As a single woman who has remained largely so throughout my three-plus years in New York, I’ve ventured down a number of different avenues in search of someone special. I’ve had memberships on both OKCupid.com and HowAboutWe.com, I’ve gone to singles events at bars, I’ve browsed the selection during Fleet Week (who hasn’t?), I’ve dated co-workers, and I’ve dated guys I met at yoga. But it wasn’t until a recent first date that I began really considering how fashion plays into the ever-spinning online courting carousel.
I met up with a man from the Internet at a restaurant in Brooklyn. He was already there when I arrived, sitting on a bench outside waiting for me. We said hello and I sat down beside him while the hostess readied our table. He looked down at my shoes — bright yellow Tory Burch flats from many, many seasons ago — and complimented them. I was taken aback; no man, to my recollection, has ever noticed, much less complimented, my shoes on a first date (perhaps this is where I’ve been going wrong?). The surprise in my voice as I thanked him must have been obvious, because he responded, “Bet you don’t hear that from a lot of guys, huh?” I told him honestly that no, I don’t.
This exchange got me thinking about the role fashion plays in dating, especially when meeting people on the Internet. Online dating isn’t all that different from browsing anything else online; even on a site like HowAboutWe.com, with its novel approach of members showcasing personality through suggesting dates, the formula for me basically boils down to closely inspecting a combination of profile photos, age, and height. If a man passes my minimum requirements for attractiveness, tallness, and (presumed) maturity, then I’ll read on to the rest of his profile, and if my intrigue grows, I’ll reach out and suggest we meet. According to Laurie Davis, an “eFlirt expert” who works as a concierge for the new dating site Sparkology — another one with a unique approach, it is invite-only and requires male members to be graduates of the 35 top-ranked universities — a person’s appearance in their online profile photos, including their fashion choices, is crucial.
“Fashion is very important, because style speaks to your personality,” Davis says. “You want a mix of vibes on your profile: one more dressed, and one more casual, to give [people viewing your profile] an idea of your breadth. And color is very important. Often, all a person can see is a tiny thumbnail, so the more you pop, the better.”
She may have a point: a study by the University of Rochester a few years ago found that the color red, when worn by women, made men feel more “amorous” toward them. Scientists working on the study said this effect may be largely the result of social conditioning — after all, red is the chosen color of vixens and valentines alike — or it could be more biologically rooted, since nonhuman male primates in the wild have also been found to sexually arouse at the sight of females displaying red.
“Wearing any bold color, like cobalt blue,” Davis says, is likely to attract more viewers to your profile. “Avoid wearing black, white, and neutral colors — unless, of course, it’s just really the best picture of you.”
Ariana Anthony, media strategist at HowAboutWe.com, says the fashion choices a person makes in a profile photo are important, but secondary.
“The purpose of profile photos, primarily, is to provide an accurate and complimentary portrayal of how we look,” Anthony says. “For the most part, it's less about the outfit you're wearing in your photo than the expression on your face and what you're doing. Though obviously, if you're wearing something you feel good in, that's likely to come across in the image. For the most part, online daters typically choose clothes that are flattering and indicative of their personal style.”
When it comes to the obvious question of how little is too little, Davis says that choosing revealing clothing can definitely have a bearing on how potential mates view ladies online.
“It’s a first impression, so you want what you wear to speak to who you are,” she says. “People read into it if you’re scantily clad in your online photos; being too overtly sexual can work to your disadvantage, but the opposite is not true. A cable-knit sweater doesn’t mean you’re too conservative.”
And what of when the online conversation steps out into the real world? Davis says the first real-world encounter with someone you've met online is not actually a date, but rather a casual rendezvous to get to know someone better and see if any chemistry exists. She says first-meetup fashion choices don’t necessarily say a lot about what a person wants in a potential relationship, but style choices on subsequent dates do.
“If they start to dress up over the next few dates, it’s a good sign that they’re interested in you,” she says. “And then, if you continue dating, and after a couple weeks they start dressing down, that’s a good sign too, that they are starting to feel more comfortable around you. Fashion is very telling; there’s a fine line between being comfortable and not caring.”
Anthony notices a wider range of choices for first-date fashion.
“A funny thing about fashion on a first date is that everyone has their own rules,” she says. “One of our bloggers always gets a new outfit for a first date because she likes the way it makes her feel. On the flip side, we have another blogger who says that's the worst idea ever, as she feels most at ease in something she's road-tested in other scenarios. Just like fashion, it's truly an individual thing.”
Then there’s the traditional wisdom, which says that women simply care more about fashion than men. According to both Anthony and Davis, it doesn't hold.
“Men and women are both inclined to want to impress their dates, and often choose to do so through their fashion choices,” Anthony says. “Men want to impress their dates via fashion just as much as women do; otherwise they wouldn't try at all. If anything, women are stereotypically used to thinking about their fashion choices all the time, while for many men, a first date is one of the few times they put serious consideration into their wardrobe selection.”
Davis has noticed one crucial difference in how men and women approach first-date fashion: “Women look more at details: a man’s watch, shoes, and quality of clothes. Men look at overall appearance, including makeup and hair.”
Fashion doesn’t necessarily play a bigger role in gay dating than in straight, according to both online dating experts. But Davis says that while every couple is different, she has noticed gay couples tend to be more on the same page style-wise than straight couples, since they are “similarly conscious” of what they are wearing.
As for me — I’m still single, and still dating. On another recent date with a man I met online, within five minutes of greeting me, he complimented my shoes. This time they were Kate Spade snakeskin sandals. We met at the American Museum of Natural History, and he joked about my “dinosaur shoes.” I described this style choice as planned and purposeful, obviously, so that my footwear would mirror my environment. As it turns out, just like fashion, dating can (and should) be fun! And if you pick the right guys to keep company with, ladies, you may just learn something new about your style and, more importantly, yourself. For this fashion writer, it's that no amount of style can replace a fabulous mind, heart, and personality. Oh, and that my shoe game is top notch.