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During the pandemic and its lockdowns, countless people have swapped their business and street clothes for loungewear while working from home. Still, if you have been job hunting during COVID, chances are you came across a specific tip when preparing for online job interviews: Wear a complete outfit of the same level you would wear when interviewing in person. Even though they just see your upper half, dressing for the occasion is supposed to put you in the right mindset. How much influence do clothes and styling have on the psyche, and can you really use them to influence the success you have in life?

How to Combat Assumptions Based on Looks

For the record, we are very much against the concept of looks having any say over the competence of a person. Sadly, much of society still thinks in these grooves. Especially when it comes to getting the foot in the door in interviews, we can do our best to weaponize these stereotypes. While we cannot change much about our genes, we can work with our styling and clothes to leave the best impression.

We can start to think about this in very basic terms:

There are certain items that carry prestige. For whatever reason – some of it being a high quality, others simply because it came popular with rich or famous people – certain brands became a status symbol. If you can afford a luxury Rolex (Hit the ‘price highest to lowest’ filter to see just how luxury they can get: clearly you must be doing something right. Which, in turn, can suggest that you are a competent hard worker.

Naturally, it’s not always quite as simple. There is a delicate balance when picking the right symbols. Applying to a non-profit charity organization decked in Gucci and diamond jewelry might not be the best choice, except maybe when you’re volunteering as a donor.

Looks and Stereotypes

Humans love to put things in categories. It often happens subconsciously and helps us quickly make assumptions and react accordingly. Our ancestors have learned that brightly colored snakes are dangerous. As a result, anything snake-like and/or brightly colored was assumed to be dangerous as well, and more people survived when instinctively staying away from poisonous snakes, frogs and co.

Unfortunately, this habit is the root of countless assessments with negative effects or large groups of people. Media plays a huge part in this these days. Character tropes and clichés copied from popular movies keep tying certain traits to certain people.

Our Westernized media has been showing us attractive (and usually white) heroes for the longest time. The good people, the people who get stuff done, they are white and good-looking, while the bad and useless guys are either POC, disfigured in some way, maybe both, or simply pale and sickly looking. 

“Attractive” = “good” and “ugly” = “bad” has been burned into our brains. That does not only apply to the facial structure, but also the greasiness of hair, bagginess of clothes or clearness of skin.

After all, countless animations and movies with (often racist) stereotypes have taught us so and this “knowledge” gets activated in impulse situations, even if we are entirely aware of these unreasonable clichés.

Studies on the Influence of Looks on Success

These unconscious impulses get activated when HR personnel needs to make decisions, as well. The quicker and under more stress a decision needs to be made, the more likely it is that a person will use those very simplified categories burned in our brains to quickly evaluate a person’s characteristics.

There are countless studies examining the psychological effect clothing, styling, and looks can have on the way you get treated in life. Dion, Berscheid & Waister have already noted this phenomenon in their study titled “What is Beautiful is Good” in 1972. The result:

Both male and female people who were considered conventionally attractive were, when judged by both males and females:

  • assumed to have more socially desirable personality traits

and as a result

  • led better lives (having more success occupationally and more successful partners)

These results were re-examined and confirmed often

  • Physically attractive people are seen as more likely to achieve success and therefore get hired more frequently and reach higher positions more easily.
  • They receive higher (starting) salaries and performance evaluations
  • The same positive effects apply to many aspects in life, for example when a person runs for public office, is judged in a trial or bargaining with vendors.

Note that this benefit sometimes capsizes for attractive (often blonde) women, who aren’t taken seriously based on the negative “bimbo” stereotype.

Conclusion – Weaponized Styling for More Success

It’s nothing new to dress to impress during the dreaded interview stage. We present our best selves in hopes of increasing our chances. Thesame applies for everyday work too. Like we learned, the benefits attractive people gain accompany them daily. Getting back into the office after COVID and rocking our leisure wear might not leave the best impression.

At a basic level: A person who comes to work with stained and/or ripped clothes, unkept hair, chipped nail polish or smudged make up will most likely be (even if its just unconsciously) considered as lazy, sloppy, and less competent than someone who makes an effort with their styling every day.

If you are in a professional environment where performance evaluations are key, you can make use of clever styling to continuously influence your superior’s mental image of you. There are nuances to this strategy. Make sure to keep the specific work environment and the people’s mentalities there in mind. A good first step is to simply be mindful when choosing outfits, making sure they are spotless and in order. The next would be to aim for chic clothes with high-quality textures and cuts. Dress for the role you want to reach, but don’t make it gaudy and flashy.

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