What to wear on a first date? It’s a problem that resonates so universally that to complain of “having nothing to wear” to a date (despite owning a rack of clothes the length of a tennis court) has become a movie cliche.
Of course, we should wear something that makes us seem more attractive. But what? Fortunately, psychologists have investigated this very question. Some (but not all) experiments show that women are considered more appealing when they wear clothes that are red, rather than blue, green, or yellow. The positive effect of red is less apparent for men, perhaps because men tend to be judged less on appearance than women, because red also signals aggression in men, or because bright colors are less often a feature of men’s formal wear (a man wearing a scarlet suit might be seen as strange rather than sexy).
Now, if red attire is more attractive, do people actually wear more red clothing when meeting a prospective partner for the first time?
In 2016, a team of scientists from Germany and the USA played a sneaky but ingenious trick on a group of female research volunteers. They emailed each woman directions to their laboratory, attaching a photograph of the male research assistant who would meet her there. For half of the volunteers the photo was of an attractive man; for the other half, the man was less of a catch. The volunteers who thought they were meeting the good-looking assistant more often wore red than the volunteers who thought the assistant would be unattractive.
However, two psychologists from the University of Lincoln in the UK and Trent University in Canada have recently pointed out that this experiment doesn’t settle the question. A volunteer meeting a research assistant is not an unambiguously romantic encounter. Do women — and men — wear more red clothing when meeting one another for a real-life first date?
Fortunately, Robin Kramer and Jerrica Mulgrew had access to a database of hundreds of first dates, all of which had been videotaped. They weren’t in a uniquely fortunate position: everyone else in the UK had access too. That’s because a reality show called “First Dates” has aired on British television since 2013. In this show, members of the public experience a blind date at a London restaurant full of cameras. It’s excruciating and amazing and terrifying and heartwarming.
And, apparently, a rich source of data. Kramer and Mulgrew had a team of research assistants (attractiveness unknown) review footage of the dates of 279 women and 267 men, noting the amount of red, blue, and black in their clothing.
The daters also acted as their own control group: on a day before their blind date, each person appearing on the show was interviewed alone. What color clothing did they choose to wear for this non-romantic interview?
The results of the study showed that daters generally wore black more than blue or red (unsurprising when previous research suggests black clothing is seen as more fashionable). But Kramer and Mulgrew also found that daters tended to wear more black and more red during their dates than during their interviews. Blue clothing was equally common during interviews and dates, so it’s not that people wear more colorful clothing when on a date.
There was no gender difference: red and black clothing was worn more frequently during dates by both men and women.
The effect of situation (dating or non-dating) was bigger for black than for red. Kramer and Mulgrew speculate that this could be because “both black and red may increase attractiveness but only [red] is associated with sexual interest/intent”. In other words, when dressing for a blind date, we may be reluctant to advertise sexual intent. This raises the possibility that daters may wear more red to a date if they already know that their partner is attractive. We’ll need more data to test that possibility.
Calling all TV executives: it’s time to commission Second Dates.