Why We All Judge Books By Their Covers and That Won’t Change


aka What You Wear Matters

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from people over the years things like:

“Why does it matter what I wear?  It’s what I create or produce at work that matters!”

“Women shouldn’t need to have to dress a certain way to be considered accomplished and capable!  I mean it’s 2018, not 1960!”

Yet it does still matter and always will.  Why is this?  It comes down to the simple way we interpret shapes, designs, colours, line, pattern, etc., as all these elements of design are in clothing as well as our bodies and they communicate different messages.  Sure we may not judge exactly the same way we did back in 1960, but we still make judgements based on appearance.

As one fabulous blog reader put it in a comment on my Inside Out Style Lounge Facebook Group (feel free to join) said:

“It is the interconnection of senses (synesthesia), which we all share to one degree or another.  The fact is that the five senses in normal people produce the unconscious world of metaphor (associations) between colors, shapes, smells, etc., and most of those associations are shared by 85-90% (guessing) of the population. That’s why we talk about someone wearing a “loud shirt” or “feeling blue.” You’re right that we have a very hard time escaping our unconscious associations.”

Clothing communicates because of all its elements and how they are put together. Our senses take in this information and form patterns and associations.  This is the basis of the interpretation of the Yin and Yang information I’ve shared before here.

We do judge a book by its cover, make decisions on products based on their packaging and decide how smart or friendly, or successful you are based on your appearance.  It’s human nature and we need to be able to make quick decisions so that we can decide if you are friend or foe (survival instinct – fight or flight) and keep getting on with our days without having to spend a lot of time verifying information through a long and arduous process.

How Design Communicates

In essence, we read as more approachable and softer (yin) the following elements of design:

  • curved lines
  • thin lines
  • horizontal lines
  • curved shapes
  • small shapes
  • lower contrast
  • soft textures
  • lightweight fabrics
  • thin fabrics
  • sheer fabrics

and then we read as more authoritative and stronger (yang) the following elements of design:

  • straight lines
  • thick lines
  • vertical lines
  • angled shapes
  • large shapes
  • high contrast
  • crisp fabrics
  • heavyweight fabrics
  • thick fabrics
  • opaque fabrics

This is why a structured, dark neutral suit communicates more authority and a professional occasion, and a soft, floaty floral patterned dress communicates warmth and a more casual occasion.

Why we will always judge a book by its cover - how we interpret design elements through our senses and how our clothes communicateJust look at the design elements in each outfit and you will see that the Classic suit is mostly Yang in its design details and so communicates authority, strength and power, while the Feminine dress is mostly Yin in its design details and so communicates softness, approachability and openness.

Does it Sound Yin or Yang?

It’s fascinating to think that even the sounds in words also work on this principle.  For example, I can make up two words, and in your head, as you say them, imagining each is a shape, one will sound curvier and yin, the other more angular and yang.

Want to try?  Sound out the two following words:

  1. Olvio
  2. Takarck

Now, what does an Olvio look like?   It’s some sort of soft flowing curvy shape (yin), and how about a Takark?  It’s pointy and angular (yang) right?


Why we will always judge a book by its cover - how we interpret design elements through our senses and how our clothes communicate
How we interpret sounds into shapes


So imagine that these are two names – which one is the more authoritative and which is the subordinate?

Packaging Communicates (and clothes are just human packaging)

And some people are less aware (let’s call them more oblivious) to how their packaging (outfit) is communicating as it’s not something that is on the top of their mind and so they place less value on appearance.  Yet even those who don’t consciously place awareness (or value) on appearance, read the difference between the personalities of each of these characters played by Meryl Streep in two very different movies.


Why we will always judge a book by its cover - how we interpret design elements through our senses and how our clothes communicate
Left: Devil Wears Prada
Right: Bridges of Madison County


In the Devil Wears Prada – her character is a super authoritative and demanding New York magazine boss.  In the Bridges of Madison County she plays a housewife who lives on a farm.  They could not wear each other’s clothes (or groom the same way for that matter), as costumes explain to us the headspace, the lifestyle and attitudes of a character (something I’ve talked about before here).

Your physical features, as well as your personality, also communicate something about you to the world.  Your voice, the way you move, in fact, everything about you is communicating and for those who pick up easily and quickly on this (and those who place more value on the outer being an expression of the inner you) will make judgements and decisions whether you like it or not.

Recent research from Alexander Todorov at Princeton University says that we make a decision from looking at faces on how:

  • trustworthy
  • likeable
  • competent
  • dominant

you are in fractions of a second!  That doesn’t even take into consideration everything else about your appearance.

The power of dress is that we get to choose to a certain extent how we are viewed, how we are perceived and thought about by others.  It gives us a way to communicate in a positive way before we open our mouths.  This is why businesses have dress codes, as they want their human capital to express the same branding as the company.   So rather than rail against the fact that we do judge books by their covers, why not use this knowledge to make your cover one that expresses what you want people to know about you!

Understand Your Yin and Yang

I’ve listed a bunch of blog posts below to help you understand more about your yin and yang and how you are communicating, and if you’d like a more in-depth quiz to take and understanding then you can get this in my 7 Steps to Style program (it’s part of Step 6).

7 steps to Style - discover your style once and for all

Ways to Balance Your Yin and Yang

Creating Harmony with Your Personality

Using Yin and Yang in Clothing Design to Balance Your Appearance

More on Identifying Yin and Yang in Clothing Design

How to Express the Right Message Whilst Flattering Your Body Shape

How to Resolve Style Conflicts in Your Outfits

What is the Contrast of Your Outfit Telling The World About You?

Why we will always judge a book by its cover - how we interpret design elements through our senses and how our clothes communicate


I'm not sure if it's for you but how would you feel if you learned all about the colours and styles of clothing that suit your individual personality, shape and style? Just imagine what it would be like when you can open your wardrobe and pull together fabulous outfits that make you look and feel amazing every day? If you'd like to stop wasting money on the wrong clothes and accessories plus join an amazing bunch of very special women also on their style journey - then my 7 Steps to Style program is right for you. Find out more here.

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  • Wow! Okay, as one who most of the time doesn’t care how I look (clothes don’t make me “feel” good or bad), you have given me an explanation for why I need to take more care. I usually go with “they’re clean and fit (sort of)”. But after reading your explanation, I think I understand why how I dress makes people comfortable, but dismissive of me. Since I don’t work outside the home, and am retired, I haven’t felt like I’ve needed to care about clothes the way I used to. But your article makes me realize I need to care more about my appearance.

    Thank you for explaining it so well, and making it so easy to understand. And thank you for helping me to understand why what I wear really does matter.

    • Thanks Cat – it can be hard when it’s not your natural inclination to really care about your image to understand just how much some other people do care and judge. Good on you for taking on this knowledge with a positive attitude.

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