Today, I would like to talk about how clothing can effect one’s perception of other people. I was shopping earlier this week for a few new professional outfits and got to chatting with the fitting-room attendant and had a bit of an interesting experience that I’d like to share with all of you.
After trying on a pile of business-casual clothes and still not finding the exact pair of black slacks I had in my mind’s eye, I asked the fitting room attendant (let’s call her Veronica) where I could find the business slacks. She pointed me in the direction of the “Juniors” section, which is often the clothing section specified for young women, maybe between ages of 15 and say 25.
Here came Perception #1: Veronica thought I was much younger than I really am. I wasn’t upset or offended at Veronica’s “Juniors” section suggestion, as it was an assumption of my age and the style of clothing I was shopping for in a genuine attempt to help me. I am a petite person, have a very youthful face and, honestly, I was dressed like a 16-year-old that day so I completely understand why she made the Juniors section suggestion in the first place. Although, it made me blink my eyes once or twice and think, “why was I somewhat expecting that answer from this lady…”
She then complimented my clothing choices and shared that she was a retired nurse, who in the latest years in her career saw fashions such as low-cut and midriff exposed blouses, mini-skirts, and dirty jeans worn by candidates she interviewed for nursing and staff roles.
Next came Perception #2: because I am so young, Veronica believed I must be an inexperienced interviewer with little professional background. So, by offering her compliments on my clothing choices, she was helping to affirm and validate my clothing choices and possibly also my future interview success. Veronica really was coming from a genuinely caring place, so these perceptions were not offensive to me at all, just an interesting talking point!
Veronica perceived these three incorrect things based on my clothes and physical appearance, so this was a great example of how powerful dress can be in building either desired or undesired perceptions in professional settings. There is a decent amount of articles and research that examine the perceptions that clothing creates in both the personal/social and professional business world, especially during a job interview. Aamodt (2010) reported that researchers examining this topic found that factors like interviewee having similarities to the interviewer, physical attractiveness, and being professionally well dressed tend to be selected more often than candidates who don’t carry these characteristics.
Back to Veronica and I: after hearing her professional career in a nutshell, I suddenly respected her a whole lot more. In fact, when I first saw her, I had my own perception about who she was. I assumed that if she is that age (55+) and working at this shop, she must really not have had an education or much of a career history. Boy, was I wrong! She was a nurse for over 20 years.
While researching this topic online, I came across a scientific research paper published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology studying the influence clothing has on the appeared professionalism of both male and female lawyers and dentists. The findings concluded that when the dentists regardless of gender wore white coats, they appeared the most professional out of the other types of dress worn in the study. Further, the results showed that both the dentists and lawyers, again regardless of gender, who dressed in business-casual and business formal attire were assumed to do better in their roles than those not dressed in these types of outfits (Furnham, Chan, & Wilson, 2014).
I continued to talk with Veronica and shared a little bit about myself: that I have a graduate-level education, that I am searching for work in HR or Org Development, as well as a bit about my past work history as a Project Manager. This is where her Perception #2 was completely blown out of the water. Like I mentioned, I imagine that she assumed I wasn’t very experienced in the professional world and I must be interviewing for my first real job. But after I shared this information, she suddenly realized that I am more experienced and more educated than she first believed me to be.
Perception #3: because I am so young and inexperienced in business, I surely am single and don’t own a home. We talked a bit more and I shared that I am married and recently bought a house. She was very very surprised, and asked to admire my wedding ring close-up :). Funny how perceptions can be quickly brought down!
Also while researching this, I came across article on how we are judged by our appearance by physicist Leonard Mlodinow titled, The Power of Appearance: How We are Judged on Our Appearance (2012). His article is incredibly insightful and referenced external research studies conducted to see whether or not political candidates could possibly win votes and portray certain characteristics like competence or ability based upon the quality of a head-shot photograph. It is an interesting showcase to a bit of the research done in this field.
It is interesting how much of a role perceptions play in our lives each and every moment. If you are trying to win over your current boss or a potential future boss, research shows that what you wear may just make or break your chances for hire during the interview. Good luck!
Aamodt, M. (2010) Industrial/Organizational Psychology An Applied Approach. Sixth Edition. Wadsworth Cengage Publishing.
Furnham, A., Chan, P. S., & Wilson, E. (2014). What to wear? The influence of attire on the perceived professionalism of dentists and lawyers. Journal of applied social psychology, 43(9), 1838-1850. Published online 2014 Aug 6. doi: 10.1111/jasp.12136 Accessed February 28, 2019.
Mlodinlow, Leonard. (2012) Psychology Today The Power of Appearance: How We are Judged on Our Appearance. http://leonardmlodinow.com/leonard-mlodinow-article/psychology-today-on-the-power-of-appearance/ Accessed Feb, 28, 2019.