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Want to stand out? Dress differently

The appropriate way to dress inappropriately.

Want to appear more authoritative in the boardroom? Here’s a suggestion: Pad around in a pair of red sneakers.

Before you flip the page, offended at the notion of swopping your beautifully polished leather oxfords for footwear typically reserved for mucking around in – in scarlet, no less – know that I make this unorthodox sartorial proposition with the backing of science. Well, sort of.

In a recent paper on how people react to nonconformist behaviour, researchers from Harvard Business School found that most observers believed that a person who knowingly flouts social rules is of higher status and/or greater competence. The researchers termed this perception the Red Sneakers Effect, following a series of studies showing that a person dressed in a manner that defied convention – such as an unshaven professor in a T-shirt, or a professor conducting a class while wearing red Converse sneakers – tended to be more highly regarded than someone dressed more appropriately.

The reason for these findings? The observers believed that the nonconformists possessed “the autonomy to follow (their) volition”. In other words, the rebels were thought to dress differently because they could.

For popular examples of renegade corporate dressing, just consider the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, with his uniform of black turtleneck and jeans, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his hoodie jackets.

As someone who finds slavish adherence to dress codes deeply boring, this study intrigued me. Don’t get me wrong – I have met plenty of head honchos in beautifully turned-out suits, and it’s always a pleasure to see a well-tailored ensemble with details that are just so. But it’s often those in unexpected outfits that leave the most lasting impression. At a fashion show some time ago, for instance, the CEO of a major fashion company caught my eye with his unusual black-tie ensemble combining a tuxedo jacket with dark knitted shorts.

More recently, I met Flavio Briatore, the founder of upmarket fashion label Billionaire Couture, when he was in Singapore for the opening of the brand’s first boutique here. In a roomful of besuited men, the Italian entrepreneur made his rounds in a black T-shirt and blue jeans – and stood out all the better for it.

Of course, as with any other social theory, there are caveats to the Red Sneakers Effect. For one thing, to be perceived as a successful nonconformist, out-of-the-box dressing should clearly convey a deliberate defiance of convention, not sheer cluelessness.

In August, US President Barack Obama caused an upheaval on social media while holding a news conference on pressing world issues – not because of the contents of his speech, but because of the light brown suit he sported. The general sentiment among dissenters was that one simply did not discuss rising tensions in Ukraine, while looking like one was en route to a summer wedding.

Nonetheless, the President stood his ground with good humour. The day after the tan-suit furore, the White House press secretary laughingly started his daily media briefing with this important message: “The President stands squarely behind the decision he made yesterday to wear his summer suit.” After all, what are you going to do about it? He’s the boss.