The Real Importance of Wearing The Right Clothes

Yesterday we revisited a vintage Esquire cartoon illustrating the snap judgments we make about others upon first seeing them, as well as the importance of wearing the right clothes for the right crowd.

Today I realized I had the perfect follow-up sitting in my inbox. It’s a trivial little thing for us clothes-wearing men — a new study about the effect being well dressed has on others — but worth mentioning as an evergreen reminder of first impressions. It was sent to me by a communications manager at Princeton.

Below is a press release on the study, slightly edited for length, while pictured above is the Princeton English department in 1956. — CC

In a Split Second, Clothes Make the Man More Competent in the Eyes of Others

Study Shows Economic Status Cues From Clothes Affect Perceived Competence

PRINCETON, N.J.—People perceive a person’s competence partly based on subtle economic cues emanating from the person’s clothing, according to a study published in Nature Human Behaviour by Princeton University. These judgments are made in a matter of milliseconds, and are very hard to avoid.

In nine studies conducted by the researchers, people rated the competence of faces wearing different upper-body clothing. Clothing perceived as “richer” by an observer — whether it was a T-shirt, sweater, or other top — led to higher competence ratings of the person pictured than similar clothes judged as “poorer,” the researchers found.

Given that competence is often associated with social status, the findings suggest that low-income individuals may face hurdles in relation to how others perceive their abilities — simply from looking at their clothing.

The researchers began with images of 50 faces, each wearing clothes rated as “richer” or “poorer” by an independent group of judges who were asked, “How rich or poor does this person look?” Based on those ratings, the researchers selected 18 black and 18 white face-clothing pairs displaying the most prominent rich-poor differences. These were then used across the nine studies.

To make sure the clothes did not portray extreme wealth or poverty, the researchers asked a separate group of judges to describe the clothing seen in the images. The descriptions revealed very mild differences, and extremely positive or negative words were rare. The words “rich” or “poor,” or their synonyms, occurred only once out of a total 4,725 words.

Participants were then presented with half of the faces wearing “richer” upper-body clothing, and the other half with “poorer” clothing. They were told that the researchers were interested in how people evaluate others’ appearances, and were asked to rate the competence of the faces they saw, relying on their “gut feelings,” on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 9 (extremely).

Participants saw the images for three different lengths of time, ranging from about one second to approximately 130 milliseconds, which is barely long enough to realize one saw a face, Shafir said. Remarkably, ratings remained consistent across all time durations.

In several of the studies that followed, the researchers made tweaks to the original design.

In some studies, they replaced all suits and ties with non-formal clothing. In others, they told participants there was no relationship between clothes and competence. In one study, they provided information about the persons’ profession and income to minimize potential inferences from clothing. In another, they expanded the participant pool to nearly 200, and explicitly instructed participants to ignore the clothing.

Later, a new set of faces was used, and the participants were again advised to ignore the clothing. To further encourage participants to ignore the clothes, another study offered a monetary reward to those whose ratings were closest to ratings made by a group who saw the faces without clothes. In the final study, instead of asking for individual ratings, the researchers presented pairs of faces from the previous studies and asked participants to choose which person was more competent.

Regardless of these changes, the results remained consistent: Faces were judged as significantly more competent when the clothing was perceived as “richer.” This judgment was made almost instantaneously and also when more time was provided. When warned that clothing had nothing to do with competence, or explicitly asked to ignore what the person in the photo was wearing, the biased competency judgments persisted.

Across studies, the researchers found that economic status — captured by clothing cues —  influenced competency judgments. This persisted even when the faces were presented very briefly, when information was provided about a person’s profession or income, when clothing was formal or informal, when participants were advised to ignore the clothing, when participants were warned there was no relationship between clothing and competency, and when they were offered a monetary incentive for making judgments independent of the clothing.

“To overcome a bias, one needs to not only be aware of it, but to have the time, attentional resources, and motivation to counteract the bias,” the researchers wrote. “In our studies, we warned participants about the potential bias, presented them with varying lengths of exposure, gave them additional information about the targets, and offered financial incentives, all intended to alleviate the effect. But none of these interventions were effective.”

An important concern for future psychological work is how to transcend first impressions, the researchers conclude.

“Knowing about a bias is often a good first step,” Shafir said. “A potential, even if highly insufficient, interim solution may be to avoid exposure whenever possible. Just like teachers sometimes grade blindly so as to avoid favoring some students, interviewers and employers may want to take what measures they can, when they can, to evaluate people, say, on paper so as to circumvent indefensible yet hard to avoid competency judgments. Academic departments, for example, have long known that hiring without interviews can yield better scholars. It’s also an excellent argument for school uniforms.”

17 Comments on "The Real Importance of Wearing The Right Clothes"

  1. An interesting study, especilly the final comment at the end of the conclusion advocating for school uniforms.

  2. This press release is confoundingly vague.
    What does “poorer” or “richer” mean exactly? Does “richer” mean that someone wears tailored clothing instead of jeans and a t shirt? What if someone’s suit was purchased for $14 at a thrift store while someone else’s Kiton jeans cost $1,000. Many rich people, like Zuckerberg, dress down but spend thousands of dollars on an outfit of clothes made in Italy.

    The opposite is true too. Many people dress in designer clothes they can barely afford. In Texas they call someone like this “all hat and no cattle.”

