The Messy and Neglected Study of Clothing and First Impressions
Have you ever had to choose what to wear for a first date or an interview? Or felt nervous choosing an outfit for a wedding, wondering what exactly the difference is between "semi-formal" and "cocktail" attire? These experiences highlight the importance of clothing for forming and managing impressions. Most people are keenly aware that they are seen differently by others depending on how they dress, making decisions about clothing time-consuming or even agonizing.
Given the importance of clothing, you might reasonably ask—what does science say about how clothing impacts first impressions? It turns out, not as much as you would think.
Hard to Study, Hard to Understand, Hard to Appreciate
If clothing is so important, why do social psychologists know so little about it? It's easy (or at least desirable) to think of the scientific enterprise as the impartial pursuit of truth. However, like any human endeavor, there are challenges and motivations that shape what type of research is prioritized. When it comes to studying first impressions, three big issues have made clothing and first impressions a low-priority topic.
The first issue is overall complexity. If you're familiar with the idea of Gestalt psychology—"the whole is more than the sum of its parts"—clothing operates on the same principles, and there are a lot of parts. On top of this, the meaning of clothing also shifts based on who is wearing it, when and where they are wearing it, and who is forming the first impressions. This makes it challenging to systematically study clothing.
The second issue is cultural variability. Historically, social psychology has emphasized research that reveals "psychological universals" that apply to everyone—for example, attempting to identify basic emotions or moral foundations that are the same across cultural settings. Clothing is so culturally variable (volatile, even) that studying clothing does not appear to align with these goals.
The final issue concerns who, exactly, has historically researched first impressions. In the "Punk Style" episode of the Articles of Interest podcast, host Avery Trufelman argues that dress is an especially important form of expression for marginalized groups, such as women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people. Historically, most influential psychologists studying first impressions have been White men. This matters because, however well-intentioned researchers might be, they still have "positionality"—their personal relationship to a topic of study—that might influence which research topics they perceive as important versus not.
The Future of Research on Clothing and First Impressions
Where do researchers go from here? In a recent paper, Eric Hehman and I organized existing research on clothing and first impressions into broad themes. Two of these themes are core elements of first impressions research: placing people into social categories (as in "I think this person is a woman") and forming judgments about their personality and mental states (such as "I think this person is trustworthy").
For social categories, understanding the role of clothing will be especially important for "hidden" categories such as sexual identity, religion, and occupation. For example, "gaydar" research has found that people can categorize men's sexual orientation with accuracy better than chance simply by looking at their faces. However, the accuracy rate is still far too low to be functional in real-world settings in which inaccurately identifying someone as gay might have dangerous consequences. Historically, clothing has provided far higher rates of accuracy, often in a secretive way that only members of the group can understand.
When it comes to signaling mental states, one compelling example is "Black armor"—Black men's use of formalwear to preemptively disarm judgments of threat, protecting themselves from discrimination. Other future work might systematically investigate how women use clothing to navigate a problematic double bind in the workplace: what kinds of outfits are perceived as simultaneously feminine/attractive enough as well as masculine/professional enough?
The other two themes that we identified are more specifically about clothing. The first of these is perceived status, which has a powerful link with dress—sumptuary laws throughout history have explicitly banned entire classes of people from wearing certain types of fabrics. The second of these is aesthetics, which accounts for people's idiosyncratic preferences for certain colors, patterns, fabrics, and so on. These themes are especially exciting because they expand the universe of questions that first impressions researchers might think to ask in the first place.
A Final Word
Legendary costume designer Edith Head once stated that "you can have anything you want in life, if you dress for it." This quote captures the undeniable importance of dress in shaping people's impressions of others. And yet, dress is notably absent from decades of theorizing about first impressions, which has emphasized the role of faces and bodies. The result is a mismatch between how first impressions unfold in context-free controlled studies—usually showing people a parade of floating heads and grey-white backgrounds—and how they unfold in the world—a whirling panoply of faces, fabrics, bodies, and baubles. Changing this will require some trial and error—not unlike putting together an outfit for a job interview or a first date—but the effort will be well worth it.
For Further Reading
Hester, N., & Hehman, E. (2023). Dress is a fundamental component of person perception. Personality and Social Psychology Review. https://doi.org/10.1177/10888683231157961
Neil Hester is an Assistant Professor at the University of Waterloo. He studies how people form first impressions of others, with emphasis on clothing, intersectionality, and issues with quantitative measurement.