impact of mode of dress wom on self-perceptions

impact of mode of dress wom on self-perceptions

employees and their perceptions regarding the importance of dress and appearance in the public sector workplace. More specifi- cally, using the impression management literature and self-presentation theory, we examine the impact of mode of dress worn (casual, business casual, formal business) on their self-perceptions of creativify, productivify, trustworthiness, authoritativeness, ftiendliness, and competence. We also examine their beliefs regarding the impact of employee appearance on customer perceptions of service qualify and finally, their preferences for several dress styles, including uniforms.

Role of Attire in Impression Management

Impression management, also called self-presentation, is the process by which indi- viduals aftempt to control the impressions others form of them (Gofftnan, 1959; Jones, 1990; Rosenfeld, Edwards, & Thomas, 2005; Schlenker, 1980). The past

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decade has seen an explosion of books in the popular press providing advice on how individuals can manage other’s impressions through their dress (Bixler, 1997; Morem, 1997; Sabath, 2000; Waldrop, 1997). Pioneered by John T. Molloy’s New Dress for Success Book (Molloy, 1988), the common theme in these books is that clothing deci- sions can make a difference in how one is perceived by others and that clothing wear- ers can use their attire decisions to influence the impressions formed by others in the workplace. In support, studies have shown that the way a person dresses influences others’ impressions of their credibility (O’Neal & Lapitsky, 1991), sociability (Johnson, Nagasawa, & Peters, 1977), status (Mast & Hall, 2004; Sybers & Roach, 1962), professionalism, intelligence, competence, efficiency, honesty, and reliability (Y. Kwon, 1994b; Y. H. Kwon & Färber, 1992). Evidence also suggests that indi- viduals consciously use their attire to manage the impressions of others with formal business attire being used to enhance status and respect (Rucker, Anderson, & Kangas, 1999) and more casual dress to develop cotinections with others (Rafaeli, Dutton, Harquail, & Mackie-Lewis, 1997).

In a 1992 study, J. S. Bowman (1992) surveyed personnel officials from fotir agen- cies (the departments of administration, finance, and commerce and the executive office ofthe govemor in all 50 states) and found that 75% ofthe managers in their sample believe that employees who are well-dressed and groomed are perceived as more intelligent, hardworking, and socially acceptable than those with a more casual appearance. The author adds that most respondents believe that

dress establishes a level of respect and authority often necessary to get work done, and rests on the premise that certain kinds of clothes preclude certain types of behavior. Casually attired employees neither command nor show the respect they do when dressed according to agency norms. (J. S. Bowman, 1992, p. 39)

In stimmarizing the findings. Bowman concludes that “employees who have not mastered the simple art of presenting themselves are not likely to master the more complex skills needed to manage people, administer programs, and work with the public” (p. 47). This supports earlier arguments made by J. S. Bowman and Hooper, (1991) that “good dress and good grooming” in govemment agencies allow the wearer to reflect professional confidence and communicate credibility and responsibility.

Impact of Attire on Self-Perceptions

Research has shown that people perceive themselves differently based on the clothing they are wearing. That is, individuals tend to form their own mental models concem- ing proper modes of dress and the expected behaviors congment with those dress styles (Schneider, 1973). For example, Solomon and Schopler ( 1982) found that males and females indicated that the appropriateness of their clothing affected the quality of their performance and their mood in the workplace. Likewise, Y. Kwon (1994a) found that positive feelings about one’s clothing were found to enhance self-perceptions of one’s emotion, sociability, and occupational competency, whereas negative feelings

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about one’s clothes tended to reduce self-perceptions of these attributes. Another study found that those who described themselves as properly dressed believed that their attire made them look significantly more responsible, competent, knowledge- able, professional, honest, reliable, intelligent, trustworthy, hardworking, and efficient than when not so (Y. Kwon, 1994b).

