The Slippery Slovenly Slope: How Dressing for Success Went Downhill Fast

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

Photo by Spencer Davis on Unsplash

I used to “dress for success.” Really. I did. The tailored suits, designer labels, the whole bit. My style was classic and conservative with just enough stylish but not too trendy. It worked. Very well, in fact. Until … I slid down the slippery slope.

And there’s where I hit my rock bottom.

After several years of writing and working from my new home in Italy, I settled into a relaxed routine that I could live with and enjoy. Perhaps too relaxed.

Winters in Italy can be surprisingly crisp, and fuel prices are high, so we learned to dress in layers when lounging around the house. I often found myself dressed like some sort of mad peasant in a Dickens novel. Too conservative to throw old clothing out, I would often wear the most comfortable bits around the house, creating some (ahem) unique combinations.

Northern Italy is earthquake prone. Once, after a particularly strong tremor that cut our electricity, the regional firemen came out in the middle of the night to check on those of us in outlying areas. With fire truck spotlights flooding our street, we all clambered out in our night clothes while the firemen checked for gas leaks and structural damage.

Oblivious, I stumbled out my door into what I would later realize was an impromptu fashion show. In my candy cane striped yoga pants, Doc Marten boots, T-shirt provocatively proclaiming “Foxy Lady” in bold, gold, glitter encrusted letters, moth eaten wool cap, worn fingerless gloves, and ripped gardening coat to the whole enticing ensemble, I made quite a statement.

At the precise moment when the spotlights highlighted my glittery proclamation, my neighbor regally descended her front steps dressed in a dainty pink nightie with matching slippers, perfect hair and makeup, and a delicate mist of expensive perfume.

Other neighbors followed, matching the first in dress and comportment. Needless to say, I stuck out like a sore thumb—the unintentional avant-gardein this nocturnal runway walk. “Americana,” I heard one mumble, as if that explained everything.

At three in the morning, I stood there in all of my glory wondering how they managed to do it. And why…

Photo by BBH Singapore on Unsplash

What Psychology Says . . .

In a perfect world, we would all be judged by the proverbial “content of our character.” Alas, we do not live in such a world and we both judge and are judged by many things quite unrelated to our character—not the least of which is appearance and the clothing that contributes thereto.

In 1975 John T. Molloy published Dress for Success, his first in a series of bestselling pop-culture advice books detailing the effect of clothing choices on success in both one’s business and personal life. His writings popularized the concept of power dressing, which he deemed especially useful for women wanting to assert their authority in a male dominated environment.

In Molloy’s versions of the book geared toward women, he states, “Research shows that when a woman dresses poorly or inappropriately, it almost ensures failure.” Note that he does not explicitly detail to which research he is referring, nor what he meant exactly by “failure.” He does, however, spend the rest of the book explaining in great detail how not to dress poorly or inappropriately. He goes on to insist that it is “more important for short, heavy, voluptuous, very beautiful, and older women to dress well than for the average woman.” Clearly, Molloy and his rather blunt assertions are products of the not-so-politically-correct 80s and 90s.

While times and fashions have changed, the notion “Clothes make the man” (as first quoted by Mark Twain in More Maxims of Mark) is still relevant, and Molloy continues to offer fashion savvy advice—Americana style—in his current blog: Dress for Success the Blog.

Molloy’s pop psychology aside, there are more serious academic studies about the effects of clothing on psychological processes and the conceptualization of the self.

William James, the early philosopher and physician who is considered the father of American psychology, noted the psychological importance of clothing in many of his writings. His philosophy has been summarized as concluding: “serious development of the personality takes place at the closet door.” Various modern psychologists discuss the reciprocal relationship between the internal and external effect of clothing on judgments about the individual. Feminist psychologists, in particular, relate clothing to the objectification theory, whereby women internalize the judgments of others with regard to their physical selves.

A broader and more updated conceptualization of Molloy’s premises is encapsulated in the idea of impression management, which is basically a systematic, goal-directed process of self-presentation, of which the visual, via fashion choice, is only a portion, albeit a complex one. Fashion can be a powerful communicator, indicative of inclusion in a social group, status, wealth, social affluence or social mobility.

Molloy and followers comment almost exclusively about the American culture. While appearance, and its portrayal through clothing, is an important reflection of the self in all cultures to some extent, the specific cultural manifestations do differ.

Let’s take Italy, for example.

Ah … Bella Italia … the motherland of Gucci, Prada, Versace, Dolce & Gabbana … sigh. One almost need say no more. This is the land where the police uniforms are designed by Armani. Labels are not luxuries, they are the mainstay, the prerequisite of acceptable dress, the unspoken rule, the foundation of Italian good taste—la bella figura.

And what about France, or rather Paris, to be specific? Another icon in the realm of fashion. Like Italians, the French consider their fashion sense a matter of national pride, right up there with their exquisite cuisine. In a word, the French define chic. There’s even a category they refer to as sport chic, which roughly translated means casual, but not too casual, and comes with its own set of appropriate labels—Ami, Lacoste, Le Coq Sportif, Maison Kitsune, BWGH, Colette—not exactly the sweat suit genre. In short, the French go to a great deal of effort to look effortless, and they pull it all off with that characteristic je ne sais quoi. Actually, I think it might be genetic. We Americans might not stand a chance.

In any event, one of the many internet sites offering fashion advice to Americans travelling to Europe lists the following in its “Fashion Don’ts” category: No oversized T-shirts, especially not those with big flashy words or pictures on them.

I guess this means my Foxy Lady glitter t-shirt is relegated to the trash bin. Or maybe, the “only in America” pile.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

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