Cover Story: Clothing That Make Women Attractive

We try not to judge books by covers. Yet initially, attire enhances attraction

Posted Sep 17, 2017

Editor's Note: The paper by Nicolas Guéguen that is cited in this post was retracted in October 2019.

Success and Style: Have Women Come a Long Way?

Over the last several decades, women have certainly come a long way socially, professionally, and politically.  Yet even women who have ascended through the ranks and speak publically on issues of societal interest are sometimes judged superficially.  Many people who miss a speech by a prominent woman illustrate this point by the question they ask afterwards. Not “What did she say?” but “What was she wearing?”

True, compared to men, women´s attire gives us much more to talk about because women enjoy a broader range of clothing options in social and professional settings, compared to men.  And although we try to avoid using stereotypes to judge books by their covers, research shows that to a certain extent, we do.  In fact, many people actively seek out that opportunity. 

Focus on Fashion: Show-Stopping Style

From beauty pageants to political conventions, clothing matters.  Consider the popularity of fashion-oriented events and awards shows.  Several times a year, a significant percentage of the viewing public tunes in to watch a parade of celebrities strutting down the red carpet before a Hollywood awards show, narrated with an often detailed description of who is wearing which designer.  Many of these A-listers have their ensembles custom made for the occasion, to avoid ending up in a “who wore it better” comparison with attendees who bought off the rack. 

Many people who tune in for the red carpet fashion parade tune out for the actual awards show, arguably demonstrating the appeal of flash over substance.  Yet research shows that certain items of clothing do, in fact, make women more attractive.  Here are a two well-documented examples.

The Heels Have It

A series of studies by Nicolas Guéguen (2015) demonstrated that men find women in high heels to be more attractive.[i]  The studies examined helping behavior in response to female confederates wearing shoes with three different heel heights.  The studies including the number of strangers agreeing to fill out surveys when asked by women confederates, or examining the behavior of strangers walking behind a female confederate as she dropped a glove, to see who would assist her. 

The studies found that men´s willingness to help the women increased with heel length, although heel length had no such impact on the helping behavior of women. 

In one study, Guéguen discovered that when seating a female confederate alone in a bar with crossed legs to display her shoes, more men spontaneously approached her the higher her heels, and faster.

As a practical matter, a six-foot runway model might not love high heels that make her tower over men even more, and some men would rather date petite women—or at least women shorter than they are.  Yet it is interesting to note that Guéguen´s study of the woman in the bar involved her being seated, where presumably the men who approached her could not accurately estimate her height.

True to Stereotype, Red Looks Red Hot

In addition to high heels, there may be a good reason we also see so many red dresses on the red carpet.  True to stereotype, some research reveals that the color red causes men to view women as sexually desirable and attractive.

Researchers Elliot and Daniela Niesta (2008), investigating whether the color red really is an aphrodisiac for men due to what is referred to in the literature as the “red-sex” link, conducted a series of experiments showing men photos of women against backgrounds that were either red or a series of other colors, including white. The results? Men consistently perceived the women shown against red backgrounds to be more attractive and sexually desirable. [ii] 

What about the ladies?  Sure enough, in a different study, researchers found that the color red also enhanced women’s attraction and sexual desire for men that were shown in red clothing and against a red background.[iii] Interestingly, in this study, the correlation was presumably tied to the women’s perception about the men’s status, because higher status for males is linked to association with the color red.

It should be noted that the "red-sex" link did not hold up in replication studies.  Recent research by Peperkoorn et al. (2016) failed to find a sexual preference for men viewing women in red, white, or black.[iv].  So the jury is still out on just how potent an aphrodisiac color may be. 

Nonetheless, red is a vibrant color which draws attention, which is one reason many people report noticing the "lady in red."

The Attraction of Bearing Arms

Thankfully, although we have discussed high heels and the color red, women do not need to dress like Jessica Rabbit to be attractive.  Weather permitting, even arms are attractive. Research by Brooks et al. (2010) set out to investigate the attractiveness of body parts other than waist, bust, and hips.[v] Using both male and female raters, their findings demonstrated the allure of arms. Specifically, they discovered the preference for upper arms and long slender arms.

The Person Beneath the Persona

Heels, colors, and body parts aside, we are more than what we wear.  After an initial approach, our personalities are often quickly discernable. Experience corroborates experimental results when it comes to the qualities and values that contribute to satisfying, lasting relationships.

For example, Stafford et al. (2013) discovered that sanctity of marriage is positively linked to marital quality and satisfaction.[vi] Interestingly, they found this result was not mediated through forgiveness.  We can think of many other practical correlations between personality, values, and relational quality as well.

Judging a book by its cover may be the first step in deciding whether to pick it up.  But reading it is the only way to find out whether it will have a happy ending.

About the author:

Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert.  She is of author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House). 

She lectures around the world on sexual assault prevention, safe cyber security, and threat assessment, and is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own. 

Find her at wendypatrickphd.com or @WendyPatrickPhD

Find a full listing of Dr. Patrick´s Psychology Today posts at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/why-bad-looks-good

References

[i] Nicolas Guéguen, “High Heels Increase Women’s Attractiveness,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 44, issue 8 (2015): 2227–2235.

[ii] Andrew J. Elliot and Daniela Niesta, “Romantic Red: Red Enhances Men’s Attraction to Women,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 95, no. 5 (2008): 1150–1164.

[iii] Andrew J. Elliot, Tobias Greitemeyer, Richard H. Gramzow, Daniela Niesta Kayser, Stephanie Lichtenfeld, Markus  A. Maier, and Huijun Liu, “Red, Rank, and Romance in Women Viewing Men,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 139, no. 3 (2010): 399–417.

[iv] Leonard S. Peperkoorn, S. CraigRoberts, and Thomas V. Pollet, “Revisiting the Red Effect on Attractiveness and Sexual Receptivity,” Evolutionary Psychology 14, issue 4 (2016): 1-13.

[v] R. Brooks, J.P. Shelly, J. Fan, L. Zhai, and D,K.P. Chau, “Much more than a ratio: multivariate selection on female bodies,” Journal of Evolutionary Biology 23 (2010): 2238–2248.

[vi] Laura Stafford, Prabu David, and Sterling McPherson, “Sanctity of marriage and marital quality,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 31, issue 1 (2013): 54 – 70.