Women tend to dress more conservatively for this surprising reason

This article was updated on July 20, 2021. 

You can dress casually, you can dress elegantly, and now you can do something called dressing for joy, but did you know you can also dress defensively? A study explores this concept as researchers from Oklahoma State University found that women often “dress defensively” in order to be judged less harshly by other women they come in contact with regularly.

What is dressing defensively?

“Like much of my research, this project arose out of a desire to explore how women actively, strategically navigate those underexplored worlds,” study author Jaimie Arona Krems, an assistant professor of psychology at Oklahoma State University, told PsyPost. “So much social psychology has focused on men’s cognition and behavior or has long assumed that male psychology is the default. But men and women can also face some distinct challenges, and this seems especially true when we consider how women navigate their same-sex social worlds.”

The study conducted a few experiments. The first used a subject group of 79 women and 63 men and found that people expected women to be more openly aggressive when they wore more scantily clad outfits.

The next experiment used 584 female subjects and analyzed their outfit choices for different social events. For the events that were female-dominated they found that the subjects chose more conservative outfits. And interestingly, the female participants that rated themselves as more attractive dressed the most conservatively at these more female events.

Dress for success

Other interesting discoveries from the study included that the women who did consider themselves more attractive dressed especially conservatively when meeting a prospective new friend. But when they were meeting a female friend they already knew they would wear slightly more revealing clothing.

Contrarily, women who rated themselves as less attractive, however, dressed more revealingly when meeting a potential new friend but more conservatively with an old friend.

They also found that both groups of women when meeting men dressed more modestly when it was a new acquaintance and then more revealing with a man they already knew.

The results show that women are competitive and are often strategizing when it comes to relationships whether it be in their careers, social setting or love life. “More specifically, women are deeply rational and strategic; women are aware of the threats posed by others and act in ways to avoid those threats. Here, for example, we show that women are aware that appearing and/or dressing certain ways make them more likely targets of other women’s aggression, and that, in situations where this knowledge is salient, and for women most at risk of incurring aggression, women then choose to dress in ways might help them avoid others women’s slings and arrows,” Krems wrote.

However, the authors note that “We would not argue that other women are always the sole intended audience for women’s sartorial cues and/or signals, and even when other women are the intended audience, we would not expect that women’s sartorial choices are always calibrated only toward avoiding intrasexual aggression.”

This is similar to another study that found women perceive other women to be less trustworthy if they wear too much makeup. From the study’s abstract: “Because the benefits of beauty are rewarded based on superficial qualities rather than on merit or performance, women may perceive same-sex others who use appearance enhancement to gain advantages as being dishonest or manipulative.”

Danielle DelPriore of the University of Utah and Hannah Bradshaw and Sarah Hill from Texas Christian University had 120 heterosexual women read a short story about a young woman who is preparing for a job interview with a male manager.

Half of the participants read a version of the story in which the woman, Melissa, wore makeup to her interview. The other half read one in which Melissa didn’t wear any makeup.

The makeup group found Melissa to be “fake, manipulative, selfish, and trying to get ahead at all costs” on a seven-point rating scale, but this was only a half a point more than the other group rated her.

The study, “Women’s Strategic Defenses Against Same-Sex Aggression: Evidence From Sartorial Behavior“, was written by Krems, Ashley M. Rankin, and Stefanie B. Northover.