Other research has moved beyond appropriate attire to examine the impact of spe- cific styles of clothing on self-perceptions. For example, a 1999 survey of more than a thousand human resource executives by national employment law firm Jackson and Lewis indicated that 44% reported an increase in tardiness and absenteeism and 30% reported a rise in fiirtatious behavior after the implementation of dress-down policies (Survey Finds Tardiness and Absenteeism Up at Workplaces That Dress Down, 2000). These findings suggest that casual dress may lead to a casual work ethic. Another study by Hannover and Kuehnen (2002) found that participants who were dressed formally used more formal adjectives to describe themselves (e.g., career oriented, ambitious, respectable, organized, determined, punctual). The opposite was found for those who were dressed more casually (e.g., casual, easygoing, playfiil, laid-back). Similarly, an examination of flight attendants revealed that they believed they acted less refined when working with passengers when wearing a casual versus formal uni- form and they also reported feeling more self-conscious, unconfident, embarrassed, and unprofessional (Adomaitis & Johnson, 2005). Finally, a study examining the impact of mode of dress worn on employee self-perceptions found that respondents felt most authoritative, trustworthy, and competent when wearing formal business attire, but friendliest when wearing casual (shorts, t-shirt, tetmis shoes), or business casual attire (Peluchette & Karl, 2007).

Less is known about how attire impacts employee self-perceptions in the public sec- tor, although anecdotal data suggests that employees in the federal sector do not feel comfortable unless they dress “to fit the part” (Joyce, 2007). As public sector organiza- tions face increasing pressure to enhance productivity and to attract and retain talent with limited resotirces, aspects of the workplace are coming under greater scrutiny as a means of accomplishing these objectives (Benest, 2008; Leuenberger & Klüver, 2005-2006). Oppermann (2007) argues that development of dress codes in the public sector need to consider employee concerns for comfort, but also strive to maintain productivity and a professional image. The mission and culture of a particular agency would dictate how these are weighed. Given the private sector findings and the anecdotal evidence from the public seetor, we predict that mode of dress affects self-perceptions such that:

Hypothesis 1 Employees will report feeling more competent, authoritative, trustwor- thy and productive when wearing formal attire than when wearing casual attire.

Hypothesis 2: Employees will report feeling friendlier and more creative in casual or business casual attire than formal attire.

Managing Customer Impressions of Service Quality

Rafaeli and Pratt (1993) suggested that what employees wear while at work and how they appear while interacting with customers can infiuence customers’ behaviors and

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expectations about the organization and the service that it provides. In support, find- ings from a study of human resource managers employed in a variety of service orga- nizations (e.g., consultants, health care and human services, hotel and restaurants, financial, employment agencies) indicate that the appearance of professional service employees plays a significant role in the way clients or customers evaluate their com- pany’s services (Easterling & Leslie, 1992). Workman and Johnson (1989) also found that inferences about others, based on their clothing, go beyond personal characteris- tics to include extended inferences about the company for which the individual works.

There is evidence that the link between employee clothing and perceptions of ser- vice quality is also being recognized in the public sector. In a 1992 survey of public managers, J. S. Bowman (1992) found that more than 85% agreed that an employee’s appearance is important to the organization and its image. In a study of university clerical and administrative staff, employees indicated that appropriate attire allowed them to establish better rapport with key constituencies and deliver better-quality ser- vice (Rafaeli et al., 1997). Likewise, a more recent survey by Smith (2008) found 44% of managers thought dress codes created a more professional atmosphere and 33% thought it created a better public image for the agency.

The employee image issue has become even more complicated for organizations as less-conventional aspects of appearance have gained popularity in society. Today, about 24% of Americans have a tattoo and about 14% have a body piercing some- where other than their earlobe (Laumann & Derick, 2006). These numbers are even higher among young people (Tattoo, Bling Craze Raises Hiring Issues, 2006). As body art becomes increasingly part of the mainstream, some employers have taken a more flexible stance on such trends or are dealing with it on a case-by-case basis (B. Bowman, 2005). Org (2003) states that a number of major corporations, such as Boeing and Ford Motor Company, have adopted relaxed attitudes toward tattoos and body piercings in hopes of attracting younger workers. Some state and federal govem- ment agencies may be relaxing their standards too. For example, a recmiter for a defense and national security placement firm recently indicated that a woman showed up for an interview with a nose stud, but actually got the job with the govemment agency (Joyce, 2007). Medici (2012) suggests that relaxed dress codes are due in part to the preferences of younger generations entering the workforce who believe more in the value ofthe work they do than the image they present.

