To be "Pretty Womaned" is the bane of any shopper's existence. For those unfamiliar with the phrase and the popular 1990 movie from which it derives, it's basically when you go into a fancy store and get snubbed by the staff, just like Julia Roberts did while wearing her hooker dress on Rodeo Drive.
But a study out of Harvard Business School about nonconformity recently made the news, suggesting that dressing down might actually signal more purchase power and intent than someone wearing, say, a fur coat and a dress. The research -- published in the Journal of Consumer Research and authored by doctoral student Silvia Bellezza and two Harvard professors -- found that luxury shop assistants in Milan perceived those outfitted in gym clothes as more moneyed than people who were spiffed up. It makes sense, as confident types -- and confidence is key here, you must come off like you're deviating from the norm on purpose -- typically don't see the need to overcompensate.
I decided to test this theory out for myself on a recent afternoon, hitting Madison Avenue and beyond wearing a baggy Hanes sweatshirt ("Excuse me, madame, is that Hanes Her Way?") and Russell sweatpants. I finished off the look with a pair of black and white Nike Airs, a plain black coat and an unidentifiable simple brown leather tote. I made sure I looked otherwise groomed and not homeless -- showered, bangs blown out, makeup in tact with a swipe of berry Chanel lipstick. And I took my friend Jeremy along both to serve as somewhat of a control -- sure, he's not a woman but he dresses nice -- and to observe things from afar.
It should be said that I know this experiment is far from scientific: It was a specific day at a specific time, with specific employees. By no means am I trying to make any blanket statements about the stores I went into, which I picked because either I've purchased from them before or just had good browsing experiences. And I have no doubt that were I to have actually asked for help, in every instance someone would have complied. But that wasn't the name of the game here. So without further ado...
Bergdorf Goodman After I get over the fact that I actually left my house dressed in this ensemble (seriously, it feels like one of those dreams that you're in school naked), I purposefully stride into the store and head straight to the Céline accessories section on the main floor. It is bustling, with three sales associates tending to customers already. A suave man is pulling out all the stops for a pair of youngish girls, one of whom is dressed in sporty black leggings, Nike Flyknits, a chic overcoat with moto detailing and a huge monogrammed Goyard tote. I mentally note that this is the kind of chic "gym wear" that probably garners a lot of attention in these places (more SoulCycle devotee than YMCA). The girl passes on the three bags he's brought out. He then walks right past me as I'm carefully examining a Trapeze of my own, appraising it from a few different angles with my chin up, as I imagine a rich lady might do. He approaches a nicely dressed mother/daughter duo and asks if they need any help instead. When they say no, he stands in the corner of the space, completely free and chatting with another male associate who is not attending to anyone either. They chat amongst themselves as if I don't exist. Spirits crushed, I head to the shoe floor, where I pick up both a Gianvito Rossi mule and a Manolo Blahnik heel, only to be ignored again -- this time by two men in suits and an older lady. Someone finally approaches -- a chic young woman sporting a bright red lip and blazer that could be Saint Laurent -- and asks me if want to try on the Céline slide I've been manhandling. Success! However, upon leaving, a greeter on the main floor doesn't say a word to me but says hello to Jeremy, who is walking a few paces behind. Hmm.
Barneys New York For comparison's sake, I go straight to the Céline bags again, only this time, a woman with sleek short haircut immediately says hello and asks if I need any help. Then it's up to ready-to-wear, where, yet again, a woman warmly checks in to see if I'm being looked after. Finally, I go up to the shoe salon and make a beeline for the Chanels. A Euro-looking gentleman in a crisp button-down is standing right next to the display, and he immediately moves a few paces away. At first I think it's to give me some space, but then he promptly greets and offers to help a woman wearing a polished overcoat with a Birkin slung over her arm. It should be noted that she's briskly walking to the elevators (i.e. seemingly not interested in buying shoes). I venture over to the Manolo section, where I have an awkward silent showdown with a preppy dude for more than a few minutes, as I hold up a pump. There is literally no one else in the section and he refuses to even look at me. I move on, but catch the same guy greeting Jeremy and asking if he needs help right after. And Jeremy's not even examining a shoe! I circle around, and this happens again when I'm passed over by yet another sales associate in a suit, who checks in on a man wearing a sport coat instead. I do a few more laps, and finally go over to the area where no less than four employees are now gathered, including the ones already mentioned. They all just chitchat away while I hold up another Chanel, only to be treated like I'm invisible. Onward.
