Skip to main content

Dress down to move up

By Francesca Gino
June 19, 2014 -- Updated 1442 GMT (2242 HKT)
The clothing early Americans found appropriate to wear in public is vastly different from today's fashion. For example, if a colonial woman was buying food or harvesting her garden, she would wear formal clothing with many layers of undergarments. The ladies who wore these fine dresses probably had servants do their shopping for them. The clothing early Americans found appropriate to wear in public is vastly different from today's fashion. For example, if a colonial woman was buying food or harvesting her garden, she would wear formal clothing with many layers of undergarments. The ladies who wore these fine dresses probably had servants do their shopping for them.
HIDE CAPTION
What a difference 200 years makes
Appropriate for groceries
Appropriate for walking the dog
Appropriate for walking the dog
Appropriate for grabbing coffee
Appropriate for grabbing coffee
Appropriate for a lazy weekend
Appropriate for a lazy weekend
Appropriate for hanging out
Appropriate for hanging out
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
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

Editor's note: Francesca Gino is a behavioral scientist and professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. She is the author of "Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan." Follow her on Twitter: @francescagino. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- 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?

Francesca Gino
Francesca Gino

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.

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.

Lawyer: 'Too hot' employee dressed right
Boehner speaks on 'what not to wear'
2013: Nutty fashion moments from the Oscars
Bartender suing over skimpy uniform

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

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.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT