Will Wardrobe Engineering Save Mark Zuckerberg?

The world waited with great anticipation: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance before the Congressional Commerce and Judiciary Committee was finally beginning on April 10, 2018. Zuckerberg was summoned to discuss Facebook’s “privacy” policy and data breaches, which left millions of Facebook users’ personal data exposed to global trolls.

Rather than focusing on what Zuckerberg was saying, the media and late night pundits focused on something quite different: The Suit. Zuckerberg had traded in his signature gray tee shirt, blue jeans and sneakers for a more corporate look. Headlines focused on The Suit. The Washington Post headline read: Mark Zuckerberg is one of the suits. Now he’d better learn to get comfortable in one.

As the news media clamored to get the best shot of the “new and improved” Zuckerberg, I expected a reporter from E News to pop up ala runway style and ask, “Who are you wearing today, Mark?” To which Zuckerberg would confidently reply, “Marc Jacobs. That’s Marc with a c.” The brilliance of his dazzling smile would shatter the camera lens as he continued walking to the hearing.

But I digress.

What the media is paying such close attention to is known as Wardrobe Engineering. Defined as “how clothing and accessories are used to create a certain image,” what image do you think Zuckerberg was going for? The “I’m not guilty” image? The “I’m a successful, responsible American entrepreneur” image? The “You can trust me” image? The “I’m just like you” image? The New York Times called it the “I’m sorry suit.” The Times even created a “greatest suits appearances” slide show just for The Suit. Only time will tell how The Suit is ultimately interpreted by Congress.

Every politician, titan of industry and celebrity knows how to effectively wardrobe engineer. We all know that color plays an important role when you represent a certain political party, like how often Republicans wear red and Democrats wear blue. It’s no accident. And red, white and blue, well, that is just so absolutely, positively American, and safe. Then everyone will love you and vote for you, right?

Will wardrobe engineering save Mark Zuckerberg, though? It will take a lot more than a stylish suit to convince Congress. Or will it?

Watching this event unfold in the national news, I was reminded of my favorite graduate-level course on rhetorical criticism. The course’s book, Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice, was written by an academic communication scholar and rhetorical criticism expert, Dr. Sonja K. Foss. She defines rhetorical criticism as “a process of thinking about symbols, discovering how they work, why they affect us, and choosing to communicate in particular ways as a result of the options they present.” I remember vividly the moment when I understood the process of rhetorical criticism. It was as if a magic force cleansed my eyes so I could see more clearly and completely. When you look at the world and major events as they unfold, through the lens of rhetorical criticism, every piece of the picture – verbal and nonverbal communication, physical objects, and symbols – all take on a whole new meaning.

In her book, Foss emphasizes that rhetoric goes beyond just written and spoken discourse. According to Foss, symbolism is found in all forms of communication, such as “speeches, essays, conversations, poetry, novels, stories, television programs, films, art, architecture, plays, music, dance, advertisements, furniture, public demonstrations, and dress.” And I would add public hearings. In graduate-level rhetorical criticism classes right now, even though it’s nearing the end of the semester, students are sinking their teeth into this juicy news story and extracting meaning from every blink, gesture, vocal nuance, physical stance, room set-up, and yes, attire.

Professional image icon John T. Molloy wrote in his 1975 seminal book, Dress for Success, “Dress for the job you want, not for the job you have.” In Zuckerberg’s case, we’ll see where his wardrobe engineering leads him.

What professionals can learn from this very public hearing is that when it comes to telling your part of the story, it’s not just what The Suit looks like, it’s the meaning behind The Suit. A bigger question to ask is: What captures the essential, most important element: The truth?

Photo credit: Igor Ovsyannykov on Unsplash.com

Baby Boomers: Remain Current and In Style


David Byrne’s Big Suit Circa 1980s

As a Baby Boomer, I am becoming increasingly aware of how other people perceive my age group. Seventy-six million strong, Baby Boomers have reshaped the workplace, providing greater opportunities for the generations that follow us. If you are a Baby Boomer and choose to remain in the workplace in the coming years rather than retire, ask yourself: Are you remaining current in your look as a professional? Or are you stuck in the 1980s, still wearing suits with shoulder pads twice the size of your body? If you are, burn them now. Don’t bother donating them to charity because they don’t want them either. It’s time to clean out your closet and update your look. When you remain current and in style, you elevate your level of professionalism.

