Dressing down can surprisingly improve the way people perceive you, according to a group of new studies from Harvard Business School (paywall).
One study asked both shop assistants and pedestrians in Milan what they thought of people who went into luxury stores wearing sweatsuits. They were also asked about people who went into luxury stores wearing fur coats. While people on the street thought that the well-dressed individuals were more likely to buy something, shop assistants had the opposite view: If people had the gall to wear gym clothes into the store, they must feel pretty confident—and probably have a lot of money. Another study found that students had more respect for a fictitious professor if he wore a t-shirt and had a beard.
But before you throw out your suits, make sure you’ve already established your authority to some degree. “In order to think that the person’s a big shot,” study author Silvia Bellezza told The Wall Street Journal, “you have to understand that the person is willingly engaging in this nonconforming conduct.” Walking into a luxury store with confidence (or walking into a classroom and beginning to teach) implies some degree of belonging. Without these cues, quirkiness can have the more obvious effect of making you seem like an outsider. So a CEO in sneakers is impressive, but a brand-new employee might have mixed results with the same wardrobe.