dressing the doctor

Dressing the Doctor: A Physician’s Guide to a Classic Wardrobe

Few professions are as defined by an article of clothing as being a medical doctor. In many people’s eyes, the white lab coat is the quintessential representation of medical knowledge, trustworthiness, and authority, but these days, the dress code for physicians has become a shifting landscape.

Like many industries, the concept of a universal dress code among doctors no longer exists. Each clinic or hospital may establish guidelines for what physicians should wear, but the final choice is often confusingly left up to doctors. So what exactly should a doctor wear to work? There are three core perspectives to consider: the employer’s guidelines, your own personal style preferences, and patient perceptions.

Dr. Andre Churchwell in beautiful plaid suit

Dr. Andre Churchwell, a cardiologist, is dressed for work in a beautiful plaid suit

Does Physician Attire Really Matter? Study Says Yes

In a nutshell, yes. In the bestselling (if a little controversial) book Blink, author Malcolm Gladwell asserts that a first impression can be created in as little as 2 seconds, or what essentially amounts of a snap judgment. While this book is considered to be “popular science” the central tenant that first impressions are alive and well, and play a serious role in our lives, which is deeply important to the question of why what you wear matters. If you are being judged by your appearance in less than 2 seconds, then altering your attire can give you far more control over your personal image.

For doctors, the first impression and attire question goes deeper, because your choice of profession has established a higher expectation for competence and trustworthiness than other professions. A physician’s work delves into the most private and intimate aspects of a patient’s life, and people are hardwired to look for visual clues to the characteristics they expect to find in professionals that require deep trust.

In fact, the desire for doctors to dress a certain way has been confirmed in a series of studies. A recent University of Michigan review of 30 studies revealed that patients had a clear preference for how physicians should dress in 21 of the studies. In 18 of those 21, patients preferred formal attire or the traditional white lab coat. These preferences differed in emergency, hospital or surgical settings, in which patients expected doctors to be dressed in scrubs for the tasks at hand. The studies also revealed that the age of the patient mattered; Generation X or Y patients were more accepting of casual attire than older patients. That being said, casual attire can be confusing for patients who don’t have a visual way to differentiate between other patients and staff.

Mayo Clinic Professional Dress Code

Mayo Clinic Professional Dress Code

Case Study: the Mayo Clinic

Many medical institutions provide little to no useful guidance about dress codes, including medical schools. The prominent Mayo Clinic, based in Rochester, Minnesota, has taken a different approach. Physicians wear professional business attire unless they need to wear scrubs, as the organization’s “uniform”. They liken this choice to not wanting to see a commercial pilot wear casual clothes to fly a plane. While the policy isn’t universally loved (there will always be some resistance to the cost, formality, and restriction of professional attire), the institution believes the policy helps to “convey professionalism and expertise.”

German doctors often wear all white, down to the shoes

German doctors often wear all white, down to the shoes

Physician Attire Around the World

The traditions for physician’s attire vary around the world. Though the lab coat seems to be ubiquitous, in some countries other sartorial traditions still stand. In Germany, for instance, in addition to a white lab coat, many medical professionals wear white pants and white shoes. A contrasting shirt and tie are typically the only addition of color. In the UK, like in the US, the standards vary widely and the question of what is the best attire choice for MDs in an increasingly casual society is an ongoing debate. In 2007, the UK Department of Health recommended that MDs not wear ties for reasons of hygiene, which led to casual attire choices that created confusion among patients and even the perception of “untidiness”. Recent research has shown there is little evidence that physician’s attire choices play a role in germ transmission.

If there are strong sartorial traditions for physicians in your country, use the possibilities you do have for personalization, whether it’s the choice of a shirt and a tie, your glasses, or even little details such as a collar pin or clip. If the question of what to wear is open to you, then we suggest you take a closer look at what you want your clothing to accomplish for you. They send a message whether you like them to or not, so why not retain as much control over that message as you can?

A gray flannel suit with matching waistcoat

A gray flannel suit with matching waistcoat

Professional Attire Is Better

In summary, it’s safe to say that formal or professional attire is a key way that physicians can convey competence, build trust with their patients, and support the desired image of the institution you work for. Even Hippocrates, the ancient Greek father of modern medicine, believed that a doctor should be clean and well-dressed. It’s probably no surprise that we at the Gentleman’s Gazette agree, since not only are we partial to classic look rooted in a more formal wardrobe, there is also ample evidence that dressing well boosts confidence, productivity, and perceptions of your success.

Raphael Navy DB Suit Fort Belvedere Bow tie, pocket square and boutonniere

A classic navy suit will always look professional (obviously, I am not a doctor, but it is just an example of what you could wear if you are one)

Dressing the Doctor: Professional Style Ideas

These days, defining “professional” attire can be tricky. One institution may define the term differently than another, so it’s best to abide by the dress code of your organization if one exists. If a BBE (bare below the elbows) policy is in place for your organization, you’ll need to skip suit jackets and long sleeve shirts in favor of dress shirts with rolled cuffs. Classicly, short-sleeve dress shirts are a wardrobe DON’T, but if you want to look professional and need to abide by BBE, this may be the one and only an exception to this rule.

