Kathie Ritacco swooned over a compliment she got at work recently. It didn’t come from her boss for the good job she did. It came from a much younger female co-worker who liked her new Sperry shoes.
“I am very concerned about my look and image in the workplace as I get older,” said the engagement manager at FindLaw, a Thomson Reuters business.
The 49-year-old Apple Valley mom said she wants to appear professional, stylish and relevant, but worries that what looks good on her younger co-workers might look ridiculous on her.
Aging workers are staying in their jobs longer and making late-career changes more often than in generations past. With millennials flooding the workforce, competition is fierce. Along with learning new technologies and embracing social media, personal style has become a key component to survival in the workplace.
“People make instantaneous judgments of the competency of a person based on their appearance,” said Kelly Gage, assistant professor of fashion and apparel at St. Catherine University. “Right or not, it’s absolutely culturally ingrained in us to think this way and has been since the beginning of time.”
But should the way we dress really matter? Do Michelle Obama’s sleeveless dresses make her a better or worse first lady? Does Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s signature hoodie deserve such criticism?
You are what you wear
In a perfect world, employers in every industry would judge people simply by their performance. But that’s not the reality, said Alice Sydow, Twin Cities image consultant and wardrobe stylist for I’ve Got Your Style.
Sydow, who also speaks to companies on the importance of image in the workplace, said a person who dresses above average and looks put together is likely to get promoted faster than someone who’s just as talented but lacks personal style.
“You are in charge of your own brand and need to market your brand wisely,” she said.
Personal brand — or the way you choose to present yourself — can affect your career. Employers and colleagues are consciously and unconsciously influenced by your appearance. Image experts say your clothes, accessories, hair and makeup should express your creative energy, talent and expertise.
The psychology of style
There’s plenty of scientific thought behind the style over substance theory. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology observed a peculiar phenomenon: Wear a white coat that you believe belongs to a doctor, and you’ll be more focused. Wear a white coat that you believe belongs to a painter, and your focus will not improve.
In another study at Northwestern University, researchers found that it’s possible that people not only look more professional in what they’re wearing, but subconsciously feel more professional. In other words, the clothes may literally make the man (or woman).
With workplace dress codes becoming increasingly ambiguous, what to wear to work can be the toughest decision of the day. In some cases, it might also be the most important.
As a judge on the Minnesota Court of Appeals, John Smith, 63, wears a traditional suit to fit the formality of his job, but admits he often sticks out among a generation of younger workers who are prone to dress more casually.
“It gets to the point where wearing a suit can sometimes be viewed as overkill and makes one stand out like a piece out of time,” Smith said. “As times change, it is more difficult to know what to wear.”