Dress for Success: Astonishing Research on the Psychology of Clothing

This might surprise you.

Can the way you dress make you more successful, help to close more deals and improve your status?

Internet marketer Neil Patel has seen how wearing a dot com t-shirt lost him $190,450, while sitting in a Ferrari made Patel a cool $1,041,493 in sales.

Whether you love it or hate it, there are psychological factors at play when it comes to how you should dress for work. And research shows that the right clothes can, in fact, increase your confidence, help to close more deals, and improve your status.

Table of Contents

John T. Molloy’s Dress for Success Book – The Robert Cialdini of Style

In 1975, John T. Molloy wrote a bestselling book on the effects of clothing, called Dress for Success. Some say this book launched the popularity of power dressing.

What sets Molloy’s book apart from style books is that he bases his advice not on fashion trends, but on scientific research and studies.

When IBM required employees to wear white collared shirts, some of their competitors laughed at them.

Molloy decided to run a test to find out how people would respond to IBM salesmen wearing the white collared shirt. He discovered that people who wore white collared shirts are seen as more credible, intelligent, successful, powerful, and honest.

Turns out IBM was able to close more deals, and laughed their way to the bank.

Does that mean you should wear a white shirt in your next presentation?

Not necessarily.

Like most advice, it needs to be applied in the right context. When Molloy consulted for an IBM competitor, he suggested that everyone should wear white shirts. Unfortunately, sales did not improve as expected.

What happened?

With a follow-up study, Molloy discovered that IBM positioned themselves as the company with white shirts. So when his client wore white shirts, customers felt that the salesmen were copying IBM.

Equipped with this new information, Molloy found the right clothing to convey trust without copying IBM.

Of course, the right shirt is just one part of the equation.

How One Accessory Could Increase Your Perceived Net Worth by $13,000

If you really want to improve your status, John Molloy suggests buying a tie. In his studies, Molloy discovered that the right tie could make you look like you earn an extra $13,000 to $18,000 a year.

Molloy took two pictures of the exact same man. In one photo, the man wore a gray suit and tie, and in the other, he wore a gray suit and open collared shirt.

Over 100 people were asked to estimate the yearly income difference between the “twins.”

The result?

The “twin” wearing the tie was generally awarded an extra $3,000 to $4,000 (or $13,458 and $17,944 when you account for inflation).

But picking any random tie won’t magically increase your perceived success either.

In a follow up study, Molloy surveyed 212 random people in downtown Chicago.

This time, the participants were asked to compare three men. One man wore an upper class tie, one man wore a lower-class tie, and another wore no tie at all.

Not surprisingly, the man wearing the upper class tie was thought to have earned the most money, ranging from an extra $17,944 to $26,916.

The more extraordinary finding was that most people assumed that the non-tie wearer earned more than the man wearing the lower-class tie.

Not sure what tie conveys success?

John Molloy found that 100% silk ties had the greatest effect on one’s perceived success.

As for patterns, Molloy suggests starting with no pattern at all, as a solid tie goes with any suit or shirt. But if you do wear a tie with a design, ties with small patterns were perceived as more successful than ties with larger patterns.

Why Is It Important to Dress for Success?

There are four reasons that dressing for success can improve your business:

  • The right outfit will make you appear more confident, trustworthy, flexible, and successful.
  • Dressing well will help you think more creatively and see the big picture.
  • Dressing for success will improve your -and other people’s- perception of yourself.
  • By dressing the part, on average, you may gain an extra 10% in profit when negotiating.

Skeptical? Let’s look at the research.

The Social Psychology of Clothing and Self Esteem

In a 2011 study, 306 participants were asked to rate the appearance of four males and four females.

Two men wore made-to-measure (or bespoke) navy blue, herringbone suits, in individual poses. The two other men wore off-the-peg navy blue herringbone suits, in individual poses.

The women, on the other hand, wore skirt suits and trouser suits, all navy and made of the same fabric, in individual poses.

Each picture was shown to the participants for three to five seconds. Participants rated each person based on perceived confidence, success, trustworthiness, flexibility, and salary.

The result?

