This is just some casual thoughts about how to dress nice. I think dressing nice is a useful skill, but nobody told me in a way that convinced me. So this is written in the spirit of what I wish someone would have told 15 year old me.

For most of my life I thought dressing nicely was a type of bullshit signaling game I didn't need to play because I was doing Real Work. I'm here to tell you that I was mistaken and that dressing nicely is good and useful to your life.

My story went something like this:

  • I care about doing important, meaningful things in the world, like solving hard technical problems.
  • I can solve those problems regardless of what I wear.
  • Further, lots of the people who seem best at solving hard technical problems dress poorly.
  • Also, I don't really understand fashion that well, and most of the people who do understand it seem to be focused on things other than solving hard technical problems.
  • Conclusion: I should not care about dressing nicely. Just wear whatever is comfortable regardless of how it looks.

Dressing poorly or casually, though, is still a kind of signaling game. My reasoning makes this clear: it shows I'm part of the ingroup of serious people solving serious, real problems rather than part of the outgroup of silly people who care more about how they look than getting things done.

In some situations and in some contexts, this is a true, useful fact. If you show up to a coding interview in a suit, you've probably hurt your chances to getting the job. Even if your code is great, the person interviewing you is going to worry that you have expectations about the job that don't line up with reality. And, if we're honest, you don't look the part, so unconscious bias comes into play.

However, unconscious bias is the start of seeing why dressing nicely, or at least intentionally, matters. Another word for unconscious bias is vibes. What vibe do your clothes put off? That is, how do you present yourself to the world? What interfaces and affordances are you giving people based on the clothes you wear?

Some examples:

  • Wearing a pot-leaf hoodie? People will reasonably think you smoke weed and that smoking weed is important to you.
  • Wearing a three-piece suit? People will think you have money (because you had enough money at least to afford the suit) and are serious.
  • Wearing a poorly fitted suit? People will think you are a low-level employee of a faceless business and you don't have the experience or the money to dress better.
  • Wearing a sundress or a tank top and shorts? People will think you're relaxed and out to have a nice day off.
  • Wearing yoga pants or sweat pants and graphic tee? You're not especially concerned about your looks and just focused on getting through the day.

And on and on. If you don't have the same associations with these clothes as I do, that's fine. One of the tough things about clothes is that not everyone gets the same vibe from the same clothes. This makes the problem of how to dress nice harder. Doesn't mean it's unsolvable, just that the solutions are fuzzy.

So why should you dress nice, even given this challenge? Because dressing nice makes your vibes better and people treat you better and are more willing to accommodate your requests. This is related to the way being attractive causes people to treat you better. While you can't easily fix your face or age or weight (though you can try), you can easily change your clothes, and clothes go a long way towards making you attractive.

What does dressing nice mean? A few things:

  • picking clothes that fit your body shape rather than whatever is in fashion or available off the rack
  • picking clothes with fabrics that look and feel nice and of high quality
  • wearing styles that reflect the image you want to portray
  • wearing clothes that fit the context (i.e. don't wear a suit to play basketball; don't wear gym clothes to the Vienna Ball)

How can you learn to dress nice? It's easier than it seems. What you first have to give up is formulas about what you should or shouldn't wear. Instead, pay close attention to how you feel when you see other people's clothes. What do you notice about your experience? Use that as a starting point to figure out what looks good and bad and begin to build a sense of taste.

Also ask others what they think looks good and why. Some people will just say that fashionable things look good. Ignore these people. It's not that they know nothing, but they are likely just regurgitating cached ideas about what looks good or is in. Instead, ask people how they felt when they saw what someone was wearing. It's hard to get people to tell you the truth about how they feel about what you're wearing, but easy to get them to tell you how they honestly feel about what others are wearing. Use the human desire to gossip to your advantage to build your training data set.

Finally, be prepared for it to take a while to figure out how to dress nice. I don't think you're really ever done learning the skill, though you'll eventually reach a level where you're successfully dressing nicely and having the desired effect on other people when they see your clothes. There's a valley of cringe fashion choices you'll have to pass through. Remember that if you're coming to this as an adult, like I did, that this is normal, it's just that most people go through this phase in the teens and twenties and basically know how to dress nicely by the time they hit 30. The good news is your brain is fully formed and you have a lot more experience, so you should be able to get through the valley faster than it would if you were doing it organically.

