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					Academic Essay

      Cassandra Wolf
      Katie Beabout

      Choices In Attire: How What You Wear Effects Others' Perception of You

         As a busy undergraduate student, personal style is rarely one of my top priorities.
Normally, I throw on a t-shirt and sweatpants when I wake up and decide that my outfit will
just have to be good enough. The last thing I want to do in the morning, especially after a
long night of studying, is spend a great deal of time styling my hair, applying make-up, and
perfectly coordinating my clothing, from my head to toes. Instead, I choose to grab the first
comfortable outfit I can find and head to class. Some mornings, however, I feel oddly
inspired to exert the extra time and effort required to dress in a more stylish and feminine
way. On these days, I tend to notice a change in the way other individuals, particularly
strangers, treat me. People are noticeably more polite and friendly towards me. Strangers
are more likely to strike up a conversation, hold open a door or offer to help me. Just
straightening my hair causes my friends to remark how great I look and ask me what
special occasion I'm celebrating that day. These reactions have led me to wonder why the
way that I dress affects what other individuals perceive about me and how they choose to
treat me.
         Since becoming aware of this seeming connection between my attire and others’
treatment of me, I have noticed my own tendency to make assumptions. These can be
either small or big: my head labels the girl with a short skirt as "slut", and I wonder each
time she leaves what her plans are for the night, or I see the man wearing a jumpsuit while
fixing my car, and think him less learned then me. My brain makes these assumptions
immediately, almost without my realizing them. I am not alone in this predicament.
Personal attire plays a major role in the way in which our society views an individual. This
has huge implications for us, as it can affect everything from achieving our dream job to
simply "fitting in" in our society. One's attire can serve several purposes. As noted by the
Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal, “Clothing is readily observable and
believed to be a personal choice of the individual; it often serves as an index of sex, age,
social status, occupation, group membership, personality, interests, values, and behavioral
expectations. In other words, particular clothes convey messages” (Davis 325-335). It is
found that through various processes, the human brain uses peoples’ attire to form beliefs
and perceptions about the lives and abilities of those individuals. This definition for clothing
thus poses several questions. Why do people choose to dress as they do? What implications
does this have for society? And despite the nature of our brains, can we counteract this
innate process of assumptions?
         As humans, we must rely on what our senses and brain tell us to form an
understanding of the world we live in. This involves how we perceive our surroundings.
“Perception is the process by which organisms interpret and organize sensation to produce a
meaningful experience of the world" (Lindsay and Norman). Perception, therefore,
permeates every moment of our lives. Every experience that occurs is perceived differently
by various people in society. If you show ten people a picture and ask what they see, they
will all notice and choose to remember different parts of it. Thus, it seems that the way in
which we perceive objects in our life is processed differently for each person. This could be
due to one's prior life experiences. Perceptions are often learned overtime and affected by a
number of environmental factors. “The organization apparent in percepts has been
attributed by some to learning, as being built up through arbitrary associations of elements
that have repeatedly occurred together in the person’s experience.” Thus, factors such as
education, family life, past experiences, and even typical stereotypes in society can
influence the way in which a person and his attire is perceived.
         There is an additional process that plays a role in how our brains respond to others'
clothing choices. This is that of inference. The human brain is designed to constantly make
inferences about it's surroundings. This process is essential to survival and to functioning on
a daily basis. Without the ability to make certain assumptions, it would be impossible to
draw any conclusions about our environment. Inferences are extremely important to our
social interactions. People will often imply things using word choice, tone, body language
and other subtle forms of communication. In society, social norms expect, and often
require, that the listener will pick up on implications. Unfortunately, it is often found that
the inferences people draw, however, are not the result of accurate data and can potentially
lead to false beliefs. It is said that "inferences can be accurate or inaccurate, logical or
illogical, justified or unjustified. […] We humans naturally and regularly use our beliefs as
assumptions and make inferences based on those assumptions. We must do so to make
sense of where we are, what we are about, and what is happening. […] We make
judgments, form interpretations, and come to conclusions based on the beliefs we have
formed" (Paul, and Elder). We rely on inferences to interpret and react to the world around
us. While some inferences are the result of logic and facts, we cannot forget that others are
illogical and based on false information.
         The inferences we make and the beliefs we hold about one another are the result of
many complex interactions within the brain. Much of this process is not well understood and
researchers are striving to uncover the mysteries of how the brain creates such beliefs. One
