Why do we still have power suits with shoulder pads?


Does it matter, when you’re rich, powerful or influential, whether you fill out that Boss suit or opt for hoodies and homeless-chic in the boardroom?

In Silicon Valley, the answer is clearly no. It doesn’t matter.

If you’re a partying prince of the Middle East, again, no.

When your net worth hovers somewhere around the USD26 billion mark, all market fluctuations being equal, you can wear whatever you damn well want. That seems to be the reasoning.

If you have proven you have the ability to earn that much even after paying the salaries of those that run the wheels of your empire, it seems reasonable that you should be allowed to do as you please. Clearly, that amount of money means you don’t have to live with your parents, so you can do damn well as you please.

So why dress as if you still do live with your parents? (Looking at you, Zuck.)

If non-conformity or the sartorial equivalent of the middle finger is the new status symbol, then perhaps too many newly-minted nouveau riche need to revisit the definition of status?

The same can be observed with other supposed forms of social rebellion against the norms of wealth or power displays. Billionaires — regardless of whether they’ve worked their way there or were simply born into wealth — have been known to eschew the unspoken rules of power and status by engaging in openly-contemptuous behaviour such as a complete disregard for table manners and traffic laws.

The good folks at the Journal of Consumer Research did some (lots, actually) asking around and made some interesting discoveries.

Firstly, if you’re walking in to Valentino in Milan, the store staff are more likely to judge you as wealthier and more important if you stride in kitted out in gym wear and insouciance, rather than an expensive outfit and a Rolex. It seems the audacity to do so spells your readiness to drop several thousands on an item without giving a toss what anyone thinks.

But it doesn’t work on the pavement. Casual onlookers, said the good researchers, are more likely to think you are wealthy and important when you dress the part rather than if you’re rocking the hoodie and New Balance combo.

A similar result happens in the university lecture hall; students are more likely to judge a clean-shaven, tie-and-blazer wearing don as more learned rather than one who is bearded and in a t-shirt.

The upshot? You can only deviate from the norm when you know what the norm is.

So if you really want to demonstrate your (financial / social) superiority by dressing badly, know your playground first.


Editor’s Note: But if you really want to stand out, be original. In case the game of social acceptance hasn’t properly confused you yet.