Does What You Wear To Work Matter?

I’ve been a bit of a fashion vlog binge lately. I’m mostly distracting myself from other stressors. It’s been interesting, though, to see how they talk about fashion. There’s a lot of good advice I’ve seen about clothing care and selection. But I keep seeing some concepts played out over and over and that have been bugging me. One such mantra goes something like this:

An investment in your wardrobe is an investment in your career.

Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.

Build your personal brand to get ahead at work. The first stop is in your appearance.

Translation: Our sponsors would really like you to spend more money on clothes.

When I first graduated college, I had no idea how to dress myself. As opposed to now, of course, when I have at least a half baked idea.

I always technically stayed in the realm of “business casual.” But, at the same time, I made some truly embarrassing clothing choices. Pants rippled atop my shoes and dragged at the heels. Cheap polyester button ups puckered at the bust and quickly discolored in the armpits since I apparently wasn’t aware of the concept of undershirts. I wore tons of unlined itchy wool, not realizing until a year later that I was incredibly allergic (“Oh, that’s why I’ve been getting all these rashes during the winter…”). There were many cheesy asymmetrical collared faux turtle neck tops. It was all kind of a mess.

My workwear style circa 2012. Model pose included.

Flash forward to my first review, though, and you would never have guessed I was a fashion train wreck. I ended up getting a 15% raise, was on track to get a promotion (which happened a year later), and was generally on the good side of the people I was working with. All in my only-scraping-off-at-the-toe faux-leather loafers.

Nowadays, I have things slightly little more together in the clothes department. I plan my wardrobe around simple, quality, and comfortable basics. Silk shirts and slacks are my go-to. I finally have a suit. And I make sure everything fits. On the overall clothing scale I’d rate myself a solid 7/10. Good, but nothing flashy. But between then and now, I’ve noticed no real difference in how I am perceived based on my clothes. Looking at my own style changes and those of my colleagues over the years, I don’t think what we wear has made much of a difference at all.

My workwear style circa 2017. 

When I look around at my office, folks usually do the strictly business/business casual thing. Everyone is professional, but nobody stands out as a particularly sharp dresser. It’s not like when I walk downtown, seeing all the finance guys in their custom made skinny-fit grey-blue suits, carrying their empty patent leather briefcases for show. The company wunderkinds, the young directors and rocketship-type upstarts wear the same slightly-too-large trousers as everyone else. That’s not to say that there aren’t a few folks who are a bit more fashion forward, but from the new interns to the CEO, sartorially I’d say we’re probably closer to The Office than Suits.

This is slightly exacerbated by the fact our office (as opposed to the company’s other locations) works mainly in the tech space. It’s pretty common that I’ll show up to a client meeting and be better dressed than they are in their tees and jeans. Frankly, our managers are lucky that I accidentally shrunk most of my old hoodies.

And so, in my day-to-day life, above a certain level of put-togetherness I see pretty much no correlation between style success and business success. Maybe this is true in more creative fields? Or I’m just not high enough in the corporate echelon for this to be an issue? I’m curious:

Have you found that your clothes have affected your career success? What do you wear to work?



4 thoughts on “Does What You Wear To Work Matter?

  1. I couldn’t say. I earned huge raises during my attempts at grown up professional wear and I earned huge raises when I actually did an ok job at the professional business wear. But the later raises might not have been possible in the larger workplace that I was competing in if I was still dressing like a fresh college grad – I was managing about 100 people. You can’t look 12, be a woman, and manage that many people and boss people around the way I had to successfully. People resent it. So I managed enough make up and formal gear to look my age until my credentials and skills were firmly established and then I dropped it down to around business casual.


    1. Wow, that’s a lot of people to manage! I can see using clothes as a signaling agent when you have that many people, most of whom I assume aren’t really aware of how you work.

      When you got elevated to more senior positions, did you change your make up routine as well? I ask since I also look young/baby-faced (yay Asian genes) but hate putting on make up because of my sensitive skin.


  2. I’ve been thinking about questions related to this because well, I spend a lot on clothes and I think I’ve had a fair bit of “lifestyle inflation” in terms of how much I spend on my closet! The short answer is, it probably doesn’t actually matter, particularly to career advancement within law firms, provided that one is not dressing inappropriately enough that people notice. I’ve never actually seen any young attorney dressed inappropriately in biglaw or similar settings, even if plenty of them had never been in the workforce before they were summer interns, so it seems like it’s rare for anyone to have a real problem with professional dress.

    I have heard anecdotes from people who work in the big investment banks or in private equity in NYC that people there can be really snobby about dress, and will notice if say, a man’s suits are, say, H&M-level. It’s hard for me to actually imagine though, because I certainly can’t pick a good suit out from a cheap one just by looking at it on someone else, even after obsessing about whether I need to look into more expensive suits than my J.Crew Factory stuff.


    1. As you said, I think dressing appropriately enough not to be noticed is the key. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to distinguish a partner from an associate based on what they wear. From their ages, gait, and the way they sit in a conference room I can probably guess it. But my sample size is almost certainly smaller than yours.

      For the most part I can’t tell if a suit is cheap or expensive unless it’s clearly custom. Then it’s really easy to tell by the fabric and fit. I think navy is in right now, at least where I am? The most dapper dressers always seem to be in navy suits with ankle cut trousers, brown leather loafers, and a pink or purple-blue shirt. Or maybe that’s just what I tend to notice since it’s more interesting than a black suit.


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