researcher in the field is Walter J. Freeman, a neuroscientist at the University of California
at Berkeley. Freeman conducts experimental research on how the brain creates meaning.
His laboratory hopes to gain an understanding of how collaboration among the vast quantity
of neurons in the human brain forms intelligent behavior. To achieve this, his laboratory
monitors the “spatial patterns of neural activity” that generate and manage intentional
behavior in animals and human volunteers (Freeman). Freeman believes that active, rather
than passive perception is used by the human brain. Active perception is when an individual
focuses their sensory organs, such as sight, on a particular part of their environment and
then makes sense of the onslaught of information they have just received. For this to be
successful, the individual must also ignore everything else that is irrelevant. Otherwise,
they will become overwhelmed by information and be unable to process it all. Freeman’s
research has found that when an animal is trained to respond to a certain stimulus, a new
pattern within the animal’s cortex is formed. For the animal, this pattern is what recognizes
the stimuli and assigns meaning to it. This pattern is unique to the individual creature and is
the result of both its past experiences and the current context of the stimuli. As the animal
is trained to respond to various stimuli, multiple patterns are created within its cortex and
each produce signals that are sent to the limbic system. Within the limbic system, all of the
signals are processed and incorporated together to create a collective meaning. This
collective information is sent back to the cortex and helps the animal predict future events
and creates certain expectations for how the world works. Freeman believes that this
information gathered from animal models can be used to understand how the human brain
works (Freeman 97-107). This data shows that, quite possibly through a similar process,
our human brains can also create certain meanings that are then associated with
individual’s choice in wearing a particular outfit.
         Active perception can be applied to many different fields. Bob Fennis from the
Department of Marketing Communication and Consumer Psychology at the University of
Twente, has conducted research to see how active perception plays a role in the way
individuals view someone wearing a specific brand of clothing. His results showed that when
an individual meets a stranger wearing a specific brand, the individual draws on the context
of the encounter and his knowledge of the brand to infer certain things about the stranger.
If given time, the individual will cautiously and mindfully draw conclusions about the
stranger. If the individual has limited time, however, he will instead make quick inferences.
Fennis found that in the latter situation, brands were much more effective at influencing
how an individual perceived the person he was meeting (Fennis, and Pruyn 634-639).
Clearly there are important patterns observed in the way people’s brains perceive others.
        The number of inferences that occur in our society are infinite and varied. It is clear
that we all draw conclusions about other people based on how they dress. There are many
factors that contribute to the assumptions we make. What we learn through social
conditioning, the media, and personal experiences creates a bias that helps us make sense
of the world. This bias affects how we see and feel about everything we encounter, including
others' attire. There are several typical stereotypes in society that we tend to infer about
others, just from our perception of their choice of clothes. One such example, as discussed
previously, involves formal versus casual attire. Depending on the situation, casual attire
can be viewed in a positive or negative way. In a business setting, casually dressed people
can be viewed as less motivated and, certainly, unprofessional. In an educational setting,
however, a casually dressed professor could potentially be seen by students as more
approachable, which could foster student-professor relations. Thus, encountering a casually
dressed person can lead to a handful of inferences, with many being based on past
experiences and often the present environment. One may assume that an individual dressed
so casually is laid back, unconcerned with clothing, and easy going, while another may
immediately decide that the same individual is lazy and perhaps uncaring in all aspects.
Additionally, though, it is possible for someone dressed formally to also be perceived in
various ways. Say you ask three people about the same formally dressed man. One person
might see him as smart and motivated, the next could say the man is intimidating, while
the third, however, may assume that he is simply stuck-up. All these inferences stem from
the way in which each individual perceives formal and informal wear.
        There are several more such stereotypes. Consider a person in trendy, stylish attire
versus one sporting out-of-date clothes. Immediately, inferences will occur. Is the first
person a fashionista? The life of the party? A social wanna-be? Yet, does the second just not
care? Can he not afford the new trends? These inferences, again, are not based on fact.
They are just the brain's immediate reactions and processes. The Home Economics
Research Journal published a study where both male and female college students were
shown a female peer wearing in-fashion clothing. They evaluated her as being more sociable
in such attire then when they saw her wearing out-of-fashion clothing. Thus, "the effect of
clothing style on the impression of sociability was found to be statistically significant and
conceptually important" (Johnaon, Nagasawa, and Peters 58-63). This also holds true when
comparing women wearing tight or loose clothing. Is the girl in a short skirt selling herself
