Dress down to move up

Story highlights

  • Francesca Gino: People conform to dress codes to gain social acceptance
  • Gino: Deviating from the social norms may have surprising status benefits
  • She says nonconformity can sometimes signal more success and competence
  • Gino: A nonconformist has power and can risk the costs of violating rules

Imagine that you're visiting Via Monte Napoleone in Milan, Italy, an elegant street famous for its ready-to-wear fashion and jewelry shops. You have dressed up for the occasion. During your stroll, you notice a woman, perhaps 35 years old, entering one of the luxury boutiques. Far from being dressed to the nines, she is wearing gym clothes and a jean jacket. What would you think of her, and how likely do you think she would be to buy something?

If you're like most people, you might assume the woman is unlikely to make a purchase and may even be treated rudely by the shopkeepers. But actually, that assumption is incorrect. The shopkeepers are likely to regard the casually dressed woman as a more serious, high-status customer than you -- precisely because of the way the two of you are dressed.

Francesca Gino

Across organizations and industries, people make a significant effort to learn and adhere to dress codes, etiquette and other written and unwritten codes of behavior. For example, we tend to dress up for job interviews, dates and business meetings. Conforming to social norms, rules and expectations is an attempt to gain social acceptance and status and avoid negative sanctions such as social disapproval, ridicule and exclusion.

Yet it may be that deviating from the accepted dress code or social norms may have surprising status benefits.

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My colleagues Silvia Bellezza and Anat Keinan and I found that under certain conditions, such nonconformity can signal more success and competence. Notably, while unintentional violations of social norms can work against people, deviant behavior that appears to be deliberate can lead to perception of higher status.

In our research, we found that shop assistants working in luxury boutiques in Milan assigned greater status to a woman wearing gym clothes and a jean jacket than to a woman wearing a dress and fur coat. In another study, students viewed a 45-year-old professor at a top-tier university to have higher status when he was described as wearing a T-shirt and a beard as compared to when he was described as clean-shaven and wearing a tie.

Why is this the case? Nonconformity often carries a social cost. As a result, observers tend to infer that a nonconforming individual is in such a powerful position that she can risk the social costs of violating norms without fear of losing her place in the social hierarchy.

In another study, we asked participants to evaluate individuals who we described as being candidates in the MIT $100K Competition, one of the nation's premier business plan competitions. The contest brings together a network of resources (venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, mentors and more than $350,000 in cash and prizes) to help students and researchers in the MIT community fund new ventures.

The study participants read about John, a 22-year-old MIT student who has already passed the first round of the contest and is about to participate in the second round. As he prepares slides for the presentation of his business plan, John is deciding between using either the official MIT background or a less conventional background of his choice. Most other contest entrants are using the official MIT background for their slides. Eventually, John decides to use his own layout.

The study participants believed that John had greater status than an equivalent peer who decided to use the MIT official layout. And through his nonconformance, John was perceived as more autonomous and able to afford his preferences.

Heightening our status in the eyes of others is clearly an important goal, as it can lead us to be more influential members of our groups and organizations, or even more desirable dates.

We often devote great effort to enhancing our status, when it appears that just being willing to deviate from a dress code or other norm may do the trick. Having learned from my own research, I still teach in a suit, but also don a pair of red sneakers.

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