Suits Show Signal Scope

Two years ago I posted on the puzzle of yes men. A simple story says bosses evaluate subordinate expertise via the deviation between subordinate and boss opinions. This predicts bosses hiding their opinions as long as possible. Yet real bosses often reveal opinions early, encouraging “yes men.” I suggested that this is because large boss-subordinate opinion deviations make bosses look bad as well as subordinates. While higher bosses who only cared to evaluate this boss would punish them for encouraging yes men, when they themselves seek to look good to still higher bosses, they’d rather allow such encouragement, while pretending otherwise.

A lot of signaling analysis imagines just two parties, the party signaling and the party interpreting the signal. But often signals have a wider scope – signal interpreters often care a lot about how still other parties will interpret their signal interpretation. For example, even if you didn’t wear a suit to a job interview, in the hour long interview you might still convince your interviewer that you’d be a capable productive employee. Yet that interviewer could still be reluctant to hire you, knowing they’d have to explain the hire to others who know you didn’t wear a suit. Interviewers can similarly be reluctant to hire a competent person from a low ranked college, if others might hear of this fact and think less of them.

The interview suit example brings to mind the question: what distinguishes social situations where we wear suits from those where we don’t? We wear suits to funerals, weddings, in court, and when we represent some groups to other groups. At work suits are also worn in sales, management, finance, and law. And a common factor distinguishing these situations seems to be a wide social scope of our signals. We tend to wear suits to events where wider audiences, who don’t know much about us, are more likely to see or hear about and interpret our behavior, especially norm deviations. A suit is a standard respectful clothing with low style variance to minimize the chance of accidentally giving offense.

Our use of language in such “formal” situations of wide signal scope also tends to be designed to be respectful, conservative, and careful, i.e., to minimize the chance of being interpreted negatively by others who don’t know us well. I’ve written before on farming towns being especially effective at encouraging such careful conformist behavior, and on school today teaching students to send the right signals to wider audiences.

What about entertainers, who often wear “wild” clothing yet clearly seek to impress a wide audience that cares about what still others think of their entertainment choices? Since such entertainers are often especially valued for their originality, defiance, or trend foresight, they must often walk a very fine line between looking unimpressive via seeming too conservative, and giving too much offense by being wild in the wrong way. I envy them not.

On average, a wider variance in clothing style is tolerated for women relative to men at high visibility events like weddings or dances. Does this mean men tend to be evaluated by a wider scope than women? Do women care more about what other women think of their man than men care about what other men think of their woman?

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  • Claudia Sahm

    “A suit is a standard respectful clothing with low style variance to minimize the chance of accidentally giving offense.” … I agree with your later comment that women shake this norm up. For example, I only wear a suit in some work settings and I relish the fact that I can wear a magenta jacket and a light gray skirt if I want…black is fine for my mood, but not my threads. It’s not some grand signaling thing…it just makes me happy and still puts me in the respectful, professional frame of mind when I have to stand up and answer tough questions. Of course, different professions have different norms, I am lucky to have a job that focuses on my analysis and communication skills and not on my sartorial choices.

  • Riley J.

    Human value for females is based more on appearance whereas for men it’s based more on behavior. So women dress with more variance because it’s more acceptable for them to put effort into that area to differentiate themselves from others whiles it’s more acceptable for men to put more effort into distinguishing themselves by their behavior, i.e. acting weird.

  • Miley Cyrax

    Riley J. is on the right track.

    The primary function of male clothing is status display and identity. The primary function of female clothing is to enhance or complement their corporeal appearance.

    Unsurprisingly, much of female clothing and shoes involve thinning the waist, amplifying T&A, and elongating the legs.

    • Claudia Sahm

      @Miley, As women take on more and more influential roles in the work place, politics, and other public spheres, your views about gender differences in clothing will be less valid. One piece of advice (out of many) from a retiring director at my work was “dress for success” … My success in the workplace (which depends on me being regarded as an intelligent economist, not a nice piece of eye candy) means that I should actually avoid some of the female clothing you describe. And yet that does not mean I have to dress like (or for) my male colleagues. Times change…progress.

      • Miley Cyrax

        Must be why young professional women still gleefully prance around in high heels and taut cocktail dresses at bars and clubs, even though young, childless college-educated women out-earn their male peers.

        Women can dominate all traditionally male spheres, but that wouldn’t change the male demand for female looks, and women will want to compete with each other for male sexual attention regardless of peoples’ egalitarian ideals.

      • Hayley E

        I think that you are mistaken in thinking that men’s attire is not signaling the opposite sex. Ask any woman you know what the most attractive thing a man can wear. She probably will say a suit. I would. My friends and I have plenty of conversations about how hot we find men in a suit or tux.

