Identity and Fashion in The Work Place

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Doctors wear their telltale scrubs, postal workers are decked out in blue, and chefs don all white — but what about the rest of us? For most people, the question of what to wear to work has infinite answers — especially as dress codes have become increasingly relaxed — and what we choose is a product of various factors: job duty, personal style, work environment, mood. But how does your fashion at work influence the way your coworkers view you? Should it have any influence at all? Regardless of the answer to that question, the fact is that it does (for instance, one study showed that women who dress more professionally earn more money). So let’s explore the issue a bit.

Of course, some practical things affect what we wear to work, like the office temperature or a stated dress code. But mostly, fashion is a question of identity: how we dress and style ourselves is a means of telling others who we are. And in turn, when we see the way our coworkers look, we make assumptions about who they are.

You might think this doesn’t apply to you, that you just wear clothes you like and never judge anyone based on how they look. But think about it a bit more. Imagine what you wore last Tuesday. If you hadn’t been going to your office that day, would you have made any changes to your outfit? Chances are, you would have. Each office has its own norms, and most of us make adjustments to conform to these norms. Sometimes the adjustments are minor, like opting for understated jewellery over flashier pieces; sometimes they’re major, like putting on makeup when you normally wouldn’t, shaving a beard you’d rather keep, or completely changing your outfit. Whatever adjustments you would’ve made, ask yourself why you made them? What did those changes tell your coworkers about your identity?

Now let’s think about your coworkers, and the beliefs you may have about them based on their fashion. Does the product designer wear all black? Does your CFO or CEO have a visible tattoo? Does the head of customer service show up in 5-inch heels? Has this an impact in the way you interact with them? Whatever the style choices of your coworkers, they have most likely shaped the way that you see each of them.

Of course, fashion choices influence the way we see one another even before we’re coworkers. Think back to your last job interview, or the last time you interviewed someone. What did the interviewer and interviewee wear? How do you think these fashion choices impacted whether or not the candidate was offered the job? Whether or not she accepted? We know that attire impacts interviews: a survey showed that 87% of employers said that candidates showing up in “non-traditional” attire impacted hiring decisions, while 49% said it had a strong impact.

Fashion and style may seem superficial, but the reality is that how we look says something to the world, and the world responds to what we say. In an ideal workplace, we’d all be able to express ourselves fully and only be judged for the merit of our work, but that world doesn’t exist for now. In the meantime, let’s remember to note the unconscious ways we conform to meet workplace norms, and the judgments we make about others based on their appearance. Just being able to see these biases is the first step toward seeing the whole person, and becoming better coworkers.

What will you wear tomorrow ?

Lucy Kallin