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Erin Medlyn

Duke University
The Fuqua School of Business
100 Fuqua Drive
P.O. Box 90120
Durham, NC 27708-0125

Tel +1.919.660.8090

erin.medlyn@duke.edu

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Dressing to Maximize Success

New Fuqua research shows clothing that is moderately matched is most favorably perceived

July 28, 2014

You may want to give a bit more thought to what you are wearing to the office. New research by Duke University Fuqua School of Business post-doctoral associate Nina Strohminger shows outfits that are moderately matched in color are perceived as more fashionable than those that are highly matching or highly clashing. Her findings, The Science of Style: In Fashion, Colors Should Match Only Moderately,” were published this month in the journal PLOS ONE.

Strohminger elaborates on her findings and the implications in a Fuqua Q & A. 

Q) You conducted this research by showing people a combination of different color palettes and then surveying their opinions. How strongly did people lean toward color combinations that were moderately matched? Why?

We showed people outfits in a variety of color combinations, then got two sets of ratings. The first were related to preference — how much people liked the outfits, how good the outfits looked, and how fashionable they were. The other set of questions was about coordination — how similar each pair of colors was, and how much they matched. As an example, lime green and pink are quite different, whereas black and dark gray are nearly identical. Muted green and gray lie somewhere in between.

We found that matching colors makes an outfit look more fashionable, but only up to a point — once the colors start becoming too similar, or if many items in the outfit are the exact same color, there is a steep decline in how good the outfit looks.

There are many possible explanations for this finding. It may partly have to do with cultural norms, where we are taught to be mindful of our clothing choices, but not so much that our efforts are obvious.  Or it may reflect a more general aesthetic preference deeply rooted in the visual system: what color combinations are simply more pleasing to the eye? It would be interesting to see how consistent this preference is across different kinds of art and design, and whether this basic U-shaped curve shows up across cultures.

Q) Should people be considering dress in the same way they are mindful of other business practices that affect perception, such as how they communicate?

One of the lessons social psychology teaches us is the strength of halo effects: people who are good on one dimension (e.g. beautiful) are judged to be better on other dimensions as well (e.g. competent, nice). So, to the extent that a stylish outfit will bleed into perceptions of your other qualities, then yes, it would pay off to be mindful of how much your clothes match. How much coordination matters compared with other areas where you could be focusing your energy remains to be seen, so don’t give up on those enunciation classes just yet.

Q) What can retailers learn from your findings?

Oscar Wilde said, “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” The most salient dimension of fashion — whether in clothing or furnishings or fonts or food — is its inconstancy. But at a more abstract level, there may be some elements of fashion that remain the same from season to season. So it’s easy to imagine that, for instance, while the “in” colors change over time, the way we match them together stays relatively constant. And color coordination is just the beginning — there are likely other rules out there waiting to be discovered.

Q) What do you want people to take away from this research?

Personally, the reason I find this line of research interesting is how very little we know about it. There has been a lot of speculation, and a lot of historical research, but rigorous psychological testing remains missing. Fashion, like any cultural phenomenon, is incredibly complex, and I think this has scared a lot of psychologists off from it. The promise of being able to extract certain fundamental principles, and potentially link them back with deeper cognitive universals, is incredibly appealing and exciting.

Making sense of fashion is never going to be easy. What our research demonstrates is that, by breaking fashion down into its constituent parts — in this case, color coordination — we can start to get some insight into how it works. Naturally such early efforts are going to be very basic and very pared down. But you have to start somewhere.

Kurt Gray, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Peter Schmitt, director of The Mind Perception and Morality Lab at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Karim Kassam, professor of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon, are co-authors of the study.