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How a Designer Label Can Drastically Change Your Image

Research demonstrates how we treat people differently based on their clothing.

Source: GaudiLab/Shutterstock

As I discuss in another column, people remember certain things about what we wear. And they often notice certain things right away. You may remember the iconic scene in Pretty Woman, in which Julia Roberts's character Vivian Ward is shooed out of a high-end boutique (“You are obviously in the wrong place. Please leave.”) in one scene, only to be fawned over when she breezes back in wearing expensive clothes and carrying designer shopping bags. Research corroborates this phenomenon.

Wardrobe Matters

We treat people differently based on their clothing. In fact, just as in Pretty Woman, studies show that we will treat the same person differently, based on what they're wearing.

Common sense? If so, the good news is that research demonstrates that you do not have to be wearing wear the most expensive fashion to benefit from this positive perception.

Attributing Status to Strangers

If you were approached in public by a stranger asking for directions, would you be more inclined to assist if the stranger was wearing a Brooks Brothers suit or a cheaply-made alternative? You might like to say that you are kind and helpful to all strangers, regardless of how they are dressed, and that assuming you did not sense any danger, you would be willing to assist anyone, anytime.

Research, however, reveals the opposite: Whether we intend to or not, we tend to be more inclined to assist a stranger wearing brand-name clothes.

Research by Nelissen and Meijers — “Social benefits of luxury brands as costly signals of wealth and status” (2011) — found that displays of luxury consumption prompt favorable treatment in social interactions.[i] They began by recognizing that the desire for brand-labeled clothing and other luxury brand products is to gain social status, and then conducted a series of experiments. One experiment on status perception involved having participants wear either a Lacoste or Tommy Hilfiger shirt, as compared with a non-brand-labeled shirt. Those wearing the brand-labeled shirt were perceived as wealthier and of higher status. There were no differences in perceived kindness, trustworthiness, or attractiveness.

Another experiment on compliance had a confederate approach unaccompanied shoppers with a clipboard, requesting that the shoppers answer a few questions. In one condition, the confederate was wearing a green sweater with a Tommy Hilfiger logo; in the other, the identical sweater without the logo. Shoppers complied with the confederate's request 52.2 percent of the time when the confederate was wearing the brand-labeled sweater, compared with just 13.6 percent of the time when the confederate wore the sweater without the label.

The experiments showed that people treat individuals wearing luxury brands better than those without such brand labels. Actually, they showed that people treat the same person better when he or she wears the same clothing — one with a brand label, the other without — and that the effects were not gender-specific or limited to a single brand label.

Suited for Social Power

Clothing also impacts social power. In a negotiation context, a study by Kraus and Mendes (2014) demonstrated that men in business suits benefit from a perception of dominance.[ii]

In the study, men in business suits induced dominance, as measured by successful negotiation, compared with counterparts who wore sweatpants. Apparently, participants observing the upper-class symbol (the business suit) of their negotiation partner decreased their own perception of social power.

What about women? A study by Hudders et al. (“The Rival Wears Prada," 2014) found that among women, consumption of luxury brands was a method not to attract mates, but to compete for mates.[iii] They recognize that their findings are in contrast to research indicating that, like peacocks, men use luxury brands to enhance their mate value to women. But they specifically found that intra-sex competition for mates resulted in a preference for luxuries that enhanced attractiveness, as opposed to those that did not — such as smartphones. They also found that with respect to how they were perceived by other women, women who consumed luxury items were viewed as younger, more ambitious, sexier, and more attractive and flirty, but also less loyal, smart, and mature.

Attire Drives Perception

The bottom line: Whether we want to admit it or not, we are influenced by how others are dressed, and treat them accordingly. Being aware of how perceptions influence reality, we should also remember that anyone can dress the part, and it is time well spent to get to know the person beneath the persona.


[i]Rob M.A. Nelissen and Marijn H.C. Meijers, ”Social benefits of luxury brands as costly signals of wealth and status,” Evolution and Human Behavior 32 (2011): 343-355.

[ii]Michael W. Kraus and Wendy Berry Mendes, “Sartorial symbols of social class elicit class-consistent behavioral and physiological responses: A dyadic approach,” Journal of Experimental Psychology 143, no. 6, (2014): 2330-2340.

[iii]Liselot Hudders, Charlotte De Backer, Maryanne Fisher, and Patrick Vyncke, “The Rival Wears Prada: Luxury Consumption as a Female Competition Strategy,” Evolutionary Psychology 12, no. 3 (2014): 570-587.

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