Corporate or creative attire: what’s your style (and does it matter)?

There’s a menswear shop in my home town that proclaims out the front: ‘well-dressed men are more successful’. It’s always bothered me.

Bernie Madoff was well-dressed, and very successful for a long time, but he’ll see out his twilight years in jail after masterminding that Ponzi scheme now considered one of the United States’ largest financial frauds.

Rajat Gupta, the former Goldman Sachs board member, also looks like a million dollars every time I see him, but he, too, is looking at a lengthy stint in the clink after being busted for insider trading.

Conversely, have you ever seen some of the kit Steve Jobs used to knock about in before he adopted those scarecrow jeans and that black turtleneck, and became one of the most successful businessmen in the world? And what about Mark Zuckerburg? He wouldn’t be welcome in many shopping centres wearing that hoodie he’s so fond of, and I read an article shortly before Facebook’s recent IPO that his eschewing of corporate attire was making investors ‘nervous’.

I know fashion goes in cycles, and I’m aware too that no matter how much we might say we’re not into fashion, the truth is that fashion is most definitely into us; but since when do the clothes we wear make us successful?

I think well-dressed men and women can create a perception of being successful, and perceptions are of course important and useful. After all, we make assumptions based on our perception of things; but how often are our assumptions incorrect?

I’m a believer that clothes don’t make the man or woman (however, they can certainly help), but I’ve always found the different styles of dress stereotypically prescribed to certain industries or professions very interesting to observe. Just like professional services firms and the legal profession supposedly love suits, the advertising and creative sectors supposedly love anything but. A ‘suit’, as many will know, is in fact an agency term for account service specialists used to differentiate them from the creative arm of the agency.

In advertising, many get up very, very early in the morning and spend a few hours getting ready so they can arrive at work looking like they’ve just rolled out of bed. As one successful Art Director friend said to me once, “it’s very expensive to look this cheap, Tim”. I believe him.

Many of us are conditioned to think success means looking a certain way, and this is marketing doing its job very well over many decades. If you were to line up a creative director and a homeless fellow in a suit next to each other on the street and ask passers-by who was the most successful, I’d be surprised if most didn’t point at the suit.

It’s arguably human nature for all of us to look at the clothes one is wearing and think we know something about the wearer. However human nature isn’t always right, and what you’re wearing of course only tells a very small part of the overall story.

In the interview scenario, this is especially true. When I used to interview freelance creatives on a daily basis, most would rock up in whatever they were comfortable in, which, for the kind of roles we were sourcing for (predominantly agency and studio-based), was entirely appropriate.

I realised that what many creatives wore was a reflection of their creativity, while for others, it just didn’t matter. What there was a general understanding of, however, was that the portfolio, and the quality of work within it, was the ultimate indication of talent, not the kit.

But there were another few cases where dapper men and women strolled in, and looked the part; in fact, they looked fantastic. But guess what? The skill level and attitude didn’t match the threads. They had all the gear, but no (or little) idea.

I don’t think well-dressed men or women are more successful, but I can buy in to the belief, to an extent, that more successful men or women can afford to be better dressed. We’re all naked from the day of birth; clothing can create a perception, sure, but if that perception isn’t subsequently matched by talent, then it won’t matter what you’re wearing.

Surely it’s what’s inside that counts; what do you think?


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(17) Readers Comments

  1. Great article. Of course, the inside counts. If you’re a fake, no matter how good you dress, you’ll be revealed a fake in time to come.

    Dressing / appearances is just a weapon to add to your arsenal to project the image you wish. It’s the way that social / societal conditioning has evolved over time that perceptions and expectations are associated to a certain image.

    I’ve heard the advice – dress for the next role you want to be in. If you want to be seen as a very ‘corporate’ CEO who follows the rules of the corporate game, do so. Play to society’s perception.

    The irony is in creatives who want to appear to be rebel / rule-breakers, but really, they’re just following the rules and abiding by society’s perception of how a ‘creative’ should look like.

