In 2012, Hajo Adam, an organizational psychologist at the University of Bath, and Adam D. Galinsky, a social psychologist at Columbia Business School, discovered a Febreze-proof wrinkle in the sartorial matrix: When a person physically wore a lab coat (scientist or no scientist, doctor or no doctor, lab work required or no lab work required), they made half as many errors as those participants who wore street clothes. In subsequent experiments, the pair went on to find that wearing a lab coat described as a “doctor’s coat even further increased sustained attention compared to wearing a lab coat described as a painter’s coat.”
To put a name to what they’d uncovered, they coined the term “enclothed cognition.” (Thus, scientifically underpinning what Frank Abagnale found when he successfully impersonated an airline pilot, then a pediatrician, merely by donning the right fit.)
“Putting on formal clothes makes us feel powerful, and that changes the basic way we see the world,” Abraham Rutchick, a professor of psychology at California State University, Northridge and author of another study on the topic, explained to The Atlantic three years later in 2015.
What, though, of enclothed cognition’s romantic application? In particular, could it help answer what is maybe dating’s oldest conundrum: Does dressing like some sort of part (a doctor, a fuccboi, someone who builds things with their hands — god forbid, yourself) make you more desirable, especially on a first date? After all, it’s likely that the person sitting across from you doesn’t know anything about you beyond whatever highly crafted, curated and sanitized information you’ve offered up on a dating app and/or social media.
And relatedly: What do the nonscientific, but equally knowledgeable experts in the realm of love, style or both think you should wear on a first date to better increase your odds for a second?
What Science Says
First off, Rutchick tells me that no matter how confident you might feel in your fedora, the context in which you wear it and the way your date feels about it could easily lead your confidence astray. “If someone is wearing something that’s in stark contrast from the context in which they’re in, that’s going to change things,” he explains. “Clothes can create more distance, too.”
For example, Rutchick guesses that people dressing too formally could make it so that their date is less likely to share secrets than if they were dressed more casually. “And just by way of being treated differently, you’re likely to behave differently too,” he says.
Essentially, your clothes, in any context — be it a date or a job interview — can simultaneously boost your confidence while also be a distraction for the person you’re with.
What the Style Experts Say
Lexis Milisic, a costume designer, tells me that when dressing any character she first has to figure out what their “motivation and intention is in the scene and setting.” Like Rutchick, she believes that a wardrobe “is a huge reflection of the individual, and it can emotionally reveal how the person wants to be perceived by others.”
For a normal guy on a first date, Milisic says that she’d dress them in a clean pair of jeans, a casual button-up shirt and either dress shoes or fancy sneakers. “The shoes are very important,” she explains. Specifically, she tells me that shoes can be very telling of how much a guy respects himself, considers his hygiene and “how seriously he wants to be taken.” “Shoes add value,” she emphasizes once more.
For his part, Brock McGoff, of the menswear blog The Modest Man, says he thinks “a T-shirt is too casual for some venues, and it’s better to be slightly overdressed than underdressed.” “If you’re overdressed, you might feel a little silly. If you’re underdressed, you actually look silly,” McGoff vows. Along those lines, you want to “give the impression that you care, but you’re not fussy.” “Neutral colors are universally flattering and easy to pair,” he recommends. “If you stick with solid neutrals — navy, tan, brown, olive, blue, white, grey, black — I guarantee your shirt, pants, jacket and shoes will match.”
Similarly, Jon Shanahan, of the menswear YouTube channel The Kavalier, tells me that there are other tricks you can use to your advantage, too, “such as low contrast outfits to help your height perception, getting a shirt tailored to enhance your physique or using a little concealer for that perfect looking skin even if your routine has slipped.”
What the Men of r/MaleFashionAdvice Say
Unsurprisingly, “what to wear on a first date” has long been a big topic of conversation on the subreddit MaleFashionAdvice (MFA). “I’d generally recommend against athleisure, but it’s hard to give one-size-fits-all advice since I’m coming from the perspective of a 31-year-old New Yorker,” says Dan Hakimi, a lawyer and frequent MFA contributor who describes himself as menswear’s biggest pedant.
Logesh Pillay, another regular MFA contributor, agrees, calling out sweats and hoodies by name as he thinks they don’t show much care or effort. More largely, he says that what you wear on a first date should depend on where you’re going. A summer date at a park, for instance, calls for a camp-collar, short-sleeved shirt with a light pair of linen or cotton pants and espadrilles.
Meanwhile, another redditor suggests that for a dinner (or dive bar) date, the idea is to “have a versatile outfit that’ll take you wherever the night goes.” “A white oxford cloth button-down shirt and dark jeans make a good base for your outfit — standard affair for a nice restaurant,” he writes. “Layer with a grey sweatshirt and a leather jacket and you have something sophisticated but won’t make you look like a square at a dive bar.” His bonus footwear tip: Chelsea boots are sleek and easy to take off. “Plus, they’re easy to clean when you spill beer on them,” he adds.
As for outerwear, something unassuming will do, writes a different MFA member. “A dark trucker jacket or bomber will get you through most situations,” he advises. “That over jeans and a solid T-shirt or button-up and you’ll be fine.”
Hakimi says T-shirts — he recommends those from Asket — always work when paired with a nice jacket. He does warn, however, that hats can be hit or miss. “The easiest kinds to wear — baseball caps — might be too casual,” he tells me. “Bucket hats and flat caps could be cool, or they could be corny.”
So save the headwear for more like date fifty-one.