However, from a sartorial perspective, professional attire refers to a dark 2- or 3-piece suit in navy or charcoal combined with a white or blue shirt, a conservative tie, and black dress shoes with over-the-calf socks. While this definition will always lead to appropriate professional attire, for MDs, that description is a little too restrictive. Instead, consider any 2- or 3-piece suit or a jacket combined with a dress shirt and dress pants to be the working definition of business professional. The pants are key, as chinos and denim, even when paired with a jacket, are not considered professional attire.

Dr Andre Churchwell with Panama hat, and striped suit with boutonniere and spectators

Dr Andre Churchwell with Panama hat, and striped suit with boutonniere and spectator two-tone shoes

Build a Versatile Suit Collection

If you don’t wear a lab coat, like the MDs at the Mayo Clinic, then the suit will be the basis of your everyday attire. If you find that a suit is too formal, go with a combination of odd-jacket and trousers

Invest in a Variety of Dress Shirts

If you plan to spend the day in a lab coat, the dress shirt will be the backbone of your professional wardrobe. Invest in a variety of dress shirts – note double cuffs will make you feel warmer. So if you are in a warm environment, barrel cuffs with buttons are preferable. While chest pockets may seem practical, elegant men usually prefer shirts without a chest pocket because it kills the look.

Now in your profession as a physician, it may come in handy to have a pocket but that is for you to decide.

Invest In Quality Shoes

Most staff at hospitals wears tennis shoes these days for comfort, and that’s ok. However, if you want to put your best foot forward a pair of nice goodyear-welted leather shoes that fit you, will be as comfortable or more, because leather abrorbs your sweat much better, leaving your feet much more comfortable throughout the day.

On top of that, they instantly make you look more competent.  To learn more about quality shoes, please take a look at our in-depth shoe guides.

Regarding colors, all shades of brown shoes are great if you do not wear white pants. If you do, go with a pair of white dress shoes such as this white buck skin model.

Build a Collection of Bow Ties

Most physicians wear neckties because it gives them the proper look expected by most patients. Up until 15 years ago, 90% of the neckwear used to be necktie and just 10% bow ties. In recent years, bow ties have become more and more popular but for a doctor, bow ties are essential because they are more practical than ties.

As a physician you treat your patients and that means you might have to lean over them, be close to them… and in those situations you do not want your tie to dangle around or even worse, touch the patient. The elegant solution for that problem is to wear a bow tie, because not only does it swiftly elevate your outfit but it will also never accidentally touch your patient.

If you wear a bow tie, never opt for the pre-tied version. Instead always tie your bow tie yourself. In this video, we show you how. For more advanced bow tie knots, take a look here. And for a selection of self-tie bow ties suitable for physicians, take a look are this bow tie selection.

Ties

If you are concerned about bow ties being too eccentric, traditional neckties can work as well, but it is important to keep a few things in mind.

  1. For the sake of hygiene you want to keep your tie secure against your body either by using a tie bar or clip or with a vest.
  2. Get a tie that has the right length for your torso. Most men either have ties that are too short or too long. To correct that, they have to tie either huge or small tie knots that do not suit their faces and make them look weird. Therefore, I designed a selection of short, regular and long ties, so you can get exactly the right tie length. If you are not sure what ties to wear, these 12 types work well for doctors.

Don’t Forget to Add Accessories

Especially for men who will wear a lab coat, accessories will be an important final touch for you. If they are allowed (some dress codes discourage cufflinks, watches, or rings) then accessories will be one of the easiest ways to make a statement with your outfits while still appearing to be the utmost professional.

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Dressing the Doctor: A Physician's Guide to a Classic Wardrobe
Article Name
Dressing the Doctor: A Physician's Guide to a Classic Wardrobe
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Learn all about a physician's wardrobe & how to build a versatile collection as a doctor even if you normally wear a lab coat and white tennis shoes.
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Gentleman's Gazette LLC
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21 replies
    • Dan Co says:

      I remember asking a question along these lines earlier this year and was looking forward to a post like this. Thanks so much for such a thoughtful write up!

      Reply
  1. J. Bebb says:

    I am not a medical doctor, but my step father was a physician for more than fifty years. He wore bow ties exclusively. When he passed away my mother gave them all to me. It was a treasure trove of fifty years of vintage bow ties.

    Reply
  2. Ankur says:

    Great article. as a doctor, it’s very relevant for me. Nothing screams more doctor than a bowtie. If wearing a tie, a tie bar is a must. One point you missed are the clogs that are commonly used. May be​ a style disaster but useful in the ER when bodily fluids or solutions can ruin those expensive shoes. I feel disgusted when staff wear those scrubs outside of the hospital campus. Hope this practice is discouraged. BBE is a sound policy. Unless of course the day just involves rounds! Thank you.

    Reply
  3. James J Montesinos says:

    Enjoyed you’re latest on doctor’s attire! In my practice of radiologists out West, things have gone completely casual. I’m lucky to see any of my partners in a tie, let alone a jacket. We don’t see patients much and some don’t even see other doctors but most interact with techs and nurses.