The men who wore bespoke suits were thought to have higher confidence, success, salary, and flexibility. The scores for trustworthiness were also significant.

For women, a tailored skirt portrayed an image of higher confidence, flexibility, and salary.

The Science of Clothing and Abstract Thinking

People often perceive someone in a business suit as stuffy. But research suggests that wearing good quality clothes can improve your abstract thinking.

In another study, 361 participants were asked to complete a list of assigned tasks. Those who dressed more formally had higher levels of abstract thinking than those who dressed more casually.

When asked to switch from wearing casual to formal clothes, another 88 participants were quicker to see the big picture after making the change. On the other hand, those who dressed more casually were more likely to notice the small stuff.

This isn’t necessarily better, just different. Abraham Rutchick explained, “It’s not that formal clothing makes you better, [it just] shifts you from looking at the details to broader themes.”

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Dressing for Success Can Lead to Improved Negotiations

Why is it important to dress for success? Perhaps the most important reason is that dressing up may also put more money in your pocket.

Yale professor Michael Kraus examined how clothes can play an advantage in negotiation situations.

Kraus paired 128 men together and split them into three groups.

One group was asked to wear upper-class clothing consisting of a black suit, a white long-sleeve button-down collared shirt, black socks, and black leather dress shoes.

A second group wore lower-class clothes: a white, short-sleeved t-shirts, blue sweat pants, and plastic flip-flops from Walgreens.

The final group wore neutral clothing, specifically the clothes they were wearing when they had entered the lab.

They each entered a room and began a mock negotiation over a manufacturing plant. With both shared and confidential information, they spent six minutes in an intense debate.

What was the outcome?

On average, the casually dressed men lost $1,000,000 below the fair market price of the plant. The neutrally dressed group averaged $1.58 million in profit. The upper-class group received an average profit of $2.1 million.

But the way each person dressed affected more than their take-home pay.

The poorer-dressed individuals felt more nervous and even felt like losers heading into the debate.

“You behave more dominantly, you compromise less, and part of that is because your interaction partner is allowing you to get away with more,” says Kraus, of the men in suits.

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Is Mark Zuckerberg an Exception to Dressing Well?

When it comes to fashion, Mark Zuckerberg is a man of simple taste. In case you have not heard, Zuckerberg’s wardrobe comes in two flavors: a gray t-shirt and a gray hoodie with jeans.

His reasoning is simple:

“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.” (Source: Here’s The Real Reason Mark Zuckerberg Wears The Same T-Shirt Every Day).

By wearing casual clothing on Wall Street, Zuck’s controversial style became the talk of many journalists. Of course, just because it works for Zuckerberg, doesn’t mean it will work for other successful entrepreneurs.

“Mark Zuckerberg is in a creative enterprise,” Kraus says. “People like that are playing around with their status symbols.”

And Zuckerberg’s clothing may be less casual than we may be led to believe.

GQ fashion blogger Jake Woolf believes Zuck could be sporting cashmere clothing. That means he may be wearing $900 tees and $2,000 hoodies, not cheap clothes from Walmart.

Professional Tips to Dress for Success

As the old saying goes: “Perception is reality.” Research shows that how you dress says a lot about you, and your personality.

Here are four tips to guide you as you dress for success:

1. Start by wearing clothes that fit.

The difference between looking unprepared and confident starts with the right fit.

Getting your measurements is easy, and free. Clothing and shoe shop worth their salt will be more than happy to measure your body. Even for a suit, you can ask your local tailor to measure you free of charge.

Not sure how your clothing should fit? Check out Shujin’s Comprehensive Fit Guide.

2. Dress a step above what’s expected.

Dressing well is often relative. What works on Wall Street looks out of place in Silicon Valley. Your day-to-day clothing will look plain compared to what you wear on stage.

Dress up too much, you will look out of place. Dress up too little, and you will look boring and plain. To dress for success, you should dress a step above everyone else.

“Put it up a notch, but not such a big notch that you’re going to make everyone else in the office uncomfortable,” says Annie Brumbaugh, founder of AB Wardrobe Works, a personal-wardrobe consulting firm.

