Suit or Jeans: Which Makes the Man?

by Teresa Basich on June 2, 2010

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It’s been way too long since I last put the virtual pen to paper over here, and I think my mini-hiatus is up because I’ve had a bit of inspiration (and I owe you guys anyway). Gini Dietrich — entrepreneur, businesswoman, and someone I greatly respect — ruffled a few feathers on her blog last week by claiming that people shouldn’t wear jeans for professional speaking gigs. Her argument is that in her profession — our profession, really, and that would be the digital/social media/social business one — people complain about not having a seat at the boardroom table, but dress as if they don’t deserve that seat.

My response to her was that attire is dictated by corporate culture, and it can appear to be a misrepresentation of your company if you’re presenting in a business suit when your organization has a casual culture (or vice versa). There’s also a certain intimidation factor that comes with business suits, and I think it’s important to be aware of those deeper emotional ties we all have to dress code.

Gini’s post got my mind spinning a bit, because I do believe in the clothes making the (wo)man, so to speak, but to what degree are we weighing someone’s appearance against their professional acumen and knowledge?

How do we define what a professional should look like anymore? Is wearing jeans taken to be disrespectful in a professional setting? Or does a bit of dressing down invite more conversation and connection? Is a company less successful because its corporate culture is more casual? And if the way I dress doesn’t affect your perception as to the value of the content I provide, where does the inappropriateness lie?

In that unreasonably long list of questions, I think there are two that really need hashing out: Is wearing jeans taken as a sign of disrespect in a business setting? And, if the way I dress doesn’t necessarily affect your perception of the value of the content I present, where does the inappropriateness of my jeans lie?

In a larger sense, what impressions are we trying to make these days by dressing “down” in the business world, and where does the value truly lie in dressing up? How shallow are we, and is that “shallowness” not that shallow after all?

Respect — Self and/or Otherwise

Gini and I took the conversation to Twitter and she asserted that her point was purely her opinion about the inappropriateness of jeans in the business world, not about clothes being a reflection of someone’s expertise or that jeans are a deal breaker for doing business.

My interpretation of the purity of her stance is that jeans are inappropriate because they demonstrate a casualness toward business and toward our professional colleagues and peers that could be seen as disrespectful, especially in a setting, like speaking, in which you’re acting as a teacher or mentor.

In another sense, dressing down could also be seen as a lack of self-respect, as if you don’t take yourself or your position within your organization seriously.

Defining “Appropriate”

If we toss the respect part of this equation out of the picture — if jeans aren’t a sign of disrespect — what defines appropriate business attire, then? Content, hopefully, is the real selling point of a presentation, and if that’s true, too, then we’re really stuck. What the hell is appropriate?

Historically speaking, white-collar business has always been a formal affair — suits, boardrooms, golf courses. But that tradition has also created a sense of exclusivity in business that makes people (executives, namely) appear inaccessible. The men in suits are the brain trust, and the rest of us are just the cogs that put their ideas into action. They ideate; we execute. There’s distinct a split there between business functions.

But with the shifts in our economy, the increasing openness of communication, the maturing of a younger generation that’s pushing the envelope of traditional business, and the push for hyper-connectivity all playing together, there are times the formality of old business almost feels inappropriate. As if tradition is standing in the way of progress.

What Are We Trying to Prove?

At the end of the day, what are we trying to prove by dressing up — or down? What impression are we trying to leave? And do we have real proof that the impression we want to leave is actually the impression people are taking home with them? I think we need to look at these questions from both sides.

In my world, the clothes make the initial impression of a man, but the work he does seals the deal. Sometimes the best gifts are wrapped in the plainest of paper. Does that mean a suit doesn’t help his cause? As is true with most things in life: It depends.

Lest you think an argument of this sort is overly superficial, there are much bigger sociological implications and questions floating around under the surface here. I haven’t grasped onto all of them yet, but maybe we can dig them out here.

What’s your take? Are jeans inappropriate attire for a speaking engagement? How do you feel about this slow shift into a more casual business climate? Is the tradition of formal business attire a tradition worth keeping, or are the underlying implications attached to that kind of formality holding us back?

