Clothing, Power, and the Workplace

Margaret Rucker, Elizabeth Anderson and April Kangas

Book chapter

DOI: 10.2752/9781847887221/AANDPOWER0007
Pages: 59–78

From the 1950s through the 1980s, discussions of clothing and power in the workplace were commonly based on observations that White men most often held the superordinate positions in the world of work (refer to McCracken, 1985; McLeod & Damhorst, 1996). As noted by McCracken, men at work were supposed to be serious, reliable and disciplined. As a reflection of these attributes, clothing at work was supposed to be plain, dark and tailored. White men who wished to climb the corporate ladder were advised to wear somber formal attire to work; all others who wished to be assimilated into the executive hierarchy were urged to conform to this code and acquire a wardrobe of power suits (McLeod & Damhorst, 1996; Molloy, 1975; 1977; Solomon & Douglas, 1985).

Several factors have made dressing for success in the 1990s more complicated than it has been in previous decades. One is the increase in diversity of the workforce. A comparison of 1980 and 1990 census data indicates that White employees in the U.S. workforce have declined from 88 to 83 per cent while there has been a concomitant rise in the percentage of employees in other ethnic groups (Bureau of the Census, 1980; Bureau of the Census, 1990. This shift has implications for power systems and power symbols. As Hofstede (1983, 1984) has reported, preferred distance or difference between levels of power is one major dimension along which cultures may be distinguished from one another. Some societies elect to maximize distinctions among different levels of power or socio-economic status whereas others choose to minimize the differences. The way a culture or subculture deals with differences in power is apt to be reflected in attitude toward business-dress norms.

A shift in corporate dress codes in the direction of casual dress has also made constructing a powerful image complex. According to Maycumber (1998), research sponsored by Levi Strauss & Company showed a substantial rise in the percentage of U.S. white-collar workers who reported being able to wear casual clothes to work every day in recent years. The figure was 33 per cent in 1995 and 53 per cent in 1997, an increase of 20 per cent. When business-dress codes call for relatively informal dressing, either at the end of the week or all week long, the suit can no longer be depended upon as the basis for constructing a powerful image.

The intent of the present chapter is twofold. One is to provide a historical perspective on clothing and power in the workplace by reviewing previous literature in some detail. The other is to present new data on views of work clothing power and career advancement in the 1990s, with a focus on effects of minority status and relatively casual work environments.

Clothing in the workplace

For a number of years, researchers have been asking questions about the role of clothing in the workplace (e.g., Form & Stone, 1955; Joseph & Alex, 1972). The majority of these questions fall into two general categories – what attitudes and practices are affected by differences in clothing and what characteristics or dimensions of clothing are responsible for these effects.

An early example of a focus on the social significance of occupational dress is the work of Form and Stone (1955). These researchers investigated how men in different occupational categories felt about clothing – how important they thought clothing was (a) in their current position and (b) for upward occupational mobility. Their research and subsequent studies of the importance of ‘appropriate’ or ‘proper’ occupational attire (Johnson & Roach-Higgins, 1987; Kwon, 1994a 1994b; Kwon & Farber, 1992) indicated that such attire generally had a positive impact on overall assessments of potential and current employees as well as on ratings of individual traits. Furthermore, the benefits of appropriate occupational attire with respect to making favorable impressions on others were widely acknowledged, at least for white collar and managerial positions. In contrast, as Form and Stone noted, while appropriate clothing was also considered important for blue-collar workers, concerns here centered on durability of the clothing and whether it enhanced work performance.

Other researchers have gone beyond global assessments of appropriate attire to ask what dimensions of dress are most salient vis-à-vis the business image and what characteristics of the clothing make an outfit appropriate or effective in a given work environment. Most of these investigators have focused on female employees, with the assumption that dress codes for male employees were already well known whereas dress codes for women were not (e.g., Solomon & Douglas, 1985).

Given the focus on female employees and associated concerns about helping women succeed in male-dominated work environments, it is not surprising to find that the majority of the studies compared apparel and grooming attributes associated with masculine roles with those associated with feminine roles. As outlined in previous literature on gender roles (e.g., Gottdiener, 1977; McCracken, 1985; Roberts, 1977; Workman & Johnson, 1993), these distinctions included dresses versus suits, light versus dark colors, and soft curved versus sharp angular lines.

