Hope you still have the receipt for that $1,000 suit you just bought: A new study from Harvard Business School claims that fancy, formal attire may be sending the wrong message to people who know what social status really looks like.

Telling the Right Story

Cultural conformity comes in many shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors. All for the simple goal of fitting in, people will change how they talk, how they look, how they act, and even what they think. It’s understandable — similarity, at any level, reflects mutual understanding and safety. But we aren’t slaying animals for their pelts anymore. Status, at least initially, comes from material possessions. Collectively they tell a story, and now scientists are asking the simple question: Could you be telling the wrong one?

A team of researchers conducted several studies to investigate the power of dressing for success on public perception. Their first study involved 109 women in Milan, roughly half of whom worked as shop assistants in high-end boutiques. The other half were recruited from a nearby train station.

Both groups read one of two fictitious stories, of either a woman casually-dressed in gym clothes entering a luxury store, or a woman decked out in jewelry and fur entering the same store. When asked who was more likely to be wealthy or a celebrity, the shop assistants were far more likely to say the casually-dressed woman, not the fancier one. Meanwhile, the pedestrians had the opposite impression.

These findings were echoed in a follow-up study that found students looked upon a male professor more favorably when he wore a beard and sneakers, rather than dressing up with no facial hair. In both cases, the researchers drew the same conclusion: People with status don’t need to flaunt it to be respected. The shop assistants in the first study knew that people with wealth were more likely to shop in sweatpants because they have nothing to prove. It’s the average Joe with visions of life as a blueblood who cares about looking the part.

The Power (and Limits) of Non-Conformity

Conformity may act as a social glue, but glue rarely attains status. It’s the non-conformist who stands out from the pack, demonstrating a unique perspective on some time-tested mode of convention. Maybe it’s sweatpants challenging an air of luxury, or a pair of Chucks scoffing at polished wingtips. The upshot is that using clothes to attain status only works in certain conditions; choose the wrong one, and it feels forced.

Or it just comes off as lazy. Wearing a suit to the jewelry store adheres to a very loose notion of cultural custom, as does a pair of sweatpants. The salesperson is obligated to sell to you regardless of what you’re wearing. But in an office setting, where your personal performance, likability, professional status, and general livelihood may depend on how you present yourself, seeming indifferent is no longer a bargaining chip.

As researcher Silvia Bellezza told The Wall Street Journal, people may also simply be in the dark about what they wear. In that case, whether a person’s non-conformity succeeds in winning them status depends on the person’s intentions. "In order to think that the person's a big shot, you have to understand that the person is willingly engaging in this non-conforming conduct.”

This should make perfect sense. The difference between an act of aesthetic or cultural genius and a disaster that crashes and burns is whether we meant to do it, and only if the stakes are low enough. No amount of confidence can make a pair of denim shorts fit in at a black-tie affair, but relative to the formality of the event, a red tie could create quite the stir.

Bellezza and her team achieved this result in one of their other studies, which put a woman wearing red sneakers into a formal setting. Rather than kick her out of the room, people embraced the woman’s look. On questionnaires given afterward, people who wanted to be thought of as unique revered the woman’s choice of footwear, seeing in her a bit of themselves. It underscored for the researchers the power of going against the grain, but not extremely so.

"They inferred, 'She's so autonomous, she must do whatever she wants,'” Bellezza said.

In the end, non-conformity may be most effective at attaining status not by the exhaustive quest to seem laid back, but by simply taking yourself out of the room. "Don't talk a lot if you have high status,” Marshall Scott Poole, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign cautioned to WSJ. ”People will assume you're competent, and when you talk, they will listen to you."

 

Source: Bellezza S, Gino F, Keinan A. The Red Sneakers Effect: Inferring Status and Competence from Signals of Nonconformity. Journal of Consumer Research. 2014.