How Much Do You Really Need To Improve Your Fashion Sense To Be Socially Successful?
In general you'll have an easier time in the social world if you dress and groom yourself well. Humans are wired to make snap judgments about each other based on their appearance. If you're put together in a sloppy or unstylish way they're likelier to make negative assumptions about your personality, and be less likely to give you a chance. If you're well-groomed and well-dressed they'll tend to assume you have other positive traits, and tend to view your mistakes and foibles through charitable eyes. Of course sometimes the conclusions people jump to are dead wrong, but it doesn't stop their minds from doing it.
So the advice I'm going to give seems obvious, right? Get your ability to style yourself up to at least an average level. Even if you don't care much about clothes or trendy haircuts, it's just the sensible, pragmatic way to go. You can't change human nature, so why unnecessarily handicap yourself in social situations? If you want to make new friends, why walk into a party dressed in such a way that half the guests will write you off before even speaking to you? Not only that, knowing you look better can boost your confidence.
That's an option. Many people have happily gone that route. But a chunk of the people who want to improve their social lives chafe at the suggestion that they should try to dress better. There's something about this one piece of advice. They get irritated and push back against it, but they'll accept dozens of other social skills suggestions without any complaints.
Again, you may think you know where I'm going, that I'll acknowledge some people are resistant to changing their look, then argue they're wrong and should accept the world for what it is and fall into line. I'm not going to do that. I do think you can make life a tad easier by dressing better, but it's not something you have to do.
I'll spend the rest of the article sharing a bunch of thoughts on how how much you really need to work on your style to improve your social life. I won't come down on one side or the other. I'll leave it up to you to consider your own circumstances and make a call on what you want to do.
(While I'll focus on fashion and grooming, some of the points here also apply to other aspects of your appearance like your weight, fitness level, how nice your teeth are, and so on. I won't give any advice on how to actually change your fashion sense, because 1) It's a huge topic, 2) Many people more knowledgeable than me have already written tons about it, 3) Even if I wanted to give advice, what's considered good fashion varies a huge amount based on factors like where you live, your gender, how old you are, and what subcultures you belong to. There's no way I could cover everything.)
Depending on your social goals, and the types of people you want to be friends with, you may not need to work on your look
If you're indifferent to fashion trends, and you want to make friends who also don't obsess over their hair or clothes, you don't have much reason to overhaul your wardrobe. A lot of people aren't that interested in fashion, and don't care how their friends look or dress. They're more concerned with whether someone's personality, interests, and values matches theirs. On the whole you'll get better reactions from people if you dress well, but it's not as if all your social options will dry up if you're a bit apathetic about what clothes you wear.
There are social circles that are more fashion-conscious, and you'll need to dress up to a certain standard before they'll even consider you. In that case you should ask yourself why you want to be friends with them. Do you have nothing in common, and just unthinkingly want to be in their group because they seem popular or high-status? Or are they a legitimately good fit for you, and your clothes and grooming are the one thing blocking you from having a chance? If it is, are you willing to compromise in order to get a shot? Or will you reconsider wanting to be their friend, if they're so appearance-focused that they'd reject you over your clothes?
Your fashion sense mainly affects how people see you before they've gotten to know you
- Your appearance has the most sway before someone has even talked to you, because they have nothing else to go on.
- In the early stages of an interaction your looks still have a fair amount of influence. Like someone may choose to bring up one subject over another, based on the guesses they made about your hobbies from your outfit.
- As you spend more time with people they'll mainly respond to your actual personality (though every now and then they may do something based on that early stereotype they formed). If you're not that stylish, they may have initially leaned toward dismissing you, but realized their early take was wrong ("I thought he'd be boring and sheltered, but he's a lot of fun!")
If you're a below-average dresser, it can hurt you the most in social situations that are geared toward mingling and surface impressions, such as:
- Big parties
- Large social meet ups
- Professional networking events
At them people have many options for they could talk to, and use appearance to help narrow down their choices. If they're scanning the room, trying to decide who to chat to next, they're likelier to take a pass on someone with iffy fashion sense. If an unstylish person approaches them, they're likelier to only make a bit of polite small talk before coming up with a reason to excuse themselves. If you have big future plans of meeting a lot of people in these places it may be practical to dress better. Though maybe you've made peace with people's quick-to-judge nature at these events, and think that if someone doesn't want to chat to you based on your clothes, they're not someone you want to know anyway.
