Why do the powerful prefer to look obviously different than the rest of us?
Power symbols — those accessories that indicate status and authority — do vary according to the context. A number of years ago at a Presidential Inauguration it was striking to see that Republicans and Democrats clearly had preferred outerwear, but the wool dress coats and cowboy hats of the one party were just as expensive as the down parkas and accessories of the other. Equal in price, quality, and impressiveness but different in look and definitely different than the rest of the crowd standing in the streets for the ceremonies.
Today, questions like “are tiaras the new power scrunchies?” show up in the New York Times. In that particular article, the jeweled/metallic headband/tiara is a confidence booster that female executives are embracing in some circles. The idea that people of power have always worn a symbol of that power on their head is as old as time. Queens wear crowns, and when the women wear their versions of the crown they feel powerful.
Symbols Need To Have Context
The challenge in any career is to understand the way the corporate culture thinks. A status symbol can be an investment tool, but only if you are communicating effectively to those around you. Part of that communication is the confidence it gives to be wearing the status symbol, and part of the communication is the message the symbol itself sends.
As the wearable tech trends come available there will definitely be some new players in the status symbol arena. Smartwatches will join the smartphones and luxury watches already being sported in the C-level suites. But like all symbols, the context is everything.
When you are selecting your wardrobe and accessories for an interview or for the workplace, make sure your status symbols are appropriate for the context. You want to look different and powerful, not just different.
People judge on appearances. It would be nice if they did not, but the reality is that they do. That’s why the way your resume looks on the page is an important factor of resume writing. It’s one thing we look for when asked to critique a resume. You could have all the facts written accurately and still be rejected because the reader is looking for something you are blind to.
A recent blog post about the logic of stupid poor people is popping up in different areas of the internet. Author Tressie M Cottom makes some valid points about the reasons someone would spend a lot of money on an item of clothing or an accessory, and it isn’t to feel good – it is to make themselves acceptable and “gain access to a limited set of rewards granted upon group membership.” In many cases, this goal is a job that will improve their lives and the lives of their family. She says it isn’t that poor people are stupid. Rather, it is that they are blind to the nuances in wardrobe selection signalling you fit into the club. To get in, you have to be acceptable to the gatekeeper and, in the case of a job, that gatekeeper is the interviewer.
Ms. Cottom cites instances where jobs were granted based on wardrobe choices. She also has sat in on interviews where a candidate was rejected for attire deemed “unsuitable” for the position. It seems arbitrary to reject someone based on a shirt, but the well-qualified job applicant did not know what the interviewing VP’s idea of “suitable” was. Just like a resume can have all the right stuff without the best presentation, you can be a good fit for a job and miss the chance to prove it because you didn’t research the unwritten clothing code in that particular workplace.
How do you discover this unwritten clothing code and find out which status symbol might be a good investment? Find out as much as you can about the company and management. Look at their website and the pictures of their staff. Talk to people who work there. What does management wear? Which labels? What styles? Unless this is a very casual company, go business formal, conservative, and expensive. You don’t have to actually spend the money for full price (look for bargains and consignment shops), but your interview outfit should be the best in your wardrobe.
You are trying to figure out the things that will impress. Shallow, maybe, but if a silk tie with your suit or a designer bag will signal you can fit into their club and get that job, it is an investment.