Women wearing skirt suits are viewed as more successful than those wearing trouser suits favoured by powerful women such as Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel, scientists have found.
They are seen as the uniform of the high-flying career businesswoman, but it seems trouser suits are not the best way to make a good first impression.
Research has revealed women who wear skirts and jackets are viewed as more confident, higher-earning and more flexible than those opting for a trouser suit.
Scientists also found that opinions of others, based purely on the clothes they are wearing, are formed within seconds of first meeting.
So while trouser suits – favoured by powerful women such as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and German chancellor Angela Merkel – are associated with ambition and success, a skirt suit gives a more positive first impression.
Professor Karen Pine, who co-led the research at the department of psychology at the University
of Hertfordshire, said: “We make very rapid judgements about people within the first few seconds of meeting them based on their clothing”.
“It was surprising that the skirt suit elicited more favourable attributes than the trouser suit as other studies have suggested that women who dress in a more masculine style were perceived as having greater professional status.
“What we found suggests women can still dress in a feminine way yet still be perceived as confident and successful. The skirt suit seems to balance professionalism with attractiveness.”
Researchers showed 306 volunteers a series of pictures of a man or a woman wearing suits for three seconds before asking them to rate them on a number of personality traits.
The facial features of the man and woman in the pictures had been obscured so the volunteers were only making judgements about what they were wearing.
They were also shown the images individually so they could not compare the suits side by side.
The woman was rated more confident and having a higher salary and better flexibility when she was wearing skirt suits.
Brenda Polen, director of programmes at London College of Fashion, said: “Trousers are traditionally the uniform of power because men wear it.
“This could be more about fashion as we have had two decades where the trouser suit has not had a significant role to play in fashion.
“Women wear trousers at the weekend and for leisure so the skirt suit has become far more associated with successful women. Heels also look a lot better with pencil skirts than with trousers flapping around them.”
Among men, wearing made-to-measure bespoke suits were rated as having better personality traits than those wearing good quality off-the-peg suits bought from a major high street retailer.
Although the suits were made from the same material, men wearing the bespoke suits were regarded as being more confident, more successful, having a better salary and a more flexible personality than those wearing the high street suit.
Professor Pine added: “We seem to make these judgements very instinctively and rapidly.
“The man was rated as a higher salary earner when wearing the bespoke suit. People are influenced by subtle features such as the cut of a suit and it has a powerful impact on judgments of personality and professional status.”
The study was performed in collaboration with Mathieson and Brook Tailors in St Albans, Hertfordshire.