Chanel Well, the security guard who opens the door for me is nice. Once inside, I do a lap of the whole store just to see if anyone says hello. Nothing (but -- argh! -- Jeremy got a greeting once again). After that, I linger by a glass case displaying some costume jewelry. I stare into it for what seems like hours, as a tall, model-looking employee chats and giggles with a guy who must be her workplace BFF about where she's from. I get nothing. It's off to another section where more handbags are displayed. I pretend to study one as I wait to see if another female employee, who is currently helping out a lady already wearing a Chanel 2.55, will attend to me next. While I'm doing this, the model walks right past me without saying a word, picking up a glass of what looks to champagne off the counter and brings it to the back. When she returns, she says something cheery to the other employee and woman she is helping, silently gliding past me once again. I can't take it and leave. Outside, Jeremy informs me that she definitely gave me a look, one that he characterized as, "What is this bitch doing going to Chanel in sweatpants?"
Saint Laurent I only get five feet inside the space before a young woman with cute bangs nicely asks me how I'm doing and if I'm looking for anything in particular. When I say no, she leaves me be for a bit, before catching back up with me by the shoes in the back. I hold up a studded style, and she tells me that it's the brand's new kitten heel and that there are more styles from the runway displayed nearby, pointing to a row of covetable leopard-print numbers. I don't feel like I'm being crowded or oversold by her, but rather like she's genuinely interested in assisting me. I leave feeling upbeat.
Prada I'm on a roll. While eyeing some accessories behind a glass case, no less than two minutes after walking in, a man in a suit approaches and asks me If I'd like to see anything. I say no thanks and stride confidently over to the bags, where a glamorous doyenne asks me if I'm looking for something in particular. I tell her that I just wanted to pop in and browse the whole spring collection, because that sounds like something an affluent person would say, right? I head upstairs to the clothing, and after fondling the sleeve of one of those "painted lady" dresses (which are exquisite in person), another guy in a suit asks me I need anything. Satisfied and feeling like I've struck customer service gold, I depart.
Louis Vuitton The place is bustling with well-heeled shoppers and tourists alike. All the sales associates are busy with other customers, and I consider giving up until a I see a corner with no less than three employees -- two men, one woman -- speaking to one another. And they're conveniently standing behind the counter near two of my dream bags, the SCs by Sofia Coppola. I head straight over, eyes narrowed in concentrated interest at the darker duffle, hand gracefully under my chin as if I'm philosophically pondering its greatness. As I approach, I realize that I've walked in on some chummy conversation between the three staffers, with one telling a story of how a woman came and simply said she wanted a clutch, and after he had shown her anything and everything, her friend suggested another style and "he just couldn't." I expect the convo to end there, after all, I was standing right next to them -- I had actually even moved closer during the anecdote to see if they would cease the chatter. But they went on, telling similar tales of exasperation -- about how women come in and they have no idea if they want something with a shoulder strap or a top handle, or how they start off wanting to look at styles made from exotic skins and just leave with a Pochette. It was a normal, lighthearted just-letting-off-steam kind of exchange, but perhaps one better suited away from the sales floor. And it was making me really uncomfortable. One, because none of them were offering to help me and this had been going on for over five minutes, and two, because I was a potential customer and they were letting me hear all of this. Or worse, that they didn't even consider me a potential customer and that's precisely why they were letting me hear it. For the first time in the day, I actually got pretty angry and hightailed it out of there, ASAP.
So what were my overall findings? Don't go to fancy stores in sweatpants if you want people to fawn over you. True, there were some exceptions, but overall I was passed over -- even when there were no other customers around. Not a great feeling. Of course, ideally, you shouldn't have to dress a certain way just to get someone to say hello to you, but I'd be lying, after going through this little escapade, if I said it didn't help (and of course, you could always ask for assistance first). But if you do indeed still want to dress down for your next day of retail therapy, I observed that a good bag seems to trump all. Maybe even sweats.