The manager in his or her suit has become an archetype in professional life around the globe. Even at international meetings, where people of various cultures gather, managers all wear the same type of clothing, only displaying minor variations in style and colour.
Business suits have of course no practical purpose, but rather convey social meaning. The suit has become a symbol of power, and a means to demarcate the white from the blue collars. Using clothes and other objects to communicate meaning to other people is a natural aspect of being human. An immutable law of marketing is that we don’t buy stuff for what it does, but for what it means.
Early in my career, I was working on a dredging site in Bangladesh, wearing my comfy heavy metal t-shirt and jeans. I was unexpectedly asked to present to head office executives visiting from the Netherlands. Blissfully unaware of my lack of appropriate attire and ignoring their visible scepticism towards my expertise I was able to convince them of my recommendation.
It is of course not a secret that the relationship between the clothes we wear and our actual ability to be a good manager is not a necessary one. Sociologists Erving Goffman, who analysed human interaction from a theatrical perspective, wrote more than half a century ago:
People holding corporate positions are blinding themselves and others to the fact that they hold their jobs partly because they look like executives, not because they can work like executives.1
In the field of consumer behaviour, the clothes we buy are often seen as the result of our lifestyle, demographics and other variables. Sociologists, however, have a reverse logic and see the clothes we wear as the cause of the behaviour. Research has confirmed that we use objects such as clothing to compensate for actual ability to act in a particular role.
It has been found that MBA students less likely to be successful in professional life (based on grade averages) are more likely to look the part.2
With this in mind, it is interesting to note that quite often the smartest people are portrayed in movies as eccentric, deviating from the expectations, but accepted because of their abilities.
Clothing as a means to communicate actual and aspired social status is part of what makes us human, and after my experience, I quickly learnt to adapt to the expectations of professional life. The best way to end this post is with the words of the bard:
All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts … (As You Like it).