Study suggests women dress modestly to defend themselves against aggression from other women

New research in Social Psychological and Personality Science provides evidence that women strategically dampen signals of sexual permissiveness and desirability to avoid provoking intersexual aggression. In other words, the study suggests that women “dress defensively” by wearing less revealing outfits when encountering other women.

“So much social psychology has focused on men’s cognition and behavior, or has long assumed that male psychology is the default. But men and women can also face some distinct challenges, and this seems especially true when we consider how women navigate their same-sex social worlds,” explained study author Jaimie Arona Krems (@JaimieKrems), an assistant professor of psychology at Oklahoma State University.

“Like much of my research, this project arose out of a desire to explore how women actively, strategically navigate those underexplored worlds,” said Krems, who is also a co-founder and member of the Oklahoma Center for Evolutionary Analysis.

An initial experiment with 79 female and 63 male participants found that people expected women to direct more veiled aggression (such as “acting bitchy”) towards another woman when she was revealingly dressed versus modestly dressed.

The researchers then conducted three more experiments, with 584 women in total, which assessed what types of outfits women would intend wear to various types of social gatherings.

The participants tended choose more modest outfits when attending an all-female gathering compared to gatherings with both men and women. This tendency was exaggerated among women who rated themselves as more physically attractive.

Women who considered themselves attractive also tended to dress less revealingly when meeting a prospective new female friend. But this was not the case when attractive women were told they would be meeting with an existing female friend. Women who considered themselves as less attractive, on the other hand, tended to dress more revealingly when meeting a prospective compared to an existing female friend.

Broadly speaking, the findings indicate that “like men, women can and do compete — over friends, status, romantic partners. Once we acknowledge the reality that women are active agents who compete and aggress against one another, we can generate so many questions about how women defend themselves against this aggression,” Krems told PsyPost.

“More specifically, women are deeply rational and strategic; women are aware of the threats posed by others and act in ways to avoid those threats. Here, for example, we show that women are aware that appearing and/or dressing certain ways make them more likely targets of other women’s aggression, and that, in situations where this knowledge is salient, and for women most at risk of incurring aggression, women then choose to dress in ways might help them avoid others women’s slings and arrows.”

The researchers found a similar dynamic when the participants were told they’d be meeting with a man. In particular, women reported intentions to dress less provocatively when meeting a prospective male friend compared to an existing male friend.

“Women are wary of the costs and benefits of their clothing choices when it comes to interacting with men as well; here, however, we focused on the underexplored dynamics within women’s same-sex social worlds,” Krems said.

Of course, when it comes to how women decide to dress, avoiding same-sex aggression is just one factor among many.

“We would not argue that other women are always the sole intended audience for women’s sartorial cues and/or signals, and even when other women are the intended audience, we would not expect that women’s sartorial choices are always calibrated only toward avoiding intrasexual aggression,” the researchers wrote in their study.

The study, “Women’s Strategic Defenses Against Same-Sex Aggression: Evidence From Sartorial Behavior“, was authored by Jaimie Arona Krems, Ashley M. Rankin, and Stefanie B. Northover.