Published on 10th December 2013 by Gemma Harding

In our latest article on How To Make People Respect You In The Work Place, we argued that winning respect is a case of earning people’s good opinions over time. Commenting that some people have a “presence” that can command respect from others on a superficial level on first meeting, we gave little thought to the impact of physical appearance on a person’s respectability. Are people more likely to respect you if you dress a certain way?

Men at work

Traditionally, values we respect are reflected by the men’s suit. The epitome of respectability, the suit represents affluence and status. In the fifties, high street tailors high street tailors opened their doors to the wider public, measuring customers to gauge which ready-made suit would fit him best. Suddenly, the suit became readily available to all sections of society, off the rack, with that “bespoke” feeling.

The suit was a symbol of masculinity as much as it represented power, importance, wealth and virility. It was an aspirational item of clothing for the lower middle classes and the working class, as much as it was a staple piece of attire, and a status symbol for the more well-to-do gentleman.

People did not just wear their suits to work, but dressed up to go to town, to the circus and to weddings. It was not just work attire but a uniform of manliness, demanding respect from peers and subordinates.

Women in the workplace

As for women, the late forties and fifties saw a revival of femininity, reflected in the clothes adorning Dior’s New Look catwalk models. Long, swaying skirts and tapered jackets dominated fashion magazines and popular perceptions of what it was to be a ‘woman.’

As they started to filter into offices and other places of work in the sixties and seventies, styles began to change. To be respected was no longer to be middle class, waiting at home for their husband and bread winner to return from work. It was becoming a legitimately respectable ambition for a woman to want to earn her own money.jackets were all the rage and women’s place was in the home.

The sixties marks a turning point in the eye of public memory; a time when men and women came together in a “sexual revolution,” reflected in new attitudes, new hair styles and new clothes. Denim jeans and casual outfits took off in a way they hadn’t before: the mini skirt caught our imagination and we haven’t looked back since.

Of course, this aspect of the sixties had nothing to do with the ‘respectable’ woman. Women commanding respect at the workplace through their choice of clothing don’t emerge in popular culture until the 1980’s with the rise of “power dressing.” This was the ultimate expression of independence, wealth, importance and even masculinity. These traits were still associated with men, rendering women powerless to project their own image and command respect from their peers: in order to get respect at work, they had to dominate as a man.

Back to the future

Today, “dress to impress” is generally considered a smart shirt and tie on a bloke and a nice pair of tapered trousers, maybe a bit of a heel and a smart shirt on a woman.

Offices in Britain tend to dictate their own dress codes, with unspoken rules such as “No one here really wears jeans” or “Heels are an unnecessary addition to an outfit here.”

To command respect at work, how should you dress? Like everyone else or like yourself? Should you dress aspirationally, adopting the styles favoured by your boss, or even just forking out more money for more expensive looking items? Does how you dress at the office even matter if you’re doing your job properly?

The likes of Mark Zuckerberg have made hoodies, jeans and trainers a part of office attire in some sectors. Tech, in particular projects a laid-back image, with cool geeks sitting behind their devices, getting creative and thinking of the next big thing. They command respect because of what they know about technology and they wear the uniform hoodie and jeans to prove it.

What does dressing to impress look like?

A study by Harvard Business School has actually found that dressing down for work can enhance your image in the work place and earn you more respect from your colleagues as a result. By dressing down and appearing to be less concerned with your appearance or making too much of an effort, you encourage others to think either that you have a higher status within the company, or that you are really good at what you do because you don’t need your clothes to do the talking.

The difference between smart and sloppy is crucial, however. Even in the twenty-first century, while we may not all rock up to the office in our suits, ties and five-inch heels every day, we would equally never show up at work in trackies and yesterday’s t-shirt.

What you wear commands respect because it does reflect who you are. As offices become more casual about what people wear to work, personality is allowed to shine through. An older colleague working in the accounts department might garner as much respect as the new guy in IT who comes to work in baggy jeans every day.

Appropriate attire that matches the image you want to project about yourself and your role in the company will earn you respect. It is a subjective consideration, unique for everyone depending on their role in a company and the company itself. A partner in a law firm, for example, could not come into work in jeans, despite their high status at the company, because clients expect to see someone different behind the desk.

The way you dress does influence the way others at work see you, but these perceptions are fluid over time and subject to change. Just as the suit still engenders a sense of power, it is also no longer the only way to rock the CEO look.