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Christopher S. Penn June 2, 2010 at 8:33 am

Think of clothing as a form of mind control. You have complete and total control of the first impression you make on people through your attire. That judgement is swift, merciless, and subconscious. The question isn’t whether jeans are appropriate or not. The question is – what initial mental state do you want to inspire in your target?

If casual is part of your personal brand and something you want to create, wear the jeans. If you want to intimidate, go the full polished three piece, gold cufflinks, and tie pin.

Last thought: if everyone’s going casual, the professional who decks to the nines is automatically differentiated from the pack of Birkenstock and Levis folks. Think different.

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Scott Cohen June 2, 2010 at 8:48 am

Teresa: You bring up some excellent points. Like you, I’m a younger professional but also have been steeped in the “business formal” tradition, courtesy of my father who spent years in the corporate environment.

My opinion: Jeans are fine for a speaking engagement, provided it’s a representation of the culture you’re a part of at work.

My overall opinion is that we need to shift away from the formal business attire unless there’s an absolute need for it. Formal attire is stuffy, generally uncomfortable, and not necessarily conducive to innovation. I don’t know about you, but I get more work done and think more clearly when I’m not driven insane by a tie.

Suits are also known as the “corporate uniform.” And corporations not only want us to wear a uniform, but to BE uniform as well. Fall in line. Don’t question. That’s what’s involved in the “corporate uniform.”

I’m not saying there won’t be times where you need to have the attire. Like meeting with big wigs from different countries, per se. Or investors. First impressions are important, after all.

Bottom line: Innovation is what we need. Are suits the way we get there? I don’t think so.

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Emily Jasper June 2, 2010 at 12:55 pm

I love nice clothes, but I want to put my own spin on it. For example, I have a jean jacket that looks much nicer than some of my suit jackets (it even has ruffles around the pockets). I wear this with black pants or a skirt all the time. I can feel like I’m doing a “suit” and yet have the casual flair.

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Doug Davidoff June 3, 2010 at 9:08 am

When trying to determine what “appropriate” dress is, I take a cue from how to determine what the “appropriate” design for marketing material.

The dress or design shouldn’t be noticed. If it’s noticed (for good or bad) that means it interfered with the content. If you remember that I wore a great shirt, that means it was the impression not my content.

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Amy Blankenship June 3, 2010 at 9:23 am

One of the things I love about being a woman is that we can sidestep some of these issues and express a great deal of creativity through our clothing in a way that most men can’t. For instance, is a sleeveless shirt made of t-shirt material with a decorative element around the neck a t-shirt or a dress shirt? Is a black denim skirt dressy or casual? What exactly is the status of a pair of maroon slacks in the same fabric as a pair of chinos? Often the answers to these questions depend on how we accessorize or even by how we carry ourselves.

I think the area where it is tougher for us to convey a professional image in comfort is in footgear, as often shoes that look amazing with a dressier outfit can pinch or try to fall off our feet. So sometimes the image I’d _like_ to project takes a back seat to the fact that I’ll be standing much of the day or walking a mile for lunch.

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Becoming a Gentleman June 3, 2010 at 10:17 am

Teresa: Thank you for taking the time and effort to write this thought provoking article. Love it!

Greetings, my name is Terrence. I just met your friend Gini on Twitter through a mutual friend as a result of a project I just launched called “Becoming a Gentleman” (www.becomingagentleman.tumblr.com).

By the way, I recently left Target HQ to pursue my entrepreneurial passions. Ironically, about a year before I left Target, I began planning my departure and dubbed it “Project Blue Jean.” So, needless to say, I find almost all things blue jeans interesting.

