Whenever I fly, I do my best to dress somewhat professionally, even if I’m only heading out to see a friend for a brief visit.
My travel outfits aren’t fancy—a nice top and a skirt (the latter going no longer than the knee to avoid getting pulled over by TSA)—but they do look respectable. Doing so not only helps me feel confident and put-together, but it also seems to help others—from security agents to passengers—treat me with respect and kindness.
Given this self-enforced travel clothing regimen, I was intrigued when I came across an article in USA Today suggesting that planes should have a dress code. A major reason for such a proposal, the author argued, is the increased number of altercations erupting on flights in recent years. “Passengers and some psychologists believe that if people dress up before their flight, they might be more respectful – and less likely to lash out,” the author noted.
While I wouldn’t be surprised if the increase in altercations on planes stems from other issues as well, I think the author is on to something about dress. The fact is, how we dress in any situation affects not only how we behave, but how others behave toward us.
For starters, the way we dress allows individuals to make snap decisions about us, even if they don’t realize it. Thus, it’s easy to see how those who dress more professionally on a plane—or anywhere else—may command more respect and politeness than those wearing yoga pants and a sweatshirt.
Dressing more formally also appears to increase our cognitive abilities. Reporting on two different studies, the Association for Psychological Science noted that formal clothing increases distance and politeness, attitudes which contribute to “enhance[d] abstract cognitive processing.” A second study found that dressing professionally increases an individual’s ability to see the big picture, rather than getting lost in details.
Another study, which dressed individuals in medical lab coats, painter’s coats, or no coat at all, suggests that we also live up to the standards that our clothing puts on us. The individuals dressed in lab coats where more attentive when “they performed an experimental task that required selective attention” than those dressed in the other outfits. Thus, it seems likely that when we dress formally, we’ll behave more formally, while if we dress casually or sloppily, we’ll channel our attitudes and actions that way as well.
These studies and observations confirm what Mark Twain once wrote about the respect we command with what we wear or don’t wear:
There is no power without clothes. It is the power that governs the human race. Strip its chiefs to the skin, and no State could be governed; naked officials could exercise no authority; they would look (and be) like everybody else — commonplace, inconsequential. A policeman in plain clothes is one man; in his uniform he is ten. Clothes and title are the most potent thing, the most formidable influence, in the earth. They move the human race to willing and spontaneous respect for the judge, the general, the admiral, the bishop, the ambassador, the frivolous earl, the idiot duke, the sultan, the king, the emperor.
In a day when we’re told to “let it all hang out,” “to just be yourself,” or to choose “comfort over style,” such thoughts should give us pause. Sure, there’s a time and place to let down our hair … but does it really benefit us or others to continually do so in public?
If we want others to respect our beliefs, ideas, and persons, then why not put our best foot forward from the get-go, signaling through our clothes the respect we both expect to give and take?
This article originally appeared on Annie’s Attic and is reprinted here with permission.
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