My final pitch: dressing nice has made my life better. I can walk into interactions and get treated better because I dress nicer than I would otherwise. I can almost feel the positive attention radiating off other people. People like to look at people who are attractive and dress nice. Do what you can to make yourself more pleasant to interact with. It's a generally useful power you can direct to any purpose you like.


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Because dressing nice makes your vibes better and people treat you better and are more willing to accommodate your requests.


This is probably the part of the case for dressing nicely I find compelling, but to be fair it's a big one. Beyond this and signalling, what other reasons are there that people wear nice/expensive clothes?

Anecdotally, the one time I wore a blazer for a flight (because I heard that you're more likely to be bumped to business class), a stranger asked me if I'd like to be their free plus one for their airlines' lounge. Relatedly, I'll be flying for the first time since getting my PhD in a few months. I've heard that doctors get treated better by airlines (maybe because they assume they are all medical doctors and would be useful in an emergency?). I see my 'Dr' title in a similar lens as nice clothes. I don't really care much about it, but it can be useful and help me achieve my goals, so I should probably get over my mild discomfort with seeming a bit 'wanky' by using my title. I've already noticed that people think you're smarter about things unrelated to your research just because you're doing a PhD.

So why should you dress nice, even given this challenge? Because dressing nice makes your vibes better and people treat you better and are more willing to accommodate your requests.


This is a compelling argument to me, as someone who also had a fuzzy belief that "dressing nicely was a type of bullshit signaling game" (though perhaps with less conviction than you had).

It was around the time (several years ago) that I saw someone dressed like me (pants tucked into the socks and shirt tucked into the pants) that I had the realization that I would probably benefit from dressing better.

This realization was compelling enough to stoke me into initial action, which took the form of testing out new clothing that had passed the rough vibe check of my family and friends, who dress well and seem to care a decent amount about how they dress, but was not strong enough to keep me trying out new clothing.

I found that all the clothing I was trying on was too physically uncomfortable for me. There was also a minor psychological component as a well that I can only describe as a feeling of mismatch between my self-perception and the expected perception people would have of the clothed object before me in the mirror.

As a result of these "failed" experiments, I opted to wear flannels and make sure that the color of my socks matched the color of my pants; to me, this intervention was enough to get me above a vague status threshold and did not require much effort. With very few exceptions, I have not deviated from this dress code.

I cannot recall if I observed a difference in how I was treated after following change, which occurred several years ago.

Thank you writing this post Gordon. After reading and bookmarking it, I think I am marginally more likely to again attempt to dress better in the near-term future.

For most of my life I thought dressing nicely was a type of bullshit signaling game I didn't need to play because I was doing Real Work.


So why should you dress nice, even given this challenge? Because dressing nice makes your vibes better and people treat you better and are more willing to accommodate your requests.

The only substantial difference between these two statements is the part that says "... I didn't need to play". It is a bullshit signalling game, but it's a bullshit signalling game that you do need to play.

If by bullshit you mean "thing that ideally shouldn't exist," I don't agree with that. Clothing can be a way of making ourselves, and thereby the world, more appealing/beautiful. It can have a raw aesthetic or sensual appeal. It can also become a basis for non-bullshit signaling games, where people admire and complement each other on their dress, make garments, give clothing as gifts, and so on. For me, it's similar to storytelling and humor. You don't have to do it, it does help you get along, and at least if you do it right, it actually will add to your QOL and that of other people.

Arguably one's preferences as to their hobbies and kinks shouldn't be the signal to other people. ("I find nice clothes to have a raw aethetic or sensual appeal")

What I see bad about 'signaling games' is they are mediocre quality information.  If you hypothetically could just look at someone and find out their net worth, fame, criminal record, occupation, and so on, it wouldn't matter how they dressed or what they drive or how nice a place they lived in.

(I am not saying such a privacy violating AR system is a good thing, just that at least the information is more likely to be factual/less likely to be faked)

Signaling games aren't exclusively for information, though - at least not if by "information" we mean "factual objective pieces of external data such as a bank account balance or employer." They are also for manipulating people's emotions, hopefully in positive ways, for creating opportunities to connect with other people in conversation, and for directing attention to the information that actually matters (as opposed to conveying raw information directly).

