Red Sneakers Are Ivy

Conformity to such rules and social norms is driven by a desire to gain social acceptance and status (see Cialdini and Goldstein 2004) and avoid negative sanctions such as social disapproval, ridicule, and exclusion (Kruglanski and Webster 1991; Levine 1989; Miller and Anderson 1979; Schachter 1951). In the present research, we propose that under certain conditions, nonconforming behaviors can be more beneficial than efforts to conform and can signal higher status and competence to others. We argue that while unintentional violations of normative codes and etiquette can indeed result in negative inferences and attributions, when the deviant behavior appears to be deliberate, it can lead to higher rather than lower status and competence inferences.

Thus begins the article The Red Sneakers Effect: Inferring Status and Competence from Signals of Nonconformity by Silvia Bellezza,  Francesca Gino,  and Anat Keinan in The Journal Of Consumer Research, June 2014.  All block quotes herein are attributed to this piece.

The behavioral sciences have a distinct feature when you analyze their findings.  Your gut.  Does this feel right?  The idea that a small outlier in an outfit can lead to “higher rather than lower status and competence inferences?”  To me it does, and here’s why.  It conveys self-assuredness, and that is almost universally responded to favorably.  It conveys a disregard for another’s opinion, which in forming our assessments of other people is often also responded to favorably.  That is an interesting side note – this tic of ours where we tend to like people better when they don’t care if we like them.   But that’s another article, probably not for here.

Since nonconformity often has a social cost (e.g., Levine 1989; Schachter 1951), observers may infer that a nonconforming individual is in a powerful position that allows her to risk the social costs of nonconformity without fear of losing her place in the social hierarchy. Signaling theory suggests that, for a signal to be effective, it must be costly and observable by others (Feltovich, Harbaugh, and To 2002; Spence 1973; Zahavi and Zahavi 1997).

Yeah, what they said.  Perhaps we like you more if you don’t care because we infer that you don’t need to care.

That’s interesting as it pertains to Ivy, which is, in the context of our larger culture, a small eccentricity.  These wardrobe outliers come from two places in Ivy (and you can tell in the comments which is which 🙂  ) – those who actually don’t regard your opinion and those who regard it so much that it actually hurts them.  But that’s another article, probably not for here.

Thus, unlike low-status group members, high-status members and powerful individuals can afford to deviate from conventional behavior and common expectations without social disapproval (Cartwright 1959; Galinsky et al. 2008; Haslam 2004; Sherif and Sherif 1964). More specifically, in the domain of consumption, high-status individuals may voluntarily downgrade their lifestyle and adopt nonconforming consumption habits, such as material frugality, “omnivoreness” (consuming a broad range of products), and simplicity (Arnould and Thompson 2005; Brooks 1981; Holt 1998; Peterson and Kern 1996; Solomon 1999). For example, high-status individuals may choose to dress informally in business settings. Certain CEOs of major corporations, including Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, have been known to appear without ties or even wearing sweatshirts at interviews and formal gatherings such as the World Economic Forum (Etzioni 2004); some successful entrepreneurs have a habit of attending their companies’ board meetings in casual dress, such as jeans and sneakers (Searcy 2011).

That definitely passes the gut check.  “I’m not wearing a tie because I don’t have to.”   To which Ivy counters, “I am wearing a tie because I can.”  Which is one of the drivers for Ivy’s resurgence, and one of the reasons Ivy declined.  This natural back and forth between Red Sneakers and Repp Ties.  Oddly enough, the same motivations, right?

Even the point of ignition of Heyday was the result of this back and forth.   “I am not wearing socks with penny loafers because I can.”  (And because unless your socks are white or cream, it is the only sensible way to wear them.)

The article goes on to discuss the conveyance as well of freedom and autonomy, and of how these things are more highly prized in Western civilizations.

The significance of freedom and autonomy is built into the founding documents of the United States, and the idea that individuals are independent and autonomous is pervasive and generally greatly admired (Dworkin 1988; Markus and Schwartz 2010).

It makes me think.  It is true that in other cultures that are more conformist, the wardrobe choices do not vary as widely.   In the United States, where freedom and autonomy are core (I am speaking culturally and not politically, please try to refrain from showering politics on this in the comments – this site is not the place for politics), does our heritage somehow incline us toward a new look?  Even those of us who dress like our moms and dads don’t dress exactly like our moms and dads but about 12 of those pages are the five studies they conducted to get to the point.

Study 1 examines the responses of shop assistants in luxury boutiques in Milan, Italy, and illustrates that nonconformity, as compared to conformity, leads to inferences of higher status among individuals who are familiar with the environment. Study 2 investigates the effect of nonconformity and the role of the prestige context in a professional setting by testing students’ responses to the dress style of their professors. Study 3 delves into the underlying mechanisms of the red sneakers effect and demonstrates that inferences of status and competence are mediated by the autonomy that participants perceive in the individual’s nonconforming behavior. Moreover, this study shows that the positive inferences dissipate when the nonconforming behavior is perceived as unintentional. Study 4 examines the moderating role of observers’ need for uniqueness and shows that participants with high levels of need for uniqueness tend to attribute more status and competence to nonconforming behaviors as compared to participants with lower needs for uniqueness. Finally, in a follow-up study we increase the validity of our findings by examining nonconformity and need for uniqueness outside the laboratory.

