What to wear: research and ideas for women in business.

A few months ago, a good friend of mine sent an email out to some of her working lady friends, talking about her frustrations and stresses over choosing “work appropriate” clothing, her annoyance at the double-standard for men (she linked to this article about a man who wore the same suit straight for 15 months and no one in his workplace even noticed). Many of the women in the email list piped up to say that they’d agonized over similar issues. The lady writing this blog post — yeah me, the one you can’t see (thank god, because my current outfit would NOT pass snuff) — has DEFINITELY struggled with these issues. And my friend’s questions about actually useful advice for the working woman’s wardrobe had me stumped.

I decided to do some online research, looking into the advice out in the general public for women on what to wear in the workplace. One piece of advice that kept coming up in commentaries on this issue was to “just stop caring what people think about what you wear”, which I didn’t find the least bit reasonable or helpful. The fact of the matter is that your appearance DOES affect your success at work. A whole bunch, in fact, from the research that I found. Other common pieces of advice found while Googling “women dressing for success at the workplace” included lots of laughable fluff articles with titles like, “Look Professional AND Sexy!”, offering fashion and dated “get-a-husband” advice. Many write-ups also offered hazy council like “be fashionable” which is as elusive a piece of advice as “be unicorn”. What the fudge is that even supposed to MEAN? More rainbows? More glitter? Wear a horn at all times? TROT??

So I dug deeper. Well, as deep as I could get in one day of online research! Below I’ve compiled 5 pieces of authentically useful clothing advice for women in the workplace. If you are a working woman struggling to find something in your closet to wear (and don’t have hours to waste googling it like me), hopefully this list provides some useful (if sometimes exasperating) insights.

1. Wear dark colours or red.

Whatever else any individual colleague might tell you, most studies seem to show that both men and women see people wearing black or red as more attractive, confident, dominant and intelligent. From what I found, men are slightly more likely to prefer ladies in red, and women to prefer you in black, but nothing statistically significant. Research also seems to suggest that women in dark jackets are perceived as being more competent, so I guess that’s an excuse to go out and buy yourself a blazer?

Wardrobe notes: stick to a simple wardrobe of dark navy, black and red. Avoid tan colours, yellows, oranges, pinks and pastels. Wear dark blazers. I’m definitely picturing a power suit from the 80’s like this or this. Or maybe this if you add a blazer.

2. Dress in “masculine” clothing.

It looks like we’re strongly influenced by the cultural symbols that we’ve grown up with (who knew?!) meaning that the more “masculine” your outfit (defined as “straight silhouettes, angular lines, dark colors”, as noted in this Business Insider article) the more likely men AND women are to recommend you in the workplace. In the journal Abstract for one particular study the author noted “(Female) applicants were perceived as more forceful, aggressive and so on when wearing more masculine clothing. Applicants also received more favorable hiring recommendations when wearing more masculine clothing.”

Wardrobe notes: Buy men’s suits and tailor the shit out of them. To me, this makes it seem like a pants-only wardrobe is your most effective route, since I don’t know any men that show up to work in skirts and dresses. Generally speaking.

3. Appear taller.

I say “appear taller” since there are several barriers to “be taller”, which all include a lot of expensive and assumingly painful surgery. Yes, the evidence seems to suggest that it’s not just tall men that are more likely to be successful: although less pronounced, it’s also true for women in the workplace. And then there’s the fact that even the tallest women are shorter than the average man, making the height game a tricky one indeed… is this why we’ve had no female prime ministers* or presidents?? Our female candidates were simply too short?

But! There is hope. From what I’ve read, the main advantages of height seem to be an ingrained sense of confidence and power. So, walk into the room with confidence! Sit and stand tall. Put yourself at a height advantage during meetings if at all possible (have others seated while you stand, or perch on a high stool with your comrades on lower seats). Try to be in a position where you can look at colleagues and clients straight in the eye.

Notes: Work on having good posture! Practice power poses in the bathroom. Go out and buy a gorgeous new pair of high heels. Make them red. And sleek. Sure, let’s give them some angular “masculine” lines while we’re at it and make them damn SHARP. A weapon on your foot. If you’re going this route I also recommend buying some slippers, so that you don’t have to wear those damn power pumps while you’re alone in your office/cubicle/car/home drinking wine and getting inspired by powerful society-challenging, heel-wearing Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on Netflix. 