So for example, let's say I'm a teacher giving corrective feedback about how to do a task during a lesson to a child. The information I want to convey is how to do the task.

But I need signaling to do things like:

  • Make the kid feel encouraged about their progress with the task rather than frustrated with their shortcomings so far
  • Creating small opportunities to get to know one another better as people, beyond the main goal of mastering the task
  • Refocusing the kid on what actually matters, such as shifting their attention away from assessing "is my teacher frustrated because I keep messing up?" (I very well might be, but trying to hide it and not let it affect my behavior), and toward assessing "is my teacher going to keep being encouraging and give constructive feedback even when I mess up?" (hopefully yes, if I'm doing my job right).

To me, signaling is about shifting where the emphasis is, or what's top of mind, rather than conveying information. If we're playing a board game, signaling is the part where you are manipulating each other into keeping it fun. It's an active process, not a passive information transfer process.

In most cases the other player benefits from using a filter on the information you didn't provide.

For example, seeing company financial reporting the way "warren buffet does" has a higher expected value than seeing them through the "emphasis" by company financial officers.

Similarly, if a small child could query their implants or external system to filter information by the highest EV to the child, that's far better than what a human teacher offers.  

Signaling is a conflict of interest and is not trustworthy information.

It's unaligned to the interests of the observer.  My hypothetical AR system that queries records on the target at least can be built to filter things to the observer's benefit. 

(though, note, information may not be statistically relevant.  If hypothetically (assume the counter factual) it turned out in reality that people previously convicted of assault charges were less likely to commit further assaults (in a counter-factual world where rehabilitation worked), AR systems or implants might still emphasize this because it increases the perceived value of the AR system.  

I don’t think we are being specific enough to declare what proportion of information hidden by signaling would be best revealed for the interests of the person receiving the signals.

We can certainly agree important cases exist where the signaling is bad for/unaligned with the person interpreting those signals. Or some subset of their interests that they maybe care about most heavily at that time.

No. I am claiming the incentives are misaligned such that the information presented this way will always be biased and is untrustworthy. Same way you can't trust infomercials or pharmaceutical advertisments.

This is a correct and fairly stable generality.

Note the exceptions don't matter. If statistically you know an information stream is heavily manipulated you can't use it even in situations when it happens to be an honest signal. (because you don't know the adversarial other agent is telling the truth This Time)

You seem to define signaling as a way of transmitting information other than the signaling mechanism itself. For example, if I have a stern face and a raised voice, those signaling mechanisms convey an inner emotional state of anger, and the possibility of punishment. You seem to be defining "signaling" as the conveyance of information about anger and punishment possibility, but as not including the stern face and raised voice.

I define signaling as often being the concrete good we care about, intrinsically for its own sake. For example, if my girlfriend smiles and laughs at my joke, I enjoy those pleasant expressions, not only because they convey her emotions or let me make predictions about the future, but also because they are a viscerally pleasant spectacle in their own right.

If signals can be a viscerally pleasant (or unpleasant) thing in their own right, then they aren't zero sum. They are a product. We can manufacture more of them, or less, and get certain signal types to the people who are eager to consume them. We can enter into relationships where we find ourselves exchanging pleasant signals with each other.

Perhaps all we're doing is implicitly arguing semantics (whether a 'signal' is the abstract information content, or the physical object that may or may not also convey additional information content)?

In my case I am arguing the issue with easily faked signals makes their information content suspect. I wouldn't argue about your relationship with your girlfriend but this is why for example many high tier employers pay attention to only the signals that cant be faked. Which are the degree, name of school, name of prior employers and yoe, and score on interview questions. Everything else just gets ignored and I have gotten quarter million TC offers without a haircut and wearing some random Walmart polos. I assume the HFT half mil offers are no different.

Yeah I think we are discussing two entirely separate issues then. Here, I'm interested in people treating conventionally information-carrying signals as objects of interest in their own right. A smile can convey information (i.e. about emotional state), but we can also be interested in the smiles themselves, as when we take aesthetic pleasure in viewing a smiling face. Just a different topic.

Yeah I am just talking about how cheap information carrying objects are not really any more trustworthy a signal than say the annual report of a Bahama based cryptocurrency firm.

It's not even relevant whether the signal is an object or a digital file. Just how likely it is to be honest, and the signal itself.

