Judging Humans By Their Covers


A quick online search for the Patagonia vest soon throws up the sort of thing it now seems Patagonia do not want to be associated with; tech and finance bros. The vest has become so synonymous with Silicone Valley tech types that it is now referred to as the midtown uniform, with a thousand and one instagram posts and memes mocking wearers, believing the uniform to represent privilege, elitism and homogeneity.

Last week I was invited on to BBC radio Scotland with Kaye Adams to discuss just this, as well as what judgements people make about others based on their clothing.

Let’s take a look at some of the psychology that might be at play here and might help us to understand what this midtown uniform displays and the responses to it.

Finding your tribe

Social stratification

Have you ever heard the phrase “looking the part”? This is an example of social stratification in our everyday language. Social stratification is the categorisation of people within society e.g. class. Clothing is just one way that we display sameness and difference, a way for us to say I am like you, but not so much like you, and to align ourselves with those we consider our peers. The Patagonia vest is just one example of this, the hoodie and youth culture is another, and the Park Slope mums in Brooklyn with their number 6 clogs and Salt Straps are another. On a micro-system level, picture an American high school with the Goths and Jocks identifiable by their dress. Clothing is a powerful non-verbal communication, it tells others something of our underlying values, beliefs, tastes and culture. The fact is, people dress similarly to the people they surround themselves with (or wish to); their tribe. This is social stratification and it is nothing new, humans have been doing this as long as they have had fashion; think of King Louis XIV in the 17th century who donned his court in red bottomed heels (sound familiar) to denote nobility, a trend that quickly spread throughout western Europe with others also wanting to show their social standing.

Symbolic interactionism

Symbolic interactionism is where a common set of symbols and understandings emerge over time; in the case of clothes this comes from repeated interactions between an item of clothing, the wearer and feedback from society until a shared meaning is reached. In the case of the Patagonia vest, it was worn by individuals who were or went on to be very successful, such as Dara Khosrowshahi the CEO of Uber. The vest itself did not represent anything but went on to do so through the repeated wearing of such types and the meaning observers made of this based on the character of the wearers e.g. that this item symbolised tech and finance working, success and competence, things that those also in field may want to have been aligned with and by wearing the item may have felt they would also convey. Burberry in the late 90s/late 00s is a prime example of symbolic interactionism, where a brand that wanted to be seen as luxury became popular with footballers, WAGS and as youth streetwear leading to Burberry’s signature pattern being derogatively named the chav-check. Because of who wore the clothes, the clothes took on a new social meaning, and those wearing the brands pattern were seen as belonging to a certain social group.

The judgements we make

That people judge others based on their clothing is a reality of our society, if it wasn’t we would not dress differently for interviews or work where a set uniform is not dictated. But we do; we put on clothes that we think will portray competence, confidence and being a “good fit” (social stratification at play again) and employers expect us to do so even though our clothing is in no way linked to our skill. Even though social media users did not know each of the men they encountered, photographed and mocked in the Patagonia vests, they believed they knew them; they even went as far as to ascribe stereotypical names to memes such as Chad and Brad. To them those donning vests and chinos were seen to be of a certain character. As I said before, clothes give us clues about a person, but they do not tell the whole story and like art, interpretations are subjective.

Self-perception theory

It is not only others making judgements about individuals, but we also make judgements about ourselves based on our dress. A study in the 80s found that individual s rated their competence and intelligence higher when they were wearing glasses even though their test scores didn’t actually differ! A later study in 2005 found that flight attendants wearing casual work wear led to negative self-perceptions such as lack of confidence, authority and professionalism.

Colour in context theory and attribution bias

Negative memes and companies not wanting to provide you with branded vests because of your perceived lack of environmental work is on the lighter side of making judgements about people based on their clothing. Colour in context theory is the effect of colour on psychological functioning including decision making, in different contexts and studies applying this to clothing have found worrying results. A 2014 study by Pazda found that women wearing red were rated as more attractive and as having more sexual intent by men, compared to women wearing white. Women rated women wearing red as more sexually receptive and less likely to be sexually faithful. All of this based on….colour.

Even more worrying are the judgements people make about a woman’s responsibility for her own sexual assault based on her clothing. Studies in the 1990s found that women wearing more fitted or revealing clothing were rated as more likely to provoke sexual harassment. Stepping outside of the psychology lab and into reality, shockingly this is exactly what was seen in a 2018 Irish rape trial where the victims lace thong was cited as possible evidence of consent.


Adomaitis, A, & Johnson, KKP. (2005). Casual versus formal uniforms: flight attendants’ self-perceptions and perceived appraisals by others. Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, 23(2), 88–101.

Johnson, KKP, & Workman, JE. (1992). Clothing and attributions concerning sexual harassment. Home Economics Research Journal, 21(2), 160–172.

Johnson, KKP, & Workman, JE. (1994). Blaming the victim: attributions concerning sexual harassment based on clothing, just-world belief, and sex of subject. Home Economics Research Journal, 22(4), 382–400.

Kellerman, J, & Laird, J. (1982). The effect of appearance on self-perceptions. Journal of Personality, 50(3), 296–315.

Pazda, AD, Elliot, AJ, & Greitemeyer, T. (2014a). Perceived sexual receptivity and fashionableness: separate paths linking red and black to perceived attractiveness. Color Research & Application, 39(2), 208–212.

Pazda, AD, Prokop, P, & Elliot, AJ. (2014b). Red and romantic rivalry: viewing another woman in red increases perceptions of sexual receptivity, derogation, and intentions to mate-guard. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(10), 1260–1269.

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