My disclaimer is linked to the main point this article intends to drive home. If you are looking for a one size fits all answer, I have to disappoint you, because there is none. Different situations require different approaches.
Why does your dressing style matter?
Your dressing style communicates a lot of things about you. People that don’t yet know you tend to make snap judgement on you, and you have to make sure you communicate the right message about yourself.
Those that know you also notice changes. For instance, as soon as I started wearing better, more fashionable, tighter fitting clothes, office gossip started about me. I found out from several sources months later that my attention to details about my dressing style got noticed, not necessarily among software developers, but among other departments.
Even if people don’t tell you, they notice things about you.
You may ask, would the world be a better place if people judged you solely on the work you do instead of the way how you dress? I have two reasons to consider no as an answer.
- if you exercise discipline in dressing, you communicate that you have the same standards towards your work
- your style communicates authority
Regarding authority, think about the police for instance. In most countries, they are dressed in dark blue. Their uniform commands respect. If you want to get promoted, dress for your new position, not for the old one.
Know your working environment
One extreme case is a working environment with a clear dress code. Your task is easy: read the dress code and make sure you satisfy the conditions. These environments sometimes have casual Fridays. Make sure you don’t overdo being casual in an environment where people wear suits for work.
The other extreme is when you work remotely. You can wear anything you want, you can even work in your underwear. Just don’t tell your co-workers. When there is a meeting with a webcam, make sure you are presentable.
What if everyone dresses casual? No problem. Be yourself. If you dress casual normally, make sure you wear fashionable casual clothes that tell others, you care about your appearance. If it’s hot outside, you can come to work in shorts. However, there are great fashionable alternatives to regular T-shirts.
If everyone dresses casual, you might consider not wearing a suit with a tie, because you stand out from the environment so much that others have a hard time accepting you. There are stylish ways to relax your dress to fit in the environment.
One exception is if your suit expresses who you really are. In this case, your behavior is so congruent with what you wear that you will eventually be accepted as a member of the gang. I tried this out myself too. Once I was hired as a consultant. My agency asked me to go to work in business casual attire. When I showed up for work, I saw everyone were in shorts and T-shirts, some people wore flip-flops. Sure enough, I kept cool about my appearance, and I had a lot of fun in the office with others after I found out more about them. They started looking up to me for advice, after all, I was hired as “the consultant”. After a few weeks, I got hired in the same company as a full time employee, and my manager told me that I would lead a small team.
I continued wearing the business casual clothes from time to time, as they felt comfortable. However, during a heat wave, I relaxed my dressing style, and got used to dressing casually. A few months later, a manager told me that she found my dressing exceptional, and she felt there was hope for the rest of the office that they follow my example. She also expressed that she was sad to see that I relaxed my standards instead.
This story comes from an environment, where two of us dressed in business attire: the manager who told me she misses my dressing style and myself.
Occasionally, some other colleagues of ours showed up in suits. This leads to the next point.
First time in a suit
Imagine you have been coming to work in a T-shirt and shorts for a year. This can happen in a mediterranean country, right? One day, you show up wearing a suit and a tie. What would your colleagues and managers assume about you?
Possibly they would think that you came from a job interview. If you do come from a job interview, make sure you keep a low profile about it, which includes changing clothes. It’s not that hard, after all, some people run to work and change their running dress to business casual wear.
Can you get away with any dressing style?
Definitely yes, but not everywhere. It depends on the company culture.
Some developers take a pay cut so that they can work remotely or they can work in a dog friendly office. If your thing is wearing tank tops and shorts that look like boxers at work, then find an environment that supports your style. It’s not even hard, because in many startups, you can dress in any way you want, as long as you are an expert. Just make sure you don’t do anything illegal.
What if you are a director, freelancer, you meet clients, or you have your own product?
I suggest dressing for the occasion and dressing for at least the position you are in, if not the next position in case you want to get promoted. As a freelancer, having slightly higher standards than the full timers rarely hurts. If you meet clients, make sure you can present yourself well.
We know that most people dress casual. I know a sales director who has an extreme opinion about it. He told me, dressing casual is an excuse for people to hide how lazy they are. Because it takes a lot of work to wear a suit. You need to select a good brand, have it tailored, iron your shirt, put on some accessories, your tie, and so on. It easily takes you ten minutes to half an hour to look top notch. He says, when you value your fashion and grooming, you value yourself. Others will know the work behind it just by looking at you.
I believe this explanation has some merits. In evolution, there are constructs that look beautiful according to our judgement, but they make no sense. For instance, the peacock has a tail that gives them an evolutionary disadvantage when running for their lives. However, by being able to bear the cost of having such a beautiful tail, they signal to other peacocks that they are high in the hierarchy.
Similarly, fashion is not meant to be easy. Fashion bears some cost. It’s not the clothes that make the difference, but the effort you put in to wear them in a way that fits you. Let it be a suit or a well fitted polo shirt, either way, you communicate that you pay attention to your appearance.
Are there successful people with sloppy appearance and bad grooming? Yes. The real question behind the question is, are they successful because of or in spite of their standards?
Dressing is not everything
We have already concluded that it takes effort to wear certain clothes. However, besides clothing, there are other factors worth paying attention to.
One is posture. The optimal posture is chest out, chin up, shoulders back and low, relax, casually smile. If you have a different default posture, don’t try to imitate this posture right away, because you will come across as try-hard. Instead, you can order some clothes that correct your posture with time, attend yoga classes, back massages, and Grinberg therapy also helps a lot with correcting your posture. There are many ways to improve this area of your life.
Vocal tonality is another aspect of improving your communication. You can dress in a police uniform, but your voice has to command respect to get respect. As I use my voice for screencasts and videos, I chose to train my voice with a vocal coach. After rewatching my past self and comparing it to my current self, the results were shocking. Just doing some basic exercises and listening to Roger Love’s audiobook titled Set Your Voice Free is a great start.
There is no right and wrong answer when it comes to choosing your dressing style. There is an obvious wrong approach when wearing your choice in a way that indicates to the outside world that you can’t bear the cost associated with the style you chose. Therefore, I recommend selecting clothes you are comfortable wearing to the extent that you don’t get noticed for being awkward.
Besides clothing, body language, tonality, and posture also plays a role. The easiest way to improve these is through training.
You may or may not need this information for your work depending on your ambitions. If you got to the end of the article, chances are, you are in the former category. I hope I could inspire you, and I wish you the best of success with thinking your approach through, and putting your thoughts into action.