Barbara Corcoran wasn’t always the confident and glamorous presence that fills our screens on Shark Tank today—the self-made millionaire became very intentional about projecting success early on in her career, after taking stock that the outdated outfit she was wearing was setting her apart from her peers.
“I realized that everyone successful looked the part,” the now 74-year-old investor said in a recent TikTok video. Meanwhile, Corcoran who had just started her brokerage career was wearing an old navy blue pea coat that she couldn’t afford to replace.
@barbara.corcoran Confidence is everything. #confident #grwm #hair #makeup #fashion #confidenceboost ♬ original sound – Barbara Corcoran
As soon as money began to land in her bank account she splashed out on a $320 wool coat with a brown and white print, high collar and matching cuffs. Looking back, Corcoran described the coat as “the best investment” she has ever made—despite having invested in over 80 businesses during her time on ABC’s Shark Tank alone.
She left the store wearing the new coat and she continued wearing it for the following four years. Corcoran wasn’t alluding to the coat’s cost per wear when hyping up its value, but rather the confidence boost it gave her that she “so desperately needed”.
“My new coat made me feel just like the big deal I hoped to become,” she said, while adding that in wearing it she would work “like crazy to become as successful as I already looked.”
“The lesson I learned is that perception creates reality—not the other way around,” she added. “You’ve got to look the part of who you want to become.”
The impact of power dressing
The confidence that Corcoran harnessed is more commonly known as ‘power dressing’—and experts tell Fortune there is much truth behind the concept. “When you dress in a way that makes you feel powerful, it’s not just about the clothes,” the life coach, psychology consultant, and founder of Life Architekture, Bayu Prihandito says. “It’s about the message you’re sending to yourself.”
An outfit that’s slouchy and comfortable can signal to yourself that you’re in a dress-down mood, whereas a stiff shirt or a figure-flattering dress is more likely to make you feel sharp.
“It’s a self-affirmation that says, ‘I am capable, I am confident, and I am ready for any challenge,’” Prihandito adds.
And your outfit doesn’t just impact the way you feel about yourself. “When entering any professional context, your appearance, attitude and behavior can play a key role in the way people perceive you,” says Meloney Brazzola, corporate communications at EHL Hospitality Business School.
“Depending on the situation, how you interact with the world and how you present yourself can even give you a competitive advantage.” It’s why, she says, the world-leading management school for the hospitality industry has a professional dress code and drums the motto “you never get a second chance to make a first impression” into students.
Dressing the part won’t make you successful—but it helps
Although, as Corcoran noted that dressing “the part” gave her the confidence and the push she needed to work “like crazy” and become the successful entrepreneur she is today—a coat isn’t a magic wand that can ensure instant success.
“Being suited and booted won’t guarantee you a pay raise,” says Jill Cotton, a career trends expert at the classifieds website Gumtree.
But it can increase your chances of working harder—and being perceived as a hard worker.
“When you feel good about yourself, motivation and productivity levels increase and you are more likely to stand out for all the right reasons,” Cotton says. “How you dress for work immediately reveals how you want to be seen by others and indicates the respect you appear to have to your company and co-workers.”
“Dressing powerfully can lead to being perceived as more competent, trustworthy, and authoritative,” Prihandito agrees. “It’s a non-verbal cue that can sometimes speak louder than words.”
Equally, as much as an outfit can garner you represent, it can also have the opposite effect: “Getting your look wrong can give a poor first impression that might take time to shake off,” Cotton adds.
Research echoes that what how you look can sway whether or not you’re taken seriously at work. Wladislaw Rivkin, an associate professor in organizational behavior at Trinity Business School points to the Elaboration Likelihood Model, which highlights there are two ways of persuading people: Through thoughtful consideration of information presented by a person, or by the person’s association with positive or negative cues.
“Accordingly, an outfit can support persuasion through the peripheral route as it can reflect a positive cue,” Rivkin says. For example, he adds, you’re more likely to trust information coming from a nurse if she’s dressed like one—as opposed to in leisure wear. “When the elaboration of information is not very high, people rely on such peripheral cues”