4. Keep fit and trim.

This makes me think of Canadian TV’s BodyBreak from the 90’s.  Maybe I’m just trying to put a positive spin on this unfortunate bit of sexist research results so I don’t get too depressed by it. Ugh.  I wonder what Joanne McLeod would have to say!

Unlike the previous studies I mentioned, this one didn’t find any correlation between women’s height and success *but* they found a heck of a strong relationship between a woman’s weight and success. Shockingly, they found a “1% increase in a woman’s body mass results in … a 0.4% point decrease in her occupational prestige”. But the really shocking part is that the researchers found that “men experience no negative effects of body mass on their economic situation”.

For real. Seeing red as I write this. Not that I don’t think being healthy and fit is important — it’s super important. As Hal Johnson and Joanne McLeod say, we should all “keep fit and have fun”. But it’s NOT fun to suffer under the weight of a double-standard. That’s a weight that no one should have to bench press.

Notes: Going to the gym or out for that run really is 100% part of your job and 100% an unfair, double-standard. Just add it to your “Second Shift”, ladies. Or would this become the “Third Shift”, after all those extra chores are done? Hmm. Yup, definitely classifying this as “Third Shift”.

5. Unwrapping the word “fashionable”

Now that you’re all seething about the previous bit of research, let’s chat about another thing thrown at women that drives me bananas: the idea of being “fashionable” in the workplace. It pops up everywhere and it’s a totally nebulous word that could mean so many things that it basically means nothing. For instance, Lady Gaga is “fashionable” but I highly doubt her octopus dress is what’s going to win your next business meeting.

From what I’ve read and unwrapped surrounding this silly word, in terms of business-place clothing success you can basically just throw it out and replace it with the word “polished”— or even simpler, “neat and tidy”. Wear tailored clothing that fits you well. Make sure it’s ironed, clean, with no hanging threads or cat hairs. Keep the hair on your head trimmed, tidy and out of your face. Clean and polish those red dagger heels.

Wardrobe Notes: I struggle with this one, because there’s definitely an assumed privilege and cost to looking “polished”, if not in money then definitely in the time it takes to wash, iron, and groom yourself. Not everyone has the time. Or the resources. But perhaps it can be applied in small ways where possible. Don’t buy that trendy bubble-gum pink shirt: instead, take that money and invest it in tailoring a piece of clothing you already own. Create a habit of cleaning your shoes and brushing your jackets when you take them off at the end of the day, so that they’re ready to go when you’re rushing off to your next meeting. I know, it sounds boring and there’s no sugar-coating it because a) we’re not allowed to eat sugar anymore (see “Keep fit and trim”), and b) we’re not allowed any pastels. 

In summary…

Our social norms are frustrating, and furthermore, dreadfully boring. An entire wardrobe of black? No glitter eyeshadows? Maintaining a Stepford-wife level of fitness and grooming, but (obviously) without all those pastel dresses??

I don’t know what to say, ladies, except that society has shifted before and I believe it can shift again. Want to prove that pink is powerful? It used to be, so rock it and prove to the world that colours (and gender) have nothing to do with ability, intelligence or success. Trust me: there are lots of men and women (myself included) who are cheering you on with all our might.

*Note: In Canada, we have had one female Prime Minister, Kim Campbell, who served for 4 months total in 1993. I consider her to be more of a Canadian fling than a full-fledged boyfriend.

Articles and research I referenced include:

(Distinguishing between Perceiver and Wearer Effects in Clothing Color-Associated Attributions, University of Liverpool)

Forsythe, S. M. (1990), Effect of Applicant’s Clothing on Interviewer’s Decision to Hire. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 20: 1579–1595. doi: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.1990.tb01494.x

Kortt, M. (2010), Does Size Matter in Australia? The Economic Record, Vol. 86, No. 272, March, 2010, 71–83

Standing tall pays off, study finds. Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 35, No. 7, July/August 2004

Research Shows Women’s Weight Gain Brings Loss of Income, Job Prestige (2005)