Oh yeah I (almost) completely agree with you there. Basically if it costs people less to game the information-carrying signal than the benefit they'll get from gaming it, then it will get gamed.

It's just that the original discussion was about clothes and how wearing nice clothes can give you a nicer life, and I think the reason is that you look better, so people want to associate with you more because they find you aesthetically pleasing, and I don't think that's bullshit or even really primarily the kind of information-carrying signaling we're talking about in this subthread. I also think that clothing choices give people something to talk about, and people enjoy the pleasure of that conversation, and that visceral enjoyment is a hard-to-fake signal of group bonding to which the clothing contributes but which is not directly conveyed by the clothing.

It may be there's a component of why some people like associating with nicely dressed people that is about signaling in the more information-carrying sense (I dress in fancy clothes because I want people to know I'm popular so they'll want to be friends with me, so I can make them do things to benefit me or add them to my crew of other cool-looking friends so that we can throw exclusive parties for hot people together). It just might be that the value of investing in a cool person wardrobe is either not worth the benefit for people who aren't actually that popular, or that it's harder to pull off that style of dress in practice because most people would come across as a poseur rather than an actual popular person.

But I don't think that's what the OP was really advocating, I think they were focused on the first part where dressing reasonably well makes you look OK to others, and people just enjoy (or at least don't disenjoy) that raw fact about the way you look for its own sake.

I felt the OP was saying "it's bullshit primate signaling to wear nice clothes".

BUT "being a popular primate is well worth the low cost of good looking threads".

Yeah, I don't think the OP actually disambiguiated these two possibilities. They definitely have a ton of signaling stuff, but they also say:

"Because dressing nice makes your vibes better and people treat you better and are more willing to accommodate your requests. This is related to the way being attractive causes people to treat you better. While you can't easily fix your face or age or weight (though you can try), you can easily change your clothes, and clothes go a long way towards making you attractive."

And that to me is about the appeal of the clothes as beautification, rather than as an information-carrying (or trickery) device.

To me I see it the other way. People are treating you better because they are using "attractiveness" as a crude proxy for "what is my EV for interacting with that person".

Hence why an AR device that let's you know that ugly homeless man is a billionaire in disguise, and that good looking man in a suit has been convicted of running a pyramid scheme, would be examples of BETTER information than a crude proxy.

People are treating you better because they are using "attractiveness" as a crude proxy for "what is my EV for interacting with that person".

I don't really think that's the whole story, I think that people are doing both. They associate with the well-dressed partly because they like the style, and partly because of other things they intuitively associate with the style. Insofar as they are happy about the fact that a guy wears a nice suit because they're treating it as a crappy proxy for another piece of info they truly care about like his wealth, then yes by definition it would be nice to just know the thing rather than having to read the tea leaves.

But insofar as they are enjoying the suit because it's pleasing to their eye, then that's just kind of a raw fact of what they enjoy. There might be reasons that they have come to just intrinsically enjoy the look of nicely dressed people by the lights of their own culture, but it's like we say about AI - we're all trained to pursue/be rewarded by these proxies, and now it really is just about pursuing the proxies for their own sake because we're just not that goal oriented.

It's like house plants. What do they signal? That you can keep plants alive, that you aren't so busy you can't find time to water them (could be good or bad), that you have money to spend on plants, that you might be kind of a hippie, all sorts of things. But also, maybe I just happen to enjoy plant-filled environments, so if I'm friends with you, I get to hang out in your plant-filled house which is pleasant.

I think that second part is a big important part of why people choose to associate with people. For mysterious reasons they've been trained/endowed with instincts to feel pleasure when they behold certain attributes, and so they gravitate toward them without having a particular goal or caring much about the other forms of information the thing may convey.

Like if I had my lab mates over for a dinner party and my house was full of gorgeous art and plants (it is more like a monk's cell in fact), I expect they'd just enjoy that a lot and find it more memorable, but wouldn't necessarily start trying to form all kinds of new insights about my character and what I might be good for based on that. I think they'd just enjoy the plants and art and then go home with a nicer memory of the evening. Partly that's because a lot of the information about me that they could pick up from those plants is information they also will be able to get from me in other ways. "Conscientious enough to keep plants alive" they can largely get from "has good work ethic in the lab," "has enough money to spend on plants" they can get from "eats takeout lunch a couple days a week," etc. The information signaling value of plants seems to me distinctly secondary to the visceral enjoyment aspect, and I think the same is true of clothes in many circumstances.

it's similar to storytelling and humor. You don't have to do it

No you have. This is precisely the problem. If you're bad at telling jokes, you can simply not tell jokes. But if you're bad at dressing, you still have to dress and being judged all the time for how you're dressed.

