that, by removing superficial problems from his life, he leaves more room for the important decisions. In many ways, this is the ultimate neutral image.
President Obama takes a similar approach albeit through a high authority image. Although not as reductive in his daily choice of clothes, he famously keeps to only to blue or navy suits: “I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”
Whilst at Saatchi & Saatchi, Art Director Matilda Kahl had a similar revelation. By sticking to the same basic outfit every day, Matilda looked to reduce the stress of morning decision making when it came to her outfits—the same lack of stress that her male colleagues presumably enjoyed by default. As well as a step towards anonymity, she saw this as an equivalent to the ease and flexibility of the traditional male suit.
Generally, these decisions are made for practical reasons: for efficiency and headspace rather than for manipulation. But these examples also highlight how broad the spectrum is and the differing extent to which it’s acceptable to push and explore the boundaries in various working environments.
Conclusion: Balance and authenticity
Now more than ever, I’m conscientious of how those around me look and feel. Appearance, authority, and authenticity are all connected in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. And I think our industry’s emphasis on a sociable team dynamics and healthy work cultures contributes to the expectations about the images we present.
Regardless of differences, we all want to feel appreciated. We want to feel wanted and respected. We want to feel indispensable, good at our jobs, and in control of our own destiny. The way we look is going to affect the way others perceive us. Whether we like it or not, as humans, we can’t help but pick up discrete signals from body language, tone of voice, and visual first impressions.
Traditional advertising, marketing, and design were born out of ruthless western, white, 20-th century capitalism: the need to sell. The clothing at the time followed suit (ahem). But selling has now evolved to include a digital focus on converting viewers and browsers into customers. UX Designers, SEO Consultants, and Project Managers from all over the world are guiding and persuading us into clicking, committing, and getting out the credit card. This type of selling can be more discreet, slowly-paced, and less intense. Do our clothes still need to work as hard for us—to scream out how competent we are? Or instead, should our clothes guide us towards the new connected, multicultural, and nuanced world of selling?
For some industries and organizations, the traditional 20th-century approach to attire remains appropriate, albeit controversial at times. For others, the more varied and casual approach can now be of benefit. Unsurprisingly, and like a lot of things in life, I think the answer lies in balance.
Generally speaking, there is a much wider range of accepted clothing in professional situations. And with meetups, workshops, conferences, and remote-working, the lines between professional and social are blurring more and more. Dress too casual and you risk appearing amateurish or slovenly. Dress too smart and you risk seeming disingenuous or arrogant. The balance should involve instinct combined with context. Style is subjective and feeling comfortable can be relative.
I’ve built up a dynamic of expectation and allowance with my colleagues and clients. We’ve shared professional and social situations. They know me, my tastes, my strengths, and my weaknesses. It’s not that they disagreed with the experiment. It’s simply that they instantly thought it was at odds with what they knew about me. The conflict was less about breaking the boundaries of dress code and more about breaking the boundaries of being myself.
Of course, what it means to be myself fluctuates over time and across the different roles I’ve held. But I’m lucky to work in an environment where exploring these boundaries is tolerated. The best conclusion I’ve come to is that I hope more and more of us are able to strive for personal authenticity within our different contexts—to both be ourselves and dress for the occasion.