Does Dressing Make You Smarter?

By Derek Holser, Tastemaker in Residence

I genuinely love education. For me, the return to school is a glorious respite from summer heat, not a torturous interruption to lazy mornings and idyllic afternoons.

As a youngster, I’d begin the countdown for back-to-school right after the 4th of July. I think my passion for school was kindled not only by my love for learning but almost equally by my affection for new apparel. As a college professor, my romance with the department store racks filled with stylish fall duds has only intensified.

I know we are into September but late August is the best shopping time of the year – sorry, Black Friday fans. 

The Labor Day week sales are the best because they usher in the return to academic routine that is marked by the elbow-patched blazer, the suede loafer, the cardigan (still the ideal outerwear for smart casual), the diagonal-striped tie, and the corduroy trousers (narrow wale only, please). 

It’s not just for the youngsters getting new backpacks and sneakers. Like an acapella group at unlimited karaoke night, we professors get geeked up for the latest in bow ties and wool sweaters. The impending cooler temperatures prepare us all for the opportunity to create diversity in our wardrobe. Is there nothing finer than being able to wear a three-piece suit without fearing incessant sweat beads pooling on your forehead and dripping off your cheeks? No, there’s not.

Unfortunately, I feel as though I’m an endangered species. The precipitous trend toward more casual clothing causes me grave concern. I long for the days when people approached the classroom (for that matter, the office also) with a bit more consideration given to their selection of personal plumage. Observe these handsomely-dressed students with George Washington Carver:


Before you start to call me a killjoy or a fashion totalitarian, give me a few more paragraphs to explain. Before you start to tell me that comfort matters more than appearance, allow me to expound. Also, for context, remember that the men in picture above were studying agriculture in Tuskegee, Alabama, in an era without indoor air conditioning.

Today’s students appear more like this group from Hoosick Falls High School, in Rennselaer County, New York :

Now, there’s nothing inappropriate or indecent about the Hoosick Falls students’ clothing, but based on their garb, one could surmise that they are going to a bowling alley or the Friday football game. Or, maybe they are going to Chemistry Lab. The point is, we don’t know. Shouldn’t our clothing at least hint at our intended actions?

Whether we like it or not, how we dress sets the stage for our engagement with a matter. It influences our attitudes and our focus. But, more than that, it influences the way others perceive our potential. Not just our teachers, but our fellow students as well. I offer, for your consideration, the following data from a scientific study entitled, “Influence of Dress on Perception of Intelligence and Expectations of Scholastic Achievement”.

The full study can be found here-

The study was conducted by Dorothy Behling, a professor at Bowling Green State University, in Bowling Green, Ohio, in cooperation with Elizabeth Williams of Carey High School. The research method was simple: Teachers and students were presented with 4X6 black-and-white photographs of students, with their heads blotted out to avoid facial appearance influence, in four styles of clothing. The four outfits that the students wore are described in the study as follows:


The four categories: Hood, Artsy, Dressy, and Casual were used as classifications for the outfits worn by the anonymous students in the pictures. These classifications were not mentioned to the students and teachers, but were used internally by the researchers. The only influence on the perception of intelligence and scholastic achievement were the outfits worn in the pictures.

The results of the study are quite compelling – Both the student and the teacher groups had similar impressions – the “Dressy look” students were rated 20% smarter than the “Casual look” students and 64% smarter than the “Hood look” students.

Does dressing smarter make you look smarter? Definitely. Even without that study, anecdotal experience tells us all that someone with glasses – Warby Parker, anyone? – will be considered highly intelligent. 

But, does dressing smarter actually make you smarter? I believe so, and here’s why. As a professor, I readily admit that a student’s appearance influences my expectations of their engagement. Even if it’s subtle, the connection between a student wearing a sharp outfit and my subconscious thought of their attention to the subject matter is heightened. This, in turn, affects my anticipation of their diligence in their studies, which sets me up to think positively about their academic prowess when I am reviewing their work. So, as a professor to potential students, may I encourage you – think twice about what you wear to class. 

Like getting Dressed for Dinner, appearing at your desk in a freshly pressed “dressy look” may just prepare you for the best semester ever. Who knows? Perhaps wearing that sharp suit might just land you on the Dean’s List. Which leads to a scholarship. Which leads to more money for next year’s Back-to-School Sale! Here’s to finer fashion and grander grades. 

Dress Smart. Be Smart. It might just be one and the same.