    My point is that you can’t judge a book by its cover.

  3. I tried to access the study but it’s behind an expensive! paywall.

    Based on the excerpt, this study deserves an Ig Nobel Prize for “most trivial study of the year.”

  4. Charlottesville | December 17, 2019 at 4:35 pm |

    Thanks for posting this, Christian. I thought it was quite interesting. Perceived, rather than actual “richness” may be hard to define, but it appears that it has an effect.

    I think that dressing well contributes, at least a little, to people’s initial assessment of others, whether professionally as in a job interview or court appearance, or simply in getting better service at a restaurant. That is hardly a new insight, of course. It’s true that those more attuned to contemporary fashion may attach a higher value to designer sneakers than an Anderson & Sheppard suit, but the question is one of perceived “richness” rather than taste, style or actual cost. Speaking for myself, I think I would much prefer spending an evening with the chaps pictured above (if only I had a time machine) than with Mark Zuckerberg, even though I am sure his hoodies cost at least as much as my best suits.

    Some of my clothing I bought new OTR from Brooks, J. Press and Polo as much as 25 years ago or as recently as this year, some was custom made, some was ordered from the LL Bean catalog, and some things I bought on eBay. Thus, while the prices I paid for various pieces are all over the map, all are of good quality, fit reasonably well and, I hope, are fairly well coordinated. I think all of this sometimes positively influences first impressions of me by others. Whether or not that impression is justified is another matter that only time will tell.

  5. @Mitchell, I got the impression that they were comparing suits-suits and jeans-jeans and the difference was quality of each.

    I’m too cheap and lazy to go to the study, but I wonder if it factored in the fit of the clothes on the model, as I think that makes a big subliminal difference.

  6. Didn’t we already learn this, in general terms, from the advice that Polonius gives to Laertes?

    “Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
    But not expressed in fancy—rich, not gaudy,
    For the apparel oft proclaims the man . . . .”
    Hamlet, Act I, Scene iii

    We have known for quite some time that dressing well (“rich, not gaudy”) creates a positive impression.

  7. Reactionary Trad | December 17, 2019 at 11:03 pm |

    I knew that some commenters would immediately dismiss the findings of the study—without even reading it.
    How I wish I had been taught by the professors in the photo, rather than by a motley crew of unshaven, unironed, and—I daresay—unwashed bohemians.

  8. Preston Forman | December 17, 2019 at 11:24 pm |

    We do judge books by their covers, which is precisely why many of us dress properly (and why publishers employ book cover designers).

  9. the worst of social science in a nutshell–worse than useless because of how it misleads under pretensions of authority and solidness of method.

  10. Old School Tie | December 18, 2019 at 5:32 am |

    Methodology in these sorts of studies is always open to criticism. The researchers bang on about bias but their study seems to be full bias itself…

  11. Willard Harper | December 18, 2019 at 6:01 am |

    Old School Tie,
    The researchers are no more biased than we are. Please don’t tell me that we who adhere to ivy style aren’t prejudiced against those who don’t.

  12. Anyone recall a Professor Irwin Corey, the “World’s Foremost Authority?” He’d be a well dressed professor at any college today.
    I guess the “importance” today is being able to look and act slovenly and inappropriately, and abandon everything else.

  13. “We do judge books by their covers” Truth spoken here.

    It’s one of the ways women select men (read: potential fathers of their offspring). A friend observed recently that the world seems to be “populated by fewer attractive people than decades ago.” His theory: too many women have chosen (reproductive) partners on the basis of income-earning potential. From an evolutionary perspective, a rational but in many ways backward step.

    In the future, when natural Alpha’s rebel and take back the world from the quant-math majors at Harvard (now Hedge Fund weirdos who have lots of money but no taste), a sort of justice will prevail. (I give it 500-1,000 years). It’ll make the inquisitions and reformations of the past seem polite and civil.

    Until then: work out, eat reasonably well, groom, and wear good, well-made clothing. To distinguish yourself from the nerds, geeks, and unsavory’s.

    Picture above: where’s the J. Press(ish) narrow, rounded, sloped shoulder. I guess they can be forgiven: (a.) they’re faculty, and (b.) it’s Princeton, where the wide-shouldered, Apparel Arts vibe probably lasted longer than the New England schools.

  14. MacMcConnell | December 18, 2019 at 6:32 pm |

    I’ve done experiments. I’m in great shape and am the offspring of beautiful parents. I’m well groomed.
    Case A, I go to local suburban sports bars in blazer, tie and shined shoes. Lots of women approach me and buy me a beer.
    Case B, I go to the same sports bar in ripped 501s, Stones tee and red Chuck Taylors. Lots of women with tatts approach me and buy me a shot.

  15. James Anchor | December 19, 2019 at 4:46 am |

    @Willard Harper,
    Not only are we prejudiced against those who don’t dress the way we do, but, when given the opportunity, discriminate against them.

  16. Mac

    What to do, what to do.


  17. Clothing that FITS well, is MADE well, has an Ivy or English cut worn on a man who is himself fit, well mannered, well groomed, a bit charming will most always be favored. It is true in all economic classes. Jeans, tee shirt that fits well on a fit body of a well mannered man with a wrench in his hands will be favored. Did I mention “Clean”. It is grounded in self respect and respect for others.

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