Amrit Virdi discusses the origins of the phrase ‘dressing for the occasion’, and what your clothes can really reflect about you.
We’ve all grown up knowing the norms of a ‘global’ dress code. Wearing flip flops for a job interview is ludicrous. Wearing bright colours to a funeral may be unacceptable. And wearing white if you aren’t the bride at a wedding? Distasteful to some people’s standards.
Dress codes have been around since the beginning of time essentially, stemming in Europe in the seventh century with royalty and nobility using clothing to differentiate themselves from others. Ornamented garments meant that those of higher classes stood out, with plain tunics being worn by peasantry. Economist George Taylor even created the Hemline Index theory in 1926, which theorised that the length of a woman’s skirt is indicative of their financial status, and the financial market as a whole. Hemlines supposedly rise in times of economic prosperity, and get longer when the economy slows.
These give dress codes a socio-economic origin in Europe, and these values have arguably been carried through to the 21st century. Given the ever-increasing world of high-end fashion, wealth does play a part in the style you have, and in turn the impression you give to other people. If you see someone walking down the street donning Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint Laurent, or Gucci, your brain automatically assumes that they must be wealthy. These stereotypes can be linked to the ornamentation of the clothes of royalty, as the stereotype has developed over time for just certain logos to represent different forms of ‘ornamentation’ nowadays.
However, clothing itself isn’t the sole indication to someone’s status and personality, which can form the impression that they make. In the 21st century, social media, specifically performative apps such as TikTok and Instagram, has meant that clothing has grown to represent certain lifestyles. Due to this, new stereotypes have formed, mostly based on the clothes that one wears. Someone wearing Gymshark and making 5-9 routine videos is labelled as ‘that girl’. Someone wearing cargos who posts videos making songs is seen as ‘indie’. In these cases, clothing helps to play into the impression that someone makes, but it is not the sole basis for it.
With this comes a nastier side to social media and stereotyping, as those in the public eye are increasingly speaking out about the hate that they receive for what they wear. If someone dislikes one’s outfit, it can change the impression that they have of them, and lead to negative perceptions of their fashion. The reactions to the looks showcased at The Met Gala every year is an example of this. Every year, a slew of YouTubers come out with videos ranking the style of the celebrities on the red carpet. Off-hand comments often heard in the criticism, such as ‘I expected better,’ or ‘what on earth was that?’ are evidence of people being influenced to judge a person based on their fashion choices.
Morally, this leads to the question of whether the new judgemental age has made fashion less empowering or welcoming. If people are judging people’s personalities based solely on what they wear, they arguably have a false and incomplete impression of the person. Yet with many apps being photo and video driven, and our attention spans getting shorter and shorter, fashion is increasingly becoming our first and only impression of people.
Instead of judging people and tearing people down based on their fashion, it is clear that many of us need to do better to make others feel empowered by their style.
Yet in some areas, stereotypes are being subverted and fashion is not becoming the sole impression of a person. The workplace is an example of this. Traditionally, an extremely formal, monochrome attire with high heels was the norm at work, particularly in an office environment. Therefore, turning up in jeans would be seen as unacceptable, yet nowadays companies are more willing to ditch dress codes for comfort. Turning up in smart casual attire may no longer give the impression of laziness to an employer. It’s situations like these which indicate that clothing now forms less of an impression in certain circumstances.
However, certain scenarios, including interviews, still call for a more formal attire the majority of the time. The case study of Louise Ogilvy is evidence of this. Ogilvy runs a tech recruitment firm, and released a LinkedIn post saying that her company’s internal interviewers didn’t put two job applicants through to the next stage of an interview because of what they wore in a video-call interview. In the post, she wrote, ‘’Have we become too accustomed to working at home that we have forgotten that we are still ‘working.’ Would you have turned up to an office in a hoodie for an interview back in the days of face to face interviewing? Does it matter? Should it matter?”.
In this case, clothing clearly made the first impression, but this is an example of the negative impacts that this can have. For all we know, the most suitable and qualified candidates for the job could have been turned away based on one outfit, potentially resulting in a domino effect of being detrimental to the business.
But what is it that makes first impressions from clothing so powerful and relevant to our decision making? Many psychologists have studied this area, including Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov, who concluded that first impressions are made within 1/10th of a second of meeting someone. Facial impressions based on appearance play a powerful role in how you get treated according to this study, with these findings being backed up by many other psychologists.
Hill and Barton (2005) found that clothing can even influence the outcome of a sports match, with Forsythe (2006) supporting the theory that your clothes influence an interviewer’s impression of your ability to perform effectively in a job position. Roberts et al (2000) also found that the colour of clothing worn by someone effects how high others rate their attractiveness.
On another psychological note, your own confidence in your clothing and what you are wearing can radiate through to enhance the impression that you make upon someone. Especially in an age where fashion is a creative outlet more than it ever was before, being confident in what you are wearing is said to shine through in your energy, giving people an impression when they meet you that you are self-assured and confident.
Taking all of these points into consideration, clothing can definitely be said to make a huge impact on the impression that we make. But is this a good way to go forward? Though fashion is important as a statement of one’s identity, it is important to recognise that it is a part of a bigger picture, and stereotyping should be something we try to avoid going forward.
You can read more of Amrit’s work via her portfolio, amritvirdi.journoportfolio.com ,or by following her Instagram @thevinylwriter.