Dressing the Part
The old adage “The clothes make the man” implies that the right outfit can help you pull off the image you’re trying to project. However, the idea extends beyond the business world. Soccer moms have their own dress code, which differs from the way politicians dress, which is far different from the way bikers dress.
Trick or Treat
The funny thing about dressing the part is that it affects your body language. You start acting the way you think you’re supposed to. Put a guy in a leather jacket and chaps and suddenly he’s not your mild-mannered brother anymore; he’s been transformed into a rough-and-tumble rider, complete with the commanding posture and tough-guy facial expressions. Now take a mom who’s used to wearing jeans and T-shirts and put her in a flowing ball gown. She’ll feel more feminine than she has in ages, and you’ll see it reflected in her body language as she steps lightly around the room, her shoulders back, her neck extended, doing her best to behave in a ladylike manner.
Accessories—like jewelry, belts, handbags, and scarves—also reveal a lot about your personality. People who cover themselves with fancy accoutrements are perceived as confident and outgoing.
Dressing for success is the first step toward achieving your goals, whatever they may be. Learning the appropriate nonverbal gestures is easier when you know you look like you can pull off the behavior.
If these types of clothing can affect the way a person carries and projects herself, think what completely overhauling your wardrobe could do for your life!
Fight the Frump
Take a closer look at how your clothes affect the way you feel about yourself—and hence, the way you display your body language cues. Maybe you stand in your closet every morning on the verge of tears, wishing you had something better to wear. You think you look frumpy in most of your outfits, and that makes you feel invisible compared to the other workers in the office.
Dressing like a shy, mousy person can make you feel that way, and your behaviors will reflect your lack of confidence. New opportunities may pass you by (at work and in your real life) because you don’t look or feel worthy of them!
Well, guess what? Someone who feels invisible is, for all intents and purposes, not visible. You’re not going to go out on a limb when it comes to taking risks and moving big projects along; you’re not going to make yourself heard even when you have the most thought-provoking ideas in the room; you’re not going to secure the raise and promotion you deserve. Instead, you’ll use timid body language cues (poor posture, little eye contact), which will keep you out of the sight and minds of the people who count most.
If you have any hope of overcoming your office insecurities, you have to start by dressing like you’re in the game, not sitting on the sidelines. Look at your highly successful colleagues and take notes on what they’re wearing. Then find a store that specializes in business wear and describe the look you’re going for to the salesperson—and listen to her advice! A business-casual dress code varies from workplace to workplace and, unfortunately, leaves a lot of room for error. But remember it is all about looking the part. You want to blend in with the high rollers in your office.
In a more conservative office setting, you’ll need traditional business attire (tailored, dark-colored suits for men and women). The “power suit” is so named because the mere act of wearing one can change your body language from meek to mighty. It also tends to influence the opinions of the people around you. So what is it about the power suit that makes others stand up and take notice of the wearer?
Several things, including:
• Custom-made (or custom-tailored) suits accentuate the position of the shoulders, making them appear broad and strong.
• The jacket closes without dimpling or puckering between the buttons. The sleeves hit just below the wrist. (No childlike sloppiness here!)
• The pants or skirt are neither too long nor too short, and there isn’t any sagging or pulling in the rear quarters. (This showcases your attention to detail.)
• The power suit is never synthetic! (Plastic-based materials simply look cheap and diminish your potential dominance.)
Shoes also play a part in announcing your personality to others. Men and women who wear expensive, polished footwear are somewhat intimidating. Sneaker wearers appear to be friendly. Trendy shoes make you look like a fun person. Your nonverbal cues will be compared to these perceptions.
Defying the Dress Code
Some people have an innate sense of who they are, a level of confidence most of us only dream of achieving. When an ultraconfident person is lacking any sense of appropriate dress, however, confusion is the order of the day. How can someone who is so aware in every other area of her life be unaware of the negative impression her clothing is making?
Wondering how a bad outfit can trump even the most confident body language? Let’s say you work in a fairly conservative setting. You want to send a message to your boss that says, “I’m knowledgeable, responsible, and confident enough to become a supervisor.” You’ve mastered the upright walk and shoulders-back posture expected of the employee on the rise; your use of eye contact is legendary; your smile lights up the office. But your long, gauzy skirts and flowing tops are better suited to the artist’s life than the business world. Your boss is concerned that your mystical outfits are sending clients the wrong message—and he’s right. While your body language is sending a positive message, your clothes are giving customers very different ideas—not just about you, but about the entire company. Conservative clients want to see employees dressed in traditional office wear. It simply makes them feel safe doing business with you.
Errors in dress can make succeeding professionally, socially, and even romantically difficult, to say the least. Business attire (whether traditional or casual) is like a team uniform: by dressing like them, you’re telling your coworkers that you’re all in this together. Defying the dress code, on the other hand, suggests that you’re a rebel, and hence a threat to the status quo.
How serious is this body language/poor choice of clothing rift outside of the business world? Among people who know you well, your clothing probably doesn’t make a bit of difference. They’re tuned into your personality first and foremost, and even if you regularly dress rather oddly, your friends aren’t going to hold it against you. The problem is that until someone gets to know you well, he makes a lot of assumptions about you based on your appearance. It can be tough to move those relationships past the acquaintance phase, especially if the assumptions about you are wrong. In short, your clothing can invite certain people into your life while keeping others at bay.