If you want to increase your income in Singapore, start dressing the part. What you wear communicates who you are.
In an ideal world, nobody would judge you for the way you dress. But in reality, you can’t wander into meeting rooms in shorts and expect a promotion to senior management.
Here are the unexpected ways “dressing for success” is more literal than you think:
Income and The Way You Dress
Many independent studies, such as this Payscale study in 2011, verify that the way you dress correlates to your financial success. To some degree this is common sense: you rarely see a director or CEO who does not dress well.
That said, most studies do mention the importance of context. For example, leaders in the creative industry, like the CEO of an advertising agency, can dress casually but still find financial success.
Likewise, there is a higher correlation between income and dress code in major metropolitan areas like Singapore, London, and New York. There is a lower correlation in rural areas, probably because no one, not even top businessmen, feel like wearing a suit when they are in Cebu or the Australian outback.
Here’s are the key principles to keep in mind:
1. Enclothed Cognition
In 2012, a study was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Two groups of students were tested: one group wore white coats, while the other were in casual clothes. Note: the students wearing white coats were not necessarily science or medical students.
The students were then prescribed a series of tests, which required concentration and thought. The students who wore the coats consistently performed better.
The term used to describe it was “enclothed cognition” – the way you dress and the clothes you look at influences your psychological processes. It’s not a new concept; many organisations have known this throughout history. It’s why schools and militaries require uniforms, for example.
This means you might perform better if you start dressing for your role. Even if the boss allows you to come in wearing t-shirt and jeans, you might find your mind works a higher level if you come in dressed as a high-powered executive.
Certainly, those looking at you will also respond appropriately. That, in turn, could have an impact on your pay cheque.
2. The More Clothes You Have, the Worse Your Decisions Become
What do Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Christopher Nolan and Barack Obama have in common? They all tend to wear the same outfits. It’s been noted that intelligent (and often financially successful) people share this habit.
The reason is called “decision fatigue”. Your brain will use as much effort to decide what to wear in the morning, as it does in deciding what to include in the marketing presentation.
And your brain gets tired like your body, so every decision you make contributes more fatigue. This is why being a taxi driver is exhausting, even if all they do is sit in the car all day. A taxi driver has to make hundreds of decisions every hour, such as whether to speed up, slow down, signal, turn left, etc. It can be just as tiring as baggage handling or construction.
By standardising clothes, you reserve all that brainpower for critical decisions. You also save time. Both of these qualities help to advance your career, and better your odds of earning more.
Image consultants also talk a lot about “personal branding”. This is when a celebrity picks a signature look, such as Steve Jobs’ black turtleneck. Dressing in a consistent manner gives you an iconic quality, something that professional presenters should consider.
3. The Way You Dress Makes or Breaks First Impressions
People only stop judging you by the way you dress after they’ve gotten to know you. When they first meet you however, they have no other standards by which to gauge you.
Psychology Today has two published studies, involving people’s reactions to a stranger in an off-the-rack suit, and a bespoke suit. Within three seconds, most people decided they were more favourably inclined toward the person in the bespoke suit.
Besides judging our professional competence based on how we dress, it was also discovered that the leeway narrows near the top. You can still be judged favourably in casual clothes if you are working the factory floor, for example, but a department manager in a Hawaiian shirt is not going to go down well.
The deals you are able to strike, and the promotions you are able to secure, come down to how you dress. A few bespoke suits are probably a worthwhile investment. And with the right credit card, you can earn air miles or rebates on those hefty prices.
4. Black Really is Better
Studies confirm that people who wear black are viewed as more intelligent. About 66 per cent of people surveyed (out of 1,000 people) associated black outfits with competence, confidence, and intellect.
Red was the next most confidence-inspiring colour.
It is not certain if this is an inherent quality, or if it was created by society. Decades of high-powered Wall Street traders and business directors wearing black may have created the association.
If you’re buying a suit and need to inspire confidence, black is the way to play it safe.
5. Designer Brands Have Mind-Control Powers
There’s a theory that you should hide designer logos because it’s too crass. That theory – as this study shows – is completely wrong.
Designer brands provide “costly signals” of wealth and social status. During the experiments in the study, a picture of a person in an expensive shirt had the brand Photoshopped out. The response to this person (in terms of confidence and trustworthiness) immediately dropped.
In fact, it was even discovered that a person wearing branded clothes was better at soliciting donations for charity. It’s a little odd that someone in a Luis Vuitton suit will get more donors than a homeless person in a tattered jacket, but that’s apparently how our prejudices work.
And during studies of video job interviews, survey respondents were inclined to pay the man in the designer outfit a nine per cent higher salary, as opposed to one in an unbranded outfit.
We’ve been taught not to judge a book by its cover, but that’s how the business world works. Best to get rid of the old prejudices against “vanity”, and start dressing right for the job. There’s a bit of good news though:
If you ever get so rich and successful that everyone knows you, you can stop worrying about the clothes. Warren Buffet can walk into the room in a t-shirt and boxers, and people would still take his advice seriously.
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By Ryan Ong
Ryan has been writing about finance for the last 10 years. He also has his fingers in a lot of other pies, having written for publications such as Men’s Health, Her World, Esquire, and Yahoo! Finance.