I Academy of Management Executive, 1997 Vol, 11 No, 4

Do clothes really make the woman? The use of attire to enhance work performance
Sherry E. Sullivan, Bowling Green University Research Translation It has long been assumed that how we dress at work influences our promotional opportunities and rate of success. During the 1970s and 80s, books such as John Molloy's Dress for Success climbed the best-seller list. These dress for success books were clothing bibles for job seekers and fast trackers alike. For professional women especially, these guidelines seemed to readily provide a means for gaining credibility and status in male-dominated work environments. Although many books have provided guidance on how to dress for success, relatively little attention has been given to how and why women choose the clothing they wear to work. How do women use attire to enhance their work performance? How is appropriate work attire determined? How much effort is expended in dressing for work? These are some of the questions Anat Rafaeli, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with Jane Dutton, of the University of Michigan, Celia V. Harquail, of the University of Virginia, and Stephanie Mackie-Lewis, of the University of Michigan, wanted to understand about women's choices of work attire. Rafaeli and her colleagues conducted in-depth interviews with twenty women who were administrative staffers at a midwestern university's school of business administration. They also made detailed observations about the women's appearance, the appearance of co-workers, the women's work stations, and the women's attire at special events, including workshops and the dean's annual luncheon. Rafaeli and her colleagues found three major themes in their research. First, the women chose their attire to match their organizational level, function, task, and special events of a particular day. Their knowledge of appropriate dress was based on norms rather than written organizational policies. One woman described how norms and job levels influenced work attire by saying, "The other two people in my position who sit out front here, we all pretty much dress similarly—a bit more casual but not quite business attire. The three [administrative] counselors always dress in suits and that's just because they are more or less at the supervisory level." Women in lower organizational levels, or who had limited interaction with external clients, such as business executives, chose more casual clothing. The women knew that others— supervisors, co-workers, clients—had expectations of the appropriate dress for job positions, and they dressed to meet these expectations. Additionally, many comments described how the women adjusted their work attire for special events ("I had a big meeting today. That's why I'm dressed up.") Second, women chose attire to help them perform their organizational roles. The women used dress to assume the role of employee and shed nonwork roles such as parent or volunteer. One woman explained, "I have my work clothes and my

") Third. Harquail and Stephanie Mackie-Lewis. . . my God. The moment I get home I have to change into my home clothes. it would show off a woman's figure too much and be too distracting. 40. One woman explained. Celia V. like sweats. Source: Anat Rafaeli.Sullivan home clothes." Academy of Management Journal. It was too casual. the women expended considerable time and energy in shopping for appropriate clothing and planning what to wear to work. Some used dress to illustrate their status in the organization ("I want my dress to signal that I am someone with authority. while others used dress to build rapport ("[I dress so that] the impression I give to somebody who didn't know me is that . Sometimes the women did make mistakes and took corrective action. And frankly. 1997. 91 . I actually decided that I should go home and change. I'm going to care about them and they can trust me to do something for them. . Oh. I'm going to have to go around all day sitting at my desk with this terrific stain on the front of my blouse. They feared reprimands from their supervisors if they wore clothes that were considered unprofessional or too feminine. I feel so much better. 9-45. and people tell me how nice I look. ." Many of the women's comments illustrated how they used dress to be emotionally comfortable and confident in their current position ("If I'm wearing something new. like I can go out and do it!") Women also used dress to relate successfully with others.") The women's comments illustrate the emotional costs associated with dressing appropriately for work and may explain why workers enjoy "dress-down days" at work. However. "I came in wearing a particular jumpsuit . Jane Dutton." The women expressed great anxiety about wearing inappropriate clothing or experiencing a mishap ("That's my biggest fear. "Navigating by attire: The use of dress by female administrative employees. occasionally relaxing dress codes may lead to even greater stress for employees because they must learn new definitions of appropriate work attire. so that my 'no' is a 'no!'").

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