URJHS Volume 7

URC

College Student’s Perception of Clothing that Projects a Professional Image

Ayisha Thompson
Shirley Hymon-Parker*
University of Maryland Eastern Shore


Abstract

Research was conducted among African American female junior and senior college students at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore to determine their perception of professional dress and how it affects one’s personal image. Participants responded to questions in a pictorial survey that grouped clothing into four categories: trendy, semi-trendy, classy, and professional. Although the majority of the participants selected clothing that was categorized as professional, it was clear that respondents’ career aspirations affected their choice.

Introduction

In the earlier years, people mainly wore clothes to protect their bodies from the weather. In current years, the reasons that people chose to wear clothes range from it being a life necessity to an escape for personal individuality. “Fashion is one of the world’s oldest fountains of youth,” as “with every new garment, one discovers a new self” (Duchter, 2002, p. 29-30). Individuals’ personal style portrays their self-image. People develop their self-image by using “image management, the conscious or unconscious attempt to control images that are projected during social interaction” (Sweat & Zeaner, 1985, p. 321). A positive self-image defines character, boosts self-confidence, expresses individuality, portrays social status, and supplies the satisfaction of dressing according to one’s beliefs and culture.

Review of Literature

Image is important as it determines the way in which an individual is perceived. According to ECG, a strategic image consulting company, people can form perceptions from persons’ professionalism, level of sophistication, intelligence, and credibility (Dress Speak For Women, 2005). In fact, communication statistics reveal that these characteristics, whether accurate or false, can be determined about an individual in only 5-30 seconds (Job-Interview, 2003). According to the Fairchild County Business Journal (2005), true professionals know instinctively that in order to be taken seriously, professional dress is required. They dress to impress and promote respect, enhance their authority, and assist in gaining advancement opportunities.

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2004 almost three million women ages 20-54 were working. Of that figure 345,000 were African Americans working in professional positions (US Department of Labor, 2005). A professional individual is someone with a higher degree of knowledge or skill in a particular field, for instance, a marketer, interior designer, banker, etc (American Heritage Dictionary, 2000). Giving the growing number of the women in the workforce and those entering professional positions, it is important to dress appropriate for the workplace. By focusing on the business wardrobe of women who work in corporate offices, one can get a better understanding of how to dress appropriately for work. How an individual is perceived can significantly impact one’s effectiveness. The way one dresses plays a major role in how one is perceived.

Research Purpose

Although the rate of women entering the workforce and professional positions has increased, this increase does not exist for African American women. The low rate at which African American women are employed in professional positions may be attributed to dress issues that many young African American women face when entering the workplace as their clothing choices tend to be too trendy or revealing. Professional image is important to businesses as it increases their profitability and sales, raises the effectiveness in meeting the needs of the consumers, and promotes a more professional environment.

The purpose of this research was to identify professional dress standards for African American women ages 20-30 planning to work in corporate America. This study surveyed African American students at the University Of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES) to identify what they deemed to be appropriate professional wear for women today. The resulting information could serve as a basic wardrobe guide for African American women planning to work in offices; women currently working in professional careers who aspire to advance within the company; corporations and businesses interested in establishing dress standards (codes); and women who may be interested in business styles that not only meet the office dress code but also satisfies a woman’s need for creating a positive self-image.

The research results can also be helpful to journalists, stylists, magazine editors, publicists, and fashion directors as the nature of their work is impacted by fashion trends. The most immediate and targeted group that this study will benefit is college students planning to work in corporate America.

It is important for employees of corporate businesses to present a professional image within the workplace. Clients of these businesses expect to interact with individuals that project a professional look. How an employee dresses affects the way in which the business is perceived and can impact the business either negatively or positively. It is this researcher’s belief that African American women face problems when trying to adhere to the appropriate dress standards for work in corporate offices or they believe that purchasing the appropriate professional garments will be too expensive. This research provides information on clothing that participants deemed appropriate for professional dress.

The research can make a significant difference in several ways: (a) increase women’s awareness of the need for a professional wardrobe and how it can help improve their chances of being promoted as well as achieving their desired level of success in the workplace; (b) promote a more professional environment for companies that desire to increase their effectiveness in meeting the needs of its consumers; and (c) demonstrate the importance of dress to self-image.

Methods and Procedures

The purpose of this research was to determine what female African American students’ perceive to be appropriate professional dress for today’s working woman. Following approval from the University’s Institutional Review Board, the researcher contacted the chairs of the Departments of Business and Human Ecology to identify junior and senior level classes. The instructors of these classes were contacted and permission sought to attend their class for the last 10 minutes to distribute surveys .The survey requested basic demographic information on each participant and asked the individual to respond to questions regarding her perception of appropriate professional clothing based on a sample pictorial guide (Appendix A). Responses from the surveys were analyzed using basic statistical analysis.

The surveys were distributed in twenty business and human ecology classes during the months of March through October 2006. Students were asked to sign a consent form before completing the survey. There were 120 surveys completed but only 110 were useable.

Data analysis was conducted using the SPSS 11.5 version. The surveys were analyzed through the t-test graphs. The independent variables investigated were the consumer’s career aspirations and the influence of fashion on clothing interest. The respondents’ career aspirations were measured using the chi-square test. The dependent variable was based on the choices the respondents made based upon the survey pictures. Each pictorial image was classified into four categories: trendy, semi-trendy, classy and professional. Each category was determined based on the following description. The pictures labeled as trendy were considered to be fads, fashions that depict the youthful population with a lifespan of a year or less. The semi-trendy category illustrated faddish pieces with a lifespan of two years or more. The classy category consisted of the more upscale but fashionable pieces, and the professional category depicted the broader classic look that remains the same for years—the clothing staple in most women’s wardrobe.