on the streets? But is the other self-conscious and using clothing to hide increased weight?
The Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society published an alarming study about the power of
stereotypes. Several college students were shown a female wearing either sexy or unsexy
clothes and then asked to answer questions about the likelihood of the woman being raped
or robbed. Scientists found that the “responses indicated that the model wearing sexually
oriented clothes was seen as more likely to be either robbed or raped, more likely to
provoke such an attack, and more likely to be responsible for the attack if she were to be
assaulted. Furthermore, the model's assailant was held to be less accountable if the model
was assaulted while wearing sexy clothes than while wearing sexually conservative clothes"
(Edmonds, and Cahoon 444-446). These students perceived that provocative attire
encourages a women getting taken advantage of and gives her attacker an excuse for his
        Inferences can also be drawn from job-related clothing (scrubs versus custodial
garb), class (fortunate versus unfortunate), and, of course, sub-cultural clothing (goth,
skater, nerd, etc.) Peoples' varied backgrounds will certainly play a role here, depending on
with which group they did or still do associate. For example, "nerds" feel more comfortable
around others who appear to be nerds, whereas some women might view these men as un-
dateable. The Journal of Men's Studies ran an article that examined the way in which nerds
participate in an online forum. They found that these nerds, consisting of mostly men, chose
to establish a respectable nerd stereotype. “They do so by emphasizing the "masculine"
qualities required to accomplish their computer-related jobs, asserting the colorblind nature
of online interactions, and using ideas about nerds to distance themselves from women and
sexuality. Thus, despite its negative aspects, the nerd identity provides a rich conceptual
resource with which computer-using males can interpret their own and others' identities"
(Kendall 353-369). This study shows that what we infer from stereotypes can be either
positive, negative, or both.
         We have found that a great number of inferences are drawn from others' attire. This
causes us to choose our own clothing carefully. Why do people dress as they do? There are
many answers to this question, but none of them encompasses each individual's choice of
clothing. For some, clothes are merely something to cover their bodies. For others, clothing
sets a standard for others and gives off a specific message. People may choose their clothes
solely on price...what fits them for what they can afford. Some, on the other hand, dress
only for comfort or ease of movement. Still others dress as society expects them to,
whether for their job or for people in their lives. It is a typical social norm, though, to
choose clothing that shows something to the world. One could be using clothes to show his
unique personality, to demonstrate his sense of attitude, or even be used to paint a portrait
of a person that he is not, a sort-of alternate reality. We know when we get dressed each
morning that every person we come in contact with that day will assess our clothes,
perceive them as their brains choose, and make inferences immediately.
         We now know that clothing plays an important role in our everyday life. This leads us
to wonder about the implications of such information. As Fennis' research has shown,
individuals can use clothing to influence those around them and it is "quite easy to 'dress for
success' and get away with it" (Fennis, and Pruyn 634-639). Your attire plays a huge role in
other's first impressions of you. This can have a positive or negative outcome for you. If you
are aware of the effect of clothing on other's perceptions, you can use this to your
advantage. When going to a job interview, a potential employer is using his first
impressions to decide whether or not you will be a good employee. Showing professionalism
through your attire is just as important as presenting a list of numerous, solid qualifications.
This knowledge about the importance of clothing can be applied to all aspects of your life.
For example, when you are at church, you probably should not wear the sexy outfit that you
wore to the club the night before. This choice could give the congregation the wrong
impression of you! In life, we encounter many different social situations. Each situation
involves various contexts which must be taken into account. While this can sometimes seem
overwhelming, it is important to attempt to stay aware of the impression your clothing is
giving others.
         At the same time, we must remember that clothing is not everything. I can definitely
recall times where I have judged individuals based on their attire, only to later realize that
my initial inferences were completely wrong. This is why we need to be diligent about
keeping an open mind. The girl with the super short skirt might be the most innocent
person around, while the mechanic with grease-stained overalls may also have a Ph.D. Very
few people are always dressed in the way that represents them best. This should not be too
much of a worry, however, because the inferences that others gather about us can be
overcome as we become better acquainted with them. Some days, such as after a long
night of studying, an individual may not have the time or energy to care about his attire. A
mother, for instance, may have to put her children before her personal style. Other times,
people are simply under or overdressed. Either way, it is important to question our initial
assumptions and remember that clothing does not always reflect or embody the real person
wearing it. If we have a better understanding of how our brain works concerning our
perceptions about clothing, we can more easily overcome our false inferences and lead
productive, healthy lives.