I do this for a living, you don’t, so you probably don’t have the time.  Here’s  the conclusion: your intuition is right.  Small idiosyncrasies DO convey autonomy, freedom, status, and competence, and that we are culturally bent towards that reaction.

Which is Ivy’s sweet spot.  On the street today a shirt and tie are the minority, but not the remarkable minority.  A button down collar is the minority of the minority, and in that place becomes just the right idiosyncrasy.

But there is more to the art of the outfit outlier than this article discusses.   First, the outlier works better when it speaks to the wearer’s overall sense of choices and style, as opposed to just dressing against the grain.  I started wearing yellow glasses because I met a designer who wore them.  They worked so well for him because I knew (1) that he knew tortoise shell was right for the outfit but didn’t care and (2) that he probably also had tortoise shell somewhere.

Second, the outlier must be an accent.   That does not mean that you get to wear a wacky tie every day as long as you are wearing a WOCBD.  Sometimes the accent is something that is inherent.  A different hairstyle.  An earring (ahem).  The outlier cannot be the driver.

And third, you cannot wear the outlier because you are hurt and feel like you don’t fit in.  All of life goes back to the playground, and we all get it.  You got picked last, somebody called you a name, whatever.  And you are having a hard time unringing that bell.  Your wardrobe (and the comments section) is not the place for you to push back.  Neither place is gonna fix your problem.

I think that to do the outfit outlier right, you have to own it.  It has to be authentic to you.  And that is an easy read for others to make.

My sense is that as Ivy continues to bloom again, the style itself becomes the outlier.


31 Comments on "Red Sneakers Are Ivy"

  1. Random or not so random thoughts:
    1. Structure stimulates creativity.
    2. When nonconformity becomes imperative, the result is rebellion.
    3. Wear red high tops on the west coast, or conversely (see what I did there), blue high tops on the east coast, and find out what happens…
    4. It’s not the rules that matters, it’s who enforces the rules that matters.
    5. Go ahead, threaten my freedom.
    6. I will defend anyone’s right to be an idiot, while defending my right to disassociate.

  2. One historical note:
    Back in the day, guys would wear white, low-cut All-Stars with 501s and an Izod Lacoste. Some guys would wear shoe-strings to coordinate with the shirt, or in School colors on game day, which I found to be a little too much effort.

    • This was 7th-8th grade “prep school”. We had never heard of “Ivy” anything, and weren’t interested in sociology.

  3. JB, in your tie and button-down point, you say button-downs are a minority of the minority that wears a tie. Do you mean those who are wearing a tie AND a button-down? Or just those in button-downs. I ask because I see more guys in button-downs without a tie than all the guys in ties. A lot of guys regularly wear OCBD’s without a tie in biz-casual settings. I don’t think you need a tie to be Ivy. My idol George Plimpton often did not wear a tie.

    And, for the record, I think the sneakers should be white and low-top to be Ivy. Jack Purcell’s or Stan Smith’s would be the epitome in my opinion. Perhaps I’ve seen too many red and black high-tops on ironic hipsters, skateboarders, and edgy nose ring types in Austin.

  4. the real Ivy back in the day was to wear the Jack Purcell tennis and squash white sneaker ,a OCBD shirt and khakis around campus

    • I’m a fan of Jack
      Purcell. Have owned a few pairs and preferred them to Stan Smiths, liking the canvas better than the leather. I recently found a company called SeaVees. The plain white low tops look very Ivy and I’m giving them a try. They’ve been around since 1964, apparently.

  5. Thank you for this post. You are correct; you have to OWN the outlier. You have to actually like it. Me, I’m planning to pair a G-Shock on a clear strap with a BOCBD, flannels, and penny loafers next week. Why? Because I like it. Do what you like.

  6. JB, excellent piece.

    I’m a 50 years clothes geek, and every day that I get dressed it feels like a never-ending high school popularity contest: what will the cool kids think?

    David Marx (the “Ametora: How Japan Saved Ivy” author) has a new book, that to summarize, says that clothing signals status.

    In other words, the cool kids set the trends, then the less cool kids copy the cool kids, which causes the cool kids to dress in the completely *opposite* way to regain status. This creates a never ending cycle.

    As an example, consider skinny jeans. Barney’s, New York sold a ton of skinny jeans to male “in-crowd” customers. After time, everyone and their grandmother could purchase designer knock-off skinny jeans for $10 from Target. Hence, over time, skinny jeans became uncool as they became mass market and lost status.

    Now, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction and 90s style, relaxed fit pants are cool again.

    Time and lots of experimentation has led me to developing my own sense of style, a more confident, nuanced approach to dressing. Like John, I care less what other people think about my aesthetic choices, so if people don’t like how I dress, f*** them!

  7. Bill Stephenson | September 15, 2022 at 2:14 pm |

    Ivy can best be described as “understated elegance”. Press would be appalled by something as garish as this.