When researchers compared relatively masculine appearances with relatively feminine appearances, results have tended to support the proposition by Solomon and Douglas (1985) that to succeed in a traditionally maledominated environment, women should adopt male props or symbols. They should not, however, abandon evidence of femininity to the point of gender norm violation. For example, in a series of studies by Forsythe and her colleagues (Forsythe, 1988; Forsythe, Drake & Cox, 1984, 1985; Forsythe, Drake & Hogan, 1985), outfits evaluated as moderately masculine were best at conveying images of being forceful, self-reliant, dynamic, aggressive, and decisive as well as eliciting the most favorable hiring recommendations. In only one of the studies by Forsythe (1990) did an extremely masculine outfit receive ratings that were as positive as the moderately masculine outfit.

Reports by other investigators also indicated that male symbols such as dark or cool colors, jackets and an overall plain, tailored appearance tend to garner higher ratings on work-related scales, although some differences by sex of the respondent were found (Cash, 1985; Damhorst & Reed, 1986; Scherbaum & Shepherd, 1987). While Scherbaum and Shepherd found no significant effect for sex of respondent, Damhorst and Reed as well as Cash found male respondents to have more consistently positive responses than did female respondents to masculine appearance cues. Again, however, research by Johnson, Crutsinger, and Workman (1994) indicated that women should be careful to avoid extremely masculine appearances. They compared the effects of a necktie, a scarf, and an open-collared blouse and found that subjects rated a woman in the scarf as more likely to be promoted than the same woman wearing either a necktie or an open-collared blouse. Furthermore, it should be noted that variations around traditional male business dress symbols, at least in terms of colors and design details, appear to have become more acceptable in the 1990s than in previous decades as women have moved into responsible positions in the business world and as norms for dress in general have been challenged, resulting in an increased number of choices for every occasion (Damhorst & Fiore, 1993; Kimle & Damhorst, 1997). For example, Damhorst and Fiore found that when personnel interviewers evaluated 100 color photographs of women's skirted suits, many different collar styles, garment materials, and garment colors were reported to be acceptable.

In related work that specifically addressed de-emphasizing sexuality through layering and minimizing skin exposure (Dillon, 1980; Rucker, Taber & Harrison, 1981), it was found that covering up the female form tends to be viewed positively in assessments of business dress. As Kimle and Damhorst (1997) reported finding in their interviews with businesswomen, skin exposure and body-hugging garments often are associated with sexiness, and projecting sexiness in a work environment is apt to be viewed as a major faux pas. Interviews conducted by Gottdiener (1977) supported the proposition that working women can benefit from de-emphasizing femininity and sexuality. For example, a female photographer reported wearing man-tailored clothes in order to be taken seriously and a model noted that when she wore Western wear to a job, the mannish appearance attracted less unwanted attention from men on the street.

As noted by Kimle and Damhorst (1997), another important dimension of a woman's business image is an innovative versus conservative appearance. A few investigators have explicitly considered innovative fashion details or trendy clothing versus conservatively-styled apparel in relation to images of women in the work environment. Data from both business people judging women's dress and the women themselves showed a negative relationship between innovative styles and projection of a professional image (Douglas & Solomon, 1983; Kimle & Damhorst, 1997; Thurston, Lennon & Clayton, 1990). As Kimle and Damhorst noted, an unchanging image tends to convey a sense of stability, which is highly valued in most business environments. In another study that examined the relationship between women's attire on the job and their actual career advancement (Gorden, Tengler & Infante, 1982), conservative dress was found to have a positive association with a number of promotions. However, Kimle and Damhorst caution against ignoring fashion altogether; going to this extreme could convey insensitivity to changes in the general cultural milieu and a lack of social savvy.

Conformity versus creativity is another dimension of business attire that has received some attention in the literature. Kimle and Damhorst (1997) found that expressing creativity through artful arranging of clothing and accessories was important to the women in their sample, although they were aware of the danger of taking creativity to the point of eccentricity. In contrast, the African American men in the study by McLeod and Damhorst (1996) felt comfortable with a relatively high level of occupational dress conformity, viewing it as important for successful job-role performance.

