Uniformly Attractive

Is it true that women prefer men in uniform?

During New York’s Fleet Week, which runs from May 25 to June 1 this year, some 3,000 sailors, Marines, and members of the Coast Guard descend on the city. It’s often said that women prefer a man in uniform. Is that true?

Maybe, maybe not. Hard evidence is scarce, but in a 2006 paper titled “G.I. Average Joe: The Clothes Do Not Necessarily Make the Man,” researchers from North Georgia College and State University determined that, for 120 female college students, photos of six ROTC cadets in their “dress blues” were not significantly more enticing than photos of the same cadets in their civilian clothes. The Explainer also came across a marketing survey, conducted by Kelton Research for the retail chain Men’s Wearhouse, indicating that while 91 percent of Americans believe that dapper clothing can enhance a less-than-handsome man’s appearance, only 37 percent consider military garb more appealing than business suits.

There’s also some general research on whether different outfits change the way women react to potential mates. In 1990, for instance, researchers at the University of Toledo asked a panel of 30 female anthropology majors to choose one “attractive” and one “unattractive” man from a line-up of volunteers wearing plain white T-shirts. Based on these ratings, they picked two models—one rated as attractive, the other as unattractive—and showed 112 female college students slides of each man in three separate costumes: as “doctors,” they donned fancy shirts, designer paisley ties, blazers, and Rolex watches; as “teachers,” they wore white tees; and as “Burger King workers,” they sported blue baseball caps and polo shirts printed with the company logo. Women consistently described the “doctors” as more alluring than the “fast food employees,” even when the man in the B.K. group had previously received a higher attractiveness rating than the M.D. (A good-looking teacher still out-performed a bad-looking M.D.) The researchers concluded that clothing suggesting low socioeconomic status is a turn-off.

Sailors and Knicks dancers during New York’s Fleet Week

It’s not obvious what sort of socioeconomic status a military uniform connotes—are unpleated khaki trousers perceived more like a doctor’s paisley tie or a fast-food employee’s baseball cap? One psychologist suggested in an interview that Marine or Navy uniforms (especially when decorated with gold and silver insignia) indicate high status and offer women social validation. Like Brooks Bros. suits or tuxedos, she contended, uniforms imply a man in a position of authority; furthermore, they symbolize “alpha” qualities such as confidence and courage. Yet the richest and most powerful Americans don’t generally gravitate toward the armed forces, George H.W. Bush, John McCain’s sons, and John Kerry aside.

Despite the relative paucity of experimental data, many sexologists are convinced from clinical experience that the stereotype about women and uniforms is true. They speculate that the cliché holds for a variety of reasons: Some, pointing to the latent (and at times overt) aggression in military work, propose that women find the menace of uniformed men exciting. Others ascribe the mystique of sailors on leave to the opportunity for casual sex. Still others argue that evolution has wired women to seek competent, dependable types for the long road of childrearing; these clinicians claim that uniforms advertise a history of service and reliability. Of course, it’s questionable how reliable a mate could be if his job requires him to ship off into conflict zones at a moment’s notice.

Explainer thanks Helen Fisher of Rutgers University, Arlene Krieger of Boca Therapy, and David Schnarch of the Marriage & Family Health Center.