I recently attended a fun afternoon at a friend’s home, enjoying an image consultant’s presentation. All attendees were asked to bring a favorite jacket or accessory. I chose my favorite robin’s egg blue suit jacket. The little voice inside my head had told me many times that it was outdated, yet, it remained in my closet. Sure enough, I tried it on in front of eight other women and their reaction was clear. “It makes you look old.” Ugh! I then modeled a suit jacket with a more tailored body and shorter cut and voila!…the reaction “WOW! You look fabulous!” resonated throughout the room. I heard the message loud and clear. It’s time to replace the old with the new.

I have seen many Baby Boomers like me in the workplace, wearing clothing that is either outdated or tired looking. The result: The people themselves look outdated. Suits today range in price from affordable $50-$100 new, on sale or at quality resale shops, up to several thousand dollars, depending on your taste (and budget). You can still look like a million dollars with limited funds.

How current are you? Take an afternoon to try on your professional wardrobe in front of a mirror. How does your wardrobe make you look? Youthful? Vibrant? Out of touch? By adding a few fashion forward pieces to your wardrobe each year, including scarves and jewelry for women and new shirts and ties for men, you can take off years from your life.

Now look at your hair style.

Men: If you want to look younger and more attractive, ditch the bad comb-over and shave your head. Yul Brynner started it – shaving his head – in 1951 for the lead role in The King and I and look where it took his acting career. He maintained that look for the rest of his life.

Women: If your hair is big in any way, then it’s stuck in the 80s. Ask your stylist to give you a more current hair cut and style. Do the same with your makeup. What are the current colors? Remember, powder blue eye shadow looked good on Twiggy back in the 1960s (and bright turquoise eye shadow looked good on Mimi on the Drew Carey Show for comic effect only). Ask a professional what make-up complements your coloring.

People will notice the difference in the “new and improved” you. They will most likely ask if you lost weight.

Your outward appearance is one way to demonstrate your level of professionalism. As you mature, remain current in your wardrobe choices so that you look vibrant, vital and stylish. Two questions: What are you doing to enhance your professional look? What simple, inexpensive changes are you making that will help you look more current and in style?

All due respect to David Byrne of the Talking Heads: Nobody wore the “big suit” better than you! I remain a huge fan.

Note: Baby Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964.


Are You Managing Impressions?

MasksScottChanFreeDigitalPhotosnetHow are you presenting yourself to others? What impression are you making? Sociologist Erving Goffman developed the social role theory, which states that we manage other people’s impressions of us by how we present ourselves to them. In his 1959 groundbreaking book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman says that as we manage other people’s impressions of us (he coined the phrase impression management), we assume and play many roles, much like actors on stage.

Impression management is defined as “a person altering or changing his/her self-presentation to create appearances to satisfy particular audiences.” Goffman says that people are the actors “performing” on a stage, using a variety of props if they choose to use them, and that they can perform for an audience or just for themselves. The essence of impression management theory is that we all play various roles in our lives. We often play several different roles throughout each day.

Roles have certain clothing and accessories that accompany them. Think of the costumes actors wear as they perform. Some roles are more closely aligned to who we are underneath it all, and other roles are a far stretch from who we truly are. It’s why we often buy a new suit to wear to an important client presentation; we want to embrace the role of a successful business executive. Goffman also says that impression management can either “hide negative attributes or enhance a person’s status” or “increase or decrease a person’s position of status.” For instance, your role as spouse is very different from your role as supervisor at work. You may manage impressions less at home than at work because you have the freedom to be your true self at home. The roles that we play require us to wear masks. Behind the mask is our real identity. With roles come expectations. As a supervisor, for example, there are certain expectations that come with that role. For instance, it is expected that the supervisor will oversee the work of direct reports, will keep in constant contact with them to measure their progress, and will offer guidance when needed.

It is important for us to understand impression management because we assume so many different roles — business professional, volunteer, community leader, friend, spouse, committee member or neighbor — and so do the people around us. Some many people manage their impressions so tightly that they become something other than who they truly are inside. When managing impressions, remember to be your authentic self. How are you presenting yourself? How are you managing impressions?

Image courtesy of Scott Chan, FreeDigitalPhotos.net