Dress for Financial Success

April 15, 2011
Jeff Brown, MD

We all know that the impression you make in the first 30 seconds of meeting someone can never be redone. And we know from a small series of studies that a physician's appearance is important to a patient's perception of ability and caring. Unfortunately, doctors are known for sometimes being unconcerned about their dress and that can adversely affect our effectiveness, and in turn will have an impact on our economic success.

We all know that the impression you make in the first 30 seconds of meeting someone can never be redone, fair or not. And we know from a small series of studies that a physician’s appearance is important to a patient’s perception of ability and caring, fair or not. Unfortunately, doctors are known for sometimes being unconcerned about their dress and that can adversely affect our effectiveness, and in turn will have an impact on our economic success.

It's easy to understand how we got that way. In training, long hours -- sometimes in messy circumstances -- no need to build a practice, little money, and no time available to spend on shopping or even thinking about what to wear can all lead to a daily uniform of scrubs or worse. We hope that a white coat, in whatever condition, complete with bulging and sagging pockets, will cover all evils; in medical sitcoms, that stereotype like is humorously accepted. In the serious world of grown-ups, not so much. A physician's most precious asset is his or her reputation, image, brand, whatever you want to call it. We can choose to enhance it, or to detract from it, by what we wear.

Before I get into some specific guidelines and tips, stop and think for a moment. To look professional and business-like, you have to make an effort. I've always thought that being professionally dressed was a sign of respect -- for what I do and for whom I care. It is certainly possible to practice good medicine and be successful with an average-or-less appearance, but why make things harder? Why not start your day by increasing your confidence and your patient's confidence in you by looking professional? Your practice day is tough enough, so why not start with an edge?

It's easy to dress better and appropriately for your particular patient population and your sense of self, and it doesn't have to be expensive or time-consuming. Further, a sense of style is a gentle act of will to go the extra 10% to say that you are a bit different.

To start off, fresh, clean and well-pressed usually goes without saying. Also, if you prefer to wear a white jacket of some sort at work, appoint someone in your office to rotate a fresh one weekly without being asked. Make sure that it is the right size, closet shrinkage notwithstanding. Always keep an extra on hand in case of unforseen accidents. I once had to put somebody else's spare one on after I split my pants, until I could make time to repair it with some handy 3-0 nylon.

You can easily do your own Oprah-like makeover, but there are pros called "image consultants" if you are of a mind, and the cost is generally tax deductible as well. Department stores also have similar sales associates who will help you at no cost. Just keep in mind that “sales” is a part of the title -- they want you to shop in the store, whether they have what you need or not. A reference I recommend is Alan Flusser's (the acknowledged men's guru) "Dressing The Man: Mastering the Art of Permanent Fashion." There are so many choices for women that I can't pick just one.

The first thing to do is go to your closet, helpfully with your spouse, a willing friend or relative. Anything that you haven't worn in a year goes out. Anything that doesn't fit well goes out. Anything that smacks of disco or just way out of date goes out. You get the idea. If there is any question at all, it goes out. My teenage son once asked me if he should take a shower. I told him that if you have to ask, you need to do it. No excuses or rationalizations, this old, ill-fitting and inappropriate clothing is holding you back as a person, not just your wardrobe. Make an itemized list, take the bags to Goodwill and get another tax deduction.

There are a million fashion “rules” to follow, but Rule No. 1 is “Fit, fit and fit.” This part is not easy, but when you see someone who is obviously well turned out, a good-fitting suit is usually the heart of the matter. I have learned that other than cuffs or sleeves, if any other work is required with off the rack clothes, move on to another sample. You can usually tell when things have been taken in or let out, often in the wrong places in the wrong amounts.

A second rule is that detail often makes the difference. For instance, you can buy an inexpensive but well-fit blazer and transform it into a positive asset simply by replacing the buttons. They can be surprisingly inexpensive but make a big visual difference. I once noticed that only the really expensive blazers had impressive buttons, but when I had swapped out the plastic buttons on mine for the type of buttons you find on pricey blazers the jacket looked much better and I had saved hundreds for little extra time. And make no mistake, people notice details, even if it is just on the overall impression.

A few other "rules" include:

• Buy the best you can afford (you won't ever be sorry).

• Be careful to maintain your clothes with wooden hangers, shoe trees, airy closet space, empty pockets, and regular brushing and polishing.

• When in doubt, men and women always look well in black and white, (Doesn't every man look better in a tux?).

• Rotate your clothing and shoes, so that they may rest and recover each week. They will last longer and they, and you, will look better.

One important concept that eludes many is the value of a harmonious "pulling together" of an outfit. An example would be to wear a tie that has some of the same colors as, say, your shirt and pants to unify the whole. Or just stick to monochrome top and bottom, which gives an image of strength. It's all about not making the people you have contact with unconsciously wince. (Such as wearing multiple patterns. Or mismatching the colors of the leather belt and shoes you are wearing. Or wearing scuffed or open shoes.)

Sometimes it helps to idly scan people at a mall or an airport when you are waiting to try to pick out the most fashionable ones and try to figure out what they have done to look better than those around them. I have been known to actually walk up to such a person and ask in a friendly way where he got his hair done or bought whatever he was wearing. Ask and ye shall find.

There are also some tongue-in-cheek rules that I will pass along. Rule No. 307: Before you wash your jean shorts, pretreat them by throwing them away. Or Rule No. 611: Wire hangers should only be used for breaking into cars. How about Rule No. 1,023: If you think that washing or cleaning your clothes make them smell less "like you," you're right.

Well, it's a start. If there is a groundswell of interest we can get into more specifics. And I do appreciate the irony that those physicians who are the least interested in this article are probably the ones who could benefit from it the most. Go figure.