Dress for success

“Dress for success” is the modern equivalent of “clothes maketh the man”—that is, it articulates the belief that what you wear matters in everyday life. However, in its modern guise, this is a discourse specifically on business dress that proclaims the importance of sartorial presentation in the workplace. Dress for success became popular during the mid-1970s and 1980s in the United States and Europe, but the principles that underpin it stem back much further. The idea that one can dress for success is closely aligned to the more general notion of “impression management,” the origins of which go back to the work of sociologist Erving Goffman and his dramaturgical metaphor (the idea that the social world functions like a stage and we, its social actors, are performers). Goffman’s work on “the presentation of self in everyday life” demonstrates how mundane features of body management are essential to the ongoing maintenance of a person’s identity: Specifically, how our body looks and behaves is often the basis of how others read and judge us (1971). While Goffman’s work was concerned with describing social order and interaction, his ideas were popularized outside sociology and have since achieved wide social application. Today “impression management” has become part of mainstream popular psychology and management and business studies, with dress for success a central plank of both. For evidence of the cultural significance of dress for success, one needs look no further than the huge market for books and services offering advice on how to dress effectively at work. Alongside popular “self-help” books, there is a huge industry in “image consultancy” offering all manner of “expert” advice on body presentation, from color analysis to wardrobe and shopping services. More recently, alongside such money-making ventures have sprung not-for-profit, dress-for-success shops offering services to the unemployed.

The Dress-for-Success Manual

The exposition of the “rules” of business dress are laid down in dress manuals, such as the now-classic John T. Molloy’s two manuals, Dress for Success (first published in the United States in 1975) and Women: Dress for Success (published in the United States in 1979). These manuals describe his formula for “successful” dressing. What Molloy calls his “wardrobe engineering” is a (pseudo) “science of clothing” based on quantitative “testing” of the different meanings individuals give to individual garments. What kind of dress did Molloy find was the most “effective” at conveying “one means business”? The dress found to “succeed” is conservative, tailored, and always “smart.” However, the way in which men and women should dress for the world of work differs. For men, this means black and gray suits, teamed with not-too-daring ties, and smart, polished shoes. However, while the traditional trousered suit works for men, it does not work for women. Indeed, by the very fact of his writing two manuals on work dress, Molloy points to the way in which dress at work is gendered, both reflecting and reproducing sexual difference. While both manuals have the same goal—the acquisition of status and power at work—men and women must attain it by different means, according to Molloy, and for a woman this means managing her sexuality. While an aspiring professional man need only worry about his dress (which suit to wear and in which color, which briefcase to carry, and so on), his female counterpart must also worry about her body, since her body is sexualized in a way that the male body is not.

The public world of work is a world that demands a clear separation from the erotic, and thus, women’s potentially sexual bodies must be covered appropriately. Women, Molloy argues, have to dress for “authority” since their social position, as women, puts them at some disadvantage compared with men at work. The wearing of tailored clothing, namely a smart jacket with tailored knee-high skirt is, according to Molloy, the most “effective” dress. It would seem, therefore, that while suggestive clothes must be avoided, women should aim to look “feminine” at all costs: the wearing of a skirt and the deployment of decorative items, a necktie, brooch, or other accessory, help to soften the severity of the suit. Indeed, Molloy warns career women against trying to “ape” men and claims that his 1980 manual was, in part, a response to those women who had been adopting the garb he had outlined in his first manual. His second stated reason is captured by his story of how, in the mid-1970s, when meeting three businesswomen in a bar, he was unable to spot them. The businesswoman was literally not “visible” as such and was, according to Molloy, in need of a “uniform” that could be relied upon to connote the appropriate status.

The “uniform” that he subsequently helped inaugurate became known as the “power suit” and was a major phenomenon of the 1980s, defining a style of female professional dress that has now become something of a sartorial cliché: tailored skirt suit with shoulder pads, in gray, blue, or navy, accessorized with “token female garb such as bows and discreet jewelry” (Armstrong 1993: 278). These dress-for-success rules arose against the historical backdrop of the women’s movement into more prestigious forms of paid employment and addressed the increasing problem of how to rise on the career ladder and break the so-called “glass ceiling.” Note that in maintaining the suited torso, the tailored jacket and fitted skirt aimed to separate this female worker from her secretarial counterparts. Power dressing articulated the “career woman” and in doing so gave visible evidence of a new relationship of women to work that had once been the preserve of men (Entwistle 1997, 2001).

That fact that the “power suit” became a major fashion story for women in the 1980s is beside the point for “experts” such as Molloy. The aim of dress for success was to devise techniques that eliminate fashion from the daily process of dressing. The dress-for-success discourse is, in fact, an oblique and sometimes open critique of the fashion system. By virtue of its incessant momentum, fashion keeps the range of choices open, choices left to individuals who run the risk of making the “wrong” one. As individuals come to feel that more is at stake in how they look, especially at work, such a universe of choice is a problem. As a pseudoscience of clothing strategies, dress-for-success formulas, such as Molloy’s “wardrobe engineering,” offer clearly established guidelines to circumnavigate this precarious world of choice and provide a stable basis upon which to base decisions as to what to wear to work.

