Dressed for Success


Every day before we step out into the world we check our appearance in the mirror, right? Absolutely! We want to look good, cause people are going to be looking at us.

In a marketing experiment that is captured on YouTube, a trainer dressed up and went out begging. At first he dressed as a dirty panhandler and went out with his banjo to hustle for change. The poor fellow had very little success despite kindly offering to help shoppers push their cars, help folks cross the street safely, and singing his heart out on street corners. At the end of the day he hardly had a few dollars.

The instructor then cleaned up and dressed business-causal to hit the streets again. This time the instructor stuck to a simple script, approaching people to ask them for small change as he had apparently lost his wallet and needed a few dollars to catch the bus. What a different experience! The instructor got all sorts of offers of help, and ended the day with over two hundred dollars in donations! The instructor’s success the second time around can clearly be attributed mostly to his outward appearance. People were not as ready to prejudge him, and were more open to his approaches when he was dressed as a businessperson.

This simple experiment shows just to what extent people judge each other based on their appearance and the clothes they wear. The effects of this prejudgment based on appearance have some interesting implications.

In 1983 John T. Molly literally “took the world by storm” when he released his book “Dress for Success”. Millions of copies of this simple “manual” on business and social dress code have already been sold worldwide. I think the success of Molly’s book is built solidly on the desires of people to be successful – whatever success might mean! Be it ego, or lack thereof, the effect of prejudgment based on exterior appearance has most everyone chasing after some or other look or style.

According to Molly and other experts, some of the following rules apply to successful dressing:

Business formal is a subset of traditional business attire, yet, it has specific requirements just one step down from tuxedos, such as dark tailored suits for men and women. The general business attire category is a mere mini step away from the traditional business-dress classification. For men, this category still demands a tie and it is still worn with a dress shirt. However instead of a suit, this category includes a tailored sport coat worn with dress trousers… While ties are usually not required for men when dressing business casual, high-level business casual includes suits worn with dressy sport shirts or fine-gauge knits and tailored separates, such as dress trousers, dressy collared sport shirts that do not require a tie, fine knit shirts and sweaters, as well as sport coats. Low-level business casual includes khakis, chinos, and knit golf shirts. To command respect, it is recommended to wear all-leather belts and shoes. And (surprisingly), sandals and sneakers do meet a true business casual standard… (Career Services Center).

Oh my! I am at a lost as to whether I should chuckle or cry; clearly I am not successful if judged according to these guidelines.

Now, whether there are millions of stylishly “successful” folks running the globe or not, I’m sure Mr. Molly has no problem with all his ‘successful’ dollars rolling in. Molly has followed his initial coup by spinning of eight additional books, all about appearance. In 1998 a totally new and updated edition of “Dress for Success” was published under the title… “The New Dress for Success”. The effect of how people perceive each other based on outward appearances, has John Molly (and many other authors of his genre), celebrating their success – whether they have, or don’t have “the look”.

Instead of taking heed from the wise words of men like Jean de La Fontaine, the French poet, who once said, “Beware so long as you live, of judging men by their outward appearance”; and Aesop, the ancient Greek author, who plainly warned, “Appearances are often deceiving” (“The Proverbs”), society in general has totally bought into the belief that looks are everything. We are hooked on keeping up appearances, wearing the correct styles, staying in fashion, and being “in” with our peers.

As the example of the YouTube video shows, despite what we want to think or even say, we are all more accommodating and accepting of someone who is well groomed and dressed than someone who, according to the fashion standard of the day, falls short of the ideal. When someone fits into our image of acceptability we tend to act accepting. However, when we are confronted with and anomalous situation, we judge and act accordingly. Most often, our judgments are based on exterior appearance only.


Acknowledging this fact, unfortunate as it may seem, the move to be successful by dressing “the part”, has given rise to some “good” in causes like Dress For Success International (www.dressforsuccess.org). The mission of Dress for Success is to promote the economic independence of disadvantaged women by providing professional attire, a network of support, and the career development tools to help these women thrive in work and in life.

Founded in New York City in 1997, Dress for Success is an international not-for-profit organization offering services designed to help their clients – women who for some reason have not been wholly successful – find jobs, and remain employed. Each Dress for Success client receives one suit when she has a job interview, and can later return for a second suit or separates (additional clothing items that would enhance her ensemble) when she finds employment.

Since 1997, Dress for Success has served more than 550,000 women around the world, helping them aspire to and reach higher heights of success in their lives. Each year more than 50,000 women in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands, Mexico, Poland and the West Indies are reached and helped through the efforts of Dress for Success. These services wonderfully counter balances the possible negative effect of prejudgment based on outward appearance, by empowering women to use those very standards to their own advantage. What a worthy cause.

