Dressing the Part: July 3, 2013

It’s time for another edition of “Dressing the Part,” a roundup of fashionetiquette musings and advice by Robin Abrahams, the Boston Globe’s “Miss Conduct.” All the world’s a stage: Act better!

Do you have questions about what to wear for a job interview, a high-school reunion, a wedding? I’ll be chatting online today from noon-1pm Eastern time. Join me!

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This article in the New York Times explores the effect of environment on behavior. You might think of yourself as, say, a friendly, open, and impulsive spirit. But your actual behavior is strongly influenced by environmental cues:

Most people, in fact, think of themselves as generous. In self-assessment studies, people generally see themselves as kind, friendly and honest, too. We imagine that these traits are a set of enduring attributes that sum up who we really are. But in truth, we’re more like chameleons who instinctively and unintentionally change how we behave based on our surroundings.

The author, Adam Alter, gives many examples of how environment influences our behavior: Blue lights reduce crime, pictures of eyes reduce theft, and people are more likely to tidy up after themselves in a place that doesn’t look as though it has already been trashed.

Clothes, of course, are the most immediate “environment” we have, and the one most under our control. Dressing yourself can be a form of therapy or art, as we use clothes to get into character. One recent experiment showed that people solve logic puzzles better if they are wearing a scientist’s lab coat. They have to think it’s a scientist coat, though—you don’t get the same effect if the subjects think they’re wearing a beautician’s coat.

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The idea that clothes affect your state of mind is one that I kept in mind while packing for my trip to the Midwest this month. I live in Boston, and had to go to Missouri for two weeks to visit my mother (who is in a nursing home) and help out with some logistical things. This is the kind of trip that can very easily become miserable if you don’t work hard to keep it cheerful, so my clothes had to fit my desired state of mind. I wanted bright colors, personality, and lots of comfort—and I also wanted two weeks’ worth of clothing to fit in an overhead bag. My travel tips:

Plan a uniform

The more your clothes all have the same shape, the easier they are to mix and match. I brought two full, knee-length skirts, one khaki and one black, and I bought a similar grey skirt at Christopher and Banks while I was there.

With a neutral bottom, I wanted attention-getting tops. I brought four Chico’s Travelers’ tanks in grass green, hot pink, Windex blue, and yellow, and these four delightful t-shirts from Threadless:


One bright print cardigan, one long grey wraparound cardigan for the plane, a pair of yoga pants and shorts, and I was good to go.

Be your own accessory

Bright painted toes (Orly Gold) and lips (Stila Stay All Day liquid lipstick in hot pink) gave a zip to my outfits.


Travel jewelry should be cheap and cheerful

Aside from never-coming-off wedding rings and similarly sentimental items, don’t travel with jewelry you couldn’t afford to lose or break. I went with yellow pearl studs earrings, white plastic hoops, and an orange resin and gold chain charm-style bracelet.


A daily uniform of comfy skirt, kicky top, bright lips, and fun jewelry kept me appropriate for all Midwestern occasions (from a meeting with the nursing-home administrator to a trip to Silver Dollar City to an unexpected high-school reunion) while feeling very much myself.

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Finally, I dealt with issues of appearance in a recent column.

A letter-writer was concerned that her youthful appearance might count against her in professional settings. My advice:

While etiquette teaches that we ought not judge others by their physical appearance, social science teaches that we do, and that those judgments are swift, unconscious, and predictable. Multiple studies show that baby-faced people (men and women both) are thought of as guileless, friendly, weak-willed, submissive, non-threatening, honest, warm, kind, and trustworthy. Less likely to embezzle, more likely to be bamboozled. It can be harder to prove your competence as a baby-faced person, but much easier to prove your good intent.

If that’s what you’re up against, cosmetics are probably not your best solution. You’re right to wear some face paint when you’re speaking in public, as it helps the audience read your lips and facial expressions better. On the day-to-day, wear as much or as little as is appropriate for your work and style, and don’t try to use it to change what you fundamentally look like.

To ensure that your baby face is not working against you, avoid frills and pastels and any styles that are infantilizing (you’ll want to skip the great 2013 Romper Revival). Scrub any whine and giggle from your voice. Keep your silhouette simple, your colors warm or soothing. This is advice, by the way, useful to those who actually are young, not just young-looking.

Take advantage of the fact that in a frightened world, you are perceived as non-threatening. Learn to ask tough questions in a tender voice. At work or in your community, look for opportunities to be a link between groups or to represent your team or company to the outside world. And while you’re doing this, keep meticulous track of your objective, quantitative career accomplishments so that your hard skills are never in question. And never, ever use the power of the baby face for evil, of course.
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Already Pretty contributor Robin Abrahams writes the Miss Conduct social-advice column in the Boston Globe. (Got a question? Send it in to missconduct@globe.com!) Robin has a PhD in research psychology and is married to Marc Abrahams, creator of the Ig Nobel Prizes.

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One Response to “Dressing the Part: July 3, 2013”

  1. Jessicas

    I liked what you had to say about those of us that have the good ‘ol baby face. I find that just as you say that I’m perceived as kind and non-threatening but have found this to interfere with the ability to be taken seriously by those around me…especially at work. I loved what you had to say; that I should use this to my advantage.