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Prom and the Positive Effects of Dressing Well

by on May 22, 2018 5:00 AM

Prom. A simple word that conjures up mixed feelings from a good chunk of the adult population in this country.

Some happy, some not so happy, some ambivalent. There are such mixed feelings for such a simple word that I felt compelled to pull my 1979 edition of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary from my office bookshelf and consult it for the definition of prom. I was hoping that its etymology offered some widely divergent origin and meaning from what is now used.

No such luck. Prom is merely a shortened version of the British word promenade and means a formal dance given by a high school or college class. Its origins – from the Latin “pro” (before, for, ahead), plus “mener” (to lead) -- morphed through French to English and has been in use for more than a century.

That means several generations have had the opportunity to be elated or exasperated by a prom. And for the purposes of this column we’ll focus entirely on the high school version.

As a kid, I never attended my high school prom, and four decades removed I don’t ever recall thinking about it, so I fall firmly into the ambivalent camp. But our children have followed in their mother’s footsteps in this regard which means the event does have some significance in our family.

Two weeks ago it was our son’s turn to experience this marker of youth and attend his junior prom. In the week leading up to it, my wife and our daughter dutifully accompanied him, the younger of our two children, to a fitting for his tux and made sure the accoutrement – corsage – was handled correctly.

Then the fateful day was upon us and it was time to get dressed. Pants, socks, shirt, tie, jacket – each article carefully adjusted to ensure a comfortable fit and clean look. Now, it’s one thing to see your beautiful daughter in her elegant prom gown and feel those proud parental instincts, but it was a different feeling seeing our son “dressed to the nines,” as they say.

Being a true-blue American kid he spends a good portion of his life in various athletic outfits, shorts, T-shirts and sneakers. Pants only when necessary, i.e., when it’s cold. He has attended a few functions – weddings, balls, parties – that required a suit and tie, and his sports travel sometimes requires a tie with a shirt.

This prom outfit took dressing up to a whole different level for him. Black tuxedo, white tux shirt with studs and cufflinks, black patent-leather shoes, and bowtie, all combined to change him from a typical high-school junior to a very well-dressed young man. And the interesting dynamic was he felt it too. He was intrigued with how professional and high-class he looked and excited to see his buddies in their outfits. When they posed together for the de rigueur pre-event photos, he noted, “Dang, we look good!”

Which is a fine lesson for those of us in the real-world. Dressing nicely has benefits beyond the mere bright ray of sunshine we expose to everyone when we put on something other than shorts and a sweatshirt. Not that there isn’t a time and place for shorts and a sweatshirt – goodness knows I am guilty as charged in the casual-fashion department and spend plenty of time in shorts and various college-logoed sweatshirts.

However, “dressing up” clearly causes others to see you differently. There’s an old business adage that you should dress for the job you want, not the job you have. The phrase “dress for success” has spawned an entire international not-for-profit organization dedicated to empowering women by, among other things, providing professional attire so women can thrive in work and in life.

But the really important part about dressing nicely is not how others see you, it’s how you see and feel about yourself.  When you think to yourself, “Dang, I look good!,” there has been some scholarly research – not a lot mind you – that implies your mind-body connection can affect both your physical and mental performance.

It’s valuable to note that your physical performance can be affected as well, so this research is significant to athletes. Look good in your uniform? Have new cleats? Great glove? Guess what? You’ll probably play better.

Mentally you are also going to outperform your normal grungy self. A research article published in 2015 titled “The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing” tested whether wearing formal clothing enhanced abstract cognitive processing. The authors found that putting on formal clothing influenced cognition broadly and impacted how objects, people and events are construed. In other words, you’ll act smarter and increase your abstract thinking

An article released in 2014 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General covered a study where male participants wore clothing that signaled, according to their terminology, either upper-class or lower-class rank, then engaged in a negotiation. Wearing upper-class clothing induced dominance — measured in terms of negotiation profits and concessions, and testosterone levels—in the participants. For those “Trading Places” fans this is more evidence that Randolph Duke was right: in the heredity vs. environment argument, a good environment wins out.

It also demonstrates the "Fernando" character played by Billy Crystal on Saturday Night Live in the 1980’s was wrong when he said, “It is better to look good than to feel good.” Because if you look good and know it, there’s an excellent chance you’re feeling good as well.

Now, you may be too old to go to a prom, and perhaps you’ve no gala functions to attend anytime soon. However, if you want to feel good about yourself, get dressed up every now and again and go show the world who’s boss.

John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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