Calculated Deviation: The Nuanced Art of Non-Conformity

camo-bow-tie-trashness-e1352328676715-650x356 Are you a visual risk-taker or do you take comfort in wearing the same khakis as your cube-mate? When does it pay to stand out and when is conformity your friend?

New Harvard Business School research suggests that dressing down in more formal settings can convey “competency,” and that wearing “unusual” clothes can boost personal status in the eyes of on-lookers.  The logic? Blending in and mimicking the visual norm is easy – what takes effort and a studied eye is standing out. The trick? It has to look deliberate – not clueless. But we can all think of individuals who have deviated from the contextual norm, only to win stares and murmurs and a “trying too hard” label. So let us also qualify that secret formula to be “effortlessly deliberate.” Simple enough, right?

Not really.

Looking deliberately AND effortlessly different is no small feat.  It demands a nuanced understanding of visual symbols that defies most people.  And that formula is anything but straightforward: What of the infamous hipster “non-conformity conformity”? It’s enough to make you toss up your ironic t-shirt in utter confusion.

What this study doesn’t address is the important question of “who can afford not to conform?" Perhaps unsurprisingly, white males (from my own extensive research) are the demographic most likely to be socially rewarded for visual deviation. Women and minorities must tread more cautiously, particularly in white male dominated contexts (if you already look different, drawing more attention to that difference isn’t always beneficial).

And we need only turn our attention to North Korea’s new "Kim Jong-Un haircut mandate” to see an example of how even effortlessly deliberate non-conformity is often less-than-appreciated. (The university students are overwhelmingly unimpressed: The haircut is so unpopular it was deemed “the Chinese smuggler haircut.”)

So what’s the general prescription? Think small.  A bowtie, a pocket square; patterned hosiery, a statement necklace. When in doubt, isolate the non-conformity and relegate it to one particular aspect of your appearance. Focusing on one (sophisticated-yet-different) piece communicates the competent cleverness you’re going for, without leave you looking like a visual zoo.

Some non-conformist resources:

Hill-Side ties and pocket squares and Annaruna bow ties


Modcloth patterned hosiery and  Etsy statement necklaces