Menus Subscribe Search

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

July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.


July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

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