How to Dress “Competently” in Professional Environments


To blend in, or not to blend in? That is the question.

I’m sure many of you took to the floors of the McKimmon center just the other week, resumes in tow and dressed to impress. Perhaps you walked in, noted the sea of students in black, and felt like you looked just like everyone else in that room. Would dressing differently have been acceptable?

When you choose to dress differently than what is “expected” your observers could actually perceive you positively. Silvia Bellezza, Francesca Gino, and Anat Keinan published a study back in 2013 called “The Red Sneaker Effect: Inferring Status and Competence from Signals of Nonconformity,” that discovered just what people think when you dress unexpectedly. Take, for instance, Steve Jobs. He notoriously dressed very casually—at all times, and everyone accepted it and treated him with respect.

In fact, not conforming in appearance to what is expected of you can increase observers’ perceptions of your status and competence. When you stand out in a positive way, you are perceived as more autonomous, especially by people who have a need for uniqueness. This is called the Red Sneaker Effect. Lucky for you—if you are pursuing a job in marketing—you are entering a creative field with higher odds that they are unique and are looking for uniqueness. So, standing out means you can give off feelings that you are competent and autonomous and that you are able to follow your own inclinations.

Now, dressing non-conventionally can backfire if done inappropriately. I do not recommend pulling a Steve Jobs as a young college kid at a job fair. This competency effect disappears if your bold move is perceived as unintentional, that you just weren’t aware you were supposed to dress a certain way. Because of this caveat, it is necessary that you make the right kind of bold move, and that you hold your head high while you do it. If you walk into the job fair dressed differently with an uncomfortable look on your face, you are telling recruiters you did not know any better. But, if you exude confidence, have a smile on your face, and a firm handshake to back it all up, dressing in a non-conforming way could give you a leg up in the professional world. Your resume might tell them you are competent, but your appearance can, too.

The point is to stand out in a confident way, not an eye-catching way. Here are my suggestions for standing out appropriately:

Women:

I would recommend staying away from choosing multiple colors or bold patterns and choosing too many different items at once. Pick one, or MAYBE, two:

  • Pick a bold/colorful necklace

  • Wear a brighter lipstick (but perhaps not bright red)

  • Pick a colored shirt to go under a dark blazer

  • Pick a colored blazer—maroon, dark emerald, royal purple

  • Wear a subtle patterned blazer

  • Wear fun shoes (not crazy colors, but one solid color, or perhaps a subtle pattern like hounds tooth or plaid—not cheetah!)

  • Wear fun glasses

Men:

Men are much more limited in the signals they can send, but there are still a few options:

  • Wearing very nice, leather shoes in an interesting style

  • Pick an unconventional suit color like a lighter grey or neutral plaid

  • If you are comfortable going more casual, pick a different pattern/color sports coat

  • Pick a tie that is not blue or red

  • Wear a nice watch

  • Wear stylish glasses

Both men and women can carry a portfolio that is not black and a resume that has some design and interesting layout. I do NOT recommend dressing in a casual manner (or actually wearing red sneakers!)—still retain a professional appearance while showing some of your personality. And remember, be confident in your choice and be sure to show that confidence!


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