London - If you think, when it comes to fashion, that your office is an uninspired canvas of muted blues, whites and greys, think again. Every rolled-up sleeve, every colourful sock or pencil skirt, it seems, could transmit messages of belonging and ambition - and might just define your career trajectory.
Bearing out the adage “dress for the job you want, not the job you have”, a study has found that more than two-thirds of managers have raised awareness of staff who dress like they do - and are more likely to award them brownie points as a result.
At the same time, a unified dress sense is perceived to create a more productive workplace, with 61 percent of respondents saying an office works best when its members are in sartorial sync.
“At the healthiest level, attire is the way that you get a cohesive team spirit: people feeling as though 'we're all the same person; we're all in this together',” psychologist Oliver James says. “You see it very strikingly in football teams that play well together: they'll often wear the same things off the pitch as well as on it.”
From the changing room to the boardroom, it's a psychological trait that has led to the rise of “Monochrome Mondays” and “Checked-Shirt Fridays”, with a third of those questioned saying their colleagues deliberately buy the same clothes to wear on the same day.
Dr Karen Pine, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, says the “reinforcing” effect of wearing the same outfits is twofold: while difference can be perceived as threatening, “humans tend to be drawn to people who are like them”.
“People feel safer when they dress alike,” she says. “They are signalling their need to belong to the group. A team that chooses the same style of dress for work is indicating their cohesiveness, which may reflect a wider collaborative culture.”
But your shoes and shirt aren't just tools for team-building - those intent on climbing the greasy corporate pole would be wise to first invest in their wardrobe. Sixty-eight percent of managers said they paid special attention to employees who aped their style, a finding that Dr Pine says has a homogenising effect on Britain's management class - and can be used to the savvy worker's advantage.
“Bosses often appoint and promote people who are like them. Boards are renowned for electing members that resemble existing ones,” she says. “Clothes are a shorthand for who we are and what we are like, but research shows they can also change the wearer's personality.
“So dressing like the boss may bring out a person's leadership behaviours. It could even subconsciously influence others to see them as management material. You could say that people who dress like their superiors have found a smart way to get noticed and accepted.”
The survey's findings are “not at all surprising”, says James, whose most recent book, Office Politics: How to Thrive in a World of Lying, Backstabbing and Dirty Tricks, outlines four tactics for getting ahead in the workplace: networking, effective strategising, appearance of sincerity, and astuteness to your surroundings.
He says: “There is plenty of evidence that the strategy called 'chameleonism' - which essentially means mirroring your co-workers' behaviour and appearance - causes people to feel more positively towards you.”
But it's not foolproof. When one of James's former co-workers began to use the phrase “up to speed', a subordinate was quick to follow suit. While the junior colleague's career got an initial boost, his deviousness soon tarnished his name.
Debenhams, which commissioned the survey of 2 000 people, reported a 53 percent spike in the sale of office wear at the end of the British summer.
A spokesman for the retailer agrees that style standards are usually set by the boss, but there are a few broad trends to rely on when buying your back-to-work wardrobe: monochrome, nautical and a touch of animal print (workplace permitting) come highly recommended. - The Independent