A dress code is defined as “a set of rules with regard to clothing – created out of social perceptions and norms”.
Understanding dress codes is essential. But so is knowing when you can break the dress code.
Your appearance always sends a message.
Would you believe me if I told you that a “screw the dress code” approach sometimes sends the RIGHT message – that it sets you apart in a good way?
Today I’m going to tell you how.
The Red Sneaker Effect
Everything I talk about here boils down to one factor – the Red Sneaker Effect.
No – it doesn’t mean you have to wear red sneakers. It’s actually a psychological phenomenon coined by the Harvard Journal of Consumer Research. Essentially, it means that breaking the rules and refusing to conform sends a power signal to those around you.
Let’s bring in an example. Two professors gave a class as part of the study. One wore what you’d expect – a suit. The other wore a plain T-shirt and an unkempt beard. The students surveyed said they perceived the latter professor as having more power in his department and thus commanding more respect.
Why? Because he wore what he wanted and got away with it.
Another study saw employees in Milan luxury boutiques show preference to customers in gym clothes over those who were well-dressed. They thought that the casual customers were confident – they had the money to spend, and they knew it.
Surprised, gentlemen? Are you skeptical, especially after all the time I've spent telling you not to break the rules when it comes to style?
I understand. I'm not telling you to start dressing like a slob all the time to get treated better. It's more complicated than that.
You have to know when and how to break the dress code.
Keep reading to see how the Red Sneaker Effect can work for you.
1. The Red Sneaker Effect – Rules
Before you go on breaking the rules, you need to know what they are.
British Magnate Sir Richard Branson deliberately breaks traditional dress codes and encourages his employees to do the same. On Twitter he’s constantly bashing on ties and other formal pieces of menswear he thinks are antiquated and oppressive. He knows what constitutes acceptable business wear for men, and he breaks the rules anyway.
This doesn’t apply to all jobs. If you’re a member of the armed forces – or you wear a required uniform to work – you definitely don’t want to break the rules.
2. The Red Sneaker Effect – Know The Situation
When it comes to breaking the rules, men need to be aware of who sees them and who's in a position of power over them. In your own life, it falls on you to figure this out. Usually it'll be pretty easy.
Remember the professor? No matter how the students perceived him, they weren’t in a position to fire him. It was a relatively safe place to screw the dress code.
Depending on where you work, this may not be the case. If you’re a junior associate making a presentation to the senior partners at a law firm, wearing shorts and a deep V-neck won’t go over well.
Such a stunt may even get you fired.
Nevertheless, you could try pushing the envelope with some casual slacks, a sport coat, and a dress shirt with an open collar. It’s all about balance – you always want exercise good judgment about the office uniform and operate within that general spectrum.
3. The Red Sneaker Effect – Being In A Position Of Power
The bottom line is that the higher you rank, the more you can get away with. If you’re the CEO of a company, or even a top-level executive, chances are that fewer people will be able to tell you what to do.
That includes how to dress.
It doesn’t need to be direct power, either. Are you at the top of your field when it comes to sheer performance? The highest-ranking salesman in your region? The tech guy without whom the office would fall apart in a matter of days?
If you've somehow made yourself invaluable, you’ll have an easier time breaking the rules than your colleagues.
How much you can go breaking the rules coincides directly with how much you bring to the table, and how much sway you have with the people around you.
Just remember that the opposite is also true, gentlemen. Remember what Mark Zuckerberg wore to the Senate hearing?
4. The Red Sneaker Effect – Be Deliberate
This one’s simple gents. If you’re breaking the rules of the dress code, it needs to be intentional. It’s not about going to work with whatever you had on already. It’s about being aware of what the norms are and making a conscious decision to combat them.
Be conscious of your rebellion.
This can manifest in a few ways. A study showed a man attending a black-tie event with a red bow tie while otherwise remaining conventional. This one detail drew attention and once he made it clear it was deliberate, his credibility skyrocketed.
5. The Red Sneaker Effect – Rebel At The Right Time
There’s always some risk when it comes to breaking the rules. You've got to ask yourself whether the risk is worth it. Quite often, it won't be.
Knowing when and where to screw the dress code is critical.
Use common sense. If you know your company’s had a bad quarter and there were talks of cutbacks, don't show up to the next meeting in cargo shorts and flip-flops! The last thing you want is to give your boss a reason to fire you when you know he's looking for one.
Those situations aren’t always predictable. Again, there’s always some risk involved.
6. The Red Sneaker Effect – Practice Makes Perfect
Gents, practice makes perfect. There are plenty of situations you can go breaking the rules without worrying about the chopping block.
Breaking the rules doesn't always mean dressing down.
You can even take it a different route and break the dress code by taking the formality up a notch.
Out to the bar with friends? Will everyone else be wearing jeans and sneakers?
Opt for some chinos, a sports jacket and some nice brown loafers.
If it’s expected that everyone’s going to be very casual, you can send a power signal by breaking the rules and dressing up instead of down.
In fact, this is quite often a good move as long as you don't overdo it.
Remember, it’s not specifically about dressing down. It’s about nonconformity. Think about what’s usually expected in the situation and deviate accordingly.
Breaking The Rules – To Conclude
Do rules exist to be broken? No. They’re there to help us determine what’s appropriate. However, men can utilize the Red Sneaker Effect for breaking the rules in a way that leaves a positive impact.
The caveat is that there’s always a risk that rests on a myriad of factors. You need to own that – do your research and understand the potential consequences. If you pick your battles well, the bold move of breaking the dress code will put you in the spotlight.