Dress For Success With Science

Dress For Success With Science

We often hear tips like “dress for success” and “dress for the job you want, not the one you have,” but implementing those ideas in your wardrobe is often easier said than done. To help, we’ve turned to science. The psychology of colour and appearance can help you choose new clothes as well as launch your revamped wardrobe without causing too much of a stir.

Photo by bark.

While the cut, style and fit of your clothes is important, the first thing most people are going to notice is the colour. This can have a serious psychological impact on the person looking at you, so it’s good to know the basic rules.

How We Perceive Colours And The Effect They Have On Your Presentation


Colour theory isn’t an exact science, but we do know a few things about how colours often affect the way we’re seen. While these aren’t always specific to clothing, the cognitive effects they trigger can be applied to clothing. It’s not solely about people’s perception of you, colour can have an impact on how you perceive yourself as well. The colours you wear might not actually make you more successful, but they can definitely make you feel that way.

Red: Red universally means “stop”, “excitement” or “danger”, and one study suggests it might actually scare people a little. In another study, red was found to evoke worry, distraction and self-preoccupation. This helps explain why, in a survey last year, a typical CEO was likely to prefer magenta over other colors. However, chances are you’re not interested in scaring the pants off your coworkers just yet, so steer clear of red and magenta at the beginning of the process.

Blue: Blue is typically associated with calming effects, and the same idea can be applied to clothing. Some studies have shown it can have an effect on the creative mood of the person looking at it, so theoretically, wearing blue might have a positive effect on the creativity of your coworkers.

Darker Tones: Darker colours like black, navy, grey or brown supposedly give off an authoritative message. Dressing in darker clothing might influence others around you and create an impression of competence.

Lighter Tones: Lighter colours like earth tones, pastels or yellows typically appear less intimidating. That’s not a bad thing, as it can also mean people perceive you as being gentle, friendly and approachable. Lighter hues also allow you to blend in more and can help disguise any changes to your wardrobe you’re looking to make.

Even the colour of your eyeglasses can change the way people view you. A study by National Cheng Kung University found that the colours of frames had different connotations. For instance, green frames presented a vulgar impression, whereas black created an impression of stability.

The Style Still Has An Effect

Just because colour plays an important role doesn’t mean style is irrelevant. One study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that our perception of how we are dressed actually changes the way we speak:

Results show that participants who were dressed formally used more formal adjectives than casual ones to describe themselves. The opposite was true in participants wearing casual clothes. In addition, formally dressed participants responded faster to formal than to casual adjectives, while this difference was reversed in casually dressed participants.

The impact will vary depending on how you define casual and formal, and it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to switch to a suit and tie. If you’re more of a t-shirt and jeans type, even switching to a polo shirt might change the reactions of people around you as well as your own attitude.

Many surveys have found big industries prefer a conservative approach to dressing. The Harvard Business Review notes that 37 per cent of men believe that if you don’t dress like a leader, you’re not going to get a leadership role yourself. As with any job, it’s good to gauge your surroundings and have an understanding of how people tend to dress, but that doesn’t mean you can’t improve your presentation a little.

Photo by Ace Armstrong.

How To Change Your Wardrobe Without Causing A Stire


If you’re reading this, chances are you’re not the type to run out, purchase a bright red blazer, and then head into work tomorrow. Instead, you might be looking for a subtle means to upgrade your wardrobe without drawing a lot of attention to yourself. We know that dressing better engenders more confidence, but it’s also likely to bring about a few snide remarks from co-workers and friends.

Photo by DaveBleasdale.

This is where the science helps: by making changes to not just styles but colours, you can minimise that reaction. For instance, if you want to start wearing button-up shirts, but don’t want to draw attention to yourself, stick with lighter, neutral colours. The same goes for your pants and shoes. Image consultant Crystal Gardner offers these suggestions:

Subtle changes are the easiest and safest to make when looking to change your image. I suggest playing with colours and accessories. Colours can be brought into the wardrobe as layering pieces under blazers, sweaters, stockings and scarfs. Right now colour blocking is a great trend that takes adding colour into consideration. Some of the current colours of the season include: neons, bold blues, purples, reds, greens and orange.

Accessories are another great way you can change your image. Costume jewllery can add elegance and sophistication, retro-shaped eyewear can create a trendy upbeat look, belts can add different looks and accentuate the body in certain ways, shoes are also another great accessory to add some punch to a new look. The best part about these little updates is they are very affordable; you aren’t buying a complete new wardrobe.

The subtle, piece-by-piece method isn’t your only option. If you prefer to jump in headfirst, image consultant Milena Joy of Milena Consulting suggests a more upfront approach:

CEOs and great leaders aren’t wallflowers; they stand out and they dress with confidence. Changing your look and people’s reaction to you is all about consistency. If you consistently look put together, polished and sophisticated, than there won’t be much to talk about for long. You may have to suffer through one day of reactions from co-workers, but soon your new look will become the norm.

If you try to ease into the new look, then each piece, each change will be a new opportunity for someone to make an obvious comment, therefore putting you in an awkward self-conscience position. We advise that you jump into your new look with both feet (in your tailored pants of course) and make the decision to dress for a more successful you and never look back.

Have you ever completely changed your image? How did it go?


  • I wouldn’t recommend jumping in headfirst. Firstly, finding clothes that really work for you takes time and experimentation. You’ll probably make a few mistakes at first. Secondly, good quality clothes are probably going to be more expensive than you may be used to wearing. So, you don’t want to risk running off and splurging on 2 or 3 new expensive outfits, only to find out that you’ve got it all wrong.
    I would suggest upgrading slowly but steadily over the course of a year. Resist grabbing the expensive stuff until you know what you are doing. And resist purchasing online until you really know your size well. Once you’ve got the basics down and you know what you’re doing, then its time for those $600 brogues and tailor made suit.

  • Custom clothes come in any style ignore the implied only suits and formal gear path that only applies to 100+k game, you obviously can do it for less but like all things the clothes also need the life style or your at odds and pretenders are usually sniffed out by those that are the real thing.

    The old saying all show and no go applies here, so be careful as faking it till you make is more luck and confidence then anything else.

    Don’t out dress your friends unless you are upgrading to new friends.

    • Haha dreads are a tricky one. I think it really depends on the industry. I wsa working as a muso, ended up getting some high class gigs and suddenly the dreads were unprofessional. Few years later, running my own audio/production studio and the dreads are back and portray a good image. Or at least they attract attention, which is sometimes the hardest part of finding clients – standing out in the crowd.

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