We hired a forty-five-year-old woman to help us determine the effectiveness of the red dress. The test involved having her shop in Macy’s and Lord & Taylor in New York. First she wore the red dress and we interviewed people and asked them what they thought was her income, her profession, and whether she was someone they would hire to work for their company.

At the conclusion of this experiment, we put the woman in a white dress and repeated the questions with a second set of interviewees.

red dressThe results were startling and totally unexpected. We actually expected the red dress to receive the more favorable response. Many women told us that they thought the red dress would get a better response because “red is a sexy color.” But the red dress was the clear loser in this contest.

When people saw the woman in red, they almost always rated her income as lower than the same woman in the white dress. Sixteen percent said she was homeless when she wore the white dress.

The red dress also made people think she was employed in more menial occupations, such as housecleaner, waitress, store clerk, and even “unemployed.” By contrast, when she wore the white dress the woman was thought to be a doctor, an accountant, a nurse, and a writer.

Only 22 percent of people said they would hire the woman when she wore the red dress, while 65 percent said they would hire her when she wore the white dress — a difference of 43 percent.

Balzac in Dominican robe

Balzac in Dominican robe

The fact that a red dress tests poorly for business does not mean that all red dresses are ineffective for all people at all times. There are occasions — such as a party or a theatrical performance — when a red dress will work just fine.

Keep in mind, also, that Balzac, the great French novelist, wore a Dominican robe when he worked. His robe was white and he wore it because it made him feel comfortable and did not distract him from the task of putting words on paper.

The example of Balzac is instructive because it reminds us not to take the statistical results of our survey to mean that all uses of a particular garment (in this case, the red dress) are incorrect or ineffective. There may be times when a red dress, which tests poorly for business use, can be effective, especially if the garment is comfortable and allows the wearer to feel relaxed.

In Balzac’s case, the use of the Dominican robe allowed him to free his mind from the distractions of the world around him and create a totally new world peopled by the denizens of his imagination.

The point has been made, however, and we think quite conclusively, that in the professional arena a red dress marks a woman as a failure.