    True rebels / creative minds like Steve Jobs and Zuckerberg don’t play to society’s expectations. And especially in the case of Zuckerberg, he just doesn’t care I guess?


    • “I’ve heard the advice – dress for the next role you want to be in. If you want to be seen as a very ‘corporate’ CEO who follows the rules of the corporate game, do so. Play to society’s perception.”

      This was going to be my comment and pretty much sums up my thoughts on the matter. For me, dressing up is another way of demanding respect from people.

  2. I think you’ve definitely got to dress for success!
    Sure, it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing as long as you have the talent, but it certainly helps show that you care about a potential job. If you rocked up to a job interview or client meeting in your comfy pants, most people would find it hard to take you seriously.

    It shouldn’t be about judging a book by its cover but in most cases, especially when meeting someone for the first time, it is. Making a good first impression shows that you care about your own “brand” identity and what you stand for, which would give the impression that you care about your clients’ brand just as much, if not more.

    In some cases people can go over the top. I think it’s best to do what you feel is comfortable, but know who you are dealing with first before you present yourself. If you know the client or potential employer expects you to dress in a suit, give them a suit. If a client or employer is more down to earth and care free (as long as you get the job done to a high standard), they won’t care too much.

    This is all based on personal experience and may differ between companies and even countries. I’d like to hear what others think. I’d guess Australia would be quite similar but what about through Europe and Asia? Is the creative industry as “down to earth” over there as we are?

  3. I have worked various jobs, and as a creative I have had quite a few casual workplaces. One interviewer actually asked me if I owned any long pants! In my defence it was in the high thirties and I had come from a freelance job in an office with no air-con. The best rule of thumb has always been dress to the same standard or better than your employer/manager. Of course I started a reverse casual Friday we dubbed formal Friday, where the casual clothes were swapped with much more corporate attire. It also meant you looked a million bucks for after work drinks on a Friday. 😉

  4. I was (project ended) CEO of a small-med manufacturing company, dealing with a couple of fortune 500 customers and vendors. When I visited any them, I wore a suit (no tie, haven’t worn a tie in 12 years -they choke everything! for me, a symbol of self-leashing, self-over-control). However during the last couple of years, very difficult years, I wore long hair as a kind of “war paint”, and well, I did want that look. I noticed some very interesting changes in the public’s perceptions and reactions to me, even when most of them already knew me. It became a kind of game/experiment for me: When it was a vendor collecting, I wore rags (I do mean rags). When I was trying to sell, my nicest suit and well groomed, despite long hair and full beard. The overall reactions were just as expected: clients welcomed new ideas with a bit more aperture; the vendors took a step back in their aggressive attitudes. Both of them with caution, without knowing what was going on, what to expect from me.
    I am a very creative product R&D engineer with broad experience in promotional items and marketing, and looking for a new gig. (feel free to check out my profile!) I now have gone to the barber, and worn suit with a tie for all the interviews. I had to make a choice, and I choose to get a job. I am ultimately, selling myself, might as well overdress. What I don’t know, and I’m afraid my creative side will be too hidden in the first impression now, perhaps with a goatee… Any thoughts out there?

  5. Nick, formal Friday is a great idea. It’s similar to when I was working in a call centre, we could wear anything we liked – pyjamas, trackies, ugg boots – it didn’t matter. So, a couple of times the centre would organise a ‘Formal Friday’ where people would put effort in and wear Tuxedos, floor length gowns, heels, etc. It was a lot of fun and a great way to ‘suit up’ a very casual work place.

  6. I’d say there’s a cause-and-effect here. Wearing better quality clothes that you know make you look good inspires confidence. Confidence breeds success. I don’t think being well-dressed makes you a better person, any more than having a precise hold on grammar does, or knowing your way around wine or an art gallery.
    I will say that knowing how to dress to bolster your strengths and market yourself makes a big difference. Having a personal style is part of your brand, and whether it’s Steve’s turtlenecks, a bespoke suit or nerdy t-shirts and jeans, you can either choose to dress like the way you look matters, or dismiss it as unimportant and focus on something else.
    Personally, I think that investing in a little knowledge about how to choose and combine clothes is knowledge that’s never wasted. Why not look make the impression that your appearance matters?

