The other morning, I saw a woman at a coffee shop…dressed in pajamas. Later, I saw people at the grocery store…dressed in workout clothes. That night, I saw a woman go into a nice restaurant for dinner…dressed in yoga pants.
Yes, I get that relaxed clothes are comfortable. Yes, I get that “most people” dress down these days.
But here’s the part of the equation everyone seems to have forgotten, the part that got lost back in the 1990’s when “Casual Friday” quickly gave way to “Casual Everyday” and people stopped bothering to dress: they forfeited the power of clothes.
The colors that command attention. The fabrics that convey gravitas. The styles that demand respect.
They threw it all away for expandable waistlines and no-iron clothes…right along with their status and credibility.
That’s what I was thinking the other day as I stood in line at the pharmacy. There were a dozen people there of varying incomes, yet they all dressed exactly the same: sloppily. The only discernible difference between them was their grooming and accessories.
My, how far we’ve fallen.
Here’s what the upper and middle classes called casual back in the 1930’s:
Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in
It Happened One Night (1934)
Here’s what it looked like in the 1950’s:
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz
I Love Lucy (1955)
By the 1980’s, standards had started to slip, but casual still meant pulled-together:
The cast of Full House (1989)
That’s how the upper and middle classes dressed for most of the last century.
But the lower class was distinctly different – few trends, poor fit, durable fabrics. They couldn’t afford to keep up with fashion, so this is how they dressed in the late 1980’s:
The cast of Rosanne (1989)
Look at the difference between the Tanners and the Conners. The difference in income is obvious because expensive, fashionable clothes have been a hallmark of status and wealth for millennia.
Now compare the Conners’ clothes to any group of people you encounter today.
See what happened?
By “dressing down” – by putting comfort first – in a single generation, most people now dress like they’re lower middle class in cheap, poorly-fitting clothes. Even the people who have money. Or advanced degrees. Or who travel the world.
They dress exactly the same as everyone else.
And they don’t even realize it.
Which means they clearly don’t understand just HOW MUCH it’s costing them to put comfort first.
So what’s the impact?
Human resource professionals say that 95% of people dress incorrectly for their jobs, and “business casual” is the biggest reason why. When you focus on the “casual” and completely ignore the “business” part of it, when you’re more concerned about “what you can get away with” than dressing appropriately for your position, people notice. Particularly managers. Not knowing how to dress correctly is one of the biggest reasons people aren’t hired or promoted.
When you wear clothes that command respect – like dark colors, firm fabrics, and strong details – you tend to get it. Which is why world leaders, the clergy, and the military all wear those elements. When you wear clothes that are sloppy or non-descript? Not so much. How can you be totally awesome if there’s nothing awe-inspiring about how you look?
If you say you’re an accountant but dress like the receptionist, people will question your skill set. If you say you’re the music teacher but dress like a linebacker, your students won’t pay attention. In fact, if you say you’re anything but don’t dress like it, people will assume you don’t know what you’re doing and won’t give you the time of day. Because if you don’t even know how to dress for your own job, then clearly, you’re not top tier.
As politically incorrect as it is to say so, it’s no coincidence that obesity rates skyrocketed once sloppy clothes became the norm. When you don’t have to deal with binding jackets and cutting waistlines, a few extra pounds here and there aren’t really noticeable…until suddenly one day you notice that you can’t bend over to tie your shoes or climb the stairs without getting winded. Overweight means “poor health” to most employers; combine that with the old “fat and lazy” stigma, and you’ve got tens of millions of overweight people who aren’t getting the jobs, promotions, or incomes for which they’re qualified, simply because of their weight.
5. Self Esteem
All four of the previous factors contribute to poor self esteem. When people ignore you or treat you like a second class citizen, you begin to feel that way. I know, because I’ve been there – and it’s not pleasant. People are meaner to you; they expect more and give less. They step in front of you. They’re rude. They make you feel even worse about yourself.
But when you’re the beautifully dressed “golden child?” When they regard your skills with awe? MUCH better. They treat you like royalty and overlook your mistakes. They give you “first dibs.” They vie for your attention. The difference is literally night and day.
And that, in a nutshell, is the biggest cost of dressing down: settling.
Because when you put comfort before all else – when you lower your standards – then you have to settle for what comfort gives you. Which isn’t much, unfortunately. Not the best jobs or the highest incomes. Not the attention and respect you deserve. NOT the first class life. You have settle for second best…or less.
Because nobody ever changed the world sitting in their comfort zone.
You have to go outside it.
Just ask anyone who’s built a first class life.
A-listers aren’t sloppy. They can’t afford to be. They have to work hard to stay at the top of their game, and they’re not going to throw it all away by dressing like a slob.
There’s a video of David Beckham making three perfect soccer shots while fooling around between takes on a Pepsi commercial. He doesn’t hem and haw, he just does it – much to the delight of the camera crew. Notice how his version of “casual attire” includes firm fabrics and a collar. He’s awe-inspiring from head to toe.
How many hours has he spent on the soccer field? How many times has he kicked a soccer ball? How many times did he stay late – long after everyone else had gone home – perfecting that shot?
Researchers say that it takes a 1,000 hours to become proficient at something and 5,000 hours to master it. So David Beckham mastered soccer, and then became an international superstar because of his good looks and sartorial savvy. He didn’t say, “I’m a great soccer play, hire me.” No, he played soccer at the very highest levels, and then continued to dazzle off the field to the point where potential employers came to him – including soccer teams, fashion designers, and dozens of other companies who wanted to be associated with him.
So…how many hours have you spent honing your craft? Are you a master? Are you among the best in the world?
If so, do you dress like it?
Or have you settled for a second-class life because you prefer comfortable clothes?
If so, don’t.
Don’t become a casualty of our “dressing down” society. Don’t allow an expandable waistline to kill your hopes and dreams. Don’t settle.
Step outside your comfort zone, dress better, and see what happens. I think you’ll be delightfully surprised.
Diana Pemberton is an image consultant and author of Signature Style Blueprint, an ecourse that shows women to create a signature style that turns heads, makes them unforgettable, yet still gets them out of the door in a matter of minutes every day.