Abstract / Summary

This article focuses on the effects of personal appearance, including wardrobe, grooming, and hygiene, on work situations, career progression, and relationships within an engineering context. It also considers whether standards of appearance differ among genders, classes, etc. Psychological, social, and emotional factors are considered.

Introduction and Background

Personal appearance is an element of personal and professional life that can affect situations in many consequential ways. Personal Appearance has been defined by Cavico, Muffler, and Mujtaba (2012) as follows:

Personal appearance means the outward appearance of any person, irrespective of sex, with regard to bodily condition or characteristics, manner or style of dress, and manner or style of personal grooming, including, but not limited to, hair style and beards.

Appearance can affect not only one’s perception of oneself (Karl, Hall, Peluchette, 2013) but can also affect which managerial traits one is perceived to possess (Forsythe, 1987), and even how easily one can sell a product (O’Neal & Lapitsky, 1991). Appearance is not something that is present in some situations and absent in others. It is relevant in every scenario, and one can experience its effects even when alone. This article will advise on presenting oneself in professional situations, and as such, will focus primarily on wardrobe and grooming, reactions to appearance, and first impressions.

Elements of Appearance


The wardrobe itself refers to the clothing worn, including shirts, pants, dresses, shoes, belts, and accessories like headbands or watches. Wardrobes can vary in formality, color, fashion, quality, material, intended use, etc. Key to choosing from the many options is the knowledge that in different situations, different wardrobes are culturally accepted as appropriate. A baker, an executive, and an athlete are each expected to wear a different outfit, and deviation from these norms has been shown to reduce the trust of clients (O’Neal & Lapitsky, 1991).

The situations engineers regularly encounter come with a variety of wardrobe expectations. Casual clothing may feel most appropriate at a brainstorming session, while work on a manufacturing line may call for more utilitarian options. M anagement or external clients may expect engineers to wear more formal clothing during business meetings. While there is no single “correct” outfit for any of these situations, thoughtfully chosen clothing can increase the probability of successful outcomes.


Grooming is another component of appearance that comprises hairstyles, facial hair, hair color, tattoos, piercings, hygiene, etc. While this area is the subject of less research, conclusions drawn from clothing-focused studies can reasonably be extrapolated to this domain. In other words, consider the setting, norms, and possible encounters when making grooming decisions.

Grooming should not be considered less important than wardrobe choices. The effects of grooming result from action (or inaction) on the individual’s part and are therefore judged as a reflection on that individual’s taste and choices (Woodhouse, 2013).

Examples and Implementation

Context of Appearance


To a large extent, l ocation determines of the appropriateness of different appearances. Not only does location affect who may be encountered, it also sets the tone for social settings. For example, consider two different engineering departments: one located in the Chicago headquarters of a prestigious Fortune 500 company, and the other located in the trendy, exposed brick offices of a growing startup. The different possible interactions afforded by these spaces suggest that the two engineering groups may feel comfortable in different clothing.

At the first office, the engineers are in close proximity to senior managers, and share a dining space with the marketing and finance departments. Executives occasionally stop in to the R&D area unannounced . Because the engineers are often put on the spot to demonstrate progress and competency, it may be important for them to be able to prepare presentations at a moments notice. Clothing has been shown to convey nonverbal information about the wearer– for instance, situation-appropriate clothing has been shown to increase the perceived credibility of the wearer compared to situation inappropriate clothing (O’Neal & Lapitsky, 1991). As such, it is beneficial to the engineers to wear clothing appropriate for presentations to senior management.

The second office is home to the startup’s 23 employees, the majority of whom are engineers and designers. The open layout promotes a casual, friendly atmosphere and everybody knows each other on a first-name basis. In this situation, it is less likely to see pressed shirts and suit jackets because the location encourages familiarity and creativity. Startup customers, investors, and acquirers understand the culture promotes casual dress and comfort because freedom of dress can entice the best engineers to work for the company. Because of the comfort-oriented norms of this office, formal clothing might distance the wearer from the majority that wears jeans and tee shirts.


The demands of a situation dictate not only which clothing will be considered appropriate, but also which clothing might make the participants most successful. Job interviews almost universally require a suit and tie, but most other situations allow more flexibility. In these cases, teams may be well served by considering the goals they have for a given occasion. If they plan to make a business proposition to a potential customer, or need to feel confident during a status report, formal attire m ay help them perform best. However, Karl, Hall, & Peluchette (2013) show that business casual clothing makes the wearer feel more creative and productive than casual or business formal clothing. It appears that formal attire may hinder a team that needs to make a creative breakthrough or meet tight deadlines.

Results of Appearance

Examination of Outcomes


Positive self-perception and confidence are important not only to happiness as a whole but also to on-the-job performance. Personal appearance can affect how someone views himself, his competence, and his work-related skills. Karl, Hall, and Peluchette (2013) showed significant differences in how people rated themselves on traits such as “friendly,” “creative,” “trustworthy,” and “authoritative” based on how formal their outfits were. For most categories, subjects rated themselves most highly while wearing business casual attire. Business casual is typically defined as dress shoes, slacks, a belt, and a long-sleeved collared shirt. Remarkably, subjects rated themselves more highly in all six areas when wearing business casual than they did in more casual clothing. It appears that dressing up a little may provide a valuable self-confidence boost.


As expected, professionals are judged based on their personal appearance as it fits into the context of their role and organization. These judgments can affect hiring decisions, sales, promotions, trust, relationships, and more. Though it is tempting to dress with only comfort in mind , outfits that attract attention for the wrong reason can cause others to believe the wearer is a less credible person (O’Neal & Lapitsky, 1991). In O’Neal and Lapitsky’s 1991 study, it was found that consumers believed a salesperson was both more credible and more convincing when the salesperson’s attire was appropriate to the situation. This means is that an audience is more likely to believe a presenter if they believe he or she dressed in an appropriate manner. In other words, considering potential audience and situations can protect one’s credibility.

