Costume designer Edith Head once said, "You can have anything you want in life if you dress for it." There are plenty of adages like this one floating about: dress for success; dress the part; dress for the job you want, not the job you have. And there’s a reason so many people have reflected on the power of one’s look to move mountains.
In fact, some studies have found that the level of professionalism or “grooming” a woman presents has a direct affect on her income. In one study in particular, the results were dramatic: Regardless of how “physically attractive” interviewers rated study subjects, it was the women who were perceived as “well-groomed” who made the most money.
“Well-groomed women of any attractiveness level earn more than their less well-groomed counterparts,” Jaclyn S. Wong, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina, tells me. In other words, regardless of how a woman’s appearance is perceived in the world, if she is well dressed and put together, she’s likely to make more money than her more casual counterpart in the workplace.
Think of your coworker who always wears a blazer and a gold necklace in her Zoom square, hair freshly blown out, juxtaposed against the woman who opts for a baseball cap and a hoodie. Even if your work dress code skews casual, the perception of the first woman is that she’s serious about her job, and takes the time to reflect that stance before she fires up her laptop.
As Wong points out, she and her study co-author, Andrew M. Penner, speculate that “perhaps the amount of effort a person puts into his or her appearance signals how much effort he or she will put into other activities — like his or her job — and that is why we see greater labor market returns to grooming than to attractiveness.”
Sali Christeson, CEO and founder of Argent, was actually moved to start her workwear company after reading Wong and Penner’s study. “This information was the final straw for me to launch Argent, because women’s abilities to show up and perform in the workplace should be amplified, not hindered, by their workwear,” she tells me.
Christeson was sick of showing up for work in clothing that may have looked professional, but didn’t feel comfy or reflect her personality. “The clothing we wear can have a huge impact on how we navigate the spaces we're in,” she says. “That's something that I've experienced personally when working in previous corporate roles: not feeling fully prepared or confident to do a task because I was wearing something that wasn't comfortable, truly functional, nor did it feel like me.”
But what even is “groomed”? Like many things, grooming is a construct. “What counts as ‘professional-looking’ is socially constructed,” Wong says. “In American society, wearing a suit, maintaining a particular hairstyle, and doing one’s makeup in a particular way signals that a person is ‘acting professional.’”
What’s more, even if you work in a liberal environment, it’s likely that gender norms still prevail. “Workplaces are gendered spaces,” Wong says. “The meanings we ascribe to gender, including what men and women ‘should’ be like, are reinforced in workplaces in everyday interactions and via systematic allocation of resources across gender lines.”
This all boils down to control and — you guessed it — the patriarchy. “When workplaces reward grooming in women, they are reproducing what it means to be a woman in our society: objects that are nice to look at,” Wong says. “By pairing rewards with particular actions, workplaces can control people’s behavior. Our society is especially interested in controlling women’s behavior because it is built on patriarchal domination.”
Christeson found that there were a whole lot more options for men looking for, say, a suit, than women. And she, too, holds the patriarchy responsible. “The underlying issues — a dearth of professional clothing options as well as the ensuing judgment of what women wear and thus bring home financially — are linked to sexism,” she says.
As both a woman creating clothes for other women and a woman dressing for work, Christeson acknowledges that “professional-looking can mean many different things, depending on the kind of work you're in or whether you’re fully in-office or hybrid.” But the suit continues to be the gold standard.
“Drawing from personal experience and having spent years speaking with career-driven women, a tailored jacket and trousers remain the corporate standard and represent strength and power,” she says.
Jennifer Zuccarini, founder of lingerie and clothing company Fleur du Mal, agrees with this line of thinking. At the helm of a brand and in an authoritative role, though she doesn’t think any one look fits all, she can’t deny the power of a good suit. “I don’t think you necessarily have to wear a suit, but it is a great look,” she says. “There's an air of authority about a great suit that I think we all recognize. It’s really more about looking polished and put together that goes a long way.”
On that note, I took a black suit from Argent for a spin to see if I was treated any differently in professional — and personal — settings. I work remotely, but even in my lil’ Zoom compartment, my look was noticed by my coworkers. I also noticed that I held myself differently: Because I was wearing a suit, I knew I looked professional. My normal look skews casual — and though I wear a lot of dresses, they’re usually of the Dôen or similar variety: feminine, floral.
Meeting a friend for dinner in Williamsburg, I felt a little overdressed, but also saw people noticing me. Even if the visibility was curiosity — why is she wearing a suit, where does she work? — there was still a marked difference in my perception of others’ perception of me. Again, this could have been at least partly inward: Because I knew I looked profesh, I held my spine a little straighter. Whatever the case may be, I recommend wearing a suit to dinner for absolutely no reason.
And the same is true for the workplace, even if your role doesn’t call for it. “I think you should always dress for the role you aspire to have,” Zuccarini says. “When you look the part, people believe it. I absolutely think it makes a difference with how serious someone takes you and how you are perceived.”
Of course, all of this is in the eye of the beholder. “The concept of 'looking professional' is subjective, and women have been historically held to sexist and racist standards,” Christeson says. “While dressing professionally could mean something different for everyone, showing up in clothing that communicates you feel confident and competent to do the task at hand is of value.”
Like Christeson, Zuccarini notes that the concept of dressing professionally is perceived differently depending on where you work. “‘Professional’ is a very subjective term,” Zuccarini says. “In fashion, for example, having great style might be more important than looking professional, depending on how corporate the environment is.”
Ramesh Nair, creative director of luxury brand Joseph Duclos, tells me something similar. “Grooming and dress codes depend on the profession in which one works, there is no single standard for this,” he says. “When we come to a corporate environment, if someone presents well — grooming, hygiene, scent — she tends to be noticed positively and is therefore likely to be better paid, and be promoted more regularly.”
He also pointed out that cultures put different premiums on different aspects of grooming. “Olfaction is a primal sense, very closely linked to memory and emotion, and perfumes do play a role in our perception of people,” he says. “A Proustian reaction to scent could and does play a role in how we perceive someone, affect our mood, and impact our social judgment and behavior.”
What might count as a positive in one environment might count against you in another. “Some cultures, like Japan, value subtle, delicate fragrances or no added fragrances at all, while certain other cultures tend to favor stronger scents that are more present,” he says.
No matter who or where you are, it’s worth setting that alarm 10 minutes earlier in the morning for a little more attention to one’s toilette, as the French say. “Being attractive and looking professional is definitely an advantage for women — and men — in terms of job prospects and earning potential,” Zuccarini says. “Looking the part will get you further faster.”
Though in some ways the findings that such a premium is put on grooming are dismaying, in others they’re a bit heartening. No matter what you look like when you roll out of bed, Wong and Penner point out in their study, grooming seems to be the great equalizer in the workplace. As they put it: “These findings are also consistent with Naomi Wolf’s argument that “the beauty myth is always actually prescribing behavior and not appearance.”
You can participate or you can opt out, but either way, if you work in a professional setting, those who appear a certain way will likely be recognized for it in one way or another. “Grooming signals individual women’s participation in this system of domination,” Wong says. “Women can be rewarded for playing by these gender rules, and women who stray from what’s considered acceptable presentation can expect to see those rewards withheld.”
Of course, it all depends on what you do — and how you want to convey yourself. You can dress the part or choose your own adventure. The important takeaway is that there really is something to dressing for the job you want, not the job you have.