Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Why what you wear really matters

Looks a bit dodgy. Not my type. Seems friendly. Love at first sight. 

Just a few of the snap judgements we're prone to make about others.
On what basis?
Many people including psychologists think it's all to do with facial features (cue Roberta Flack singing The first time ever I saw your face). Symmetrical faces and wide-apart eyes are good, anger is a no-no. But my latest research has revealed that clothes makes a huge difference to these first impressions. And the upshot of it all is (you'll like this one)....clothes can be a really marvellous investment!

We carried out the research at the University of Hertfordshire in collaboration with Mathieson & Brooke TailorsOver 300 adults (men and women) looked at images of a man and a woman for just 3 seconds before making 'snap judgements' about themIn some of the pictures the man wore a made-to-measure suit. In others he wore a very similar off-the-peg suit bought on the high street. In some pictures the woman wore a skirt suit and in others a trouser suit of the same colour and fabric.

After just a 3-second exposure people judged the man more favourably in the bespoke suit.
They rated him as more confident, successful, flexible and a higher earner than when he wore a high street equivalent. Similarly the woman received more positive ratings in a skirt suit than in a trouser suit. Since both models' faces in the pictures were blanked out these impressions must have been formed after quickly eyeing what they were wearing.
The bespoke suit on the left made a far more positive first impression that the high street suit on the right

Clothes say a great deal about who we are and can signal our social status to others. It even starts in childhood - one study found that teachers made assumptions about children's academic ability based on their clothing. And research has even hinted that women should dress more like men if they want to succeed. A study by Forsythe (1990) tested this using a mock interview for a management position. The more masculine the clothing worn by female applicants the greater the perception of their management potential. Fortunately, although it used a different methodology, my findings suggest the opposite. 
After just a 3 second exposure the female in the skirt suit received more positive ratings than in the trouser suit. 
It's reassuring that women can dress in more feminine ways and still be taken seriously.  Be careful about the plunging neckline or micro-skirt though, you can take things too far and other research shows provocative clothing is viewed as indicative of low professional status.
This woman made a more positive impression in the skirt than in the trouser suit.

Sartorial laziness is an easy habit to slip into. We may think that fashion is just profligate indulgence and our sunny personality will eclipse our dull attire or detract from the soup stains on our anorak. Untrue. What we wear speaks volumes in just a few seconds. Dressing to impress really is worthwhile and could even be the key to success. 

How do you do this in the current economic climate? In an earlier blog I gave some tips for the cash-strapped fashionista along with Style Psychologist Kate Nightingale. I also asked David Brooke of M&BT whether we could justify splashing out on bespoke tailoring. He said: 

“A made-to-measure suit is undoubtedly more expensive than some high street suits, but does not need to break the bank. In fact, an M&BT made-to-measure suit is always better quality and lasts far longer than off-the-peg suits. A bespoke, or made-to-measure suit, in light of this research, must be seen as an investment in your career and an essential ingredient to your personal success.”
As a clothes lover (and in the spirit of my new position as Professor of Fashion Psychology at the University of Bilgi, Istanbul) I naturally have to agree with David. Also, in our Do Something Different philosophy, shaking up your wardrobe and projecting a new outer image is a great way to start changing behaviour.
More fashion-related blogs coming this way soon...
You can download a summary of the research from the Psychology of Fashion page of my website


  1. Karen, I couldn't agree more with your findings. I have spent a career working in a male dominated environment, but always invested in great quality suits or tailored dresses and jackets,aiming to look professional yet feminine. I often had them professionally altered to get a perfect 'fit'.
    My grandfather was a 'master tailor' with clients all over the world. He taught me to look for good quality fabrics.
    As a headhunter I know that first impressions count in business- a sharp appearance gives the appearance of a sharp mind. No wrinkled collars or scuffed shoes!
    I absolutely agree with dressing for success. You need to dress for the role you want- not the role you're in.

  2. Thanks Ceri, couldn't agree more, especially your final tip about dressing for the role you want not the role you're in, great advice!

  3. I haven't worn a suit for years. I've moved to dresses and jackets as I was tired of dressing like a man. It's paid off. I think people lack the confidence to move away from suits and especially black when other colours and styles could be so much more flattering and present a better image.

  4. I agree, I've always hated uniform of any kind (caused me all kinds of trouble at school!) and I'm not a suit-wearer myself. I'm so pleased that God, in her infinite wisdom, gave us women a much greater range of options when it comes to clothes. Poor blokes though, if there's a suit dress -code at work they have limited scope.
    BUT this research does show that bespoke suits give them a way to express their individuality - and really impress others at the same time. Surely this must herald the demise of Burton's man?

  5. I see a flaw in this study immediately.

    The man was seen as more confident when his clothes were more form fitting. Arguably, it is the same for the woman. I have never seen an uglier pantsuit. The pants are enormous and the jacket is very sloppy.

    You should do your study where the woman wears a "bespoke" pantsuit.

  6. Hello Anonymous,
    Thanks for your comment. Your point demonstrates that shop-bought suits don't always fit well or look good so it's worth both men and women investing in some decent tailoring.
    We are continuing with this line of research and will explore this fascinating topic further.

  7. hello karen. its a v wonderful research.i am a psychologist by profession and i always agree on how small changes can bring a drastic changes in as well as around you.i hope i would be able to incorporate these things in my life as well as in the lives of my clients.thankyou

  8. Thanks Dr. Neha, glad you like the research and agree with doing something different as a superb method for bringing about positive change. You can find more about it on www.dsd.me


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