When you're not fashion-conscious you'll tend to do better in situations that allow people to get to know each other gradually. You could focus on building your social life that way. That's not to say you'll win everyone over. Someone may decide they don't want to be friends based on your looks, and keep that opinion once they've gotten to know you. But at least their decision was based on your personality, and not your shirt.
You get more leeway to have so-so fashion sense if your other social skills are strong
Your clothes influence how people see you, but it's only one piece of information. Imagine someone's a bit blandly dressed, but they...
- Have good posture
- Have self-assured body language
- Make good eye contact
- Speak with a confident tone of voice
- Seem comfortable speaking in a group
- Have a knack for making funny or interesting comments
- Seem genuinely friendly
Most people will have a positive opinion of them. They'll probably overlook their clothes entirely, or come up with a benign explanation for them ("Maybe she didn't have time to get properly dressed"; "Is it some trendy new look I don't know about?") If you have faith in your ability to win people over with your social skills, you may not feel as much need to dress to the nines.
So your social life won't instantly die if you aren't a snappy dresser, but what about dating and your career?
Here the argument goes, "Fine, you may still be able to make likeminded friends if you don't dress super-well, but if you want to meet an attractive partner or climb the corporate ladder, you better make the most of your appearance." Here too, I think it depends.
Career-wise, not every job is the stereotypical Wall Street firm, where you're not going to get anywhere unless you show up in a different high-end suit each day. There are jobs that require uniforms or practical, safety-focused clothes, so fashion isn't on the table. There are companies where the corporate culture doesn't put much emphasis on what anyone wears. As long as you meet the dress code, no one gives it any more thought. There are more and more roles people can do from home, where they can work all day in their pajamas if they want.
When it comes to dating there is a stronger case for dressing as well as you can. It lets you appeal to more people. Still, if the type of person you're attracted to typically isn't that worried about fashion, you don't need to be a world-class dresser to have a chance with them. You just need to be up to whatever less-demanding standard they have set. There are plenty of couples where neither person is that fashionable, and neither of them cares. That said, if your fashion sense is really at the lower end of the scale, the pool of potential partners who are okay with your lack of style may be smaller than you'd like. You might decide the pragmatic choice is to work on your look just enough that you expand the range of people who will consider you.
There are different levels of improving your look, and you probably don't need to reach all of them
Working on your dress sense and grooming isn't a black and white alternative between staying exactly as you are and become a total fashion slave. You can choose to improve your style a little, just enough to help you meet your social goals, and no more. Here are some levels of working on your appearance.
Level 1: Fixing blatant, objectively-off-putting hygiene mistakes
I'm referring to things like:
- Not wearing deodorant and/or not showering often enough to keep your body odor at bay
- Bad breath
- Always having lots of food in your teeth
- Having dirt and smudges on your face
- Wearing stained clothes
- Wearing clothes that are ratty and full of holes
- Very greasy, smelly hair
- Having a ton of dirt under your nails, when you're not in the middle of some physical job and should have had time to clean up
- Wearing glasses that are ridiculously smudged
This lack of hygiene actively repels people. One, because bad smells or the sight of unclean body parts literally gross people out. Second, because poor-enough hygiene can make people think, "If this person doesn't even know how to keep themselves clean, is that a sign something else is off about them?"
The vast majority of people, including the ones reading this article, have their basic hygiene down. There's the stereotype that awkward people are so socially disconnected they don't even know to shower, but it's not true. Only a small subset of people with social problems have poor hygiene, and they tend to be on the young side, and just haven't been told things like, "You've started going through puberty. From now on you're going to have to wash up more or you'll get smelly."
On the off chance that you do make some of these mistakes, fixing them is pretty much mandatory. Most fashion standards are subjective, but if there's a disagreeable funk wafting off you, that's an objective issue you need to fix.
