The Scientific Case for Wearing Jeans to Work

Vindication for the hipster: A nonconformist image projects competence and high status, research finds.

National Journal

We mock them, the hipsters. We mock them in their coffee shops, as they sip hand-poured brews, while they wear cutoff overalls and bright micro-plaid-printed shirts.

We poke fun at their ironic love of obsolete fads, like vinyl, mustaches, fixed-gear bikes. We mock them because they don't conform. But perhaps, deep underneath all that mocking, we actually respect the hipster.

A research paper from the Harvard Business School finds that standing out a little can "lead to inference of enhanced status and competence in the eyes of others." In other words, hipster nonconformity can work in the workplace.

It's a response to what researchers call "the red sneaker effect." Mark Zuckerberg is an obvious example here. He runs the world's most popular social-networking site and has made billions, but he often wears hoodies. When Microsoft announced its new CEO last week, the company published photos of him looking real casual wearing a T-shirt and thick-rimmed glasses. Too cool (or more subliminally, too powerful) to care.

Silvia Bellezza, the lead author on the paper, noticed a similar trend in her academic circles. "At academic conferences, the big-shot professors would be the ones dressed very casually," she says. "It started as a bit of a joke — we were making fun of this fact. But as a matter of fact, the people who enjoy high status in society will tend to disrespect rules more than people who are at the bottom of it."

What she wanted to know is if, in turn, others come to perceive slight nonconformities in dress as a marker of high status, whether it's warranted or not.

And they do. In one study, participants awarded professors who were unshaven and wore T-shirts while teaching as having higher academic status. In another, a sample of retail assistants in Milan rated shoppers at high-end boutiques who dressed in casual clothes as being more likely to be a celebrity than those who dressed elegantly.

"What we find is that these inferences of status and performance are driven by an attribution of autonomy," Bellezza explains, "the idea that the person is able to dictate her own laws. She has her own rules."

But like the laws of gravity and time, the laws of nonconformity are relative. Here are the conditions in which the nonconformity effect is maximized.

1. Those who value originality are more likely to rate others more highly for being original. If your employer values uniforms, you're not going to impress him or her with a creative twist.

2. The perceiver has to be familiar with the context of the situation. You have to know the norm to spot a deviation from it.

3. The hipsteriness has to appear intentional. No one wants to be perceived as being oblivious to fashion trends. In another study, participants were asked to imagine a person wearing a red bow tie to a black-tie event. In the condition in which the participants were told he didn't mean to wear the red tie, the effect was attenuated.

And 4. Bellezza theorizes that the effect would be canceled out in a group of nonconformists. "If you were to go in a creative agency in which being a nonconformist is the norm, then being nonconforming would mean wearing a tie," she says. (Editor's note: National Journal colleagues, take note of this.)

The researchers were studying slight deviations from the norm. Like deciding not to wear a tie in a setting in which it's expected, but still wearing a buttoned-down shirt and pants. Or wearing a very loud color. "Going to class barefoot, wearing a tie around your head, we are not looking at that," she says. So there may be a threshold after which "cool and original" turns into just looking like a fool.

And there are still risks in breaking the mold. A 2008 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology concluded, "Individuals who formed overinflated perceptions of their status were liked less by others and rated as more lonely and alienated." The authors said this is due in part to being perceived as disruptive to the group.

Striking a balance, it seems, is the crux of the successful hipster: slightly original, but not entirely grating.