When I was in high school, we had a history teacher who had long stringy hair and the voice of a 60-a-day smoker. She gave the appearance of having lived two or three times over in her fortysomething years; the rumour was that her desk drawers were full of empty vodka bottles. But don’t ask me what I learned in her class, because I’ve no idea (and I liked history) — everything that happened there was much less interesting than my teacher’s unconventional manner and appearance. The mind loves to cling to distinctive things.
I think a lot about my visual appearance in the classroom because I am vain because I know from first-hand experience that physical appearance can overpower the message. And it’s worse when your audience doesn’t know you, because then they make stuff up about you; the mind loves a good mystery. Stories are sticky and actively putting a story together helps you remember it better later on, so it’s no wonder that people remember more about the (imagined) life of the speaker than they do about the actual content.
Businesspeople have known about this gig for centuries, which is why they mostly dress smartly but anonymously: level the sartorial playing field, and the message comes to the fore. (Arguably, the same thing is going on in the army, the martial arts, and in schools that require a uniform, though I guess some of that is also about minimising the influence of status and personal identity.) If people’s dress-code is consistent, anonymous, then their sartorial message remains the same, day to day: I am a professional person and I subscribe to the values and/or directives of this organisation. (Of course, sometimes it’s fun to play on those assumptions.)
I am absolutely not telling others what to wear – that dubious privilege rests with my high school headmaster*. I’d just like people to think about it first; if you at least have some idea of the distractions facing your audience, you can decide which to eradicate and which to ignore — for instance, some days I get out of bed and I just want to wear orange. But I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that Steve Jobs, who appreciates the value of uncluttered presentation, rarely takes the podium without his trademark black turtleneck and jeans. Seth Godin, who makes a living teaching people how to sell their message, believes so hard in minimising irrelevant distractions that he has no hair ;-) When celebrities who are normally better known for their red-carpet attire get serious and start promoting charities or UN work, then out comes the suit. The distinction is clear: pay attention to my message today, not to my body or my outfit.
At the APS convention there was a neat poster about how dressing less formally made students rate lecturers as more approachable — but this effect diminished over time (presumably as students got to know the lecturer a bit more and stopped having to rely on quick and dirty attributions). So I guess the take-home message is: the less well you know your audience, the more you should consider the impact of what you’re wearing. Which is probably pretty intuitive anyway, but now there is data.
* My high school went through a patch of making all first- and second-years wear uniform, or something close to it; after we hit third year they more or less ceased to care, though I never did forgive the headmaster, who had a bit of a Mr Bronson thing going on, for not letting me wear my beloved fedora.