Fashion Psychology 101

Believe it or not, there’s a science to what goes on in your mind when you choose what to wear every morning. That body of knowledge is aptly called fashion psychology. It’s defined in an article by the New York Times as the “study and treatment of how color, image, style and beauty affects human behavior, while addressing cultural norms and cultural sensitivities.” It studies why people dress the way they dress, based on various internal and external factors.

Below, we explore the emerging field of fashion psychology and how it came to be.

Fashion Psychology

The World is a Stage

Dawnn Karen is the only fashion psychologist in North America. She built a brand around the concept, and now has clients ranging from entertainers to entrepreneurs. They come to her when they want to make a change in their wardrobe but can’t do it alone. Karen understands that people dress up to present an impression of themselves to others. Part of her job is to help them align their fashion choices with a particular identity. For example, she recalls a client who was currently undergoing a custody battle with one simple goal: to present herself in a way that would give the judge sympathy towards her.

Many of her clients are in the business world. Women in high business positions have to portray two personas: a commanding professional during office hours, and an approachable boss at night for drinks with the team. Finding a look that embodies both those identities is a challenge Karen’s clients face daily. Finding outfits to fit multiple roles requires a trained eye.

One way of approaching this is by highlighting two identities through a particular style. For instance, Fashion Dioxide’s guide to work outfits for women over 40, highlights the matching blazer and pants ensemble. This helps surface feelings of professional boldness yet comfort and approachability. Similarly, Woman Within’s versatile selection of button down shirts also recognizes the need to suit both personas. The shirts support a professional silhouette with an added playfulness through the patterns or colors. This just goes to show how much thought needs to be put into work attire.

Clothing as Personal Armor

In Dawn Karen’s interview with the New York Times, she also recognizes how clothing amplify positive emotions. Power suits for women are a classic example of this strategy. Topshop’s smart suit comes specially tailored and structured, giving its wearer an added level of sophistication. Additionally, it provides more confidence and empowerment – an affect called the mood enhancement theory.

On the same note, Karen says that clients also tend to use clothes as an emotional crutch. She calls this the repetitious wardrobe complex, or the tendency to use clothes for emotional comfort. According to her, this is one of the reasons why we continue to wear the same pieces of clothing in our wardrobe even though we have multiple outfits to choose from.

Fashion and Body Image

Of course, the conversation on fashion and the mind wouldn’t be complete without mentioning its effects on body image. We know that the fashion industry has a reputation for upholding high standards on appearances, but clothes can be used as a positive tool too. Who What Wear talked to Dr. Carolyn Mair, another expert who merges psychology and fashion on a professional level. Dr. Mair discusses that one of her most interesting projects is working with a major charity that wanted her to help young people overcome body image issues through dealing with fashion. She says many of these teens manifest their issues through bullying and eating disorders, and it’s important to explore unconventional means to address these problems. Many of these people deal with body image issues as a result of the fashion industry’s advertising techniques; so tackling the industry’s effect on them is necessary.

Despite being fairly new, it’s astounding to see an emerging specialty like fashion psychology starting to make waves. With fashion’s role in a society growing more important by the day, it’s exciting to see what else we can learn from this new field.



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