Level 2: Ditching aspects of your look that are widely considered to be really unfashionable
This level and the next blur into each other. We're into subjective territory here. Some people aren't making any mistakes to the degree of having foul breath, but they've got a look that most people would consider really unstylish and unflattering. People take one glance at them and assume only someone who's really dorky / slobby / sketchy / creepy / odd would pick those clothes or think that type of beard is a good idea.
Most people don't fall into this category either. No one sets out to have poor fashion sense. Usually it comes about when style isn't on someone's radar at all. Like they may have frizzy bed head-looking hair because it's never crossed their mind to check it in the mirror before they leave for class. Less commonly someone will try to dress with some flair, but they have so little understanding of fashion that they make questionable choices, and end up looking strange or gaudy.
If your style is uber-unflattering, do you need to improve it? I'd say you should try to get it at least somewhat better, unless you're really, really attached to your look for one reason or another. When you're extra-unstylish people are especially likely to make harsh assumptions about you, and you'll start most of your interactions in a hole you need to climb out of. Though maybe you think you can get past that barrier, or mainly hang out with people who don't care how you're dressed.
Level 3: Getting your style up from Slightly Below Average to Average
Here no one would look at you and think, "Yech, did they really think it was a good idea to dress like that?" You're not making any clear-cut faux pas. You've got an overall style that's almost there, but not quite. It may be a look that comes off as a bit dull, lazy, frumpy, tacky, or overly-formal, among other things.
Maybe you're reading this and worrying your style is subtly lacklustre. It could actually be fine. The best way to find out is to get some outside opinions.
This the level where you really don't have to make changes if you're not feeling it. As I said lots of people have so-so fashion sense but perfectly good social lives, with friends who don't care that their accessories could look a little nicer. Some people may still make negative assumptions, but they'll be milder and disappear quicker once you start speaking to them. Again, it all depends on your goals.A note on the idea of getting your style up to "average"
When I write that I don't mean that you need to dress in a really mainstream way so you can look like a clone of everyone else. I mean that whatever your style is, your skills in putting together an outfit allow you to look about as good as the typical person. What makes for an average level of fashion sense will depend on where you live and what types of people you hang around. What's considered average in a trendy neighborhood in a big city may seem pretentious and over-dressed in a small town. Having average dress sense means you look decent. No one would pick you out as being ultra-stylish, but you're not making any noticeable mistakes either.
Here's an example, which shows you can tweak your style without having to totally overhaul it. Let's take a guy who's wearing:
- A short haircut
- A T-shirt
He may adjust his look for the better by:
- Switching to a different short hairstyle, which fits his face shape better and has a bit more panache to it. Also, he changes shampoos, as his old one was making his hair frizzier and harder to manage than it has to be
- Getting more-stylish frames
- Getting some T-shirts that fit his body better, and which are a color that doesn't clash with his skin tone
- Wearing jeans that fit better, and which are a little darker
- Replacing his old, beat-up sneakers with some new, more fashionable ones
- Adding an accessory or two, like an interesting necklace or watch
Level 4: Developing Above-Average fashion sense
Above-average fashion sense doesn't necessarily mean that you have to dress in expensive, weird outfits. It means that you're just really good at dressing and styling yourself in a flattering way. It often creates a strong first impression, but not always. Being extra-fashionable has some negative stereotypes associated with it too. Even if you're not that flashy, some people may assume you're superficial, vain, snobby, trying too hard, etc. Once more, it comes down to what you want to accomplish and whether you think dressing well will help more than it hurts.
This step is definitely optional. It takes time and effort to learn all the little ins and outs of how to look better. It can take a lot of time, or money, or both, to hunt down the best outfits. Unless they only want to run in ultra-judgmental, fashion-centered circles, no one needs top-tier style to have a successful social life.
Why are some people so resistant to advice to improve their look?
I wrote in the article's introduction that people can be especially resistant to suggestions that they work on their fashion sense. Here are a few reasons:
- They don't care about fashion and resent that society can put so much emphasis on people's outer appearance.
