In The Science of Speaking, I note that when it comes to attire, it’s generally a good idea to blend in, being among the best dressed in the room, because studies have shown that this can increase your influence.
As is often the case with the science of speaking, however, another recent study introduces complexity. In an article from 2013 in the Journal of Consumer Research entitled “The Red Sneakers Effect: Inferring Status and Competence from Signals of Nonconformity,” Silvia Bellezza, Francesca Gino, and Anat Keinan report that under certain conditions, people “confer higher status and competence to non-conforming rather than conforming individuals.”
Here’s how it works. In a pilot study that compared the clothing of academics at a marketing conference, the authors found that “higher status and performance within a given community [i.e., number of peer-reviewed articles published] is correlated with a stronger tendency to deviate from a conforming dress code (e.g., wearing jeans, sneakers, T-shirts rather than professional attire).” This suggests that once your work speaks for itself, you don’t need your attire to speak for you anymore.
As the authors put it, “since nonconformity often has a social cost, observers may infer that a nonconforming individual is in a powerful position that allows her to risk the social costs of nonconformity without fear of losing her place in the social hierarchy.” Which is exactly what they found in their later experiments: non-conformity to a dress code can cause the non-conformist to be perceived as having higher status and competence.
For example, “shop assistants at luxury boutiques perceive a client to be more likely to make a purchase and to be a celebrity when she is wearing gym clothes or a Swatch than when she is wearing an elegant dress or a Rolex,” “students perceive an unshaven professor who wears a T-shirt to have higher professional status and competence than a shaven professor who wears a tie,” and people “perceive an individual wearing a red bow tie at a black-tie party in a country club as a higher-status member in the club and as a better golf player relative to a conforming individual wearing a black bow tie.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can simply go around breaking dress codes willy-nilly and automatically be perceived as higher status. (Although the article didn’t address this concern directly, I suspect this technique is similar to that of admitting uncertainty: if you’re already perceived as an expert, admitting uncertainty or breaking the dress code will help you, but if you’re not already perceived as an expert, admitting uncertainty or breaking the dress code will hurt you.) But it does mean that in certain circumstances, having a unique look can give you a boost.
Without knowing it, I have actually been applying the red sneakers effect throughout my life. In middle school, I began a tradition of wearing unique footwear, from bright blue sneakers, to Vibram FiveFingers, to mismatched red and green slip-ons, and most recently, bright red leather loafers. While I don’t have any data about the effect of my footwear on my perceived status and competence, I can report that my footwear has always drawn attention (usually positive), and never left me without a conversation starter.
Interestingly, the authors also found that the red sneakers effect also applies to slide design. In another study, they found that people “perceive a contestant in a prestigious [business plan pitching] competition as having higher status and competence when he adopts his own layout for the presentation rather than the standard background.” So while you don’t want to go crazy and break all expectations, having a unique style of visuals can also give you a boost.