However, employers are aware that there is a stigma associated with unconven- tional appearance factors which could have implications for customer perceptions. Studies show that individuals with tattoos or body piercings are generally viewed as less credible (Seiter & Hatch, 2005) and are perceived less favorably by coworkers (Chen, 2007; Miller, Niçois, & Eure, 2009). In response, most employers have a nega- tive view of such physical decorations. For example. Acor (2001) found that employ- ers negatively rated applicants with eyebrow piercings, seeing them as unacceptable regardless ofthe size and type of business. A study of employers found that 72% were repelled by body piercings, 69% by visible tattoos, 73% by unusual hair color, and 64% by unusual hairstyles (How Companies Are Dealing With Workplace Body Art Issues, 2004). Many employers have conservative clients and they want to portray a professional image. For example, Joyce (2007) argues that govemment employers

Karl et al. 457

generally see these new types of piercings as offending clients or making them feel uncomfortable. As in the private sector, customer perceptions in the public sector are likely to be influenced by the attire worn by direct service employees or those in regu- lar contact with the public. More specifically, we predict that:

Hypothesis 3: Employees will agree that more casual attire, unconventional hair- styles or color, facial piercings, and revealing clothing will have a negative impact on customer perceptions of service quality.


This section outlines the characteristics of our sample, the various measures used for our study, and procedures used for data analyses.


We were interested in a population of public sector working professionals employed in a variety of occupations who had experience wearing the three styles of workplace attire that were the focus of our study: formal business, business casual, and casual. To access a sample with such variety and experience, we surveyed employees of a mid- sized city in the Midwest which we believe reflect fairly mainstream views about attire. The HR department supplied a list of managers and we randomly selected 12 managers from this list and surveyed them and their 417 direct reports, 260 surveys were returned.

About half (52%) of the respondents were males. The average age was 45.94 (SD = 11.58) and the average hours worked per week was 40.6 (SD = 8.45). With regard to position, 37% of the sample consisted of management or executive personnel. These respondents worked in a wide variety of agencies or departments including parks department, zoo, water works, police department, fire department, building depart- ment, clerk’s office, financial administration, code enforcement, public works, and the legal department.

Sixty-six percent of our 260 respondents (n = 172) reported that their organization had a dress code policy and also had casual dress days. Four percent (n = 9) reported they used to have casual dress days but do not now. Most respondents (56%, n = 146) reported that the trend in general attire worn in their organization over the past 10 years had stayed the same, 30% (n = 78) reported it had gone from formal to casual and 11% (w = 29) reported it had gone from casual to formal.


The survey instrument consisted of two sections: (a) background information and (b) workplace attire. The workplace attire section consisted of three subsections: self- perceptions, impact of attire on customer perceptions, and dress preference.

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Background information. Respondents answered several single-item demographic questions regarding gender, age, position level, and hours worked per week. In addi- tion, respondents answered the following attire-related questions: (a) “Does your orga- nization have an explicit dress code (written policy) for employees in your position?” (b) “Does your organization have “dress casual” days?” and (c) “Over the past ten years, how would you describe the trend in general attire in your organization?”

Self-perceptions. Self-perceptions were measured using the scale developed by Peluchette and Karl (2007). Respondents were given a detailed description of each of the three modes of dress (formal business, business casual, and casual) for men and women. They were then asked to indicate the extent to which they agreed or disagreed that each of three modes of dress had an impact on 16 self-perceptions: authoritative, influential, powerñil, self-confident, competent, professional, hardworking, produc- tive, trustworthy, dependable, agreeable, friendly, cheerful, approachable, creative, and inspired. For example, in the formal business attire question, respondents were asked, “On the day or days I dressed in formal business attire, I felt . . . .” This question was followed by each of these 16 adjectives, along with a 5-point response scale (1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree). These 16 items were grouped into six sub- scales: friendly (agreeable, friendly, cheerful, and approachable), creative (creative and inspired), competent (self-confident, competent, and professional), authoritative (authoritative, infiuential, and powerful), productive (hardworking and productive), trustworthy (trustworthy and dependable).

