Dressing Up: The Hidden Leverage from What You Wear

From a peak in 1995, Tie sales have dwindled from $1.8 billion to a projected $650M in 2019. Casual work environments continue to cut into sales of suits, ties, and dress suits. The entire apparel category has seen its share of disposable income fall from ~6% to 3%. Dressing up has gone out of style.

At the same time, income growth for the average worker hasn’t moved in three decades. 30-year-olds of today are worst off than when their parents were 30. Could these two trends be intertwined? From interviews, negotiations, promotions, confidence, thought process, and testosterone levels, multiple research studies have concluded careers are directly affected by how well we dress. And recent trends in relaxed workplace attire haven’t helped the income anemic careers of millennials.

A recent study by economists at the Federal reserve found “Millennials are less well off than members of earlier generations when they were young, with lower earnings, fewer assets, and less wealth.” America’s impoverished generation. It’s not because of a lack of education. Millennials are the most educated generation in America. So if it’s not education causing lower income and wealth than previous generations, what’s the difference? Relaxed attire could be one of many different causes of depressed wages. According to a US study by Kelton Research which suggests “well-dressed men are viewed as sexier, smarter, more successful, and more well-liked – and even fare better in relationships.”

Neil Patel, owner of a digital marketing agency stepped up his effort to dress the part explaining that “Once I started dressing to impress, successful business owners started to flock to me when I attended networking events, and people listened when I spoke in business meetings.” His consulting fee jumped from $100 to over $1,000 per hour after investing $162,301.42 in better clothes. Patel estimates his investment earned him $692,500–earning a 326.68% ROI. Neil Patel isn’t alone in finding a strong financial incentive to dress better. You can earn at least 5 percent more than the other guy simply by looking sharp, according to a study in the American Economic Review, Men’s Health reports.

Financial & Career Benefits from Dressing Up

Famous studies from the 1960s show lab coats and prison guard uniforms influence perception of authority and expertise. Influence from authority involving business suits was highlighted by Robert Cialdini, the author of the best selling book Influence, “350% more people were willing to follow a man crossing the street against a red light and against the traffic (and, incidentally, against the law) when he wore a suit rather than casual clothes.” Given our brains trust sight more than all other senses, dressing in a suit creates a level of credibility that casual clothing doesn’t. Dressing in a way to match the level of both credibility and expertise allows others to view you with credibility without having to experience your expertise first hand.

In addition to credibility, dressing in a suit actually increases testosterone levels. Higher levels of testosterone mean less backing down. A study by Michael W Kraus Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at Yale University, “reveals that the simple act of wearing clothing considered to convey a high social status can increase dominance and job performance in high-stakes competitive tasks.” Another study echoes the link between dressing better and testosterone levels. Low-status sweat pants, in this study, decreased hormone levels, “testosterone levels in the low-status participants fell 20% from baseline measurement taken prior to the clothing change.”

Testosterone levels creating more dominant men wearing suits also helps win in negotiations. Researchers at Yale had participants conduct mock negotiations of buying and selling. Dressing low-status (sweat pants) earned significantly less than participants wearing suits. Those wearing a suit earned 208% more than the low-status dressed.  A suit earned participants $1.42 million more in the negotiation simulation. As co-author of the study explained to Business Insider, “poorly dressed participants would often defer to the suited ones, and these suited participants could sense this heightened respect, backing down less than they might have otherwise.”

Survey Says…Dress Better for Career Growth

And while all studies mentioned above set a standard for understanding the direct link between dressing better and the financial benefits, those studies still remain in a lab or research setting. Surveys aren’t. Surveys uncover the mind of managers. There are a number of surveys explaining how dressing better increases the chance of scoring the job after the interview, help earn promotions and gives you the self-confidence needed for leadership roles.

Even before promotions or leadership roles, landing a gig in the first place might hinge on style considerations. A survey of managers, 71 percent of hirers wouldn’t hire a person who missed the dress code memo.” Checking out Glassdoor, the company site, or asking someone you might know should clue you in for what the dress code should be.  

People who dress like the boss are more likely to be appointed and get promoted quicker.” And in another survey, “41% of employers said that they are more likely to give promotions to individuals who wear professional attire.” Both surveys prove clothing choices make an impact on career growth.

Research reported by HBR from Center for Work-Life Policy, a survey of 1,000+ people within large corporations. Responses to the survey show “37% of the men considered appearance and EP [executive presence] to be intrinsically linked; they understood that if you don’t look the part of a leader, you’re not likely to be given the role.” Summarizing the respondents, clothes create self-confidence. Self-confidence remains the trait survey participants considered “the bedrock of authentic leaders.”

