May 19, 2009

Appearance: Empty Suits? Empty Jeans

"Dressing up is inevitably a substitute for good ideas. It is no coincidence that technically inept business types are known as "suits."

Paul Graham
Programmer, Venture Capitalist

"Inevitable" correlation between the way people dress and the likelihood of good ideas coming from them?


Back in the day, everyone wore suits; both those with bad as well as good ideas, just as today good and bad ideas (as well as good/bad programming and investment decisions) come from people wearing jeans and sandals.

Weight, presence or absence of hair, clothes, gender, ethnicity, age, etc., etc.; how (do) you factor that in when considering the likely ability of one to do the job you hire them to do?


  1. Good point.

    We all stereotype people knowing we shouldn't and I am old enough to know that my initial impressions are wrong most of the time.

  2. Graham must have encountered people in his career who stereotyped him and his ideas without knowing him. And now when he is in a position to not do that to others, he does.

  3. Bill –
    Nice job calling out Paul Graham. What a dumb thing to say. It reminds me of the arrogance that flowed from Silicon Valley during the heyday, until the vcs realized they needed “suits” to run those failing start-ups.

  4. Thank you Dan. Just pushing back on unreasonable prejudice. We all have our quirks (I have a list you wouldn't believe)with most having no place in consideration of our ability.

  5. Hi Bill,

    This is an interesting post.

    I'm interviewing someone next week on biz etiquette who says too many entrepreneurs do not represent themselves well and therefore do not get treated with the seriousness and respect they and their ideas deserve.

    I'll have to ask her how much dress plays into that, but I'd guess that she would say it does.

    Karen E. Klein

  6. I think it absolutely matters and would encourage anyone applying for a position to dress up rather than down; however doing so can result in backlash.

    In the early 90's my research and database marketing company was asked to do work for Microsoft. Back then I and my staff typically wore suits when we visited clients. Keep in mind we were on the cusp of moving almost completely away from what had been traditional business dress.

    After a couple of months our contact took me aside and said, "Bill you guys do great work but in the future, no more ties and suits. We're much too casual for that and it makes us feel uncomfortable."

    So, they wanted casual, which we did, but think about what that meant. In trying to appear laid back, they were actually quite up tight and needed to regiment everyone to what they deemed to be "casual."

    You can't judge a book by its cover but that doesn't stop people from trying to do so.