It may be counter-intuitive, but according to Harvard doctoral student Silvia Bellezza and her colleagues, it can pay off to dress down--or at least appear to be a non-conformist. Her studies published in the Journal of Consumer Research measured how different personalities responded to non-standard clothing. Shirley Wang of the Wall Street Journal explains:
In their first study, they asked shop assistants and pedestrians in Milan to rate what they thought of people who walked into luxury stores wearing gym clothes. The subjects also rated those who wore outfits typically considered more appropriate, like a dress and fur coat.
Pedestrians were more likely to think that a well-dressed individual was more likely to have the money to buy something in the store. Shop assistants thought the opposite. Those more familiar with the luxury retail environment were more likely to assume that a gym-clothes-wearing client was confident enough to not need to dress up more, and therefore more apt to be a celebrity making a purchase than someone wrapped in fur.
Casually non-conforming behavior can project a sense of confidence:
The same pattern emerged in subsequent studies conducted in other settings: Students afforded more respect to a fictitious bearded professor who wore a T-shirt than to a clean-shaven one who wore a tie. Candidates entering a business-plan competition who chose to use their own PowerPoint presentation background were tabbed more likely to win than those who used the standard background.
There are boundaries to the benefits of looking different, the Harvard work showed. If an individual was viewed as accidentally out of sync with everyone else, such as mistakenly wearing a red bow tie rather than black at a formal event, that erased positive feelings about him among those surveyed. Those opinions only improved when the survey group believed their contrarian acted differently on purpose.
People who think of themselves as offbeat are especially receptive to this tendency in others:
Francesca Gino, an associate business administration professor at Harvard Business School and an author on the paper, decided to test the theory outside the lab as well. She wore red Converse sneakers to teach a one-day event on small business management education. Dr. Gino found that those who identified themselves on a questionnaire as having a higher need to be unique were more likely to give her higher ratings than those who didn't.
"They inferred, 'She's so autonomous, she must do whatever she wants,' " Ms. Bellezza says.
So break out the sweatpants and nail that job interview. You can do it!
(Emphasis added to the quote.)