Historical Precursors

As it is primarily a “self-help” manual, the modern dress manual sets out to mold and shape the self, calling upon readers to think about themselves and act upon them-selves in particular ways. Molloy’s manual can therefore be examined as a “technology of the self,” to draw on Foucault’s concept (1988). “Technologies of the self permit individuals to effect …. a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct and way of being so as to transform themselves” (Foucault 1988, p. 18). In this way, dress-for-success strategies encourage particular ways of thinking and acting upon the self, producing the individual as a “reflexive subject” (Giddens 1991); that is, a person who thinks about and calculates body and self, in this case, developing skills and techniques for dressing and presenting the self as a committed career-minded person. The idea that one’s dress conveys something of the “self” and that, specifically, one can dress for success at work may seem almost “common sense” today. However, these ideas have arisen out of particular historical circumstances and beliefs about the body and its relationship to personal identity. These are closely related to the emergence of particular forms of modern individualism.

One can trace the circumstances that gave rise to discourses on dress and appearance as far back as the eighteenth century, to the emphasis placed on the “self-made man” under conditions of industrial capitalism and the rise of Romanticism. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries heralded an era of upward mobility: the new capitalist classes were achieving status and power through their own efforts, not through privileges of the old aristocracy. Individuals could, in other words, rise through the social hierarchy by virtue of their own efforts. This idea of the “enterprising” self reached its apotheosis with the ascendancy of neo-liberalism in the 1970s and 1980s under Reaganomics and Thatcherism; in other words, around the same time as dress-for-success ideas took hold. However, in the history of our modern self, another discourse at variance with capitalism is also important, namely Romanticism, and it underpins the idea of dress for success. Romantic poets, painters, and writers emphasized the idea of the “authentic” self and suggested that one’s outward appearance unproblematically reflects the inner self. While up until the eighteenth century public life had allowed a distance between outward appearance and inner self—a clear separation between public and private—under conditions of modern life, according to Richard Sennett (1977), one’s public appearance has to be a “true” reflection of the self. This Romantic notion of authenticity has become attached to the public sphere and is the dominant theme permeating discourse on the self at work, suggesting that how you look, from the first day of your job interview, signals your identity and commitment as a worker. Thus, in contemporary society, our bodies are bearers of status and distinction, as the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1984) has described in detail. This makes the body, its dress and manners, matters of great import in terms of the “envelope” of the self. As Joanne Finkelstein (1991) notes, increasingly over the nineteenth century appearance comes to stand as an important indicator of inner character and she suggests that the eighteenth-century socialite and “dandy” Beau Brummel exemplifies the wider social movement toward the self-styled or “fashioned” individual, concerned with promoting the self through the careful deployment of clothing. Finkelstein also analyzes the emergence of various “physiognomic” discourses over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Such discourses link outward appearance, from the shape of the face and overall body to dress, to inner “self.” She points to how, in America over the course of the nineteenth century, there was a movement toward individual self-promotion through dress: “for upwardly mobile young men how they looked was important not only as a means of business advancement, but also as a measure of self-esteem” (Branner, in Finkel-stein 1991, p. 114).

Important to the heightening self-consciousness of body and its outward appearance, and introducing the idea of dress for success, was the dress manual. It is important to note that such manuals are not, therefore, a recent phenomenon and can be seen as closely aligned with other kinds of “self-help” publications which have a longer history (Hilkey 1997). In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as in the first half of the twentieth, one can find manuals on “how to dress like a lady” and how to put together a lady’s wardrobe on a modest budget. What is different about the manuals on dress that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s was the type of self they addressed and the kind of success sought. A number of commentators (Giddens 1991; Featherstone 1991; Lasch 1979; Sennett 1977) have argued that a new type of self has emerged in the twentieth century and an examination of the dress manual can be seen to indicate this. Featherstone calls this new self “the performing self” which “places greater emphasis upon appearance, display, and the management of impressions” (Featherstone 1991, p. 187) while Lasch (1979) calls it the “narcissistic self.” Featherstone (1991) argues that a comparison of self-help manuals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries provides an insight into the development of this new self and conveys the movement from notions of “character” to “personality.” In the earlier self-help manual the self is discussed in terms of character values and virtues—thrift, temperance, self-discipline, and so on—and dress is discussed in terms of such things as thrift and “ladylike” decorum. In the twentieth century we find how “personality” in the self-help manual depends upon how one appears as opposed to what one is or should become; how, for example, to look and be “magnetic” and “charm” others. In this way, appearance comes to be something malleable, something transmutable. The increasing significance of appearance from the eighteenth century onward meant that people began to be concerned with the control of appearance and clothing. Contemporary Western societies testify to the intensification of these processes with more and more aspects of outward appearance “correctable” through diet, exercise, makeup, and plastic surgery, as well as dress, and with these appearances increasingly linked to identity. All these physiognomic discourses proclaim the notion that achieving the “right” outward appearance will result in greater personal happiness and, of course, success.


It may well seem that the dress-for-success formulas of the 1980s have long since been replaced by more “individuality” and “creativity” in clothing. Indeed, the backlash to all these rules came in the 1990s with “dress down on Friday” introduced in offices both in the United States and United Kingdom. While we may like to think we are “individual” and while dress choice is welcomed by some, the business and professional worlds remain conservative places, even today. Indeed, there has been a swing away from casual Fridays after some offices found that employees dressed far too casually to perform their duties effectively. Meeting a client in jeans or shorts is still taboo in most professions. Only in the “creative industries” are fashion and individuality openly welcomed, indeed, here one finds them essential. The body at work has to fit in with the overall business ethos of the office or sector. In young industries, like popular music, advertising and graphic design, for example, informality rules. However, older professions and industries still prefer the bodies at work to look suitable—that is, in a suit. The dress-for-success idea lives on and a lucrative industry of self-help advice and “experts” maintain the notion that what we wear to work really matters in our overall career “success.


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