Growing up, we’ve all been taught not to judge a book by its cover. It’s one of those phrases that gets ingrained in you as you get older, along with “don’t talk to strangers” and “look both ways before crossing the street.”
Unfortunately, unlike those latter examples, “don’t judge a book by its cover” isn’t quite as easy to live by no matter how nice or non-judgmental you think you are — especially when you apply it to the people you meet.
There’s a slew of other idioms and memorable quotes from various sources all trying to make the same point: “Beauty is only skin-deep,” “there is more than meets the eye,” and of course, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
All of these sayings basically boil down to one thing: Don’t be shallow.
But then our parents turn around and tell us that it’s always important to look your best and to “dress to impress.” There’s even a proverb that goes, “you can judge a man by the shoes he wears.”
So where, then, are we supposed to stand?
There’s no denying that much of modern society is obsessed with external appearances. It’s why we all work so hard to look presentable, and why many of us still decide to put on dress shirts when we jump on Zoom meetings (even though we’re wearing pajama bottoms or boxers off-screen). Like it or not, we’re always making small judgments about other people based on how they look.
First Impressions Last
Of course, this means that other people are making small judgments about us based on how we look as well. In fact, experts say that it only takes between five and 15 seconds for people to form a first impression about us, and these quick decisions can have long-lasting effects.
Research on first impressions has found that these impressions “last for months… and affect personal judgments even in the presence of contradictory evidence about the individual.” Of course, first impressions go beyond the physical. We also subconsciously take note of mannerisms, verbal and non-verbal cues, and even environments people inhabit when forming opinions about those we are meeting for the first time.
Sure, it would be great if everyone had a chance to get to know everyone on a deeper level, but that’s not the world we live in. Barring some edge cases, strangers, acquaintances, and peers alike will always look at what you wear and how you present yourself and react accordingly.
You Are What You Wear… According to Others
For starters, it has nothing to do with being shallow.
A series of studies found that what we wear gives off subtle cues that impact our perceived competence. In the study, subjects rated the competence of faces based on frontal headshots. Researchers found that perceived competence varied based on whether the faces were wearing “richer” or “poorer” clothing.
Interestingly, this effect persisted even after the subjects were told that clothing cues were non-informative, and when they were asked to ignore the clothes. Other studies on the impact of clothing color on perceived attractiveness had similar results.
Whether you are trying to impress a date or trying to impress your colleagues, what you wear can have a significant effect on how people view you.
You Are What You Wear… According to You
Perhaps more importantly, what you wear can have a significant effect on how you view yourself. It’s no secret that your physical state can alter your mental state, and your clothes play a big part in this as well.
Often, we pick clothes based on how we feel, and many of us consider clothing and designing outfits as a form of self-expression. What we don’t realize is that what we wear can also influence how we feel and act.
The phenomenon is called “enclothed cognition,” and through the years, researchers have found that it’s not quite the garments themselves that have the greatest effect on us, but their symbolic meanings and the experiences we relate with them.
The original study found that subjects asked to wear a white coat were able to focus on tasks better when told that the white coat was a lab coat, as compared to when they were told that it was a painter’s coat instead.
Our perceptions of garments change how we act — whether we realize it or not.
Turning Fashion on Its Head
The good thing about all of this is that it all happens subconsciously, and once you’re aware of the phenomenon, you can take advantage of it and truly dress to impress.
Consider: Who Do You Want to Be?
Because how we dress affects not just how others perceive us, but even how we feel about ourselves, the first step to take is figuring out just how you want to be perceived. Our choice of clothing reflects not just personal tastes, but also your position within social structures. In subtle ways, clothing tells people:
- How much power and influence you have;
- How capable you are; and even
- How much you earn.
Costume designers have famously used clothes to influence how an audience perceives a character, and you can take advantage of this as well. Elsa Isaac, a fashion stylist and “image sculptress” suggests asking yourself how you want your clothes to make you feel.
“Maybe you want your clothes to make you feel powerful or confident or sexy. Or maybe creative and edgy….make sure (the words) resonate with you and write them down,” she says. Once you’ve identified these, it’ll be easier to actually get down to choosing the right pieces for your wardrobe.
Start With the Basics
There are certain pieces that are considered the building blocks of every good wardrobe:
- Comfortable shoes;
- Comfortable pants;
- Nice dress-shirts; and
- Accessories to help you vary your look.
But when we talk about the basics, we mean going even further back and thinking of the following:
The Dress Code
Contrary to popular belief, there is no “little black dress” — no singular piece of clothing that you can wear to any and every occasion possible. Even if you’ve formed a “personal style,” or a look that your friends and colleagues know you for, certain occasions will still call on you to deviate from or adapt your style.
After all, no matter how comfortable your clothes may be, walking into an event and realizing you’re either over- or underdressed will deal a huge blow to your confidence.
Paying attention to the dress code is also a great way to show others that you care. This is especially important when you’re meeting new people in formal settings, whether it’s a job interview or business meeting. You wouldn’t want to present yourself as someone who “couldn’t be bothered to dress up,” as this displays indifference or even insensitivity — qualities that nobody wants in a potential employee or partner.
Of course, this matters in more relaxed social settings, too. Wearing a power suit to a house party is sure to get you some attention, but it’s not necessarily going to be the positive kind. Remember that people will make quick judgments about you based on how you dress and present yourself, and consider the social setting when choosing what to wear.
The Overall Fit
They say that fit is the most important aspect of style, and it’s easy to understand why. Wearing clothes that fit right help us feel more confident. Properly tailored clothes don’t just look good either — they also project a sense of being well put-together, and even wealth (because who can afford to get all their clothes tailored to them these days?).
Unfortunately, about 60% of customers reportedly have problems finding right-sized clothing when shopping online, and 60% revert to ordering the size they usually wear. Only 3-5% of people actually take the time to measure themselves to ensure that they get the right size, and this could make all the difference.
It’s important to remember that clothes that fit correctly save you money in the long run too, as you’re likely to get more use out of them than clothes that you just don’t feel comfortable in. Moreover, properly fitting clothes don’t go through as much wear and tear, so they last longer, too.
Here’s another saying that we’ve all heard before: “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” People often fail to realize that their overall look goes beyond what they’re wearing, and nearly all the senses come into play when people form their first impressions. When people meet you in person, they see how you look and how you act. But they also listen to how you speak and smell you.
Keep things clean. Make sure that you shower often, and give those favorite pieces a break and wash them every now and again. This is especially true for clothes like undershirts, as modern fabrics are terrible with sweat. Shirts and blouses can be worn once or twice before washing, while suits, blazers, and casual jackets should be washed after being worn five or six times.
Knowing how often to wash your clothes will help them last longer and keep you looking and smelling fresh.
Remember: It’s More Than Just Clothes
Our clothes are never really just clothes — they’re expressions of who we are, who we want to be, and how we want others to perceive us. People make judgments based on how we dress, and science shows that, to some degree, this is instinctual.
Thankfully, science also assures us of one thing: We can take advantage and use clothing to help shape how other people perceive us.