Dressing being a bullshit game is even more evident when you compare different countries. For example, no one would dare to wear slippers in the office in Italy, but as far as I know is not a problem in Denmark... is there perhaps an objective standard by which the Italians are more right? I remember talking to a Danish girl who lived a few months in Milan, and the first thing she said to me was "everyone there is crazily obsessed with fashion" (to be fair, Milan is especially infamous for this, even among the rest of Italy).

There's a whole range of social behaviors where not participating means, all else equal, that you have a little less standing. You don't have to tell jokes, but you have to find some way of connecting with other people.

Clothing is similar. You don't have to dress any better than this (which is what I meant by "you don't have to do it"):

Regular Guy stock image. Image of mature, male, average - 7657297

This style of dress will avoid silent judgment in most contexts, but it also will require you to find other ways to connect with people than your clothes. It's neutral "as clothes," but not sufficient as a form of "connective glue to other people." And most people do have to find a way to connect with other people.

People who do dress with creative fashion, in my view, are using clothes as connective glue. Those people can probably afford to be less funny, because people will like them for their clothes. People have a menu of options to go beyond "bare minimum neutrality" to "supplying positive value" in their social behaviors, and it's not bullshit to insist that they find some way to do so in order to associate closely with them.

The point of this post, to me, is that it's really easy to go from "not even neutral" with clothing to "neutral," and still pretty easy to go from "neutral" to "nice." Probably easier than going from "mildly offputting sense of humor" to "humorless," or from "humorless" to "makes people laugh sometimes."

But maybe others have a different definition of "nice clothes." To me, the guy in the photograph is an example of what I mean by "nice clothes."


dressing nice is a bullshit signaling game

winning is generally better than losing, and it's a fairly easy game to win.  (compared to the hours it took you to be a technical expert that does Real Work, paying someone to find good looking clothes for you is easy)

Another way to help make dressing nice easier is investing some time into becoming more physically fit, since a larger percentage of clothes will look nice on a fit person. Obvious health benefits of this are a nice bonus

I think this is (and your other post about exercise) are good practical examples of situations where rational thinking makes you worse off (at least for a while).

If you had shown this post to me as a kid, my youth would probably have been better. Unfortunately no one around me was able to make a sufficiently compelling argument for caring about physical appearance. It wasn't until much later that I was able to deduce the arguments for myself. If I just blindly "tried to fit in with the cool kids, and do what is trendy", I would have been better off.

I wonder what similar blind spots I could have right now where the argument in favor of doing something is quite complicated, but most people in society just do it because they blindly copy others, and I am worse off as a result.

I've had a draft blog post lying around for a while where I try to explain why I think people should care about looking nice. Which is now redundant :)

There is one point that I want to add - which is that there is also a meta signal you send by how dress. As you pointed out, by dressing nicely we can get people to treat us better because we're signalling wealth, status etc, and also because people just respond better to attractiveness. 

But even if you imagine that you are interacting with someone who has no feelings about clothes/attractiveness, if you dress badly you are signalling to them that you don't care about, or are unaware of, how people respond to you. You're signalling that you're someone who just leaves value lying on the table.

I wonder also if there is not an element of signalling you have some level or respect or interest in the other's opinion by doing these types of signaling action? 

So is this a concession to signally or a change in you're view on dressing? I'm not sure. 


I don't disagree with your general point or the argument (though these day's a generally dress down -- tee shirt and sweats) and will tend to dress nicer when I'm traveling but still very casually.

Complete agreement, I should have started way earlier to dress better (and I started 10 years ago at 19!). If you're French, is how I learned to dress nicely. I'm sure there are good websites in every country.

It's also interesting to consider where the associations with certain clothes comes from, and who is controlling/trying to control these associations. Not to say that there aren't some innate associations that come with being a human and our upbringings, but that if the associations can be at least partially learned than there are definitely folks trying to teach them.

Also, stealing a bit from Baudrillard, the idea of a feedback loop regarding the media representing culture, culture representing media, and so on and so on...