After my Junior year in college, I took a job as a tutor for a private tutoring company. At the time, I had hair that ran halfway down my back, and that is no exaggeration. It wasn't nappy, greasy, or covered in split ends; in fact it was rather well-kept. For this new job, I had to lop it all off, and keep it above the collar.

I had spent many years getting my hair that long, it was a project I had taken some pride in. But I was also in college, and wanted to get a semi-professional job, so off it went. In a sense, this was the first time I really sacrificed the fruits of my labor for a chance at greater gain, as I had played everything very safely throughout high school and the first few years of college. Money was more important than an appearance that I had spent some time working on cultivating, even if it served no practical purpose. I also started the long process of updating my dress to look more professional, since my college garb was plaid shorts and a free t-shirt from Company X or University Department Y.

The impact of this decision was almost immediate. Security guards stopped checking my bag to see if the receipt matched the items inside, restaurant staff started waiting on me better, when I was in the mall I noticed the employees taking some effort to help me find items. I was the same person I was before: I didn't shoplift, I was polite to wait staff and generally left a healthy tip, and I generally didn't go shopping just to browse then buy nothing. The change in behavior was totally in their perception of me, and while you could argue that they should treat everybody the same until given some reason to treat them with more or less respect, it did hammer home the point to me just how important appearances are in the world.

After a few years in graduate school, my dress had lagged back to the undergraduate routine. A very good friend of mine began the long project of getting me to dress nicer, and look as attractive as I could look. It's taken over a year, and I've gone through several iterations of dress, but I've finally settled into a style, and the effect hasn't changed. People treat you differently, even if they have no substantive reason to do so. I get compliments all the time about a sweater I'm wearing, or a sport coat that fits just so, or just the general way I'm dressed for a day. The first day I wore my navy blue sport coat in public, with jeans and a button down shirt, I got three comments from total strangers about how good the coat looks. The truth is, the coat looks good because I make the coat look good, by paying attention to fitting, and what else I wear.

Looking like a smart, well dressed person makes every first encounter with another civilized person a positive opportunity, and a chance to judge each other on the merits of personality rather than something more superficial.

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Comment by Jason Ellis on January 31, 2010 at 8:55am
I completely agree. A fact of life is that people must make snap judgments about other people hundreds of times a day. Those that dress like they care about how they present themselves are simply received better than those who do not seem to care. I don't think that is something that has to be despaired about ("people should judge based on character, not on looks!"). It is simply reality that there are just too many people with whom you have short relationships with to assume they will get to know us. The waiter isn't going to dive deeply into your personality, the decide how you are based on the first 10 seconds they see you.

I work from home, and in the last year have changed from dressing more "sloppy" to dressing more professionally. I agree with the other posters that how you dress affects how you feel about yourself as well. It is an odd thing, but it is almost like you judge yourself and come off better when you impress yourself.
Comment by Mark Nelson on January 30, 2010 at 6:33pm
It's so strange that you post this, as my experience with dress has very nearly mirrored yours. While my hair was never far past my shoulders, I find that not only is my productivity and self-esteem higher now that my hair is better tended and my dress no longer limited to jeans and a T, but I find that it's very nice, now, when I fly: I'm no longer "randomly selected" to have a pat-down!
Comment by Stephen Clay McGehee on January 30, 2010 at 2:24pm
It is not just a matter of how others perceive you either. I have worked from an office in my home for the past 14 years. I don't need to dress up for anyone (other than my wife) since all of my business is handled over the phone or the internet. I have met less than a half dozen of my customers face-to-face.

I have found that my own productivity and professionalism gets a major boost when I start the day as though I were going out to an office and meeting important clients in a meeting. Each day, I shave and put on a long sleeved dress shirt and dress pants. I have been know to even wear a tie once in a while in the office. It does make a difference. There may be folks who can, as the spam-ads say, work in their pajamas, but I am not one of them.

Self respect and respect for others has a very real impact on what we do and how others react to us. Look your best even if no one else sees you.
Comment by Brett McKay on January 27, 2010 at 1:29am
Really enjoyed this post, Stephen. Thanks. Even when I'm working from home, I'll sometimes dress up in a tie and everything-it just makes me feel good and makes me more productive. When you dress up you feel differently and people treat you differently.

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