Why What A Person Wears Actually Does Matter

Considering dating a slob? In the wake of the much-maligned “metrosexual”—the well-groomed, well-dressed, undeniably vain man who probably wore a smaller jean size than you—many women have seemingly decided that they prefer a more “casual” guy who favors “thrown together” over “put together.” You may be one of them. Maybe you think it’s wiser to judge a man not by what he wears but how he acts, or what he says. Maybe you think it’s superficial to do otherwise.

But while of course it matters how the guy behaves, studies show that clothes most definitely do make the man as well. And that there’s reason to believe attraction to another’s personal style (and more specifically, how he chooses to express that style) can actually help determine compatibility. This shouldn’t be entirely surprising. After all, it’s precisely because taste in clothes is such a personal choice that they can tell you so much about the person who chose to put them on.

A 2012 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology coined the phrase “embodied cognition” to describe the idea that we think not just with our brains but also with our bodies. The researchers found that clothes influence how we view and interact with the world: When they gave participants white coats they said belonged to doctors, the subjects’ ability to pay attention increased. When they were told the coats belonged to painters, their ability to pay attention flat-lined. What this means: Clothes can, and do, influence a wearer’s psychological processes. Dressing casually, or carelessly, could cause a worker—or, for that matter, a partner—to feel less focused and less alert, less engaged and present.

Clothes also dictate the role the people wearing them take on, whether we’re talking about an upstanding boyfriend wearing a crisp button down and good jeans to meet your parents for Sunday brunch or the no-good slouch showing up to take you to dinner in the sweats he’s owned since college. A 1994 study out of North Illinois University found that people’s perception of their own responsibility, competence, honesty, reliability, and trustworthiness, among other qualities, was heightened when they took a little more care in the clothing they put on. How this works is similar to how certain body positions can make people act more confidently, even in certain cases raising testosterone in the body, as was concluded in a 2010 study published in the journal Psychological Science. What does this mean for your relationship? Well, think about it. The care and pride he takes in presenting himself is likely to correspond to the care and pride he takes in his relationships.

As my son, who has worked in retail and fashion for many years and now designs a line of casual clothing for men can attest, dressing yourself is a form of personal branding. You want a guy who believes in what he’s selling just as much as you want to buy whatever it is that’s behind that façade. Clothing carries symbolic meaning. When you put on a black dress to go to a funeral, or your running tights to go to the gym, your brain is primed to behave in ways consistent with that meaning. You act in a manner consistent with your dress. When you put on a stained t-shirt and an ill-fitting pair of jeans, your brain thinks it needn’t try so hard, either.

If you’re still not convinced, consider that, well, he’s most definitely judging you. In her book, Modern Dating: A Field Guide, author Chiara Atik reveals that, in her research, men consistently brought up clothing as among the first things they notice about women. So go ahead and think twice about the guy with the perpetually wrinkled shirt. It’s not superficial. It’s just common sense.

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