Charles Chaplin by www.SilentHollywood.com
Charles Chaplin by http://www.SilentHollywood.com

Charlie Chaplin the great British comedian, producer, writer, film director and composer who is widely regarded as the greatest comic artist of the screen, and one of the most important figures in motion picture history, famously once said “I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the make-up made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked onto the stage he was fully born” (“Finding Quotations”). This profound statement show how our inward self-perceptions are often intertwined with our outward appearance. We find identity in our appearance. Clothes shape the characters we portray. As a result of how people perceive each other, clothing has become as much functional as psychological; some find their worth and security in their looks, and in the characters they dress up as everyday.

As a matter of fact, many jobs and activities in our work-a-day lives actually tap into cultural prejudgments of appearance, by making a uniform dress code of sorts a requirement. The reason for dress code in some cases is partly for worker protection while performing certain activities; however, there are also areas where deliberate uniformity is enforced for wholly different reasons. Society has for many generations ascribed certain levels of authority, responsibility or specialization to people based on the uniforms they wear. Soldiers, police officers, doctors, judges, delivery personnel, store clerks, pilots, wait staff, and all manner of other examples clearly illustrate the correlation of position, authority, and function with outward appearance.

While armed services world wide enforce uniformity of dress to boost morale and unity in the ranks, there is also, at the same time, a long standing tradition of distinguishing the look and quality of uniforms according to officers rankings! Thus, even in the military, identity, position and status is clearly defined by outward appearance.

So one is faced with this conundrum: It is hard to tell whether the almost “Siamese” symbiosis of identity and perception is an effect of the social emphasis on outward appearance, OR whether it is the very cause of how we perceive each other. Whatever the case, whether we wear the clothes or the clothes wear us, the global fashion industry makes no secret of the fact that it revolves around “creating” identity and image based on buying power and perceived success.

Everyday the media bombards us with the message of what perfection looks and acts like. Advertising agencies and fashion magazines world wide spend millions using all sorts of means to promote their opinions of what is ‘in’ or ‘out’. Their craftily designing campaigns urge us to stay up-to-date with what’s current for our social demographic, reminding us that fame and success depend on the right appearances.

Tiffany & Co -- Dressed for Success

Image by martymadrid via Flickr

Because of the message of the media, apparel in itself has become a means of communication. Like exotic plumage, adornments and outward status symbols are often considered the means by which to judge suitability and compatibility in social interaction. Through careful attention to fashion sense and style, the sexes both appraise potential partners, and advertise their own desirability as the perfect mate. Apparel is way more than it would seem, the “feathers” apparently do make the “fowl”.

The astounding influence that the fashion industry wields worldwide, makes it almost equal to a “super power” (Global Fashion Industry). A very good thing then, I think, that within its ranks there is such intense competition for consumer dollars, else a unified industry would surely rule our universe. Clearly, for the ‘fashionistas’, the way people dress and perceive each other has become the way of life, and the very golden goose that brings success, fame and power.

So, maybe John Molly actually does have it right after all: We do all dress for success! Sure, it is true that in the very self-same media which proclaims style, a lot has been said about the negative effects of peer pressure, social division, discrimination of class, elitism, gang-violence, materialism, snobbishness, consumerism, vanity and pride, all ails associated with appearances…Nevertheless, for good or bad, the way we dress affects how society perceives itself. In our clothes we are no longer naked; Adorned in our finest, we become who we want to be. Through our costumes and uniforms we can act out our social selves, we are well received that way, and we feel comfortable to appraise the rest of society in like fashion.

There are guidelines and the rules are somewhat clear; no matter the good or the bad of it, when we all dress our parts, we are more able to “play nice” together. And, despite the few odd-ball weird looking folks who are no yet interested in true “success”, the world in general seems to prance along quite well this way – judging by outward appearances. Not so?

I’d love to hear your Pointaview on dressing and success. Feel free to leave a comment and use the “share” button to share with a friend!

Works cited:

Career Services Center, University of Delaware, Newark, DE 19716. Web. Saturday 02 July 2011.

Charles Chaplin by www.SilentHollywood.com

“peer pressure”. www.dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. Web. Sunday 03 July 2011.

Dress For Success International, www.dressforsuccess.org. Web, Saturday 02 July 2011.

“The Proverbs.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2011. Web. Saturday 02 Jul. 2011.

Stats on the Global Fashion Industry. www.fashionproducts.com. Web. Sunday 03 July 2011.

“Finding Quotations was never this easy!” by www.thinkexist.com Quotations Online 1999- 2010. Web. Saturday 02 July 2011.

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About Johan Bester

I am a 5th Generation African of mixed European descent - born in South Africa; And currently living it up in the USA till the Dear Lord takes me somewhere else some day... I am happily married for life, and my aim is to be a successful follower of Jesus. Despite being a very experienced realist, I do have moments of idealism when I believe in good and in people. I believe in hard work, right and wrong, taking care of what needs to get done right now, commonsense, “doing the right thing ‘cause it’s the right thing to do”, preparing for a “rainy day”, and watching your own back, amongst other.
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2 Responses to Dressed for Success

  1. rtyecript says:

    I really liked the article, and the very cool blog

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