If a personal confidence boost is not enough reason to take care when creating a personal appearance, consider that increased confidence may make oneself more believable to others. Engineers often act as advisors to clients and teammates on a variety of challenging technical issues, so being considered trustworthy is very valuable in the workplace. Sah, Moore, and MacCoun (2013) showed that for competent advisors, expressing more confidence made their clients more likely to believe the advisor and less likely to double-check the advisor’s recommendation. If a change of wardrobe can increase one’s confidence, the change may be visible to others and pay dividends in a variety of interactions. This can be especially valuable when making first impressions at a career fair or approaching a speaker after class.

Also of note is the effect that certain wardrobe and grooming elements have on customers’ perception of service quality. While a uniform generally elicits a positive response, wardrobe and grooming elements such as tattoos, unconventional hairstyles or colors, sweatpants, facial piercings, or ripped clothing all reduced the perceived service received by a customer (Karl, Hall, Peluchette, 2013). While some of these elements may be used fashionably, moderation is very important to avoiding negative consequences to a career or relationship.

Varying Standards

Without a doubt, the outcomes described above will vary greatly depending on intricacies of each situation and a multitude of other variables. However, the effect of gender has been measured in relation to the perception of appearance. Research appears to conclude that the perceived effect of clothing is different, all else equal, for women than it is for men. Forsythe (1987) showed that when females wore more feminine clothing to a job interview, they were perceived to possess weaker management skills that are considered typically male, such as “objective,” “ambitious,” and “forceful.” Their clothing did not affect the perception about their “feminine” management skills, such as “intuitive,” “helpful,” and “efficient.” However, when females wore more masculine clothing, their interviewers believed they possessed stronger “male” leadership skills. Again, it is important to consider what information an outfit may convey based on the desired outcome.

First Impressions

First impressions, made before either party even has the chance to speak or consciously judge, have been shown in numerous psychological studies to have great influence over how one party judges the other for the rest of a relationship. Clients’ perception of an advisor’s trustworthiness and quality of advice were highly correlated with their first impression of that advisor. Long after the initial meeting, the client’s beliefs about the advisor could be predicted by how they judged him in the first few minutes of their relationship (Bergeron, 2008).

However, first impressions can be formed in less than a second. Willis (2008) showed that a subject made judgments about a face in just one tenth of a second. Allowing the subject to view the face for longer, even for a full two seconds, did not change their opinion of the face. This means that even with time to reflect, new acquaintances have formed the majority of their opinion of somebody based on their appearance. Hygiene and grooming factor into this first impression quite a bit. Rosacea, a skin condition that causes facial skin to appear red, was shown to have extremely negative effects upon first impression. Rosacea sufferers were judged to be shyer, less charismatic, less likely to be in a relationship, and embarrassed (Business Wire, 2014). Clearly, grooming habits that improve skin quality and other easily visible traits can have a positive effect on interactions.

Application to Senior Project

There are several circumstances when an understanding of proper personal appearance has benefitted my Senior Design Project team (the Scarlet Team). When we met with  our project sponsor, an appearance of professionalism, reliability, and preparedness gave him confidence to fund the purchase of several tools that were critical to our final product. Occasional status reports were more compelling because they appeared to be delivered by a coordinated group of engineers rather than tired, disheveled students. The video project will be shown to prospective parents, students and donors, so an appearance of success will lead to greater interest in the Engineering School in the future. Our project sponsor occasionally introduced our team to potential employers . Being prepared for unexpected meetings led sponsors to offer assistance with the job search on more than one occasion.

When our group presents status reports to the class at Friday morning meetings, we plan ahead of time to coordinate the group’s appearance. It is not necessary to specify colors, but having each group member maintain a similar level of formality conveys preparedness and respect for the audience, while also instilling confidence in them and in us.

At the group’s year-end project presentation to sponsors, department heads, and external shareholders, we plan to wear more formal attire. This will not be a time when we need to be particularly creative ; rather, our goal will be to convey confidence in our design and results and show case to the audience our successful execution of the proje ct. Coordinated suits will make our group appear more knowledgeable, professional, and trustworthy.

Senior Design is unique among engineering courses because of the frequency with which it brings in guest speakers from many areas of engineering and business. This knowledge is valuable because students can prepare themselves for these encounters fairly easily: every class period, it is possible to meet somebody employed in that student’s area of interest. No correct outfit for class can be prescribed, but students can prepare themselves for success if they choose clothing that makes them feel confident and appear competent.

Cited References

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  • Forsythe, S. M. (1987). Effect of Clothing on Perception of Masculine and Feminine Managerial Traits. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 65, 531 –534. DOI: 10.2466/pms.1987.65.2.531
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  • New Survey Finds People with Rosacea Are More Likely to Be Judged Negatively upon First Impression Than People with Clear Skin. Business Wire, April 22, 2014. Retrieved from ProQuest database.
  • O’Neal, G. S., & Lapitsky, M. (1991). Effects of Clothing as Nonverbal Communication on Credibility of the Message Source. Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, 9, 28 –34. DOI: 10.1177/0887302X9100900305
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  • Willis, J., and Todorov, A., (2006). First Impressions: Making Up Your Mind After a 100-Ms Exposure to a Face. Psychological Science, 17.7, 592–598.
    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01750.x Also available at http://tlab.princeton.edu/publications/
  • Woodhouse, J. (2013). Concept analysis of personal grooming: making sense of self-presentation. Royal College of Nursing. Retrieved from https://www.rcn.org.uk/development/research_and_innovation/rs/2013_-_annual_conference/concurrent_sessions_2013/thursday_21_march_2013

See Also