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Why Clothing Choices Have Critical Consequences, Especially for Women

Updated: Apr 18, 2019

How important is what you wear? Critically important. Significant scientific research validates the fact that attire strongly affects first impressions, attitude and potentially professional success.

While scanning the internet for research to confirm or refute the relevance of attire, I stumbled upon numerous data points and varied academic studies. I found the data on this topic entirely fascinating. I hope you will too.

Clothing Plays a Significant Role in First Impressions

It shouldn’t be news to anyone that first impressions matter. It shouldn’t be hugely surprising that clothing is critically important to first impressions either.

How significant is appearance in the formation of a first impression? Body language and appearance, of which clothing is a significant component, are the two foundational elements of visual image. Together, the elements of body language and appearance, account for fifty-five percent of a first impression.1-3

How can this be? Clothing sends strong visual cues. Just as nonverbal communication resonates loudly, so do the unspoken words implicit in our attire. Since you never have a second chance to make a first impression, choose clothing wisely. It plays a crucial role in the opinions people form of you. Make choices that represent your personal brand, support your professional goals, and reflect your character.

How can you go about it? Think of three to five words that represent your professional image, your visual brand and your aspirations. Before leaving your home each day, honestly ask yourself if your attire supports your vision. If it doesn’t, find clothing that does.

Scientific Studies Verify Appearance Influences Perception

The relationship between appearance and perception is inextricably linked. Within seconds of meeting a person, assumptions based on physical traits and behaviors are made.4

Time and time again, research confirms that appearance strongly influences perceptions. Psychology Today affirms that clothing signals socially important things about an individual, regardless of whether opinions formed by appearance are unfounded.5 Opinions about trustworthiness, intelligence, competence, self-esteem, power, beliefs, affability, authority, financial success, suitability for hiring, and the merits of promotion are formed based on clothing.6

Whether or not the people making judgments realize it, they’re subconsciously judging. Shockingly, even when individuals don’t think appearance is important, they still make judgments based on appearance.7 In short, everyone makes judgements, everyone judges appearance, appearance is important even to folks who don’t think appearance influences their opinions. And, these perceptions are made quickly. Astounding, isn’t it?

The Halo Effect – One Positive Trait Leads to Additional Positive Judgments

In 1920, psychologist Edward Thorndike validated his bias theory which is now known as the Halo Effect. Per Wikipedia, the “Halo Effect is a cognitive bias in which an observer's overall impression of a person, company, brand, or product influences the observer's feelings and thoughts about that entity's character or properties.”

In other words, knowing positive things about someone, will result in attributing additional positive things to that person. This holds true even in the face of contradicting evidence.

Later research on the halo effect verifies that this bias is highly influenced by first impressions.8

Research confirms that first impressions are overwhelmingly made on appearance. The halo effect proves that these impressions last despite evidence that disputes these impressions. It logically follows that first impressions stand the test of time regardless of efforts and evidence to change these impressions.

The consequences of dressing poorly, or inappropriately, present themselves long after the impressions are formed. Why not instill confidence in your abilities through portraying your best visual image?

A Woman’s Appearance is Judged More Harshly than a Man’s Appearance

The consequences of dressing poorly are more severe for a woman than a man.

There are double standards in many of life’s circumstances. Clothing for professional women happens to be one of them. While dressing professionally affects the success of both genders, a study completed by Women Work! concludes that appearance affects how women are perceived by others to a greater extent than their male counterparts.

Approximately eighty percent of respondents in the Women Work survey indicated that clothes, and other physical traits such as hairstyle and makeup, play a significant role in assessing whether a female has the qualifications and knowledge to perform her job. Insignificant aspects of a woman’s attire may contribute to negative conclusions about a woman’s competence. Further, this is especially true if a woman holds a higher status corporate position.9

Highly subjective assessments about a woman’s appearance can sabotage females in the workplace and elsewhere. Not only do women need to contend with a myriad of workplace challenges men are immune to, women must also be highly attuned to their visual presentation. Studies confirm that men rate other people less positively than women based on clothing. 10 Ultimately, women are less judgmental, than their male counterparts, when forming assessments of individuals based on appearance.

If your boss, superiors, or peers are predominantly male, take note. You are being judged, often very critically and potentially to your detriment, based on your clothing choices. Don’t jeopardize your success, professional advancement, or be naive about the importance of your appearance.

Stay tuned for my next blog post on steps to dress for professional success. In the meantime, view my “Work it Wednesday” Instagram posts with visual ideas of how to nail the workplace look.


2) H. Andrew Michener, John D. Delamater, and Daniel J. Myers Social Psychology

3) Dr. Albert Mehrabian, UCLA

7) Caroline Dunn and Lucette Charette, National Research Council of Canada

10) Reid, A., Lancuba, V., & Morrow, B. (1997). Clothing style & formation of first impressions. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 84(1), pp. 237-238.

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