- They were picked on when they were younger for dressing the "wrong" way. They're bitter about the idea of fashion. Working on their style feels like it would be selling out and letting those jerks from their past win.
- The thought of improving their style bores them. They're not interested in learning about fabrics and makeup and color schemes and the features of a well-fitting suit.
- They're insecure and don't feel they deserve to look better.
- They think they're so unattractive and out of shape that dressing better wouldn't make a difference anyway, so why bother?
- They're anxious and self-conscious. They've unconsciously chosen their current style because they think it will help them blend into the background. They think if they dress better they'll get a flood of negative attention.
- They think dressing a little better would mean giving up everything about who they are.
- They believe negative stereotypes about fashionable people. They think becoming more stylish means they have to become snarky and image-obsessed. They think it's noble and principled to not care how they look.
- They think improving their style has to be expensive
You may want to think about whether any of these motivations apply to you, and whether they're holding you back. It's one thing to decide with a clear head that you're happy with your current social life and wardrobe. It's another to keep yourself from making some simple, beneficial tweaks because you have mental blocks about looking better.
I'll comment on each of them:
- Improving your fashion sense = Letting the shallow people of the world win - Yeah, it's annoying that people can be so looks-focused, but is it worth it to refuse to make any kind of fashion changes out of a sense that you can't give in to the enemy? Is the satisfaction you get from not giving in more important than the social opportunities you may be costing yourself by not dressing a smidge better? You'll have to answer that for yourself. Maybe you feel you aren't losing out on that much, and it makes you feel good to hold to your principles.
- Improving your fashion sense = Too much boring effort - Learning how to dress and groom yourself better may take some time, but again, could the relatively small amount of work pay off if it meant many of your future interactions went more smoothly? Maybe you'll decide it's worthwhile to spend fifteen minutes reading up on how to pick a well-fitted T-shirt, because that knowledge will be useful for the rest of your life. Or maybe you'll decide you still don't care, and can live with it.
- Feeling you don't deserve to look stylish - If you think you don't deserve to look your best, or even a little better, why not? Where do you think you picked up those ideas? I get that you may be indifferent to whether your style is top notch or not, but everyone should know they deserve that option if they want to take it.
- Feeling dressing better is pointless if you're not good looking to begin with - Picking the right clothes or hairstyle can make a big difference in how you look and come across. There are all kinds of ways to downplay or accentuate certain features, or craft the first impression you create. Most of us will never look like Greek statues, but with the right outfit and style we can still look pretty sharp.
- Feeling self-conscious about wearing new clothes - When people adjust their style it's not uncommon for them to feel self-conscious and like everyone will notice how different and out of place they look. If you get those worries, know they're not accurate. For one, if you're not used to a certain way of dressing you may feel it's a lot more noticeable and inappropriate than it actually is. Also, you know how different you look compared to before, and mistakenly assume everyone else thinks the same way. However, they're seeing you for the first time. For all they know you've always dressed like this. People who know you may comment on your new look, if it's different enough, but strangers probably see you as just another face in the crowd.
- Adjusting your style = Changing everything about who you are - Buying a nice pair of shoes doesn't magically erase your personality traits, values, interests, life history, opinions, and sense of humor. Becoming a little more concerned with, and knowledgeable about, fashion doesn't mean you're going to turn into a superficial simpleton who now cares about nothing but the latest trends.
- People who dress well are vapid - Some stylish people are shallow, including the ones who may have picked on you, but not all of them. Some are deep and intelligent, and also like dressing up. Looks are part of the human experience. Not everyone who devotes more energy than you to their appearance is automatically vacuous. If you're not currently vain and superficial, there's no reason to think you're suddenly going to become like that because you learn a little more about what colors go well together. Your other traits aren't going to get overwritten.
- Fashion is expensive - It can be, but it doesn't have to. Some really stylish people get all of their clothes from thrift shops or chain stores. There are more branches of the fashion world than the one where jackets cost thousands of dollars. That said, if you're currently spending as little on your looks as possible, you may have to shell out a bit more. Yet again, you'll have to decide if the benefits justify the costs.