Do you have to wear a suit when you go to work? I do when I go to the ministry and I even wear a tie every day. Despite the fact that most bankers, consultants and lawyers have at least embraced the idea of a casual Friday, most people in my department (me included) don’t do casual.
As I paid an (inspiring!) visit to startup accelerator Rockstart in Amsterdam last Wednesday, I enjoyed the rare occasion of ‘going to work casually’. This sparked my thinking on business attire and I want to share some thoughts on your suit and what it does to you.
OK it’s true, first of all your suit makes you more attractive and gets you more attention. In the end, suits are an elegant way of dressing yourself. At least, most of the time. I’m not necessarily talking about certain guys wearing oversized black, green or brown suits finished off with a Donald Duck tie. Just stay away from that and you’re fine.
Another advantage of your suit is the way it beneficially influences other peoples’ assessment of your knowledge and skills. You might still be muzzy from yesterday’s party, your suit tells other people that you are a successful corporate professional going for the kill. And it’s not only other peoples’ assessment! Studies show that you ‘prime your brain’ when you dress in a certain way. In other words, when someone puts on an item of clothing it is common for the wearer to adopt the characteristics associated with that garment. This is why you feel fitter when you wear sports clothes and more professional in work wear. So, wearing a suit probably makes you feel more confident about your professional skills, stand up a little straighter and actually behave more professional.
Clearly, wearing a suit brings with it many advantages. Despite this being true, it felt awesome leaving my suit on its cloth hanger when I went to Rockstart. Why?
Due to the priming effect I already mentioned, a suit superimposes a corporate identity on your personal identity and can encourage ‘in-the-box thinking’. You might behave more professional in suit, but what is ‘professional’ and is it always the best way to behave?
Spending time between a colourful collection of ‘startuppers’ doing things in their own creative ways made me realise that at times my suit is constraining my mental flexibility. When suited up, I usually behave and think ‘the appropriate way’. But what’s appropriate? Is it appropriate to picnic on the grass behind the building during lunch? Is it appropriate to send your boss an illustrative picture instead of the standard document? Is it appropriate to visit an event during work hours that’s only slightly related to your work?
I think dressing ‘smart casual’ allows for more authentic behaviour and more creative thinking. Both lead to better results (as Google, Facebook, AOL and Apple have discovered too).
Secondly, a suit really isn’t that comfortable, apart from constraining your mental flexibility it reduces your physical flexibility too. It’s designed for standing straight, for walking (running can become very uncomfortable depending on the cut of your suit), sitting straight (don’t try lying down unless you love spending money on dry cleaners), keeping your arms down (tried raising them above your head?) and for cool environments (functioning air conditioning during summer is a real treat). It’s no coincidence that all professionals having to move more than the average walk between their desk and the coffee machine don’t wear suits.
Another reason for not wearing a suit is that they’re expensive and don’t last long. As the fabric of a suit is so delicate you have to move carefully. Imagine you plump down in your chair and have the misfortune of your pocket catching your armrest and being ripped open. It happens, is pretty funny, but costly too. One day I was riding my bike and had to hit the break unexpectedly. My pants scraped against the edge of my saddle and I ripped apart 450 euros. That’s a terrible waste of money. You might say a suit isn’t made for biking? But then what, buy an expensive car and skip the nice bike ride to and from work?
You might not be surprised, It’s my intention to find a job where most of the time I don’t have to wear a suit. I think I would feel more comfortable and could therefore accomplish more and at higher quality. Moreover, I would feel more like the ‘authentic me’ which would boost my creative thinking.
What about all those nice advantages of wearing a suit?
Let’s hope that charisma and personality will get me the right attention and that a solid, professional message will get me peoples trust. Besides, I don’t have the intention to throw away my suits, sometimes a suit undeniably is the best solution.
What do you think?
Would your work improve if you would not wear a suit? What would your colleagues think? Should you wear a suit, even if you don’t have to see clients because it adds to a professional culture? Would love to read your comments!