Powerful-weak is not mentioned by Kimle and Damhorst (1997) as a separate dimension of business dress although they do allude to its importance in their discourse on attractiveness. In fact, there are very few empirical works on business dress in which power is specifically mentioned.[3] One exception is the study by Damhorst and Reed (1986) in which color was considered in relation to power. In this study, male subjects were found to rate models in dark jackets as more powerful than models in light jackets.

A book by Rubinstein (1995) combines both empirical and theoretical work from a variety of different sources with her own observations to suggest ways in which clothing signs can facilitate exercising authority and wielding power. In chapters entitled ‘The Image of Power’ and ‘The Image of Authority’ she cites the work of Joseph and Alex (1972) on various functions of uniforms. Then she adds what are apparently her own views about rights reflected by various elements of appearance such as the right to enforce policy, the right to interfere with ongoing action, the right to control access, and the right to exercise force. Historical data starting with ancient Mesopotamia and Imperial Rome are presented to suggest that indicators of wealth such as gold, jewels, and layers of expensive fabric have traditionally been associated with higher levels of both power and authority.

In addition to academic works, there are a number of books and articles in the popular press that deal with power in the workplace and offer proscriptions for creating a powerful image through dress (e.g., Book, 1996; Hayes, 1996; Korda, 1975; Molloy, 1975; Molloy, 1977). Unfortunately, these works provide little or no information on any empirical bases for their recommendations so that their usefulness is difficult to evaluate.

Even setting aside works in the popular press, though, it appears that there is a sizeable knowledge base regarding clothing in the workplace, including some information about clothing and power. However, much of the theory has assumed a predominantly White male power structure and much of the data has been drawn from predominantly White female samples. Furthermore, most of the data were collected before the dramatic changes in business dress codes that have been occurring in the 1990s. As corporate dress codes have shifted to include casual styles and the workforce has become ethnically diverse, it is important to reconsider elements of apparel as they relate to perceptions of power. Constructing a powerful appearance is apt to require different strategies when dress codes are relatively casual as compared to relatively formal. Regarding ethnic and cultural diversity, as noted earlier, Hofstede (1983; 1984) found that not all cultures have the same standards for the appropriate distance to maintain between levels of power. For example, people from the United States were found to prefer relatively small power differences whereas people from Mexico were found to prefer relatively large differences. Given this variation in preference for power distances, it was anticipated that ethnic groups might differ in their attitudes toward casual versus formal dress on the job and the importance of dressing to make a powerful impression as well as advance in their careers. Finally, the ‘dress-down dilemma’ may be more unsettling for men than for women since until recently the typical man has had relatively little experience in experimenting with dress codes.

This study was designed to determine the attitudes of working men and women from diverse ethnic backgrounds about business attire and power. It was also intended to explore how appearance was managed to create a powerful image under conditions of more and less formal business dress codes.


Respondents for this study were selected from staff directories of a local university. Data provided by campus administrators indicated that, based on self-identification information, the staff was ethnically diverse with 69 per cent White employees, 12 per cent Hispanic, 11 per cent Asian, 8 per cent Black and 1 per cent American Indian.[4] A systematic sampling method was used to select names of potential respondents. As explained by Babbie (1998), systematic sampling and simple random sampling produce virtually identical results and systematic sampling is an easier method to use. Samples were drawn from both the Hispanic Staff Association directory and the general staff directory to ensure that there would be sufficient diversity to permit meaningful comparisons across different ethnic groups. Hispanic staff employees were chosen as a comparison group because they were the largest ethnic minority on the campus and had an easily accessible staff association directory. Furthermore, although this ethnic group is increasing in size in the United States, its needs and preferences have been largely overlooked by consumer researchers (refer to Solomon, 1996).

The decision to conduct the study with university employees was based on the assumption that managerial, technical and clerical jobs are similar across institutions, so it should be possible to generalize the findings across work venues. Furthermore, it was thought that university employees would be relatively willing to participate in a research project, thus producing a satisfactory response rate. Of course, a limitation is that university work climates in general tend to be somewhat more casual than the work climates in the business sector. Nevertheless, our respondents seemed to have little difficulty relating to questions about dress-up versus dress-down situations.

A total of 118 employees were chosen for contact via telephone about participating in interviews. Of these, twenty-five were not reachable due to no longer holding an identifiable staff position on the campus. Of the ninety-three who were contacted, ninety agreed to be interviewed. In most cases, employees agreed to be interviewed in person where they worked and have the session taped. For the nine employees who were not able to schedule inperson interviews, telephone interviews were conducted and taped using the two-way recording feature of a digital telephone answering system.

