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My parents are moving soon, which means that this holiday season I get to sort through all the detritus of my childhood that’s still lying around their house and decide if anything’s worth saving. They most recently pointed me to a pile of VHS movies, mostly chick flicks from the late nineties and early 2000s: Clueless, She’s All That, The Princess Diaries, The Devil Wears Prada, etc. I started thinking about just why high-school-me loved these movies so much that I watched them over and over again. Apparently I was really into variations of the same “makeover” trope: A social outsider girl (usually with frumpy clothes, glasses, and bad hair implausibly masking her classic beauty) is taken in hand by a person of higher status and transformed into a member of the elite group.

This is a classic storyline that goes back at least to George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, and it always follows the same arc. Each time, the heroine finally settles on a distinctive but attractive style of her own, one that reflects her individual personality as well as her newly acquired sense of style. By the end, she’s learned confidence and self-respect, and she commands the respect and admiration of others by how she presents herself.

Most people today would probably see this as a negative message to feed to teenage girls. We all know that beauty is really within, right? What we wear on the outside isn’t supposed to matter.

Still, being reminded of these old films got me thinking: Is there something to the idea that the way you dress actually says something important, something that’s worth caring about? We all know we should dress a certain way for certain occasions. A sequined mini dress when worn out on New Year’s Eve says, “I’m celebrating a holiday,” but at a job interview, it would scream, “Don’t hire me.” Maybe the way we dress on a daily basis, too, says more than we’d like to admit.

What Our Dress Says About Us

Plenty of social-science research has confirmed what we know from our own experience—that people draw all sorts of snap conclusions about character, personality, reliability, social status, intelligence, and competence from the way someone is dressed.

This might seem unfair—you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, as the cliché goes. But people aren’t necessarily mistaken in forming impressions based on something so seemingly superficial. We’re judged every day for things that are largely beyond our control—our face, our age, our height, the sound of our voice. What makes dressing different, and worth doing with care, is the extent to which we can use it to shape others’ perceptions of us and communicate how we see ourselves.

In her book You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You, clinical psychologist Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner makes this point. “The worst clothing is the kind that tries to undo, ignore, or hide where or who you are or the kind that shows you didn’t pay attention to your body/age/situation,” she told Forbes in an interview. In the book, she says she looks “at the deeper meaning of [clothing] choices, just like I would in therapy.” For example, if you wear only neutrals and no accessories, Baumgartner thinks this may mean you’re stuck in a rut and are afraid to attract attention to yourself. Regardless of whether this particular diagnosis is correct (I’m pretty partial to neutrals and minimal accessories myself), the fact that certain styles and colors elicit particular responses from other people is undeniable. (Apparently it’s particularly attractive to men when women wear the color red, for instance.)

How we dress doesn’t just affect how others see us; it also molds our self-perception, our thoughts, and our actions, which in turn affect how people perceive us. Some researchers have called the effect of what we wear on how we think “enclothed cognition.”

In an experiment conducted a few years ago by professors at Northwestern University, participants’ ability to perform cognitively challenging tasks was enhanced when they wore a white coat that they were told was a doctor’s lab coat. There was no such effect for people who were told the same coat was a painter’s smock. Another study, published earlier this year, found that men were better at abstract thinking when wearing suits as opposed to more casual clothing. And anyone who works from home has probably experienced the drop-off in productivity that seems to come from staying in your pajamas all day.

Men Experience It, Too

While it’s undoubtedly true that women tend to spend more time and attention on clothes and grooming than men, and their appearance receives more scrutiny on a daily basis, men are also inescapably judged and treated in certain ways based on the way they dress.

It’s true that men don’t usually attract overt sexual attention because of their clothing choices in the way that women can. More frequently, what they communicate with clothing is something about their social status, identity, and power.

A friend recently related a story to me about a couple she knows who participates in consumer focus groups as a way to sample services and products for free in exchange for giving detailed feedback to the companies. The way it works is you have to fill out an application and include a picture to be accepted for particular shopping or dining test runs, and her male friend was rejected for one assignment to pose as a shopper at an upscale store. So he applied again, this time submitting a picture of himself in a suit. He was accepted. Same guy—but he conveyed a vastly different impression when he was more formally dressed.

And subtle differences can make a difference as well in how men are perceived. Researchers in the United Kingdom in the late nineties found that when presented with images of a man in an off-the-rack suit versus one in a tailored suit that were otherwise identical, participants in a study rated the man in the bespoke suit higher on measures of confidence, success, earnings, and flexibility.

Of course, these studies have their limits, and they can’t account for context. A man wearing jeans and a T-shirt can also communicate that his status is so assured he doesn’t need to try to impress anyone with the way he dresses. Think Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs. Very wealthy people often don’t feel the need to dress to the nines and are content to live their lives largely in (usually expensive and well-made) casual clothing. Very beautiful people can also get away with wearing pretty much anything. As Fran Lebowitz put it when dispensing style advice in an interview with Elle earlier this year, “So if you’re naturally beautiful, wear what you want, but that’s 0.01 percent of people.”

That might sound a little depressing, but Lebowitz leaves us with good news: “[All of us] can appear fine-looking. So we should. Feeling good about an outfit is the point at which that outfit finally becomes good.” So sure, everyone may not be a frumpy schoolgirl-turned-princess or artist geek who goes on to win prom queen, but the movies got one thing right: It feels good to look good, and that’s something we can all strive for.

Photo Credit: Jen Trahan Photography