Science has tackled everything from whether our dogs love us (they do!) to whether pigeons can distinguish between paintings by Monet and Picasso (they, um, can?). So you might assume there’d be plenty of research into what humans should wear on dates, a topic that intimately concerns 23.8 million U.S. adults (the number of people who used dating apps last year).
You may be surprised to learn that this field of study isn’t exactly robust. “A lot of people have abandoned this topic … because it’s so hard to do realistically,” Jaehee Jung, professor of fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware, told HuffPost. To conduct a reliable experiment, you’d need to recruit people with the same level of attractiveness (which is pretty subjective, if not impossible) to act as a consistent control against which the effects of different clothes can play out. “Otherwise, you’re really influencing the outcome based on the combination of physical characteristics and clothes,” Jung explained.
That being said, science has provided us with a few tidbits of solid evidence to help you put your best sartorial foot forward.
The stereotype is true: Men are suckers for red.
Men’s attraction to red is a well-worn dating trope. In a 2008 study by researchers Andrew Elliot and Daniela Niesta, men rated the physical appeal of women shown with the color red contrasted against other colors. In every context, men found the ladies in red more attractive and sexually desirable. This trend holds true around the world, and even nonhuman male primates are irresistibly drawn to females who “redden” during ovulation.
“ … Our findings confirm what many women have long suspected and claimed — that men act like animals in the sexual realm,” Eliot and Niesta announced upon the study’s release. Damn.
But black is popular for the opposite reason.
If red’s not your color, or if it feels a bit too sexy, we’ve got good news: Black is also a popular choice for dating. And you can thank reality TV for this revelation.
In 2018, the University of Lincoln’s Robin Kramer and Trent University’s Jerrica Mulgrew assigned a team to watch the U.K. show “First Dates,” in which real couples are filmed while — you guessed it — on dates. The researchers watched footage of over 500 daters, both men and women, observing the colors they wore on the dates and in pre-date interviews filmed the day before.
The result? Potential partners wore more red on dates (particularly when they anticipated their partner to be attractive) than they did during the pre-date interviews, where they wore a lot of black, which is associated as a “safer” color. This isn’t surprising, Kramer told HuffPost: “It may well be because red has certain associations (sexual intent or availability, for instance) and so people would rather try to look attractive while perhaps avoiding those associations.”
Dress the way you want to feel.
In other words, practice “enclothed cognition” — a term coined by Northwestern researchers Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky to describe the phenomenon they observed in their 2012 study: that clothing actually changes the brain. The team divided subjects into two groups: One wore white lab coats, and the other wore clothing unassociated with a particular profession. In the end, the coat-wearing crew performed better on tasks that measured their attention.
So it’s not a stretch to imagine that potential partners’ fashion choices could unconsciously influence their mindsets — and, in turn, their behavior. High heels, for example, are culturally associated with femininity and sex appeal. So wearing them might cause you to exhibit more flirtatious or sexual behavior. Similarly, subtle differences in men’s clothing — a bespoke suit versus off-the-rack, for example — can affect people’s perceptions of their confidence and success.
A moderate amount of makeup gets the best response.
As part of 2011 study jointly conducted by several universities, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and a Procter & Gamble scientist, participants viewed photos of women displaying four different looks: barefaced, natural (very light makeup), professional (moderate makeup) and glamorous (heavy).
In the end, all the makeup looks that weren’t barefaced, regardless of intensity, increased viewer’s perceptions of the wearer’s competence and attractiveness. Interestingly, likability and trust ratings varied according to the amount of makeup they wore. Harvard’s Nancy Etcoff, one of the study’s lead authors, suggested to The New York Times that a moderate amount of makeup is your safest bet: “If you wear a glam look, you should know you look very attractive,” she said. But in the long run, “there may be a lowering of trust, so if you are in a situation where you need to be a trusted source, perhaps you should choose a different look.”
Writer Brinton Parker conducted a totally unscientific but equally compelling experiment on Tinder in 2014. She posted three different profiles on the app, all identical except for the photos, which showed her wearing drastically different amounts of makeup. Parker concluded in Bustle, ”More men flocked to a bare-faced girl than a heavily made-up one, yet they seemed most aggressively interested in a face adorned in average levels of makeup.”
Finally: Be you.
Jung said when we choose clothes on a daily basis, we always consider the audience, “whether that could be one person or a number of others, because … this is part of our daily appearance-management behavior. Clothes themselves don’t have a particular meaning until they’re worn by somebody.”
So perhaps the final message is: When you’re looking for love, dress to reflect your personality, and you’re bound to feel comfortable and confident.
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