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.
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 tenet 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.
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.”
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.