The Clothes Make the Man …Or Do They?


I took my two daughters to Oregon Ballet Theater’s performance of The Nutcracker earlier this month. We dressed up in fancy clothes, had brunch at an upscale restaurant, then headed to the auditorium for their first ever professional show. (They loved the whole experience.) After, we drove straight to our local community center. My oldest daughter didn’t want to miss her final swimming lesson of the season. 

In the parking lot, my younger daughter took my hand and whispered, “I feel kinda weird coming here in a fancy dress.”

I admit, I did, too. We would soon be surrounded by people in workout clothes and swimsuits, dripping sweat and pool water, and there I was in a long, black evening dress and 4-inch glittery stilettos. But I said, “We do look a little different than everyone else, don’t we? But you have a good reason for wearing your fancy dress. And it’s a wonderful one! You stand up straight and tall. It’s okay that your clothes are different. Own it.”

Do you know that feeling? Have you ever felt out of place because of your clothes? Whether you’re overdressed or underdressed or just differently dressed, it’s easy to feel self-conscious about what you wear.

We tend to overidentify with our clothes. On the positive side, clothing can provide a confidence boost when you need it. A friend told me about a woman who would put on her real pearl necklace anytime she had a difficult conversation coming up at work. It helped remind her of her personal power.

For me, I have often turned to heels to give me that boost. Maybe it’s because they make me a little taller, but I feel strong and capable in them. Once, I was facing a clogged kitchen sink disposer full of nasty water. My husband was stuck at the office and it was too late to call a plumber. I pulled everything out from under the sink to unscrew the pipes myself. But as I stared them, envisioning the disgusting water I’d be unleashing, my courage began to fail. So, I grabbed a pair of heels. I stood up to my full height (plus a few inches) and felt brave enough to tackle the mess.

So, yes. If you’re headed into a situation where you need a boost of confidence, by all means dress accordingly. Your clothing is part of your nonverbal message. If you need to be taken seriously, let your attire contribute to that image. Your clothes don’t only send a message to others—amazingly, how you dress can affect the way you think, feel, and even process information. Researchers call the influence clothing has on the wearer’s psyche “enclothed cognition.How you dress doesn’t just affect the way others perceive you; it can affect the way you see yourself.

While I obviously believe these studies and know from personal experience that this is true, I have to warn you: Don’t let clothing become a crutch.

The behavior you exhibit when you’re wearing “power clothes” is YOUR behavior. You put it on the way you put on the clothes. It belongs to you, it came from you, and you own it. Perhaps you can access that behavior more easily when you’re in a suit or trench coat or tall boots, but it still is YOU. It is valid. It is genuine. It is real.

Don’t let your identity or sense of personal power be reliant on something external like clothes! Getting a confidence boost from what you’re wearing is a place to start. It’s a mind trick that gets you on the right path. Eventually, though, you need to recognize that it’s not the clothes that make you worth paying attention to, it’s who and what you are.

Establish your sense of self and power in something deeper, something that doesn’t change, something that is always available: you, yourself, your values, your character, your personality, your vision, your significance. And act accordingly.

Clothes certainly affect your nonverbal persona. By all means, dress in a way that enhances how you want to come across. But there will be times when you are NOT dressed appropriately through no fault of your own. At those times, you need to be able to handle the situation without feeling self-conscious about how you look. In fact, if you can convey composure and confidence in spite of your out-of-place attire, your credibility skyrockets.

One time, I was halfway through a coaching session when I realized I’d neglected to put on my makeup that morning. I don’t need makeup to “look good,” but I consider it part of my professional dress code. I felt half naked! Of course, I didn’t call attention to it. I conducted the coaching session as normal. Another time, I met an acquaintance for a networking lunch. As soon as I walked into the restaurant, I realized I was terribly underdressed. Instead of allowing myself to feel embarrassed or intimidated, I ratcheted up my power and authority nonverbals. It was no problem at all.

My favorite example of demonstrating credibility in spite of one’s attire is when my friend Sari de la Motte came out on stage during the 2013 Power of Presence workshop wearing a giant inflatable frog headdress. Confidence comes from within.

How you dress definitely sends a nonverbal message and you need to take that into account. Dress appropriately. And if you want or need to use your clothing to give yourself a boost, take advantage of its ability to do that. But how you carry yourself, present yourself, and demonstrate respect toward yourself override anything you’re wearing. Your clothes are one tiny sliver of what makes up your presence. Let them be a tool in your favor, not a crutch to lean on.

When my daughters and I reached the double doors of the community center the other night, we walked in the same way we always do. We didn’t flaunt our fancy clothes, nor were we embarrassed by them. And because we carried ourselves as if all was normal, people treated us like normal. No one smirked. No one gawked. No one rolled their eyes. We nonverbally communicated, “It’s not a big deal.” And it wasn’t.

Consider all aspects of your nonverbal communication, including your clothes. If it’s in your power to do so, make them work for you. Yet always remember that the clothes do NOT make the man. Or woman. You don’t need any prop to be credible, powerful, and worthy. You already are.

Change your communication, change your life.

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