Results

Of the 110 surveys analyzed 66 were human ecology and 44 were business students. The sample size consisted of 62 juniors and 48 seniors with the average age being 20 years (Table 1).

Students’ majors and the pictorial categories were cross tabulated to determine students’ clothing preference in each category. The students rated the clothing as follows: in dress suits, both majors choose the professional look (41% each). In the pants suits category both majors showed a strong preference to the semi-trendy look (44 percent and 36 percent respectively). The professional look was also highly favored as evidenced by the fact that 32 percent of each group selected this look.

Table 1. Major and Classification of Participants

Major

Classification

Human Ecology

Business

Junior

Senior

66 44 62 48

The classy look was the highest rated in the dresses category with 46 percent of each group preferring that particular style followed closely by the professional look with 39 percent of human ecology majors and 36 percent of the business majors selecting this look. The professional look was by far the best preference for jackets with 59 percent of human ecology and 50 percent of business majors selecting this look.

In the category of the blouses 41 percent of human ecology and 39 percent of business majors chose both the classy and professional look as the best options. And in the slacks category 53 percent human Ecology and 59 percent of business students chose the classy look. Seventy-four percent of human ecology and 55 percent of business majors preferred the professional look in the skirts category.

The result of this study indicated that most respondents shared similar perspectives on professional dress. Students from both majors chose a combination of clothing that were mainly professional and classy looks. In four of the seven categories surveyed, the professional look was most preferred (dress suits, jackets, blouses and skirts) (Table 2).

Table 2. Clothing Choices Based on Pictorial Survey

 Category /Style

 

Trendy

Semi-trendy

Classy

Professional

Human Ecology

Business

Human Ecology

Business

Human Ecology

Business

Human Ecology

Business

Dress Suits

12%

25%

 20%

 14%

27%

20%

41%

41%

Pants Suits

4%

 5%

 44%

 36%

 20%

 27%

 31%

 31%

Dresses

 4%

 7%

 12%

 11%

 45%

 45%

 39%

 36%

Jackets

20%

 23%

 12%

 20%

 9%

 7%

 59%

 50%

Blouses/Tops

9%

 16%

69%

 7%

 41%

 39%

 41%

 39%

Slacks

15%

 16%

 5%

 7%

 53%

 59%

 27%

 8%

Skirts

 11%

 16%

 15%

 18%

 0

 7%

 74%

 55%

 

Based on responses given for career goals, it is conceivable that student’s career aspiration played a major role in their clothing decisions. Participants interested in marketing/advertising/public relations preferred the classy clothing look, whereas those interested in merchandising/design and education/healthcare/food service careers preferred a more professional look (Table 3). Thirty-five percent of the participants indicated that they planned to spend an average of $200-$399 a month and 31 percent planned to spend $400-$599 a month on their professional wardrobe (Figure 1).

Table 3. Clothing Preference Based on Career Choices

Figure 1. Projected Monthly Spending on Professional Clothing

Although the chi-square test provided definite information, the results were not significant due perhaps to stimuli biases within the pictorial surveys. The photos included features such as hair and accessories, which may have influenced the students’ perception when rating the garments. Therefore in future studies, appropriate measures should be taken to prevent biases. A preferred method for developing the pictorial survey would be to hire a professional model to wear all the pieces and eliminate elements such as accessories or body features.

Discussion

As a result of this study, it is clear that college students have a well-defined perception of what is considered professional dress. It was noted that participants tended to select more professional and classy clothing based on their chosen profession. The student classifications had very little influence on perception of professionalism. It was also evident that regardless of career aspiration, major or classification, most respondents preferred clothing that was defined as professional attire for the workplace but still featured elements of current trends (a flare of the classy look). It is yet to be determined whether the anticipated monthly expenditures for clothing are realistic.

Conclusion

The objective of this study was to determine what type of clothing African American college students perceived as professional dress. The results of this study revealed that the students had an accurate perception of clothing that was appropriate for working in a corporate environment. The majority of the students selected clothing defined as professional in four of the seven categories (dress suits, jackets, blouses, skirts) and classy in two of the categories (dresses and slacks). Participants desired more flexibility in pantsuits as the semi-trendy look was the preferred style. Based on their responses students also had a clear understanding of the importance of projecting a professional image in the workplace.

An individual’s dress standards can greatly affect one’s image and professional aspirations. According to the research, individuals seem to understand that their professional dress influences their image.

References

Andre, M. (2004). Ready To Wear: An Expert’s Guide To Choosing and Using Your Wardrobe. New York: Perigee Books.

Dichter, E. (1985). Why We Dress the Way We Do. The Psychology of Fashion. New York: Lexington Books.

ECG Library. (2005) Best Business Attire For Women. Dress Speak For Women: Sometimes Your Clothing Says More Than You Do. Retrieved Feb. 2, 2006, from http://www.ecglink.com/library/ps/dress-women.html.

How to dress to impress. (June 20, 2005). In Fairfield County Business Journal, 44, pS7(1). Retrieved April 03, 2007, from Business and Company ASAP via ThomsonGale: http://libproxy.fitsuny.edu...

Job-Interview.net. (2003). How To Dress. Retrieved Feb 2, 2006, from http://www.job-interview.net/howtodress.htm

Molloy, J. (1977). The Woman’s Dress For Success Book. New York: Warners Book.

Solomon, M. (1985). The Psychology of Fashion. New York: Lexington Books.

Sweat, S.J., & Zentner, M.A. (1985). Attributions toward Female Appearance Styles. The Psychology of Fashion. New York: Lexington Books.

U. S. Department of Labor Statistics. (June 2005). Bureau of Labor Statistics Data. Retrieved July 27, 2005, from http://data.bls.gov/PDQ/servlet/SurveyOutputServlet

 

Appendix A. Professional Clothing Survey Instrument (PDF)


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