Clothes Change How You Think

In addition to the financial benefits of dressing up. Clothes, based on a number of different studies, impact the way we think. From creativity, strategy, and higher-level thinking, formal wear changes our brain’s ability to process information. Two researchers Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University explained a study they conducted, “these individuals not only look more professional but subconsciously feel more professional.” Clothes, as the saying goes, make the man. 

“In another study, participants who dressed up were more likely to engage in abstract, big-picture thinking like a CEO, while those less well-dressed concerned themselves with minor details,” as reported by The Wall Street Journal.

On top of thinking like the CEO, formal wear, surprisingly also effects our ability to think creatively. Studies from Columbia and California State University show “people wearing formal clothing were able to think more creatively than their informally dressed counterparts.” Combining higher level executive function with creativity makes for a powerful ability to solve problems and get paid more to do so.

Dating & Dressing Up

Three researchers from North East London Polytechnic created a study to measure the effects of clothing by asking individuals to help with an advertising survey. Experimenters wore two types of outfits, untidily or smartly to measure the difference between acceptance rates. When dressing better, experimenters found younger women agreed 98% more, older women agreed 73% more.

In another study in the Journal of Psychology, female participants were asked to view images of attractive male models in three different socioeconomic status outfits: low, medium, and high. Participants were asked to rate the attractiveness of each model. High socioeconomic status outfit “significantly affected women’s ratings of attractiveness.”

In a large study by the dating platform, Zoosk surveyed 6,646 of its members and analyzed over 34,579 profiles to see how dating and fashion are linked. 54% females say bad style is a deal-breaker. On top of that 94% agree dressing up for the first date is a must. Finally, scoring a date is easier with “people who say they like dressing up are especially popular while online dating—they can get up to 135% more incoming messages.”

Undies: Invisible Performance Boost

Could underwear lead to stronger performance at work? On two fronts, research seems to show increased performance from both lucky underwear and good underwear increasing feeling confident. Putting thought into the base layer adds a hidden performance boost. 

A New York Times article highlights the gains seen from lucky thong underwear, “Jason Giambi (the former Yankee and current Colorado Rockies first baseman) has said that he slips on a pair of “lucky” thong underwear when his batting average falls. The thong’s reputation is so potent that slumping teammates reportedly beg to borrow it.” Research makes the case for getting a pair of lucky underwear. Students in the study were given a ball and told either the ball was lucky or was the ball everyone else used. Students given the lucky ball sank significantly more putts than those without.

Authors of the study explained to the New York Times, “Activating a good-luck superstition leads to improved performance by boosting people’s belief in their ability to master a task.” More precisely, they added, “the present findings suggest that it may have been the well-balanced combination of existing talent, hard training and good luck-underwear that made Michael Jordan perform as well as he did.”

In a survey of women, 47% said the right pair made them feel more confident. While a similar survey hasn’t been replicated for men, a different survey from Tommy Johns showed 40% of men have a special pair. Get a pair of lucky underwear to hit work even harder. Check out Marcus Sherman for a list of the best underwear for men.


UK-based psychology professors David A. Ellis and Rob Jenkins looked to study watch wearers and different personality traits compared to non-watch wearers. Using the big five personality traits, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness to experience. The researchers “discovered that watch-wearers had significantly higher levels of conscientiousness than non-watch wearers.” Conscientiousness is the personality trait strongly linked with financial earning power. Other studies, unsurprisingly, show “that professionals who wear wristwatches arrive significantly earlier than counterparts who don’t wear any.” Showing up–on time–is half the battle. Marcus Sherman has a list of best watches for men.

Where to Start

Suits. Go custom with Indochino. Suit prices have significant differences based on brand name. Even all the research behind wearing a suit, going bespoke could help even more. Research of 274 participants measured confidence, success, trustworthiness, salary, and flexibility for men wearing an off the rack vs bespoke suit. The bespoke suited man was rated more positively across almost all attributes. Indochino will create a made-to-measure, bespoke suit for ~$300 and will ship in 3-4 weeks after the fitting. Custom made dress shirts from Indochino are an even better deal at ~$70-80. Go custom, it’s worth it. Marcus Sherman has a list of best suits for men.

Watches. Look to Filippo Loreti. This watch company makes $1,000 watches directly to the consumer for less than $500. Starting on Kickstarter, the company raised $926,620–the most crowdfunded watch company ever. Business Insider Picks team’s review of Filippo Loreti shows how good these affordable luxury watches are, “Filippo Loreti’s watches include premium craftsmanship in an array of elegant designs to appeal to all kinds of watch lovers. The prices range from $219 for a minimalistic watch to $459 for an automatic watch — all priced well under what luxury watches typically go for.”