An illustration of a group of 16 people wearing business casual outfits.
Work colleagues judge you — at least your competence and warmth — by how you dress, according to new VCU research. (Getty Images)

A fashion statement of support: Research led by VCU professor looks at the impact of what you wear to work

Colleagues judge competence and warmth by attire, which could determine how much they help you, according to business professor Jose Cortina, Ph.D.

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Virginia Commonwealth University researchers have found that “dress for success” is indeed sage advice when it comes to workplace perception.

Work colleagues judge you — at least your competence and warmth — by how you dress, Jose Cortina, Ph.D., a professor of management and entrepreneurship in VCU’s School of Business, writes in “What Should I Wear to Work? An Integrative Review of the Impact of Clothing in the Workplace,” in a recent edition of the Journal of Applied Psychology. That, in turn, influences their evaluation of your performance and their willingness to help you.

Cortina and his team - including Yingyi Chang, Ph.D., who received a doctorate from the VCU Business School in May - identified three universal and distinctive clothing characteristics at work: formality, provocativeness and fashionability. They also looked at uniforms and religiosity of clothing, which are tied to particular social groups.

A photo of a man wearing a blue button down shirt and black glasses
Jose Cortina, Ph.D., professor of management and entrepreneurship in VCU’s School of Business. (File photo)

“You can influence the behavior of others toward you by making certain clothing choices,” Cortina said. “But it differs for male and female wearers. For example, women in provocative clothing, such as clothing that is skin-revealing or body-contour-showing, are seen as less competent. It isn't clear that this is true for men.”

Our reactions to how others dress are, to some degree, automatic.

“As an observer, one must remember that people in formal clothing aren't more competent, and people in fashionable clothing aren't warmer — but we are inclined to think that they are,” Cortina said.

Employees can learn how to better manage their clothing choices at work, which will help them to be supported adequately and evaluated positively by others. Observers, on the other hand, should be aware of the biases that can be triggered by wearers’ clothing characteristics, such as sexual objectification toward female wearers and potential stereotypes toward employees in religious clothing.

Managers can be trained to avoid such bias in selection and performance appraisal. Employees should also be educated with regard to potential stereotypes toward wearers so that they do not limit their support of certain co-workers due to unwarranted attributions.

“There is no white-collar job for which this issue isn't important, but there is almost no research on the effects of clothing characteristics on workplace outcomes,” Cortina said. “This is the first effort to develop a comprehensive model of clothing effects at work.”