The interview schedule developed for this project included items on the importance of appropriate work clothing for career advancement for university employees in general and for oneself in particular. Respondents were asked to provide ratings on seven-point scales ranging from very important (1) to very unimportant (7) and then provide reasons for the ratings. To compare perceptions of the need to emphasize power differences versus the need to minimize them, respondents were asked to rate how often it was important for them to dress to make a powerful impression and how often it was important for them to dress to mask or reduce differences between themselves and other employees. Five-point scales were used for these two items, with a range from never (1) to very often (5). To examine how the symbolic consumption of career clothing might be affected by shifting dress codes, respondents were asked to describe what they would wear in situations in which they needed to make a powerful impression. They were then asked to compare and contrast power outfits for dress-up days, when formal business clothing is expected, and dress-down days when casual, relaxed dressing is permitted. In addition to being interviewed about clothing for work, respondents filled out one page of demographic information. Demographic items included age, sex, level of schooling completed, number of years on the current job, and job level. A self-report item on ethnic identity was also included as the basis for classifying respondents into ethnic groups. The same questions were asked of all respondents and in the order indicated above.

Frequency distributions of the background information were used to characterize the sample. Two-way analyses of variance were used to test the ratings for significant differences between men and women, and between White and Hispanic employees. To analyze the qualitative data, transcripts of the interviews were read for themes that had been reported by previous authors as well as additional themes that emerged from the current data. This variation of ‘interpretive tacking’ (Geertz, 1983; Hirschman & Holbrook, 1992; Sherry, McGrath & Levy, 1995), or moving back and forth between models developed in other contexts and new data, was intended to highlight any ethnic and gender differences. It was also utilized to compare attitudes toward formal dress codes for work with attitudes toward casual dress codes.

Results and Discussion

Background Information

Analysis of the background information indicated that all but seven respondents self identified as either Hispanic or White. The seven who checked categories other than Hispanic or White were eliminated from subsequent analysis since there were not enough in the other categories for meaningful comparisons. The final sample consisted of 16 Hispanic men (HM), 23 Hispanic women (HW), 14 White men (WM) and 30 White women (WW). The age range of the final sample was from 25 to 66 with a median of 46. The sample was relatively well educated, with 82 per cent having at least some college and 40 per cent having completed college. About two-thirds of the sample had managerial positions with the rest about evenly divided between technical and clerical positions. Years in the current job ranged from 9 months to 33 years with a median of 10 years.

Clothing and Advancement

With respect to clothing being important for the advancement of employees in general, the analysis of variance indicated that neither the main effects for sex, ethnicity, or the interaction term were significant. For the ratings of importance of clothing for personal advancement, however, there was a significant main effect for ethnicity, F(1,78) = 12.65, p < .001. On average, the Hispanic respondents rated clothing as more important (M = 2.48) than did the White respondents (M = 3.33).

Comments that helped explain the differences included references by Hispanic respondents to being a man or woman ‘of color’ and therefore having to be twice as good at everything. The comments were similar to some reported by McLeod and Damhorst (1996) in their study of African American male executives. In that sample, a number of the men reported feeling that they were judged more critically than White employees and therefore had to pay attention to their appearance.

A comparison of responses to the general question with responses to the personal question indicated that respondents saw clothing as more important for advancement of employees collectively (M = 2.39) than for their own advancement (M = 3.01). A repeated measures analysis of variance indicated that this difference was significant, F(1,78) = 6.79, p < .05. Several factors seemed to account for this effect. One was the phenomenon noted previously that when people were asked about occupational attire in general, its importance was widely acknowledged. Sentiments expressed in response to the item about employees in general included the point that people who looked like they did not care about their appearance probably did not care about their job responsibilities either. Also, appropriate clothing showed respect for one's position and one's co-workers. As a respondent expressed it:

I think it [being dressed up for work] shows that you pay attention to detail or delivering a good package like the services that you provide. If you are all sloppy then I feel that people will think that the service you provide is kind of sloppy, too. (HW)

Another factor that appeared to elevate the general ratings was a tendency for respondents to answer this question in terms of one particular place where dress is relatively formal, the campus administration building. There was no evidence of an opposing effect. That is, no respondent mentioned consideration of locations in which dress was especially casual when they discussed campus employees as a group and the importance of appropriate attire.

