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Is it still important to dress for success?

By  Shirley Zinn and Sheri Meyer – 

It is important to showcase who we are in an authentic way. In other words, one should be comfortable in one’s own skin and own one’s sense of style/dress.  Dressing for success can be stressful and confusing for most. For me, my choice of clothes is part of who I am. It seems easier to dress up for a theme party or Valentine’s Day – although I personally, battle with even this. On the surface, it seems pretty straight forward. Now to dress for success is something else. For some this means suits and heels, bows and ties, black and white, and a plethora of mix and match in the hope of making the right impression. The psychology of style, fashion statements, dressing up or down, and how it intersects with professionalism has become a complex tightrope to navigate.

Of course it is important to dress for success. Research now supports this hypothesis. What these results show, Prof. Kraus (Yale: 2016) says, is that in competitive, winner-take-all situations, wearing more formal attire can send others a signal “about you being successful and real confident in whatever you’re doing.” Those more casually dressed, on the other side of the table, tend to back down more easily, he says. The ones in formal attire become aware of the respect they are receiving and become more forceful as well. We may conclude that when we dress up it makes us feel good, and when we feel good, we perform better and with more impact. I will leave that philosophy to you to reflect on.

I think that dressing ‘appropriately’ would be more correct than dressing for success, because what does “success” mean to you and what does the situation require? It’s all about context and determining the messages we want to send. With regards to context, the industry you work in for example, has a lot to do with how people dress.

Organisational values and culture also play a role in dress decisions, and one does not want to alienate everyone by being overly different, nor does one want to stand out like a sore thumb. In my time as HR Head and Consultant, I have come across a variety of company dress codes, which range from making your own professional decisions, to military precision, like the prescribed millimeter gap between your knee and your hem! These are reflective of what the organisation stands for and how it expects its employees to behave. Dress codes could be very oppressive, discriminatory, and derogatory and the domain of dress-code needs to be very carefully thought through. Dress codes are indeed so out of fashion.

In today’s world of business casual, it sometimes does seem like ‘anything goes.’ To be fair, most of my clients’ employees display common sense when making their fashion statements… but I’ve also seen some less-than-subtle expressions of taste (or lack thereof), even in critical engagements.” (Carol Kinsey Goman: Forbes, 2012). She also says, “Wear great clothes. You never know whom you’ll meet!” Your call really.

I often meet people who ‘dress for success,’ but cannot walk in heels and who cannot pull off a suit even if they tried – heels and suits often being the chosen route to feeling “dressed up”.  It is the most uncomfortable showcase. The idea of dressing for success takes over our state of being, and we put up with being uncomfortable and hot, sweaty, tight, droopy, whatever you want to call it, and your first impressions are ‘uncomfortable’ and perhaps incompetent because we so often judge people even before they open their mouths.

Dressing for success is about that first impression that lasts forever, or hopefully, won’t last forever because every time you enter that board room or meeting, you will impress over and over again. So, when the first impression failed, hopefully there will be a second chance of wearing those fancy flats instead of those uncomfortable heels that you can barely walk in, or wearing the chinos instead of the suit to showcase yourself as a human being who is comfortable in themselves and their dress sense is almost becomes an external extension of who they are.

‘Swimming Upstream’ author, Shirley Zinn as quoted in another book, called  ‘Beyond the Dress’ (by Lori Milner), puts this into perspective by saying: “You have to identify how you are feeling. Ask what’s driving you. You need to understand your emotional context and ask yourself if it’s working. If it’s not working, ask yourself what you must do to shift it.” When it comes to dressing for success this is it. These are the questions that we have to filter through our minds to be connected to ourselves and how we show up. “Connectedness is important. It is beyond communication.”

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Prof Shirley Zinn is currently the Group Head of Human Resources at Woolworths Holdings Limited. Prior to this, she was the Head of Human Resources of Standard Bank South Africa and Deputy Global Head of Human Resources for the Standard Bank Group. She also registered her own company: Shirley Zinn Consulting that provides consulting and advisory services in HR, Transformation, Leadership and Education.


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