For some women, a purse can signal dominance.
Described by NPR, a well-dressed woman walking along the street of a posh Upper East Side Manhattan neighborhood had no problem when she headed straight toward the people approaching in the opposite direction. She obviously knew what she was doing because their response was to move aside. The one item that clinched her claim to superiority was her Birkin Bag. Sold by Hermes for $10,000 to $200,000, the purse is available only to a select few. All others find themselves on a wait list and even a wait list for the wait list.
Where are we going? To the message you give with your clothing.
What You Wear to Work
Your work attire can help you feel self-confident and superior while intimidating your colleagues. Combined, what you feel and what you project can boost your productivity in a “high-stakes” negotiating situation. It can even affect your physiology.
In one experiment 128 men aged 18-32 were randomly assigned either a black suit, white shirt, a tie and dress shoes from Macy’s or a white T-shirt, blue sweat pants and plastic sandals from Walgreen’s. Given negotiating assignments, the individuals in the suits consistently got better deals than their casually dressed opponents. In addition, the men’s testosterone levels correlated with their clothing during the simulated negotiations. (The individuals in the T-shirts had lower levels.)
Summarized in the following WSJ infographic, the participants with “lower class” signals made more costly concessions when they had to buy or sell a manufacturing plant than their “upper class” opponents. Correspondingly, the profits for the suited negotiators were higher by $1.42 million.
As the WSJ article’s title indicated, “…Dressing For Success Leads to Success.”
Our Bottom Line: Signaling
Using our clothing to signal a social class and the status, education and knowledge that people associate with that class, we can increase our negotiating power at work. That negotiating power comes from how we and our colleagues perceive us.
Taking our clothing a step further we can move to Thorstein Veblen and his Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). More than a century ago, Veblen pointed out that an upper class uses expensive worthless purchases to signal power and distinguish themselves. In a 2010 paper, scholars at USC’s Marshall School of Business used the following diagram to convey some of what Veblen taught us.
Although wearing a suit to work is not conspicuous consumption, it could convey similar signals.
But then again, what about (Facebook’s) Mark Zuckerberg’s hoodie and gray T-shirt? The scholar who wrote the workplace clothing paper said, “…People like that are playing around with their status symbols. For most of us, high status means suit and tie.” But Zuckerberg explained that he just did not want to use up his energy deciding what to wear everyday.