Dear Breakthrough Expert,
More and more people at my office are wearing casual clothes all the time. Is the time of the suit and tie going the way of the dinosaur? Should I just give in and wear a polo?
Over-dressed in Houston
Dear Over-dressed in Houston,
I salute anyone who still wears a suit in the Houston heat! As to whether you should or not, it depends on what position you are in and who you are interacting with.
As a general rule, if you are presenting to a group for a sales presentation, corporate update or other reason, you should dress just one step up from your audience. For instance, if you are talking to hardworking family farmers, who work in jeans and work shirts all day, you would do well to wear jeans and a sports jacket. You want to appear as an authority but not out of place, as you would in a three-piece suit.
I am a fan of the suit and tie myself. When I provide training to professional organizations or record video clips, I am not in control of who will see them. The one thing I do know is I want them to value the information I am sharing with them. A suit and tie provide the connotation of authority in a business setting the same way a police officer’s uniform is a symbol of their authority.
We are all familiar with the idea that first impressions are important and lasting, and clothes are a critical part of that first impression. Psychology Today reinforces the old saying with two clinical studies:
“Two studies by our team in the U.K. and Turkey show some of the very subtle ways in which clothing influences all kinds of impressions about us. Our clothes make a huge difference to what people think about us – and without us knowing or in ways we couldn’t even imagine. People make their assessments in the first few seconds of seeing another; assessments that go way beyond how well you are dressed and how neat and tidy you might look.”
How you dress may also be a great way to distinguish yourself from your peers, but keep the one step up rule in mind. If your office mates are always in slacks and a polo, stick with a button-up and tie. Wearing a full suit may make it appear like you are “putting on airs,” as my grandmother used to say.
The bottom line is what you should wear depends on what are you trying to accomplish. If you need to be in a position of authority in corporate America, a fine tailored suit is likely a good investment. If you’re in a business where making people comfortable is important then khakis and a polo is likely a good fit.
I would choose to err on the side of being too formal; you can always take off a tie or leave your jacket in the car.
The single most important thing about what you wear is that you are comfortable. You cannot provide your best work for your employer or clients if you are not at ease!
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