Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Findings

red-socks

(Photo: Halfpoint/Shutterstock)

Dressing for Success Sometimes Means Defying the Norm

• February 13, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: Halfpoint/Shutterstock)

New research suggests non-traditional sartorial choices can signal autonomy and a high level of status.

“Dress for success” is a familiar mantra of self-help books, particularly those focused on helping one succeed in the business world. To be accepted in certain social strata, you need to look like you belong there—or so the thinking goes.

In fact, dressing in a non-conformist manner can actually make you come across as more powerful and accomplished.

That’s the conclusion of a Harvard Business School research team. In the Journal of Consumer Research, Silvia Bellezza, Francesca Gino, and Anat Keinan write that deviating from the norm when it comes to self-presentation “can act as a particular form of conspicuous consumption, and lead to positive inferences of status and competence in the eyes of others.”

They argue that dressing in an unconventional way “signals that one has the autonomy needed to act according to one’s own inclinations.” The fact you can get away with ignoring the unwritten rules (like Dr. House refusing to wear a lab coat) implies you have a high level of power and/or ability.

“Observers confer greater status and competence to nonconformity compared to conformity because they believe that the nonconforming individual has the necessary level of autonomy to follow her own inclinations, and bear the cost of deviating from the norm.”

The researchers demonstrate this dynamic, which they call “The Red Sneakers Effect,” in a series of experiments.

The first featured 52 shop assistants in Milan, Italy, who worked in luxury-brand boutiques such as Armani, Burberry, and Christian Dior. They read one of two versions of a vignette about a 35-year-old woman who entered such a store.

Some were informed she wore a dress and fur coat; others were told she was in gym clothes. Another group learned she was wearing heeled sandals and an expensive watch; still others were told she was in flip-flops and wore a cheap watch.

All were then asked a series of questions about the customer and her likely purchasing behavior. They reported she was “more likely to make a purchase, and to be a celebrity, when she was wearing gym clothes or a Swatch than when she was wearing an elegant dress or a Rolex.”

A second experiment was conducted in the very different environment of Harvard University. The 159 participants (mostly students) read a vignette about a professor, after which they were asked how good he was at his job, and how respected he was by his students.

The academic was described as 45 years old. Half the participants were told he was clean shaven and wore a tie to work; the others received the information that he had a beard and typically lectured in a T-shirt. In addition, they were randomly informed that he was either at a generic university or a “top-tier” school.

“We find that students perceive an unshaven professor who wears a t-shirt to have higher professional status and competence,” the researchers write, “but only in a prestigious context”—that is, at the highly exclusive university. In such an environment, his dress would presumably stand out as non-conformist, signaling his prestige.

In still another experiment, 141 people recruited online read a vignette about Charles, an individual attending a formal black-tie party at his golf club. Half read that he was in a traditional black tie, while the others were told he wore a red bow tie. Half of those in the latter group were further informed that his unusual sartorial choice was based on ignorance of the rules rather than intent to deviate from the dress code.

All were then asked about Charles’ status and accomplishment. They were more likely to believe red-tie Charles was “one of the top members of the country club;” they also said he was more likely to have won past golf tournaments. However, these effects dissipated for those told his non-conformity was unintentional.

“Observers confer greater status and competence to nonconformity compared to conformity because they believe that the nonconforming individual has the necessary level of autonomy to follow her own inclinations, and bear the cost of deviating from the norm,” the researchers conclude.

So, if you want to be accepted as a member in good standing of some social group, by all means dress to blend in. But if you want to be viewed as a standout, you might emulate classical pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and put on a pair of red socks.

His penchant for dressing in a way that sets him apart visually on a concert-hall stage is hardly the sole factor responsible for his brilliant career. But this research suggests it sure didn’t hurt.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.


October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.


October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.


October 16 • 4:00 AM

Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.


October 16 • 2:00 AM

Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn’t distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?


October 15 • 4:00 PM

Why Asian American Parents Are the Least Likely to Spank Their Kids

Highly educated, middle-class parents are less likely to use corporal punishment to discipline their children than less-educated, working-class, and poor parents.


Follow us


Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.