Contributing to the discrepancy between ratings for employees in general and ratings for self were several common themes that seemed to result in lower importance ratings when respondents were questioned about their own personal situations. Most of the themes could be classified under the headings of either job activities or job life cycle.

Both men and women commented on how certain job activities, or lack of those activities, led to less concern with power dressing. One activity was interaction with students. Some comments illustrating the impact of this activity on work attire are as follows:

Probably not that important, closer to unimportant. Maybe because the kinds of positions that I have advanced in are more student orientated positions, working with students. Casual attire is acceptable. (WW)

Counselors have to be presentable but non-threatening, so I wear non-bureaucrat casual. (HM)

In contrast, both male and female employees acknowledged that appropriate dress became relatively important when dealing with customers outside the department or the general public, or when representing the department at a meeting with employees from other units. When their jobs did not involve much contact with outside audiences, employees tended to downgrade the importance of their work attire.

When the job requirements included a good deal of physical labor, working in a dirty environment, or both, importance ratings were sometimes low but not always. Consistent with the findings of Form and Stone (1955) some men in technical or blue collar positions saw appropriate clothing as very important because of its relationship to work performance. As one male employee explained:

I have to be comfortable for one thing in my physical world. Also, it is kind of rugged work around farm equipment and that sort of thing, so they have to be durable. (WM)

Comments about having advanced as far as possible or desirable, and getting close to retirement were counted as job life cycle themes. Only women mentioned impending retirement as a factor in their dressing for work, in spite of the fact that age distributions for the two sexes were similar and therefore there should be little difference in time to retirement. Furthermore, the women indicated that not wanting to struggle with the components of female career apparel seemed to be the main issue leading to downplaying power dressing upon approaching retirement. Comments included:

I don't care now because I am nearing retirement and I dress to be very comfortable now. (WW)

I choose to be comfortable. As I have gotten older, nylons, high heels, skirts, and all that stuff just hangs me up. My boss told me that I was the best dressed [job title] on campus, but that is no longer the case and that is why. (WW)

It should be noted that even when retirement was not an immediate consideration, some women were willing to risk advancement for the sake of comfort. As one respondent explained:

I work pretty much non-stop from the time I get to work until I go home, and I do not want to be uncomfortable. I don't want to have to think about these panty hose are pinching me or these pants are too tight or these shoes are uncomfortable. (WW)

On the other hand, themes of not seeing opportunities for advancement or being content in the current position were found only among the Hispanic respondents. Again, however, the two respondents who associated advancement with the need to wear less comfortable clothing were women. They discussed their feelings as follows:

I'm content where I'm at. I like to be comfortable. I don't care to wear heels and struggle. (HW)

[At] this point in my career, I am really winding down. There is no place for me to go, so I am enjoying myself! (HW)

While the majority of respondents answered the advancement questions in terms of external factors such as requirements of the job or impressions of supervisors and clients, a few spoke of the internal psychological effects of one's appearance at work. These psychological effects were thought to influence performance, which in turn affected advancement. For example, the disenchantment of some women with power dressing was balanced by the positive feelings that others expressed regarding the sense of personal competence and empowerment that can come with the knowledge that one is well dressed. Some examples of statements about these feelings are as follows:

It has made me feel better so that I feel like I am more competent. Whether it is just a psychological thing or not, I'm not sure. But if I feel like I look nice, I feel better about myself. I do a better job. (HW)

It makes me feel better, and I just work better. If I feel good about what I am wearing and how I look … [it] has an effect. I don't know – if I am wrinkly and yucky, I'm going to feel wrinkly and yucky. (HW)

It makes you feel better and when you feel more professional, you act more professional. (WW)

A few of the male respondents also remarked on the psychological comfort that can be derived from being well dressed for the job. Furthermore, they also believed that feeling good was apt to be reflected in better job performance.

