When is nonconforming work clothing effective?

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We all know someone who deviates from the standard dress code at work. Think Mark Zuckerberg and his t-shirts and hoodies and Steve Jobs who always wore a turtleneck and jeans. Closer to home, I bet in your circle you can think of a few people who always deviate from the norm. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But when is nonconforming work clothing effective? Research has been done on the topic.

When is nonconforming work clothing effective?

The Red Sneaker Effect

The American survey titled “The Red Sneaker Effect: Inferring Status and Competence from Signals of Nonconformity’ was based on this subject. Harvard Business School (HBS) based Silvia Bellezza, Francesca Gino and Anat Keinan delved into the effects of wearing non-conforming clothes at work. Focusing on when nonconforming to the industries’ dress code can benefit you. The red sneaker in the title refers to the fact that wearing atypical clothes such as red sneakers can at times be a very smart move. You can come across as being a high-status person who does not need to conform to the rules. 


3 Conditions

Ok, I get it, it seems weird to wear a pair of red sneakers when giving a presentation at work. According to the research, three factors need to be taken into consideration to ensure you come across as being competent.

  1. Familiar with your environment. It is obvious that the person in question needs to be familiar with and in their environment

  2. Knowing the norm: the person needs to be familiar with what the norm is with regards to clothes 

  3. Clear Standards: The standards must be crystal clear. Only then can they be consciously broken. It simply means that the person must be familiar with the organization and environment and it is clear the person is choosing to stand out. Wearing runners to work because you cannot afford to buy shoes is a different story.


The Result

It sounds logical. Think of an intern whose style makes him immediately stand out on his first day of work. His choice of unusual clothes will not be appreciated by a lot of employers. He is not yet known within the company and his unusual dress sense can be seen as rebellious, undermining authority and inappropriate. Despite this not being his intention. Probably smarter to conform a bit until you have been working at the company for some time and have gained the respect of your co-workers.

People who are familiar to their colleagues are often praised for a little deviance from the norm, playful funky socks for example. Such people come across as autonomously expressing themselves. People who deviate from the norm are often judged as having a higher status and ability. This is normally someone who has built up enough social capital that their choice is simply accepted and seems natural. Exactly the opposite of the new intern on his first day of work.

Do you know someone who always dresses a little differently and is completely accepted? Would love to hear from you. Let me know in the comments below.




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