Do you work in an environment where suits are the norm?

For women, dressing a step above could mean a tailored jacket, a tailored skirt, or heels. For men, a suit, white collared shirt, and a silk tie can give you the right professional look.

What if your dress code is business casual?

Men should consider investing in oxford cotton button down shirts or polo shirts, chinos or dress slacks, and a couple pairs of quality dress shoes.

Women might opt for a conservative dress, blouse or sweater with a skirt or dress pants, and dress shoes.

Dressing a step above can be a matter of wearing higher quality clothes. It does not mean you need to dress more formally.

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3. When the situation calls for it, dress the part.

Entrepreneurs sometimes enjoy making fun of the corporate world. But when it comes to style, nobody knows it better than a consultant from one of the Big Three.

If you need to dress the part for negotiations or for a speaking gig, here are a few suggestions from a former Big Three consultant to help get you started:

“You do not need more than one suit. Seriously.

Buy one suit, solid navy. You will wear it five times a year. Buy one blazer, you’ll be wearing this more often.

Get two pairs of shoes with real leather soles (Allen Edmonds, Alden, or Crockett & Jones will do).

Three ties, only because you need a red power tie in some situations and a couple [of] quieter ones in other situations.

Get at least three pairs of trousers, and 15 good collared shirts (really, shirts and shoes are the crown jewels of the consultant wardrobe). You need 15 so that you can travel for one week, have a few at the dry-cleaner, and still have inventory.

Get a really good laptop bag. I bought a leather Tumi 6 years ago. Not very original, but it’s still going strong.

The most important two things: Buy the bare minimum until after you start work and see what you need. I wasted a lot of money on suits before I started that I never wore. Second, cheap shoes make you look like a charlatan. Nobody will take you seriously with rubber soles.”

Source: I’m a recent business school graduate starting full-time work in the corporate sector. How many suits, shirts, and ties should I roughly have in my rotation to begin with?

4. You can go against the grain, but be careful.

The right clothing can showcase your personality and set you apart from the crowd.

In some situations, bold clothing will bring the attention you desire. However, if you are new to dressing well, it’s important to learn how to walk before you run.

Redditor jaxmeh shares ways of adding personality to your outfits:

“My advice to add personality with as little effort/time as possible is to build a wardrobe of very muted, neutral colored basics. Then have a few statement pieces: a salmon colored dress shirt, a crochet tie, some slick sand colored suede Chelsea boots, a royal purple sweater, stuff that stands out.

Only wear one statement piece with an outfit at a time, and the muted neutral tones of your other clothes will work with the more noticeable pieces. People will remember you as that guy with the cool sweater, or the nice boots, etc.

It still takes some time, but less than building an entire wardrobe from scratch.”

It may seem silly, but people treat you based on your appearance. And the right clothing can change how you see yourself too.

By investing in the right clothes, you can feel confident, impress clients, and improve your productivity.

Over to you: Have you noticed how your clothing changes the way you respond to others and the way others respond to you?

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Comments

  1. Chris C says

    Hey Jason,

    Great article, lots of insights one can put in to action. Did not realize how much dressing the right way can lead to forming a lasting impression!

    • Jason Quey says

      I think how we dress and carry ourselves is one of the least talked about ways to improving one’s self.

      Thanks for the compliment Chris!

  2. says

    Excellent article and advice! A number of years ago I was asked to address a class at a IT vocational college in New York about starting a corporate career. The two most competitive skills most were in need of developing were good communication and proper dress & grooming. These are also the skills most likely to be lacking in new college grads entering the workforce.

    Style and presentation matters. Being well dressed shows that you respect yourself and your associates. It adds persuasiveness and power to your communication. Being well dressed does not mean dressing expensively. Good posture, proper fit, and thoughtful coordination will help you to look good on any budget. This is the one area that can really make you stand out from the competition simply because current sartorial standards are so low.

    Thrift shops/ebay are a great way to really stretch your clothing budget. Learn what size clothing fits you best, get the best quality you can afford and look for clothing that is timeless rather than faddish. Style matters: https://newark1.com/style-matters-web-design

    • Jason Quey says

      Great advice Don!