Because each respondent answered each item three times (once for each mode of dress), we calculated three reliabilify coefficients (Cronbach’s a) for each. The reli- abilify coefficients for each scale (formal, business casual, and casual) were as fol- lows: Friendly (.90, .90, .90), Creative (.90, .90, .89), Competent (.90, .89, .83), Authoritative (.91, .87, .86), Productive (.92, .91, .91), and Trustworthy (.94, .90, .93).

Impact of attire on customer perceptions. For this measure, respondents were asked what impact they believed that 11 different appearance factors or items of clothing had on customer perceptions of an employee’s (a) abilify to provide accurate and dependable service; (b) willingness to help customers and provide prompt service; (c) knowledge, competence and abilify to convey trust and confidence; and (c) abilify to provide caring and individualized attention. Each of these measures correspond to four of the service dimensions in the well-known SERVQUAL measure developed by Parasuraman, Zeithaml, and Berry (1988) namely, reliabilify, responsiveness, assurance, and empa- thy, respectively. The 11 items included the following: uniforms; facial piercings; tat- toos; unconventional hair color (e.g., blue, green, bright red); sweat pants; team apparel; athletic wear (e.g., spandex, tights, tank tops), clothing displaying written words; cloth- ing with tears, rips, or holes; and clothing that bares belly buttons, midriff, or cleavage. All items were answered using a 5-point response scale (1 = very negative, 5 = very positive). An overall measure of customer perceptions of service qualify was computed for each of the 11 items by calculating the average of all 4 ratings for each measure. Coefficient alphas for these 11 overall measures ranged between .89 and .97.

Karl et al. 459

Dress preference. Respondents were asked to place an X in the column that indicates the mode of dress which most closely describes (a) “what you would prefer to wear to work every day,” and (b) “how you usually dress in your department/division.” For these two questions, respondents were given five choices: formal business, business casual, casual, casual cool/fashion, and uniform. Three additional items included the following: (a) “I personally like having casual dress days (e.g., every Friday or once a month, etc.), (b) “I personally like casual dress policies (i.e., dressing casually every day or almost every day,” and (c) “I personally don’t like having to wear a uniform.” The last three items were answered using a 5-point response scale (1 = strongly dis- agree, 5 = strongly agree).


To examine the impact of mode of dress wom on self-perceptions, we used the SPSS general linear model (GLM) repeated measures procedure, which provides analysis of variance (ANOVA) when the same measurement is made several times on each subject. The within-subjects variable, mode of dress wom, was measured three times for each respondent: once for formal business attire, once for business casual, and once for casual. The ANOVA with repeated measures was conducted six times: once for each of the self-perceptions measured (Productive, Authoritative, Tmstworthy, Friendly, Creative, and Competent). The SPSS GLM repeated-measures procedure also provides post hoc comparisons when significant differences between means exist. This proce- dure compares differences between the estimated marginal means and adjusts for mul- tiple comparisons using the Bonferroni test, which is powerful when the number of mean comparisons is small. Because past research has found dress preference to be an important variable affecting self-perceptions (Peluchette & Karl, 2007), we controlled for this effect by including dress preference as a covariate. Moreover, because we were only interested in the impact of formal dress, business castial, and casual attire on self- perceptions, we eliminated those who indicated that either uniforms or fashion/casual cool was their preferred mode of dress. The dress preference variable was coded 1 = formal business, 2 = business casual, and 3 = casual. Furthermore, not all of our 260 respondents had experience wearing all three modes of dress, thus, the final sample size for this analysis was 148. Ofthe 148,67% were females (« = 84), 42% were managerial employees (« = 62), and 69% were in positions that involved interacting with the public (n = 102). The average age was 45.42 {SD = 10.6).


Table 1 shows the results of the within-subject tests for the main effect of mode of dress wom on each of the six self-perceptions. These results are also shown graphi- cally in Figure 1. Mode of dress wom had a significant main effect on all six self- perceptions. Respondents felt more competent and authoritative when wearing either formal business or business casual than when wearing casual attire. However, respon- dents felt more tmstworthy when wearing business casual (than when wearing casual) and more productive when wearing business casual (than when wearing formal

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Table I . ANOVA Results for the Main Effect of Mode of Dress Worn on Self-Perceptions.

Mode of dress worn



Creative Productive

Competent Trustworthy Authoritative
impact of mode of dress wom on self-perceptions



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