When what we wear makes the news

The furore around Prime Minster Theresa May’s £299 leather trousers (and perhaps even her shoes) isn’t really new. So why is it a major issue when what we wear makes the news?

Whilst one of the reasons is obviously down to ‘politics’ there is another issue around image. Simply put, what we wear and how this influences what people think and say about us.

This could be considered a gender issue in that the comments are down to the fact we have a female PM. However I can recall when a male PM, I think it was been Tony Blair, was criticised for his fashion faux pax. It was possible to see his leg flesh in the gap between his socks and trousers when sat on an interview sofa. (There is an age old belief that a gentleman should not expose his bare leg unintentionally!).

Plus, we only need to think about the volume of comments regarding the hairstyle of Donald Trump or the sartorial choices made by Jeremy Corbyn to appreciate that men are not immune from such issues.

The fact is we pay a lot of attention about how people look, including their body language.  This influences what we think about them.

The 7% notion

In 1971, Albert Mehrabian published a book, Silent Messages. In this he discussed his research on non-verbal communication in the context of sales people. He concluded that prospects based their assessments of credibility on factors other than the words the salesperson spoke. This included 55 percent of their weight to the speaker’s body language. Then they assigned another 38 percent to the tone and music of their voice. They assigned only 7 percent of their credibility assessment to the salesperson’s actual words.

But it’s not just body language that plays a part in how others see us. How we convey our personality matters too.

Comfort vs. style

A study by the University of North Carolina compared the way undergraduate women chose to dress and their personality types. It found women dressing “primarily for comfort and practicality were more self-controlled, dependable, and socially well adjusted”. Women who didn’t like to stand out in a crowd had typically more conservative and traditional views and beliefs. Clothing, although non-verbal, tells people what the personality of the individual is like and we often use it to express who we want to be, or how we want to fit in.

As a head of comms I’ve often checked the appearance of chief execs and other expert speakers before media interviews to ensure their tie was tied neatly (or even that one was actually wearing one!) and that they looked well presented. I think it helped their credibility and made sure that their clothing did not detract from the message they were portraying.

Whilst we know Mrs May has a weakness for stylish shoes, her leather trews have taken the comments to a new level. She wanted to show her style continues into that limited downtime at home. We can all hear the pitch from her PR people can’t we! It’s worth considering the context of what we are saying and what we wear when we do this. In this case it takes over the message and what we wear makes the news – rather than what we say.

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