      I agree that most college grads entering the workforce do not have this insight.

      This is another study I came across that addresses your point – college.usatoday.com/2015/02/26/dress-for-success-the-psychology-of-style-and-professionalism-in-college/

  3. says

    I hate the fact that our appearance is one of the most important factors in our society, but it’s the truth. So we need to go along with it if we want to get better results.

    People think; yeah I work for a startup, so I don’t need to dress up. Well, you don’t need to, but dressing up and (if you’re a male) shaving really helps.

    The same goes for how phisicaly fit you look. People that are overweight often get less deals than people that are fit. I’m sorry that I don’t have the right sources now, but you can look it up.

    People think; this person is overweight, he can’t even handle himself. Why should I trust him to handle my business?

    I hate it, but there isn’t much we can do about it. We make these assessments unconsciously.

    • Jason Quey says

      Yup, very true Raul.

      Business-wise, I think that’s why it’s important to first make assessments about someone based on the results they produce.

      However, there’s something to be said about how we are inside gets reflected on the outside too.

  4. says

    Jason, you’re dead right with your insight. Like it or not, looks matter.

    Even in the online world, the way you look makes a difference. Skype, Google Hangouts, Instagram… look anywhere and you’ll see that image plays a vital part.

    So dress appropriately for the occasion!

    PS. Congrats on your classy first post. I enjoy the content and love the style.

    • Jason Quey says

      Thanks for the compliment Stephen!

      And I agree, even something as small as a profile picture can make a world of difference. Consider the fields of visual marketing, UX, and design, looks matter.

  5. says

    Great article! The Dress for Success book was still a big seller in the late 80s when I was just getting started in the work force. My first jobs were on Wall Street, where power suits were everywhere (not sure about today).

    There were some unwritten rules back then for men. Certain departments had their own “code”, if you will, of dress. For example, stock brokers could wear pretty much whatever they wanted in terms of suits and accessories. The M&A (mergers and acquisitions) departments were notorious for dressing up, especially with accessories (cuff links, suspenders, etc.). However, if an M&A guy wandered down to a trading floor wearing suspenders, he would be mocked, even laughed at.

    One other thing, the mention of shoes and wearing a good pair with leather soles is well taken. I noticed that on Wall Street too. If you wore crappy shoes, you were regarded as a small time piker.

    So, to sum it up, how you dress can mean a lot in terms of how you are received by clients as well as peers.

  6. Sangy says

    Great Insights! Mark zuckerberg’s case is a bit funny, because his way of dressing is classy if you’re rich but trashy if your poor!

  7. says

    Good piece, Jason! I pinged immediately on your mention of Molloy’s Dress for Success… I still have it, after over 30 years.

    Shortly after leaving the Navy, I was hired as the Marketing Mgr. for a manufacturing company in Texas. After finally finding my way home to Texas, I was very happy to wear boots every day. One day, a potential customer showed up at our plant unannounced, and the president and I took him to dinner after a plant tour and discussion of his needs. I, of course, was in my boots, slacks and a casual shirt, no tie.

    The next morning, the president came into my office and sat down, and pushed a book across to me, saying something like “You’re damned good at what you do, but you don’t LOOK like it.”
    I was a little put out, to tell the truth. I was hired for my expertise, not my looks. But I took Dress for Success home and read it, just the same.

    As you say, Molloy doesn’t just give empty opinions – he cites hard evidence. And most of it actually made sense. So I paid a couple hundred extra on my next suit and started dressing the part.
    And it paid off. Big time! My closing rate went from around 50% to over 90%. Our clients weren’t just medium sized businesses after that… I landed 3 Fortune 500 accounts in a year, PLUS a $20MM military contract.

    And the effect on my self-confidence going into a board meeting to pitch a seven-figure product to the directors was real. I felt better about ME, and as a result, I was more convincing. There’s a reason I’ve kept that book all these years… it’s gold!

    • Jason Quey says

      Thanks for the compliment Doc! And quite the story too.

      I agree, I’ve started noticing higher closing rates and contracts too. 🙂

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