Clothing and Power

Dressing for power and dressing to fit in Analysis of ratings regarding dressing to make a powerful impression showed a significant main effect for ethnicity, F(1,78) = 4.04, p < .05. The Hispanic respondents reported needing to dress to make a powerful impression on average between ‘sometimes’ and ‘fairly often’ (M = 3.34) whereas the White respondents’ average fell between ‘sometimes’ and ‘rarely’ (M = 2.84). Similarly, the only significant effect for dressing to fit in was the main effect for ethnicity, F(1,78) = 6.55, p < .05. Again, Hispanic respondents more often found it important to dress to fit in (M = 2.39) compared to the White respondents (M = 1.61). It appears from these findings that the Hispanic employees may be sensitive to power distances and the use of clothing to de-emphasize as well as emphasize such distances.

Personal powerful impressions There was a high level of agreement among the male respondents regarding the style of attire that should be selected to make a powerful impression. The classic men's business uniform of a suit and tie, or at least a sports jacket and slacks was mentioned by about two-thirds of the men as the type of clothing they would wear to make a powerful impression. Furthermore, there was unanimous agreement that the suit should be dark whereas the sports coat could be light and still be part of a powerful image.

This finding is consistent with the contention by Solomon and Douglas (1985) among others that there is an established dress code for the male executive, with more or less flexibility depending on the type of unit in which he works. In this study, there seemed to be more agreement about what a very formal power suit should look like than what a less formal power sports coat and slacks should look like. When even casual styles of dress were mentioned, there was generally an accompanying explanation for the deviation from the traditional view of an executive uniform or a power suit. These explanations included both physical activities and social interactions that made the wearing of a suit problematic. For example, one man's job required a high level of contact with farmers in the area. Therefore, he tended more toward the ‘Wrangler’ rather than the ‘Van Heusen’ look for a powerful image.

Accessories were rarely mentioned, although a few men did comment on the importance of dress (leather) shoes. Three men added a belt to their descriptions and one spoke of cuff links as a power accessory.

Almost three-fourths of the female respondents also mentioned a suit or blazer with a dress or skirt as the style they chose when desiring to project a power image. They were far from unanimous, however, regarding what constituted powerful colors. Some women felt that neutrals such as black, navy blue or taupe were the best choices whereas others opted for brights such as red and royal blue. A few women were explicit and specific about not wanting to look like a male clone. As one woman commented:

I don't think in terms of a business suit that looks like a man. There are certain colors that I like to wear, and they are … fuchsia, royal blue, or red, purple, teal. I am not into being in the navy and brown and dark colors that look like a man. (WW)

These findings are consistent with those of Damhorst and Fiore (1993), that is, variety in the color of women's business attire is more acceptable in the 1990s than it was in the 1980s.

For women, accessories were frequently mentioned as an important part of a powerful image. Jewelry was the accessory described most often, with an emphasis on simple items made of expensive materials. This is consistent with the observation of Rubinstein (1995) that display of expensive materials such as gold, diamonds, and pearls on the body has been a traditional signal of power and authority.

Shoes were discussed by over half of the female respondents, with general agreement that one should not wear flat heels if one wants to command attention. Although heels of at least an inch or more were touted as an essential part of power dressing for women, five of the women stated they themselves would not wear pumps out of concern for the effects on their feet. As one woman exclaimed, ‘heels hurt!'

Adding a scarf to complete a power look was mentioned by only four of the female respondents. The lack of appreciation for this accessory was somewhat surprising given the association with promotability reported by Johnson et al., (1994). However, as one of the respondents implied, adding a scarf to a woman's outfit is not as simple as adding a tie to a man's outfit. There is one basic formula for adjusting a tie and most men master the technique through repeated practice in their teens. With scarves, there are a greater number of aesthetically pleasing and acceptable arrangements on the body but there are also a greater number of unpleasant possibilities. Consequently, a woman is apt to feel she does not have the knowledge or the time to use a scarf to her best advantage. It requires less time and effort to slip on a necklace or clip on a pin.

Formal and casual symbols of power When asked to describe a typical ‘power outfit’ for dress-up conditions versus dress-down conditions, our respondents had little difficulty with the dress-up condition. Most repeated the comments they made when asked the general question about what they wore to make a powerful impression.