  8. Certain versions/varieties are Ivy-ish, but not all.

    Ivy can be eccentric-ish but in a conservative traditionalist (“standing athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!'”) sort of way. And of course not all eccentricities (idiosyncrasies) are Ivy. Actually, most aren’t. Rebellion for the sake of rebellion isn’t Ivy; it’s nihilist and ridiculous. In other words: yes to wool challis neckties with my Cavalry Twill blazer, but no to mohawks and, uh, red high-top Chucks. Hard pass.

  9. Thanks for elaborating on this article. Having read it myself yesterday while I should have been working on my dissertation (thanks for the happy distraction!), the authors commented that the perception of elevated status and competence because of the “red shoe effect” depended on both the context of the encounter as well as the value for uniqueness of the observer. So, for example, a person coming into a Louis Vuitton store with sweats will be viewed much more differently than person wearing sweats walking into an Old Navy store. Also, if the observer doesn’t value uniqueness, then they will not value “the red shoes”. Therefore, even wearing a tie will elicit such diverse responses as: “Do you have an interview?” to “Why are you wearing old white people’s clothing?” (I’m a middle aged Korean-American) to “Nice regimental stripes!”. All this to say, it goes back to what JB says that it has to be you and authentic to you…now back to writing

  10. First off all clicks in high school think they are the cool kids. Each click has their trend leaders. At leased that was my experience in the later sixties in a large suburban high school.
    Secondly, skinny jeans was nothing new. In high school the “Greasers” would wear very tight 501s with the with the legs “pegged” below the knee. I think they thought they went well with their pointy “Beatle” boots and motorcycle jackets.
    The Italians always wore continental cut trousers, Banlon knits and split toe black loafers.
    The rest of the school pretty much dressed ivy. There was what R. press called the “shoe” contingent on campus. I was part of that, we all worked part time at the ivy shop two blocks from campus. We got clothing for half price.
    The gals all dress well and pretty much ivy. Women were prohibited from wearing pants unless the temps were single digits. My public school had dress codes, no one felt oppressed.
    By my senior year bell bottoms infection began to happen, never owned a pair in my life.
    I’m guilty for wearing Jack Purcells and Stan Smiths with khakis, have since the sixties and still do. I’m 71 and sometimes wear them with blazer and a tie.
    I’ve said before, chasing fashion or trends is like being a greyhound. You chase a fake rabbit around a track and never catch it. Find your own personal style and stick with it.
    Done rambling, enjoy life.

    • My mom told me about peg leg jeans. Like the “Lords of Flatbush”. I’m not into the history of Levi’s, but I’m pretty sure the cut has varied from generation to generation. They don’t even make the waist/length combination I used to wear anymore.

      My dad inherited several heyday tweeds from “Grampa”. Too small for either of us — dang it!

  11. Peter Merriam | September 15, 2022 at 4:35 pm |

    When did cliques become clicks?

  12. Really interesting stuff JB. A key point is, “…unintentional violations of normative codes and etiquette can indeed result in negative inferences and attributions…”

    As you point out, something in our brains picks up on the person who is just sloppy or clueless vs. the one who violates the norm with intention / design.

    • Sure, Expat. Who among us has never been caught in an embarrassing predicament? Yet, life goes on.

      Having read again the article, there are a lot of “duh” moments of Piling high. and Deep.

      Remember when Meathead finally found a job, (on the west coast no less), got a haircut, and put on a coat and tie. And Archie’s famous last words to Little Girl: He’s too good for you.

  13. Ivy in inherently rebellious because it’s such a thumbed nose to at least of couple of the prevailing “dressed up” styles: the voluminous, high-and-wide shouldered “Apparel Arts” (magazine) vibe of the 30s and 40s (this would later morph gently into “Updated Traditional” a la Paul Stuart) and most of Savile Row, including Hunstman and Gieves & Hawkes. This is why one can claim without wincing that Brooks Brothers’ take on soft, unpadded tailoring was so uniquely, quintessentially American. Later, Ivy would go toe-to-toe with short-and-slim Neopolitan stuff, and, (again), “Updated Traditional” in all of its 80s-and-90sness.

  14. * ‘is’ inherently rebellious…

  15. As a 60-yr-old retiree with an uninterrupted half-century (and unapologetic) Chuck Taylor habit, this post struck a chord. Nice! And props to what Mitchell wrote in his comment above.

  16. “When did cliques become clicks?”
    In my defense, my public high school didn’t teach French. 😉

  17. Red Chucks. . . YES!!! Am I missing a/the point somewhere? Probably. But who cares?

    Kind Regards,


  18. Minimalist Trad | September 17, 2022 at 9:56 pm |

    Apparently, pink, charteuse, and yellow trousers aren’t garish enough for some people.

  19. “Apparently, pink, charteuse, and yellow trousers aren’t garish enough for some people.”
    Depends on the shade of pink or yellow. Till 1958 US Army officer wore pink gaberdines or calvary twill trousers, “officer pinks”. Many taupe wool trousers have a pink hue in certain light.
    I’ve owned Polo officer pinks and Polo very icy light shade of pink tropical gabs as well. Both great with navy blazer. Chatuese would come in handy waterfowl hunting, one could blend in with the pond algae.

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