Mind and Body

The psychological reason why clothes can make or break you

What you wear gives subtle cues about your status — and others judge you accordingly.

Originally Published: 

Clothing and accessories are more than scraps of material. How we clothe ourselves influences how we feel — and how others feel about us. That’s particularly true when it comes to wealth and economic status. Turns out getting dressed influences real-world outcomes — some that can benefit you, and others that can harm.

Subtle economic-status cues are interwoven into clothes, according to a 2019 paper published in Nature Human Behavior. Across nine studies, people rated how “competent” they thought a person in a photograph looked. The photos featured faces shown with different upper-body clothing, which independent judges labeled as looking “richer” or “poorer.” The raters consistently judged the faces paired with “richer” clothing as seeming more competent than the faces paired with “poorer” clothes.

This effect persisted after the researchers provided information on the person’s income and profession, when participants were advised to ignore the clothing, and when they were plainly told that there was no relationship between clothing and competence. The participants didn't even describe the clothes as explicitly rich or poor.

First author DongWon Oh, a postdoctoral associate at New York University, says this doesn’t suggest that we subconsciously judge people based on their clothes. It suggests that the difference in economic cues was subtle enough that it was not the first thing that people thought of when they judged the clothes out of context.

“Our finding is that even subtle economic cues embedded in clothing can affect your judgment of others, and it’s really hard to control."

Oh notes that previous work shows that “perhaps not surprisingly” people think that when a group of people has more status or power — aka wealth — they think these individuals might be more competent. That may be relevant when thinking about wealth inequality, the researchers say.

Other studies suggest that people are sensitive to how rich or poor people appear. "Our work found that people are susceptible to these cues when judging others on meaningful traits, like competence, and that these cues are hard — if not impossible — to ignore," Oh says.

"These cues are hard — if not impossible — to ignore.”

DongWon Oh, postdoctoral associate at New York University,

While the judgment may be unfounded and classist, there is some evidence that that clothes can influence competence in specific situations. That is — when you, yourself, are the one wearing formal clothing.

In a 2015 study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, researchers found that wearing formal clothing can enhance abstract-cognitive processing. Formal clothing doesn’t enhance one’s ability to engage in abstract thinking — it enhances one's tendency to do so.

Abstract thinking is the ability to ponder what’s not physically in front of you. That may include untethered things like personal goals. In turn, abstract thinking may help you pursue those goals. Study lead author Abraham Rutchick, professor at California State Northridge, tells Inverse that this may be because formal clothes “lead people to feel more powerful, and that power induces abstract thinking.”

“Putting on clothes is one of the first things we do every day, and our clothes are arguably the first thing people see when they meet us," Rutchick says.

"Even the kinds of small effects that we observed, if they happen across millions of people, are meaningful.”

Abraham Rutchick, professor at CSU Northridge

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