  7. I totally agree. I met with Branson one day in Paris and he was wearing jeans and a white shirt, Seguela (the R of EURO-RSCG) always in jeans with his dog following everywhere, I also met with a billionaire once living along Central Park, the guy was wearing polo shirts with holes, playing with Wall Street on the floor of his apartment and driving a 20 years old chevy. IAll these people have something in common, they wear casual pieces but each of them is tailored and of fantastic quality. They don’t bother projecting a “suit” image because they are successful and very self-confident, and they know it. They don’t try to impress. They are impressive by their simplicity, authenticity and success. Another day I was chatting with the CEO of Zegna, France, and he was saying that the young generations were not using ties any more and it was a real shame to lose traditions. I think every new generation has its codes and thank God, we are evolving… otherwise we’d still be wearing leaves to hide our genitals, and we would skin animals to make fur coats to protect us from harsh winters. I think the suit/tie combination will die too, as it is a symbol of the late 19th century/20th century worker’s image. I’ve learned not to judge anyone by appearances and it served me well ;))

  8. Coming from a creative background, I used to take pride in rocking up to work in my colorful converse shoes, or meeting clients in my sundress. Recently I had to attend a meeting at a corporate firm where everyone was suited up (in monochromes), so I wore a suit/blazer, with a funky beret and knee high boots.

    I think the key to dressing up is being appropriate/respectful/strategic without compromising your job personality. Afterall, isn’t successful marketing a combination of a consistent brand identity while meeting your target audiences’ perceived needs?

  9. great article!

  10. Being creative is great but to win a client over I think we all need to make an effort to look competent. I, for one, am put off by torn jeans and thongs at meetings. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but it feels disrespectful.

    People often say dress for success, and I think the formula works if you want to be taken seriously and get in the door.

  11. In the field of business, whether we like it or not, impressions of who we are and what we are capable of are made within the first few minutes of meeting someone. It is therefore important to promote the ‘right’ image for the situation we are in. If we are walking into an interview for a position where you are representing that company, then it is important to dress appropriately for that role.

    Once a person has achieved their career aspirations, then as with Steve Jobs, where they own the company, then they will incorporate their personality and image on the company. However, when you are still building a career, image is everything and although in this day and age, individualism is heralded as the highest priority, this may not give a person the ‘edge’ when applying for the position of their dreams.

  12. arrive as your clients expect to see you dressed

  13. Good blog. I’m always interested in this topic and I thought you covered it well.

    I think there’s a big difference between fashion and style. Steve Jobs had a sense of style with his dress, despite how informal it was. Mark Zuckerburg on the other hand, completely lacks any sense of style and just looks like a college kid that is still clueless about the real world. The investor community was right to be a little nervous about him.

    I’m in the creative world and have owned my own business for a long time. While I rarely wear ties any more, I know that dressing well has definitely helped my business and is something I continue to do, even on Friday’s. We had an upscale mens clothing store as an account for many years so I learned a lot about how to dress well. Many people simply lack knowledge about how to dress for success. It doesn’t mean a suit, expensive or fancy necessarily – it means appropriate for the audience.

    For example, I am increasingly offended by people I see making large presentations that just badly under dress for the occasion. They are making a statement with their dress whether they know it or not, and most of them don’t.

  14. Pingback: The recruiter, the briefcase and a powerful message for success, Business

  15. Putting care into your appearance can move you closer to your goals. Do expensive clothes make a person successful? No. Do expensive clothes communicate anything more than; “I choose to spend money on my clothes?” Probably not.
    Human beings are hardwired to make quick decisions through visual cues (it came in handy when man-eating beasts lurked outside the cave.) The most talented, serious and ambition people may very well look like an unmade bed. However, it’s a bit self-absorbed to expect strangers to search for clues beyond appearance.

  16. Pingback: Cultural fit: How to match your skills and personality to a job, Career

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