Back to the main point, which are your questions. My thoughts align with your position on the appropriateness of wearing jeans in the workplace and/or for speaking engagements: “It depends.” The first consideration is the socio-cultural construct of etiquette. What does the situation call for? If it calls for a suit and tie, then the man’s mettle is tested by his ability and willingness to follow protocol. After all, a gentleman feels comfortable in his own skin, regardless of his apparel. Take for example, a man attending a casual event in a suit and tie. Sure, he may get teased for overdressing, but the way he carries himself will make it no worry and his blunder will soon be forgotten. And so, my answer to the primary question you pose: “suit or jeans: which makes the man?” Neither. The man is made first by adhering to the dress code, and second by his confidence and moxie.

For good measure: Wearing a suit or jeans doesn’t make a man any more or less serious. You’ll know a man to be serious when he respects you, and demands that you respect him. That’s a man becoming a gentleman.

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Matt June 3, 2010 at 10:24 am

When selling an idea, what the person wears goes a long way towards selling the idea (and in many ways, Public speaking is about selling ideas.)

If the speaker wants the ideas to be accessible, then dressing like the people in the audience might be appropriate. If the speaker wants to the ideas to feel a little more ‘out there’, then dressing totally different is appropriate.

My background is as a creative person in an advertising agency. We always tried to dress differently when presenting ideas that were a little out there. In my opinion, ideas that are a little out there need to come from someone dressed differently.

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Gini Dietrich June 13, 2010 at 5:29 am

First, let me say, that this blog post is extremely well-written and very thought-provoking. I love professional discourse and I appreciate you taking our Twitter conversation to your blog!

Secondly, I’ve obviously been thinking a lot about this since people began attacking me in the comments on my blog post, as well as in their own blogs. I agree with what Amy says – as women we get to side-step the traditional suit wear with more trendy clothes. Point in fact, I spoke last week at PR + MKTG Camp and I wore a yellow jacket, black skirt, and heels. I didn’t wear stockings. So, when I said jeans aren’t appropriate, I don’t mean you have to put on a suit, either.

Also, as women, I think we have to be a little more careful (yes, still) than our male counterparts. I do think the perception in business for women still exists that we have to look, act, and play the part. While a good majority of the people who commented on my blog agreed with me, it’d be an interesting case study to go back and see what the male/female demographic is.

http://twitter.com/ginidietrich

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Jeff Marmins July 14, 2010 at 2:41 pm

How we dress when speaking to an audience should be dictated by the audience’s culture, not ours. Also, speaking engagements are usually something I’m INVITED to do. You dress a certain way, perhaps more formal, out of respect to those that invited you.

I recently spoke to a group of 40 casually dressed franchise owners. It was a day off for them, locked in the void of a hotel meeting room after all. Knowing this, I could have easily donned the khakis. But, I was talking to people i hadn’t met before, that invited me to their meeting to talk and present. Doesn’t that make me part of the presentation? I don’t take their business or their invitation casually.

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Ryan Evans July 20, 2010 at 12:05 am

i really like this one. put me down for jeans! i don’t think avinash kaushik has been turned down for speaking events because of his jeans. it is all about the presentation quality.

i would say that there is usually inverse relationship between formal dress code and interesting presentation content. if your presentation sucks, it doesn’t matter if you look like george clooney at the oscars.

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Ross August 17, 2010 at 7:35 pm

Hmmm… Interesting and thought-provoking post.

In my opinion, if you’re a business professional you should dress like one. Save the jeans for the “casual friday” or for the BBQ after a long week in the office. If you want to use your wardrobe to impact your “mind control” why not make a choice between tie or no tie? That’s casual enough…

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Leslie Forman November 3, 2010 at 9:06 pm

Great discussion. Here’s my take (written while wearing jeans at work in Beijing.) I think it’s important to wear whatever makes you feel comfortable, both as an individual and as a steward as your brand. In China this often means a suit. Either Bill Gates or Steve Jobs (I forget which one and Google is not helping very much…) once wore jeans to a meeting with Chinese government officials and it was seen as horribly disrespectful. But my former boss (a tailored-suit type) once commented that in China, it’s hard to tell a taxi driver from a CEO based on how he dresses. I also used to work with a top Chinese law firm whose receptionists would wear sweats and Crocs to work. So, I think jeans are OK, as long as they fit both the speaker and the audience.

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