Does the way you dress really matter?

Every morning, each one of us dresses in attire that expresses his or her inner feelings. That's right, the way we dress is a window into the subconscious. We're not aware of it, yet it matters ... a lot.

Every morning, each one of us wakes up a ragged mess and eventually, presumably after cleaning up a bit, exits the house dressed in attire that expresses his or her inner feelings.

Don't believe me? It's true; ask a shrink. The way you dress is a window into the subconscious. Of course, it helps if you know how to interpret the data. Sometimes the conscious mind overrules the inner self, so what you get is the opposite of what the person is feeling. It's complicated.

Okay, enough psychobabble. The premise here is that the way you dress matters and it matters in the workplace. Over the course of my career, I've noticed a lot going on with clothes, but nobody talks about it. Case in point, people have been commenting on the way I dress for decades, and I have no idea why.

Way back in 1981 - when I was an engineer designing chips for Texas Instruments - my manager told me I might consider dressing differently if I wanted to get ahead. I was wearing torn overalls at the time. Hey, I was just an engineer ... and it was Texas!

Anyway, he did have a point. Years later I read Dress for Success and began taking this stuff a bit more seriously. When I became a sales executive calling on customers, I began wearing a jacket and tie or a suit.

However, when it comes to really working, i.e. in the office, I'm strictly a blue jeans, untucked shirt, and sneakers or other comfy shoes kind of guy. I guess that's what comforts my neurotic subconscious.

When I worked at microprocessor upstart Cyrix in the mid-90s, Jack Kemp - quarterback turned politician extraordinaire - sat on our board of directors. That didn't entirely make sense to me, but he was a great guy and really fun at dinner parties.

Once, at an event of some sort, Jack said, in passing, "Nice tie, Tobak. Breaking out the spring wardrobe?" I know he was just being a politician, and that's what politicians do, but still, I was flattered that he remembered my name. My ego aside, he chose to comment on my clothes.

PC Week (now eWEEK) once ran a story about me wearing Intel Inside t-shirts to bed at night. This was ironic because Cyrix competed head on with Intel and I was Cyrix's marketing chief. And yes, it was true. How was I supposed to know that the reporter I told it to at 2 AM at a Comdexparty in Las Vegas wasn't as drunk as I was?

In 1997 National Semiconductor bought Cyrix, which was a good thing for us. One day National's CEO Brian Halla commented on my wrinkled blue jeans. He said I could lay them flat after taking them out of the dryer and that would help take the wrinkles out. To this day, that's what I do. Thanks for the tip, Brian.

Another time he chided me for wearing a sport jacket over blue jeans. Again with the clothes. That look is really in now. I guess I was ahead of my time.

I ran into Brian at a trade show a couple of years ago. First words out of his mouth were to tell me I needed to stand closer to my razor. And that's coming from a guy with a beard. Okay, so that wasn't about clothes, but what was it about?

Then there's the whole business-casual thing. I'm not a fan. Sure, I tried it. I've got dozens of pairs of khakis and polo shirts from Nordstrom hanging in my closet. But I never wear them, although I have no idea why.

Wait, it gets weirder.

I've noticed that some people wear the same clothes every day. Not the very same clothes ... you know what I mean. Dave Mooring - ex-president and director of Rambus - used to call it a person's uniform. For example, Steve Jobs has a uniform - his characteristic black mock turtleneck and jeans. That look's been very popular in Silicon Valley for the past decade or so.

I don't get the whole uniform thing. Are these people so insecure that they think, if they wear something different, folks won't recognize them? It couldn't possibly be a challenge to match a few items of clothing once a day, could it? Maybe so.

I've seen lots of executives wear belts that didn't match the color of their shoes. Could someone actually reach the level of VP or CEO at a public company and not know that these two items should match? Or do they just grab the first thing they see in the closet and put it on? They only come in three colors, for God's sake. How hard can that be?

When I worked for Rambus CEO Geoff Tate, he only owned one tie, which he wore with his white shirt and suit. Now there's a guy who knows his fashion limitations. You got to respect that.

I've noticed that lots of people wear company logo shirts exclusively. There's an analyst named Nathan Brookwood who does that. I mean, that's all he wears. What's up with these people? Can they not afford to buy their own clothing?

Then there's clone clothing behavior. If you walk into a meeting with VCs, half of them - especially the more junior folks - will inevitably be wearing blue button-down shirts and light khakis. How does that happen, exactly? And what does it mean?

For all you women out there, sorry about the male bias in the story. I'm sure you can understand. That said, I've had several female executives tell me that they have to dress ultra-conservatively to be taken seriously in this male-dominated industry. I think that's true ... and sad.

Why bring all this up? To tell a few stories and, more importantly, to make a point. The point is that the way you dress is a big deal, it says a lot, it makes a difference, people seem to comment on it, and we're hardly aware of all this stuff going on beneath the surface.

Moreover, when books say you can make your clothes work for you, I would argue that we all already do that, consciously or not. Twenty years ago I read Dress for Success and I did. But guess what I'm wearing right now? Blue jeans, an untucked work shirt, and sneakers.

I guess you can teach a dog tricks, but he'd just as soon not do them.

So go ahead and dress for success, or failure. Show your innermost self, or try to cover it up if you can. Do whatever turns you on, makes you feel safe, comforts you, or whatever it is that innermost selves do. But keep in mind, when you're getting dressed or commenting on another person's clothes, you're probably saying a lot more than you think.

On the other hand, sometimes a shirt is just a shirt.

 

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