        1. All professional wear is made to match the physical form of the wearer not just woman’s . The broad shoulders and barrel chest of the male frame that are highlighted in a suit signals females. Most cues for females about a male is in the face and shoulders/chest. They signal testosterone and fertility. Meanwhile, female signals of virulence are in the body. Generally, there’s just not much that pops about the male physique. This brings me to my next point.

        2. What pops to a female is social stature and the ability to provide/protect for offspring or mate. Social stature balances out looks. Formerly less attractive guy becomes more attractive via suit and visa versa.

      • Claudia Sahm

        One correction, I took issue with the *primary function* of clothing in Miley’s post. I am not saying that there are not times and places where men and women “dress to impress” each other. I would not wear everything in my closet to work. Still variance of women’s clothing may simply reflect heterogeneity of tastes. Many (not all) women *enjoy* shopping and finding unique pieces of clothing to express themselves. Men who are so inclined can do the same. Most of my favorite stores have snazzy men’s sections. My original point is if you do something for yourself it’s not signaling. Right? Sure some people are signaling but I don’t think that is the most important explanatory factor.

  • Doc Merlin

    “Do women care more about what other women think of their man than men care about what other men think of their woman?”


    • Miley Cyrax

      Bahaha. I didn’t even catch that when I first skimmed through Robin’s post. But you are, of course, correct.

      There’s no easier way to garner female attraction than to already have it from other women. Some call it “pre-selection” or “social proof.” Sometimes it’s even a prerequisite for winning the favors of more attractive girls.

      Occasionally flirting with other women is also a good way to keep the marital flames burning brightly.


        Yes, my wife suddenly becomes more amorous when she sees some other woman trying to hit on me. Its win-win.

      • Claudia Sahm

        Don’t forget, those who play with fire occasionally get burned. But, I suppose some wives may appreciate “outsourcing” the ego stoking of their husbands.

  • Carl Shulman

    Robin, one minor spelling point that has been bothering me for years: “expertise” is the standard usage with 367,000,000 Google hits. You consistently use “expertize,” which has only 1,690,000 Google hits.

  • Kitty_T

    Having been on the unofficial “dress code” committee for a large law firm during the late ’90s and early aughts (when many industries were transitioning from suits to casual Friday to “business casual,” and then shrank back after the dot-com bust), I have to say Mr. Hanson is right on the money that men’s suits are a low variance/low risk uniform to avoid doing anything wrong. Women’s suits, not to mention other women’s business/formal/public attire, are generally not, however. Even if a woman wears a female version of a men’s suit, she is actively signaling something other than “neutral non-offensive professional attire, nothing to see here move along.”

    I think the main reason women’s professional/business clothing is comparatively variable (currently, at least) is more historical accident than a vast difference in what or to whom they are signaling. Women are obviously judged on somewhat different criteria than men, in the professional or public sphere as elsewhere, but I just don’t think that is the main driver here.

    Men’s public/professional clothing ossified in more or less its current form in the 19th century, the high-water mark for the “women stay out of the public eye and exist solely as appendages of men” thing. No similar public “uniform” developed for women at the time. Women’s clothing has changed a heck of a lot since then, but it is still only very recently that women’s clothing had anything other than private-sphere signaling functions.

    When women first went into the workplace in large numbers, we got more than a decade of horrendous mannish suits (with those wretched floppy bow things at the neck), purely because there was no similar standard women’s “professional” uniform. As women increasingly felt they belonged in the public or work sphere, on their own terms as women rather than as honorary men, women’s business clothing reverted more to traditional women’s clothing forms – suits (but with waists and colors), dresses, skirts and blouses, etc. I think, given the history, that was an advance for women’s acceptance in the public sphere rather than a reflection of women having a smaller or lesser “audience” to which to signal, or their wanting or needing to project a more sexualized or attractive appearance in professional settings.

    I don’t know if women’s public/professional clothing norms will continue to evolve to a more neutral uniform, like the male suit – certainly that level of safety and consistency has its atractions – but I suspect not. I think we’ll continue to see men’s public/professional clothing shifting toward a more “individualized” norm, a la blue shirts, ties that aren’t Rep stripes and “business casual.” Maybe there’s a happy medium there.

    Anyhow, I did at the time and still do think it is hilarious that many men have so much trouble with appropriate clothing in the workplace when stripped of their suit uniforms. I can’t tell you how many male partners that firm had who wore whatever they’d slog about the house on the weekend in to work on Monday, and they didn’t understand that they looked like slobs notwithstanding the fact that theywere in khakis and collared shirt. Women had a much easier time of it, having always had to think about what they were wearing and what it projected about them in a specific context. Men didn’t know how easy they had it in the workplace until they actually had to start thinking about what they wore!

    • Given how much change you describe, “historical accident” seems to me an insufficient explanation. I still suggest that men need more to project a safe image for a social distance, and it is more ok for women if distant social observers dislike some of what they hear/see.

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