Financial Myths: Do Clothes Make the Man?

Michael McTague |

Mad Men“Do clothes make the man?”                                                                 

This proverb proves the bane of many suitors – for the hearts of ladies and for jobs. The phrase is joined at the hip to people who fret about getting hired. Life presents many situations where the first impression spells success.

Employers wonder if the candidate is able to contribute to the money-making needs of the organization. So, convince him or her of your business acumen immediately. What better way than to look sharp, or in a watered down way of saying the same thing, not looking dull. Looking back over hundreds of interviews conducted, here is how most interviews really work: a powerful first impression – positive or negative – proves impossible to overcome. In this myth busting effort, we have assembled three reasons in support of the myth and two against. Let’s see how this myth comes out at the end.

For starters, first impressions dominate the entire conversation. A good appearance impresses even before the person shakes hands – sage advice on how to make a good impression – before the candidate says or does anything and certainly before the interviewer asks probing questions. So powerful is the initial imprint that brutal facts generally fail to change the perceiver’s mind. You interview a well-dressed candidate for an accounting position. The clothing is neat, sharp, professional. The interviewer likes what he sees. The questions and answers begin to flow. Then, the interviewee says he does not like numbers or calculators. This should be enough to sink the person’s chances. Because of his striking custom-made suit, you keep asking questions, and keep thinking he is probably right for the job.

First Impressions Influence Outcomes

In working with a colleague to conduct interviews, the author found that a job candidate’s willingness to accept a low salary colored the colleague’s perception of the person – favorably, of course. Following this sustaining imprint, the other interviewer tended to rate many candidates more highly than their background, skills, personalities and answers to other questions justified.

Second, good appearance comes about through spending money and derives from street smarts. At least, the reverse is true: poor clothes or a poor appearance make the person look like they did not take the interview seriously or that the job candidate either cannot or will not dress according to the company’s standard. The author has seen many would-be employees strike out quickly thanks to such amazing faux pas as lurid shirt colors (purple and dark green are particularly unseemly), shirts with epaulettes, political or university clothing, shoes with a square front. Despite the applicant’s experience and knowledge, he or she does not appear to be in tune with basic expectations of how to dress on the job.

Reason number three supports the myth because clothes relate to authority. Note that the clothes-make-the-man myth does not mean expensive – at least not all the time -- but it consistently conveys the impression that this person fits the role; they are right for the job. Expensive blue and grey wool suits and white shirts work with the Fortune 500 and many other corporate environments. Blue collar workers hold to high standards and distinct expectations as well. Short hair, reminiscent of a crew cut, with a neatly trimmed mustache works well for construction managers along with khaki pants and a white, short sleeved shirt with two or three buttons below the neck topped off with a discreet logo. A visible cell phone and a ring of keys may actually enhance the applicant’s appearance. White collar or blue, the idea is that the applicant feels comfortable and looks right for the job to be filled.

Most interviewers, certainly managers of the area where the candidate might work, look for evidence of a strong work ethic. One rule that escapes many interviewees is that you should look as if you always work hard. The suit should fit and look natural – as if you wear it or one like it every day. So avoid stepping on your long pants cuffs and having to pull your hand out from the long sleeve that shows you spent yesterday buying a suit three sizes too large. And, if you got the job, the interviewer wants to think that you would show up on time in the same suit ready to perform. The ill-fitting “interview suit” – usually bought by parents – is a sure loser for recent graduates looking to be hired.

Horror Stories of Bad Dressing

Consider the reverse – what happens when a job candidate makes a terrible first impression. For example, a brown double breasted suit does not convey wisdom. A colleague referred to a candidate so dressed as wearing “a triple breasted suit.” So much for credibility! For some strange reason, many applicants show up looking too casual. For example: A candidate with a firm handshake (good start), sported a floppy pocket handkerchief, handlebar mustache and bright buttons on a blue blazer. (Does anyone make blazers that are not blue with big, brass buttons?) He also wore white pants and red loafers. Is this what the person would wear on the job?

Not So Fast! There are Arguments That Do Not Support the Myth

Two reasons argue against this myth. The first holds that clothes do not make the man; true character is what counts. A fair statement; however, hiring conversations are short. The interviewer only has a limited time to see the person’s inner beauty. Actually, the employer is not as much interested in the person’s spiritual depth as they are in finding a fit for an open position. So, one must deal with a well or poorly dressed person and form what conclusions can be drawn quickly.

As a follow on to the argument above, judging people by their clothes is undemocratic. It just isn’t fair to evaluate people this way. It is hard to argue against this, but it is also better for people who need to work to make a good impression without letting clothes get in the way. How about this as a compromise: avoid these clothing goofs gathered from painful experience:

  • French cuffs for a staff accountant. (They will stain easily and get caught on paper clips.)

  • Shoes that curl in front; multi-color shoes (tan and brown)

  • Shirt collar two sizes too large showing every vein in the candidate’s neck

  • Baseball hats two sizes too large that press down the ears. Baseball cap brim too large for a person’s face – especially if one is diminutive.

  • More than three rings per hand.

  • Mixing business and casual – sneakers with a chalk striped suit.

  • Not polishing the entire shoe; missing the sides and the back

  • Shoes that look like they are one piece – top and sole is same color and material.

  • An old fashioned krinkly “summer suit,” the kind worn in “Some Like It Hot.”

All things considered, it appears that this myth maintains itself, even if it fails the test of democratic fairness. A final piece of advice for the intense job seeker: If friends or family tell you something unpleasant about yourself related to making a bad first impression, go ahead and mention it in an interview. “You know, I may be heavy but I work hard.” How about, “I see you looking at my tattoo. Well, let me tell you the story. I was in the Army, and one night I….”

Next month we will look at another myth that needs to be sliced and diced.                                 


Michael McTague, Ph.D. is Executive Vice President at Able Global Partners in New York.

[image via Flickr]

DISCLOSURE: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not represent the views of Readers should not consider statements made by the author as formal recommendations and should consult their financial advisor before making any investment decisions. To read our full disclosure, please go to:


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