I believe that “you dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” Personal branding has been an increasingly popular topic over the past couple of years. We are encouraged to be aware of how we are marketing ourselves through our communication efforts, web presence, and physical appearance – and how these factors can help dictate future success.
The physical appearance factor has been controversial in student affairs as we debate the importance of professionalism and personal branding verses creating a more inviting and less intimidating environment for our student population. Where do I stand? Well, I wear conservative suits and professional dresses to the office. Every day. Believe it or not, I enjoy dressing professionally for work. I am more confident in a tailored suit than in casual clothing and I feel that I’m treated with more respect and taken more seriously by others. I have found this to be true in both work and personal situations. For better or worse, people have treated me differently when I’m dressed better – aka the “Pretty Woman” effect. If you haven’t seen the 1990 film “Pretty Woman”, move it to the top of your Netflix cue, and then call me to schedule a date to also see “The Breakfast Club”, “Sixteen Candles”, and “Splash” and catch up on some serious movie awesomeness.
So, I like to dress professionally. But I have been increasingly curious about the other side of the argument. What would it be like if I came to work dressed down for a change? Would I be able to relate to students better? Could I still feel confident and would I be treated with respect by peers if I was wearing… dare I say… Jeans? Like many others across the country, our department allows staff to dress casually on Fridays. Many of my peers enjoy dressing down as the weekend nears – and I decided to see what it was all about. I got approval from my supervisor after I explained my idea to test the personal branding theory about physical appearance – and started to prepare myself for the upcoming Friday.
The Day I Wore Jeans To Work I have never taken this much time getting ready for work in the morning. I agonized over which shirt to wear. I tried on seven different pairs of shoes. Can I wear pearls with jeans? Hair up or down? It was a mess.
Eventually, I settled on a university polo shirt and loafers. This was as casual as I could get without being incredibly uncomfortable. And speaking of uncomfortable – jeans are not comfortable. At least mine aren’t. My jeans are hot and heavy and are a stark contrast from the light and soft business clothes that I’m normally wearing. Despite this, I made my way to work deciding that I wasn’t going to let on that I felt very much out of my element.
People were very surprised. I decided to hand out donuts as an excuse to get out of my office and greet others to gauge their reactions. I’ve done this numerous times, so it wasn’t too much of an anomaly. The reactions were… interesting. Women in the office were incredibly friendly, and I even received the comment, “Good for you!” I was starting to think that maybe I’m more intimidating and less approachable in a suit – the exact opposite of what I want! I continued on my donut/good morning rounds —receiving a few positive comments from women along the way – but then again, I find that women are more likely to comment on physical appearance then men. There were a couple of people that didn’t notice that there was anything different about me, which was also surprising. I was hoping this meant I was doing a good job of appearing comfortable in my new attire.
My day went on as usual. I completed some administrative tasks in my office, collaborated with my staff, and went to a couple of meetings. Peers were friendly and professional (I work at the best place in the world!) – but I couldn’t get over how uncomfortable I was. I felt incredibly awkward conversing with the Associate Vice President even though he was kind and supportive, as always.
This reminded me of another day I had come to work dressed a bit more casually. I had been plugging away at a big project the night before, and decided to opt for dress khakis and a button down dress shirt one particular Friday. Worst. Decision. Ever. I was still dressed appropriately in business casual attire, but was mortified when I realized that I had an upcoming afternoon event with the University President. He was welcoming and kind as always – but I felt like a slob. I’m standing in a group of powerful men in suits and felt like I didn’t belong. I hope to be one of these strong and confident leaders in suits one day – and this reinforced that I needed to always dress the part.
The biggest shocker was how students reacted to my attire: they didn’t. In my experience, students did not treat me differently or act any differently based on how I was dressed. Student staff were still respectful and appreciative for the donut break while they were diligently working away and students entering our office still smiled and went about their business as usual. I was given the opportunity to help a student that had some prospective roommate challenges. Granted, I had never met her before, but she acted the same as other students that I’ve helped when I was dressed professionally.
One of my favorite responsibilities is traveling with the university admissions team to help recruit outstanding accepted students. I love being able to answer their questions and find out how they feel about going off to college. I’m able to connect and build relationships with these prospective students – all in professional business attire. This led me to believe that as long as your communication is inviting and positive – students can connect with you despite what you’re wearing. And as a bonus, I find that the parents trust me more when I’m dressed professionally. Our customers come to us for help, and we need to execute a positive and trustworthy appearance at all times. Not only is our personal brand at stake, our departmental and university’s reputation relies on these positive customer interactions.
Overall, my office day in jeans was fine. I went to work, completed tasks, and went home safely. It was an interesting experience, but I don’t think I will be wearing jeans to the office again. I think more casual clothing can be worn, as long as you look polished and professional. So, wear what makes you comfortable and confident – for me, I’m going back to my business attire.
Connect with Amy on Twitter: @AmyLJorgensen