The Psychology of ClothesIn the first part of this series, we looked at how clothing shapes your behavior, based on how you dress. In this article, we’ll look at how your clothing shapes others’ behavior toward you. Once you understand how you can influence others with your appearance, you can use it as part of your image arsenal to get what you want in life.

So where do we start?

With research.

In Dress and Identity (1992), dress scholars Mary Ellen Roach and Joanne Eicher determined that dress serves two basic functions: as a modifier for body processes and as a medium for communication.

Meaning that while we originally used clothes to protect ourselves from the elements, we also learned that we can use clothing, accessories, and grooming products to alter the way we look, feel, and smell.

Moreover, because we’re taught from a young age to assign meaning to dress based on our culture, we use appearance as a form of communication to determine everything from status and wealth to character and mood.

That’s what researcher Mary Lynn Damhorst discovered back in 1990 by analyzing 109 impression formation studies. She determined that in 81% of the studies, dress communicated someone’s competence, power, and intelligence, while nearly 67% said it also communicated character, sociability, and mood.

So we make snap judgments on whether someone’s approachable, important, or promiscuous based on how they’re dressed. We also ascribe intelligence and competency – often with just a glance.

In their article Influence of Dress on Perception of Intelligence and Expectations of Scholastic Achievement (1991), researchers Dorothy Behling and Elizabeth Williams wanted to determine whether how students dressed at school impacted their classmates’ and teachers’ perception of their intelligence and academic ability.

So they showed photographs of a male and female model who were unknown to students and teachers at six different high schools in Ohio. The photographs were varied so half the students and teachers saw pictures of the models dressed in suits while the other half saw pictures of the same models dressed in a t-shirt and cut-off shorts. Those dressed in t-shirts and shorts were consistently rated lower in intelligence and academic ability than those dressed in suits.

Are poorly dressed students ignored?While this echoes what I wrote in part one of this series, it also sounds alarm bells.

Do teachers “write off” students whom they perceive as lower in intelligence and academic ability?

If so, how much of an impact does this have on children growing up?

Kind of a scary thought.

What Others Look At

So which aspects of dress convey this information? For most, it’s the style of dress. But other things that impact impressions include:

  • Baldness
  • Body type
  • Beard
  • Cosmetics
  • Eyeglasses
  • Facial Jewelry
  • Fragrance
  • Tattoos

Each element conveys information that is seen as favorable – or not.

Ever steer clear of someone who looks a little scruffy? Ever roll your eyes at teens who refuse to wear a coat or wear flip-flops in cold weather? Then you know this behavior first hand. You’re using appearance as a shortcut to determine danger, level of intelligence, competence, etc.

There’s a scene in Up In The Air (2009) where frequent flier Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is showing new hire Natalie Keener (Anna Hendrick) how to find the shortest airport security line using these sorts of clothing cues. It’s insightful.

Yes, it’s offensive.

But Ryan is saying the quiet part out loud, relaying what years of experience have taught him about travel and reading clothing cues.

Getting back to research, studies show that clothing cues can often be very subtle.

In The Influence of Clothes on First Impressions: Rapid and Positive Responses to Minor Changes in Male Attire (1996), researchers in England and Turkey conducted an experiment where they showed 300 study participants two pictures, one of a man wearing a bespoke (custom made) suit, and another wearing a similar, off-the-rack suit. They viewed the pictures for just three seconds each and were then asked to rate each man.

Off-the-rack vs Bespoke
Off-the-rack vs Custom made – the difference is obvious

The man in the bespoke suit was consistently rated as more confident, successful, flexible, and a higher earner than the man in the off-the-rack suit. Why? Because the custom suit obviously costs more, so the assumption is that in order to afford it, you have to be very good at what you do.

Still another study conducted in three department stores (1989) sought to determine whether salespeople provided faster and better service to their better-dressed customers. They did. In fact, the difference was so significant that researchers recommended that retailers train their staff to be friendly to all customers, regardless of how they dressed.

Well-dressed menNone of this is new information.

John T. Molloy wrote his classic Dress for Success book (1975) by watching how others responded to clothes. He’d dress two men nearly exactly the same except for one element – like different color, pattern, or width – then observe how others responded to them. After thousands of experiments, he determined which clothing styles, colors, fabrics, etc., got the most respect. His research paid off. Millions of men were able to climb the corporate ladder using Molloy’s advice.

Looking back at the timeline, I firmly believe the “dress for success” movement of the late 1970s created the yuppie movement of the 1980s. Learning how to dress well propelled all those middle-class baby boomers into upper management and gave them access to the world of the 1% where they were introduced to lifestyles of the rich and famous. Limousines. Penthouse apartments. Yachts. Helicopters. All the trappings of success. If you’re ambitious and want cool toys, you’re going to work your buns off to get them. Hence, the yuppies – young, upwardly mobile professionals – appeared. It was the first time in recorded history that the “average Joe” felt he really had a shot at an elite lifestyle. All possible because they “dressed for success”.

But that was forty years ago. Is the information still relevant today?


Like Molloy, I’m a big people watcher. What I’ve discovered is that since most people dress so sloppily these days, it’s really easy to step to the front of the line.


Woman eating breakfastLet me give you an example:

I was staying at a busy hotel recently that had free continental breakfast. Most of the people who showed up were pretty ragtag – no shower, no makeup, wrinkled clothes, etc., basically however they rolled out of bed. Several even wandered down in their pajamas.

But one morning, a large family came to breakfast and every last one was dressed beautifully in casual clothes. Children, parents, aunt, grandparents – all dressed impeccably, and judging by their body language and mannerisms, it’s clear that’s how they usually dressed.

The breakfast buffet featured things like toast, bagels, cereal, etc., that you could just grab and sit down and eat. But it also had two DIY waffle makers. You had to pour in the batter, close the lid, and wait for your waffle to cook. Each waffle took about 3 minutes.

Once the well-dressed family was settled at two tables, the mom took their orders. Everyone wanted waffles, of course. Nothing fast or easy. So she parked herself by one of the waffle makers and started cranking them out. After about the third one, the kitchen girl – who usually just restocked items and then went back to the kitchen – told the mother to go sit down so she could take over her waffle-making duties. For the next 20 minutes, the kitchen girl made it her mission to make waffles for that family, delivering each one to their table. It was the only time I saw her do that during my stay.

Was she friends with the mom? Did they know each other?


The well-dressed family looked more affluent than anyone else there, so the kitchen girl responded accordingly. In the hospitality industry, good service usually means good tips. Now I don’t know whether they tipped her or not, but her service went above and beyond and certainly warranted it. Sad that it only happened with that one family.

So what’s the bottom line?

People pass judgment on you based on how you’re dressed. Whether you’re in school, interviewing for a job, or getting free waffles, others decide if you warrant their attention based on how you lookUse the psychology of clothing to find your ideal mate. So use that to your advantage.

Want to look smart? Wear formal clothes.

Want to impress others? Wear quality fabrics.

Want better service in retail stores? Dress better than average.

Want to blend into the crowd? Dress like everyone else.

If you begin with the end in mind and determine the response you want to get from others in any given situation, knowing how to dress becomes a snap. Just use psychology – and enjoy your success.

Meanwhile, if you’re ready to learn how to dress for every occasion from sports to galas, and business to vacation with the styles, colors, and fabrics that will turn heads and open doors, then study and apply this resource so you can step into the front of the line.


Diana Pemberton-SikesDiana Pemberton helps women dress better and make more money.  Ready to get the attention, respect, and income you deserve?  Here’s how to do it quickly.


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