Why real professionals wear suits

Monday, December 14, 2009

Photo Property of Gieves and Hawkes

I recently read about a study where two groups of FBI agents were given the task of rescuing some hostages from a building. They were unaware of the other group, all they knew was that they had a certain amount of time to come up with a plan. The only difference between the two groups was that one was issued combat trousers, polo shirts, body armour and baseball caps. The other group was told to wear a suit and tie. The first group came back with a plan that involved arming up and quickly storming the hostages location, with a view to taking out the hostile targets as rapidly as possible. The second group, on the other hand, returned with a plan for careful negotiations to determine the demands of the hostage-takers, along with key facts such as how many hostiles there were, how many hostages, the exact locations of them, and so on.

I don't know exactly what this tells you about FBI agents, and I certainly don't intend to pass judgement on which approach is better. I think what it does tell us though, is that what you're wearing plays a bigger role in how you act than you might neccesarily be aware of. One of my arguments for maintaining the 'outdated' uniform of my old school is that being forced to dress that formally contributes in some way to the behaviour and work ethic of pupils. It's by no means the only factor, but I am convinced it plays a part, and it is why I am dubious of schools that increasingly go down the polo-shirts and sweatshirts route.

In the grown-up world, the argument can equally be applied. Many businesses, indeed probably most outside of the city, have moved away from the strict dress code of suits and ties five days a week. In my own industry, most people in the office dress no more smartly than they would at home and, even when visiting clients, a suit is rare and a tie unheard-of.

Does this matter? Do our clothes influence how we are seen and how we act? It's hard to say, of course, and there's little evidence either way. Many in my office might argue that as a creative company, we are better off in casual clothes, but it's hard to see how wearing the same thing we would wear in front of the TV, or to the pub, can possibly make anyone more creative. On the other hand, it does seems much more possible that wearing a suit makes people look more professional and hardworking, feel more professional and hardworking and (hopefully) act more professional and hardworking.