Works Cited
Davis, Leslie. "Clothing and Human Behavior: A Review."Family and Consumer Science
Research Journal 12.3 (1984): 325-335. Web. 30 Nov 2009.
Edmonds, Ed, and Delwin Cahoon. "Attitudes concerning crimes related to clothing worn by
female victims.."American Psychological Association 24.6 (2009): 444-446. Web. 30 Nov
Fennis, Bob, and Ad Pruyn. "You are what you wear: Brand personality influences on
consumer impression formation ." Journal of Business Research 60.6 (2007): 634-639.
Web. 16 Nov 2009. <
Freeman, Walter. "Comparison of Brain Models for Active vs. Passive Perception."
Information Sciences 116. (1999): 97-107. Web. 16 Nov
Freeman, Walter. "The Freeman Laboratory for Nonlinear Neurodynamics." Walter J.
Freeman: Neurophysiology Lab. Web. 16 Nov 2009.
Johnson, Barbara, Richard Nagasawa, and Kathleen Peters. "Clothing Style Differences:
Their Effect on the Impression of Sociability." Family and Consumer Sciences Research
Journal 6.1 (1977): 58-63. Web. 30 Nov 2009.
Kendall, Lori. ""The Nerd Within": Mass Media and the Negotiation of Identity Among
Computer-Using Men."Men's Study Press 7.3 (1999): 353-369. Web. 30 Nov 2009.
Lindsay, Peter, and Donald Norman. "Introduction to Perception: Definition of Perception."
Encyclopaedia Britannica. Web.
Paul, Richard, and Linda Elder. "Critical Thinking: Distinguishing Between Inferences and
Assumptions."Critical Thinking: Distinguishing Between Inferences and Assumptions. Web.
30 Nov 2009. <>.


Katie Beabout and Cassandra Wolf were both participants in the Honors College class Believing in the
Fall 2009 Semester. They collaborated on this piece because, as young ladies, they see the effects that
clothing has on friends, family, and the opposite sex every day and wanted to further explore this topic
and its implications.

Katie is a senior Biochemistry major who plans on attending graduate school and entering the field of
biomedical research. She has a passion for the sciences and for learning in general. She is an active
member of the young adult group at her church, the Congregational Church of Birmingham, United
Church of Christ. She also enjoys watching Star Trek and listening to musicals, such as Les Miserables,
Rent and In the Heights. Additionally, Katie is also an artist and spends much of her free time drawing
and painting with acrylics.

Cassandra is a sophomore Psychology major who also plans to attend graduate school in the future. She
enjoys having fun with others and making wonderful college memories here at Oakland. Cassandra loves
her position as a Resident Assistant in the dorms! She credits her decision to pursue psychology to the
experiences and interactions she has encountered with her residents. When she is not busy with school
or work, Cassandra enjoys spending quality time with her family and friends.

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