Bargain in your pajamas, or blog in suit and tie

Johan Almenberg, a loyal MR reader, asks about:

A world in which the difference between office clothing and athletic clothing has been eroded because people work better when they are comfortable.

Under one hypothesis, signaling would break down an all-pajamas equilibrium [TC: oddly I don’t find athletic clothing all that comfortable].  Jamie Cutthroat could look just a little better than his workplace competitor by putting on his tie. 

But if wasteful signaling is the operative force, employers can internalize those externalities in many cases.  A workplace with few outside visitors or external appointments should seek to minimize signaling costs by imposing a maximum dress code (e.g, no ties), not a minimum dress code.  I have heard that Google enforces casual wear on everyone, but maximum dress codes are rare in the corporate world.  Furthermore even minimum dress codes should be subject to "cheating": OK, you can’t wear a tie but the market will provide super nice (and uncomfortable) T-shirts and the signal-constrained employees will wear them to send a new and hitherto unregulated signal.  How much does this happen?

Alternatively, dressing up actually might make people more productive, but then would not at least a few of us blog in suit and tie?

In short, I don’t have a theory of corporate dress that fits the major data points.  My best guess is that signaling by dress is often an efficient means of sorting — Jamie Cutthroat really does want the promotion more than I do — and thus the employer does not want to ban it.

Comments

Your comments are predicated on the supposition that signaling within the workplace is a pure cost. In fact, intra-workplace signaling can be very valuable to a company, especially a large one, as it allows high performers to seek each other out and form cooperative ventures.

I do not need to wear a suit for work. But for some occasions I do. I do want to convey the message: "this instance (e.g. a presentation) is very important to me, so I am wearing my best suit". Other times, I come in jeans, which are definitely more uncomfortable than thin Super 130s wool suit trousers. But I need to do that, to keep the efficacy of the message "I care", when necessary.

Is this unusual?

This is one of those places where I feel a culture clash from being a teacher (in a prep school with a fairly formal dress code) when most of my friends are computer nerds (who probably only get dressed to avoid being arrested, and in fact in my husband's former workplace one of his colleagues typically worked naked).

But it's hard for me to imagine a world where dressing casually is more productive in *all* jobs. In programming, where you want to be minimally distracted by your body so your mind can groove out, sure, why not. But in my job, where I'm supposed to command the respect of teenagers and maintain a level of decorum? In londenio's presentations? Cargo pants do not, on net, help me do my job better (moreover they are explicitly against dress code).

Enh. Perhaps in a few decades culture will have changed enough that suits no longer connote any kind of respect or authority, and casual wear is fine for ever occasion...but I doubt it. I suspect fashion will always find some sort of bizarre clothing people are expected to wear in jobs facing the public.

There are lots of kinds of signalling: "I can afford to dress this way," "I take good care of myself," "I follow general fashion," and "I am in such-and-such faction," for example. My impression is that the traditional business attire is largely a historical leftover from when the first kind was a very strong signal, and "business casual" is largely an acknowledgement that today so many people can afford that particular "I can afford it" signal that it has become less interesting. Is there anyone out there who thinks business casual has much of an impact on the other kinds of signalling? That wasn't my impression...

Working in pajamas or other comfy clothes doesn't eliminate the possibility of signaling. The pjs could be made of more expensive fabrics or made by well-known designers.

would not at least a few of us blog in suit and tie?

A suit and tie is a little far, but I really do ditch my t-shirt and jeans and slip into business casual when I have an important project that requires peak productivity - even when I will complete the project (say, writing a final paper) alone in my room.

Men's suits are evil. The worst type of clothing ever invented.

My personal rule is that when you are trying to convince someone to give you $1M or more, put on a tie.

I often find that I'm more productive when I dress up a little--it helps me to emotionally frame my activities. Speaking for myself, I would find work depressing if I was wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt and would probably get less done.

That said, I'm a graduate student and the dress code certainly doesn't require a tie (almost) ever.

When Red Auerbach was leading the Celtics he required suit and tie for his players to and from games. They were the most successful team in basketball, perhaps in all of sports.
They have since relaxed the dress code, and are no longer so successful.
Coincidence or cause?

Google's policy makes perfect sense because clothing signals in the IT industry run (mostly) in the opposite direction: suit = incompetence. I'm always dismayed when someone comes to an interview wearing a suit because despite my best efforts to shed this bias, it creates an assumption right off the bat that they suck.

I'm afraid I still don't know what is being signaled by a suit? On one hand you have the distinction between professional and non-professional; I want to hire the one who actually went to college and worked in an office, not a beach bum. But further up the spectrum, a suit seems a pretty lousy signal, since a bad worker can acquire a nice suit fairly easily.

