While there are more than just two Fashion Psychologists to be found in the world, the one’s you’ll most likely come across in a Google search are Carolyn Mair and Dawnn Karen. They’re disrupting the worlds of Fashion and Psychology, simultaneously.
Anyone who’s spent a minute in a therapists chair will know that our internal angst – what landed us there – is on some level generated by the existential gap created when who we really are is different from who we wish we were.
The inverse of that is happiness – when we feel authentic, and truly ourselves, we are calm and content.
It’s the same with our clothes.
This is what Dawnn Karen, Fashion Psychologist, tells me as we are discussing the arm of psychology that she has helped bring into the 21st century.
“What I do is help people understand their relationship to fashion from the inside out.”
Karen is a professor at New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology and investigated the idea of focusing on authenticity in dress to help people feel better about what they wear and empower them with new ways to think about why they wear certain items.
“We wear clothes every day and it’s a huge part of our existence. We think we have to care about what others think of our clothing choices. We wear a sort of ‘uniform’ based on what we think is expected of us and it’s a kind of performance. It’s hard.”
It’s why ‘retail therapy’ is a short-lived fix. Or why your closet full of cute clothes doesn’t always produce the effect you’d hoped, and ends up in a pile while you wear the same black-on-black combo you can’t seem to break away from. “You throw on something and don’t feel good, or go shopping.to alleviate the frusration.” The problem, she explains, is that we focus on the external.
The Substance of Style
She tested her theory in a series of case studies where she had clients dress according to how they authentically felt and recorded their feelings over several months. Some clients claimed it was life changing.
The mindful approach is, before you get up, to “Lie in bed and say, ‘How am I feeling today?’ If I’m tired, or in a shitty mood, I’ll dress to illustrate that mood and as a result I feel authentic.”
Sounds simple, but generally, we dress to be appropriate not to be authentic.
The idea is that dressing according to how you feel and not to conform to expectations creates an authentic expression of yourself. Authenticity breeds content.
Case in point, on top of her regular schedule, Karen had been prepping for a Ted Talk and remembered she had an event to attend that evening. “I just wanted to be my introverted self, stay inside in my sweats and keep working. I found a way to honour my feelings and still show up. I wore my sweats… with heels. I felt very comfortable and most importantly, I didn’t feel like a fraud.” (Scroll down to see the a photo of her outfit.)
The Emergence of the Fashion Psychologist
“Fashion psychology is about the understanding of human behaviour within the entire context of the fashion industries. It’s not only about clothing as a form of communication and enabling us to negotiate our identity, it’s also about using fashion as a form of good across the swath of industries from production to consumption to disposal.”
“When we are choosing which item to wear, what our clothes look like is barely scratching the surface. It’s more complex than it appears to be. And, one of the reasons is that human beings are different. There really isn’t a one size fits all.”
For instance, the red jacket that makes you feel confident and powerful, might make me feel garish. That nose-ring you think is tacky might be her secret to confidence.
Whether it’s magazines of past decades, or today’s social media influencers, brands and celebs – fashion exists in a singular one-style-for-everyone vacuum. ‘Teal is the colour of the year!!’ ‘Millenial Pink is in!!’ Fundamentally, this flies in the face of what fashion is, and how we’re wired.
“When we talk about how our clothes portray and effect us we need to take into account the individual differences of the wearer and also the context of which garment is worn.”
Increasingly, the context – where and how a garment is made – is on consumers’ minds.
Would knowing that your perfectly fitted jeans were made in a sweat shop and will live in a landfill long after your gone make you feel icky? Maybe.
It ‘s pressure from cash-strapped Millenial’s, not the middle-aged consumer that’s behind this growing awareness. They’re demanding transparency from brands in exchange for their patronage.
“It’s not just enough to look at the profit, brands need to think about explaining to customers where their product comes from,” says Mair.
It’s no coincidence that wrapping our heads around modern fashion calls for analysis of our behaviour. Makes perfect sense that now is at a time when Mindful Fashion is gaining momentum.
Read more about the Mindful Fashion movement.
Dr. Carolyn Mair‘s website.