    I’m going to a black tie optional physicians award dinner this Saturday night in Albuquerque and I bet I will be one of the few in a tuxedo!

    Reply
  4. Tim Cogswell says:

    Having started in the corporate world in the late 70’s, a business dress code was the norm (that included no facial hair, no loafers, only suits and only short hair). If one were going to represent the firm, there was a specific image to uphold. Granted the evil “Casual Friday” movement changed much of that (in my opinion the root cause for the decline of civility today), we do not have to comply. Recently author/journalist Gay Talese commented that he always dressed impeccably well out of respect for the people he interviewed… an interesting and noble perspective in my judgment.

    Reply
  5. Mark says:

    Wonderful article. May I join the doctors above in emphasizing just how timely and relevant this piece is. My colleagues are definitely gonna receive a link to this page. Thumbs up, Raphael. Keep up the good work.

    Reply
  6. Dr Charles Adebayo Oke says:

    Great job. I personally believe that doctors who dress consequentially tend to be more consequential.

    Reply
  7. Dr Nick Tellis says:

    Great blog post. I’ll definitely be trying some of these out in the coming weeks.

    Mental health is a huge issue for doctors with recent suicides here in Australia. A recurring theme in menswear at least is dressing to your tribe and I think this day of ‘odd’ or ‘crazy’ sartorial choices by doctors, for doctors, will GP at least some little way to bringing us together as a tribe and reducing the stigma and burden of mental illness and physician suicide.

    Thanks for your blog – keep it up!

    Reply
  8. Jonathan Dranoff says:

    Dear Sven,

    Thanks for an interesting and relevant article. As a physician-executive in academic medicine, I dress based on whom I will be meeting.

    When seeing patients, I generally wear a sportcoat and trousers. Since I live in the South, I favor tweeds and wool trousers in the winter and light wools or even cotton or linen jackets with light wool trousers in the summer. Occasionally, I will substitute a cotton or linen suit, since they are so easy to accessorize and allow me to wear more varied shirt patterns. While these styles are a bit on the casual side by many standards, they are quite typical in our part of the country. Of course, it is always easy to swap out a suit jacket or sportcoat for a white coat when rounding, but that is a matter of choice.

    When meeting colleagues on a formal basis, I generally wear a wool suit or dressy sportcoat with more elegant wool slacks. On the other hand, when writing, meeting with research staff or others who wear casual clothes regularly, or teleconferencing, I often wear more casual attire, including cotton slacks, an Oxford or linen shirt, and more causal jacket or sweater – always with appropriate shoes. This tends to put others at ease.

    With regards to the question of bowtie vs. necktie, I come down squarely on the necktie side. For my body shape and personal sensibilities, I just don’t enjoy a bowtie (with the one exception of formalwear).

    Sincerely,
    Jonathan Dranoff
    Little Rock

    P.S. I enjoyed your photo of the Mayo physicians. The gentleman in the red tie is my colleague, the eminent physician-scientist, Greg Gores, who is an expert on cell death in the liver.

    Reply
  9. Dave says:

    I’m no doctor, but as a patient I often feel awkward when seeing doctors wearing expensive suits at work. Suits are great and all, but shouldn’t there be some consideration for the nature of the job? Suits are designed for office wear where you don’t have much physical activity or contact with other people. When a doctor is wearing a fancy expensive suit I would assume that: a) it is not being cleaned on a daily or at least weekly basis, which is concerning since a doctor is supposed to examine patients etc. b) I am probably being overcharged for medical services, which already cost ridiculous amounts of money. So I would say scrubs or a lab coat look most appealing to me.

    Reply
    • Henry says:

      Very good and logical comments. While wearing a suit may seem professional from the perspective of medical politics, most patients care more about the character and skills of their physician than how expensive their physician looks. As a resident, I am leaning more on the side of scrubs and white coat (please do not confound it with “lab coat” which is worn by other non-physician hospital staff). I personally hate wearing dress shirts and pants because they feel uncomfortable and constricting (and whoever came up with “slim”, crotch disfiguring, fungus promoting, fit should be removed from humanity), especially when paired with a tie or bowtie (colorful nooses – whoever marketed them was a genius). Being on our feet ALL DAY LONG can tire us all out and wearing dress shoes makes it worse (no thanks I do not want to have to see a podiatrist for permanent dysfunction of my feet). Hospital work is busy, physically-demanding work so I expect to have some sweat on my brow from all the walking and possible running and CPR due to code calls). Scrubs and memory foam sneakers are perfect for that, not dress shirts and pants and non-ergonomic shoes. A patient in pain and possibly on the verge of death could care less how their physician dresses.

      Reply
  10. David says:

    Agree, suit is essential for all the reasons stated. However I’d turn it around and say it’s also a suit of armour for me. I put on my suit and I “become” the professional. It moves me from my home life to my work life, with it’s responsibilities and challenges. I take it off when I get home and take off the stresses and strains of professional life with it. It’s a very useful demarcation.

    Reply

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