Generating power symbols for dress-down conditions was another matter. Almost 20 per cent of the sample could not connect power with casual. They made comments such as the following:

I have no idea. I can't even imagine what that would be. (WM)

I can't think of a dress-down [power] outfit. (WW)

There wouldn't be one. (WW)

I don't care for dress down. Jeans are for housecleaning! (HW)

Contrary to expectations based on previous literature regarding women's affinity for manipulating aesthetic codes (Kimle & Damhorst, 1997; McCracken, 1985; Solomon & Douglas, 1985), the percentage of women who could not describe a dress-down power outfit was approximately equal to the percentage of men who could not envision such an outfit. Instead, the differences fell along ethnic lines. The White respondents were appreciably resistant or incapable of imaging a dress-down power outfit. One possible explanation for this difference could be that, as Aaker and Dean (1993) have observed, minorities have had to be sensitive to all kinds of social cues in order to get along and advance in a White-dominated social system. Therefore, they might have additional cues to draw on in creating casual images of power. This proposition would not, however, explain why women could not envision such images.

Figure 3.1

Image not included in this online edition due to copyright restrictions.

A female respondent demonstrates clothing she would wear to make a powerful impression when formal attire is appropriate. Here she is shown in a black wool suit with simple gold jewelry, softened with a pale blue sweater.

Figure 3.2

Image not included in this online edition due to copyright restrictions.

The same respondent constructs a powerful image for days when office norms call for casual dress. In this case, she has added a jacket in a powerful color (red) and her simple gold jewelry to a casual black sweater and jeans.

Among those respondents who could propose a dress-down image, the strategy seemed to be to take formal power cues and reinterpret them in a casual situation. For example, dark colors were frequently mentioned, especially black slacks or jeans. Some respondents added that wearing a belt with the slacks would enhance the image. Reliance on well-known brands and casual styles in relatively expensive materials such as silk, linen, and leather, suggested an appreciation of the connection between indicators of wealth and power as described by Rubinstein (1995). Several respondents commented on appropriate shoes for the dress-down outfit – loafers and boots, but not sandals that exposed too much skin. The comments about boots, either as part of a Western ensemble or as a separate item, were reminiscent of the report by Gottdiener (1977) that Western wear seems to convey masculine power. Adding a jacket to an otherwise casual outfit was another popular strategy for creating a power look.

There were also some interesting idiosyncratic comments that were consistent with previous writings on dress codes and power. For example, one female respondent described using a vest rather than a jacket to add a second layer to a blouse and thereby enhance the power of a casual outfit. A male respondent talked about his keys, tape measure, and beeper as power symbols. For this person, keys seemed to represent the right to control access as described by Rubinstein (1995). As he stated it:

carry a tape measure around and look important. Not that you'd even use it but [carry] your beeper, your set of keys jingling on your side. Then the students know, ‘Ah, somebody's here, they got a lot of keys.’ (HM)


This study offers support for the observation made by McLeod and Damhorst (1996) in their study of African American male executives that clothing symbols are especially potent for members of ethnic minorities as they use them to fit in and move up in the established power structure. In the present study, Hispanic employees rated clothing as significantly more important for personal advancement than did their White counterparts. In addition, they saw the need to dress to make a powerful impression significantly more often than White employees.

Previous studies on gender role requirements have brought to light a number of problems experienced by women trying to construct an effective business image, including conflicts between looking feminine and looking professional (e.g., Kaiser, Schutz & Chandler, 1987; Kimle & Damhorst, 1997). The present study contributes to that literature by demonstrating that both looking feminine and looking professional may conflict with the need to be comfortable, especially among older women. Our respondents expressed this point repeatedly and forcefully, finding fault with restrictive skirts, panty hose that pinched, heels that hurt and ‘all that stuff [that] just hangs me up.’

Finally, the study provides a sense of how employees are dealing with the changing dress codes at work. As is often the case with change, there seemed to be a mix of resistance and creative renegotiations of clothing symbolism; responses ranged from an enthusiastic acceptance of the casual look, including jeans, to the heartfelt complaint that ‘jeans are for housecleaning!'

Clothing, Power, and the Workplace

[1] The authors would like to express their appreciation to staff from the local university who contributed their time to this research project.

[2] The authors would like to express their appreciation to staff from the local university who contributed their time to this research project.

[3] The meta-analysis of impression formation studies by Damhorst (1990) suggests that consideration of ‘power’ is fairly common in dress research in general. However, her power category is more inclusive than the meaning of power in the present study, that is, the ability to influence others at work.

[4] These designations were selected for this study based on their common usage on university forms and reports at the time data were being collected.


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