Sense for Fashion: Does It Matter?

In the wake of The New York Times’article that questioned the relationship of Sen. John McCain to a female telecom lobbyist, executive editor Bill Keller expressed his amazement over reader backlash to the story. It seems that even the left-leaning readers of the ‘Old Gray Lady’ were not shy about expressing their displeasure over what many characterized as a thinly sourced story that made accusations without much substance.

We at Baselineexperience a similar phenomenon with our “Gaffes Keeping Geeks Out of the Board Room” slide show about the fashion faux pas IT guys make that keep them from climbing the corporate ladder.

Is this report groundbreaking or revolutionary? Hardly. The guy who shows up at the office in socks and sandals, stained T-shirts and unkempt hair often does lose out on career opportunities. It’s not just in IT; it’s endemic to every industry.

Is this report groundbreaking or revolutionary? Hardly. The guy who shows up at the office in socks and sandals, stained T-shirts and unkempt hair often does lose out on career opportunities. It’s not just in IT; it’s endemic to every industry.

Some of the most popular stories on the Web site of Baselineand our sister publications are about IT salaries and career opportunities. This slide show was designed to be both amusing and helpful in pointing out some of the more common (and obvious) fashion gaffes.

Some readers, however, didn’t see the value or entertainment in this slide show. As one reader wrote, “I didn’t subscribe for comic relief, so what’s your point? Am I supposed to be laughing like a management idiot at the valuable people who make net publication possible, or am I supposed to be offended because you are insulting our dress code? I don’t mind having a little fun with serious topics, but in my mind this article misses the mark.”

Another Web poster made this statement: “Personally, I doubt if the author has ever been near a boardroom, except maybe to clean it. The things that really keep geeks out of the boardroom, in no particular order, are: No desire. Geeks prefer using technology, not talking about refinancing, corporate strategies and golf; No need. Why would a CEO or even a CIO for that matter, know how to write—or want to write—Perl scripts?; Too honest. Geeks don’t have the killer instinct to knife people in the back just to get their job. Let’s keep this kind of trashy article in its place in the tabloids.”

This reader also thumbed his nose at the very notion that fashion sense has anything to do with an individual’s success. “Number-one thing keeping anybody out of the boardroom is reading this tripe! If you want to make it, get off your ass and do something worthwhile. Nothing gets rewarded faster than making bosses look good and the company some extra buckaroos. Even better—screw the company and do it for yourself. Then you can hire your former bosses and pick on their fashion sense. Oh yeah, by the way, my qualifications—two successful independent companies—now happily independent with the corporate world left behind. And I did it barefoot.”

While I know some people will take issue with such tongue-in-cheek reports and presentations, preferring more purist technical and business content, I was surprised that people actually took issue with the notion that a person’s personal appearance has anything to do with opportunity and success.

If individuality and alternative fashion had no bearing on a person’s success, then why do so many dot-com millionaires immediately change their image when they have money? Why is it that as people climb the corporate ladder, they stop shopping at Wal-Mart and start buying their clothes at Nordstrom? If image didn’t make a difference, then why are there so many executives and mid-level managers driving BMWs and Porsches?

The slide show did have its supporters. As this reader commented: “Do I have perfect fashion sense? I’m a geek, what do we know about fashion? But do I take this article so seriously as to think it’s offensive? It’s amusing and actually can have some value to its readers so long as you sift the data from the opinions. The point is that boardrooms are very formal settings. I work for a large manufacturing company, and our IT department is business casual. It’s not unheard of to see senior management and execs show up to meetings in full suits. Are they pretentious idiots? Some, yes. Most aren’t; they’re just respecting the profession. There are things in the business world worth fighting over in respect to geeks. This article does not cover any of them.”

Fashion sense, individual image and corporate norms are often subjective. Should corporate suits give more respect to IT pros who choose to dress down or wear spiked hair? Should IT guys take more care in matching the color of their belt and shoes? In the end, personal performance and conducting good business are paramount. If you can do that while donned in a Hawaiian shirt, more power to you.

Lawrence M. Walsh is editor of Baseline. Send him your thoughts on the relationship between personal image and career opportunities at [email protected].