I would argue that a dress code reveals far more information; a manager who imposes a dress code without a clear and rational reason is unlikely to have superb judgment in hiring.

I want to second what Noah Yetter said. During the dot-com boom I went to all my interviews in jeans and a t-shirt, and it was common knowledge that any programmer in a suit was obviously incompetent. It signaled "I'm not confident enough to wear jeans" and "I don't know that you can wear jeans-- i.e. I'm a newbie". In reality, some of them had simply been working for IBM or something, where they had a dress-code. But those of us from the dot.com didn't see it that way, so when they came around looking for job we all pointed and laughed.

[TC: oddly I don't find athletic clothing all that comfortable]

The key is boxer-briefs and new heavy cotton ankle socks.

The signalling of an expensive suit is "I don't do physical labor."

A few random points.
The necktie is derived from an item worn by the aristocracy which was so designed as to preclude doing any useful work. It signified a person who didn't need to work. Naturally it was taken over by the working class and misapplied.

Many professions wear a "costume" because their clients expect it. The BBC just ran an article on a new directive in the UK that doctors should wear short sleeves so as better to be able to wash properly. There was a discussion of whether patients would trust them as much if they weren't in a long white coat.

The practice of wearing a professional dress was much more common in prior times. There is a great collection of photographs from the first half of the 20th Century by August Sander who made documenting this his life's work. Here's a link to a representative sample:
http://www.artphotogallery.org/02/artphotogallery/photographers/august_sander_01.html

"oddly I don't find athletic clothing all that comfortable"
Maybe thats because you are working out in them. Try putting them on and then doing nothing. AHHHH Feels good.

In Oregon a lot of people dress like they're on their way to the mountains to go camping. I'm sure to them this is the height of comfort, but I feel more comfortable when I'm NOT dressed like a dork. So, I'd prefer to wear slacks and dress shoes to work instead of shorts and sandals.

An unsubstantiated hypothesis:

There could be an even more "biological" explanation. Suits are designed to enhance the male form. All suit jackets have some level of shoulder padding, and a good suit "fits well" which in many cases means shaping the upper body towards a broad-shoulder, thin-waist appearance.

This male form is more attractive to women (many women like men in suits and military uniform) and probably to other men. Broad shoulders has always been a form of showing strength or power of the male subject.

So suits make men more confident and attractive in general. This is important in business and politics, where leadership and persuasion are important elements for success.

stephanie: " I believe that when you dress up to do your job, you are more confident because you look nicer. "

Whatever works for you, Stephanie. But is it right to assume that everyone needs "dressy" clothes to be confident? I'm fairly certain that all those folks at Southwest Airlines headquarters, who all wear either jeans or shorts and T-shirts, are every bit as confident as headquarters employees anywhere else. In fact, they may be more confident because they know they were selected out of many thousands who were not. As a group they must be incredibly confident after kicking the backsides of all the other airlines for a couple of decades.

Chesty woman,

I'm all for allowing everyone to wear what is comfortable. If "professional" attire suits you better, go for it. But, if you are in a position to do so, please don't impose "chesty woman" fashions on those of us who are "mammary deprived".

The IT scruffy dress thing is ALSO signalling. In this case, the signal is something along the lines of "I'm so good at what I do, I don't NEED to dress up to be employable." By not following the dress code and getting away with it, widmerpool is trumpeting his own importance, just as much as the guy in the $5000 Italian suit is. It is also an in-class signal - "I am of the geek class, not one of the suits." It only works to the extent that in-class policing is effective - if the incompetent are allowed to dress down as much as the good, then the signal will fail.

Outside IT, dressing up - suit and tie - is a signal of seriousness and respect. Hence, wearing a suit to ask for $1M, or for a presentation, or for clients, or whatever. "You can trust me with your money, see I have money, and have good taste and spend it well." The same signal banks used to send with vaulted lobbies and marble floors.

Also, people, including our original poster, seem to be confusing the economic concept of signaling with the general idea of "sending a message". Signaling is about engaging in a costly behavior to indicate an underlying trait, while other forms of message-sending work in other ways, such as through arbitrary conventions.

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Not every social phenomenon has an economic explanation.

What!!??

I'm glad there are a few commenters who suggest that there are those, including maybe themselves, who just like to dress well. It's really not all that uncomfortable. Get a shirt the right size and a tie will cease to be annoying. Forget the generic blazer and khaki look, and when you buy a suit get something with some life - not politician blue - and you might be surprised.

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I'd blog wearing a shirt and tie (if I blogged), but thats just my personal preference, without any doubt I am far more productive wearing shirt and tie.

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tough stance, the problem with the suit and tie is that different industries think of it as two totally different things. In the finance, corporate world it means you're successful, in the internet world, it means you never made it and have to wear nice clothing to make up for it.

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