What Fashion Psychology Can Reveal about You and the World

Many women have always known deep down that style and sense of self are closely interrelated – as the saying goes, you are what you wear. An academic field has emerged to investigate and discuss this relation, and it’s called fashion psychology.

The concept of fashion psychology was coined by Dawnn Karen, a brand consultant and professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York with a masters in counselling psychology. Karen defines the term as the “study and treatment of how colour, image, style and beauty affects human behaviour, while addressing cultural norms and cultural sensitivities”.

Karen’s personal experience made her realise the power that clothes have to project a certain image to others as well as to herself. She recalled a time in grad school after her fiancé assaulted her. “The next day, I went to my closet and said, ‘OK, I’ve got to look good’,” Karen said. “I put on something elaborate and fashionable. I remember going to class with these huge feather earrings I’d made. Every day, I used clothes to heal myself.”

As an African-American woman, Karen also uses fashion to defy stereotypes. “I deliberately dress down to debunk the notion that a young black girl in sweats is from the hood, or the ghetto, or isn’t smart,” she said. “Students see me, and I give them a whole different idea of what an urban dresser can be.”

Other academics have supported the field’s validity for real-life application. “There have been very few papers by psychologists around clothing,” said cognitive neuroscientist Carolyn Mair. “I think that’s because of the reputation that fashion has as frivolous and frilly, rather than being seen as one of the world’s largest economies.”

Mair said fashion psychology could be used to examine the varied individual, societal, financial and environmental issues that arise from fashion industries ranging from beauty standards to waste pollutions.

“The common understanding of psychology applied to fashion is an interpretation of what our clothes say about us, but psychology matters far beyond this,” Mair told CareersInPsychology.org. “People are involved in every aspect of fashion from design, through production, manufacture, advertising and marketing, visual merchandising, retail, consumption and disposal. Therefore taking a scientific approach enables us to understand human behavior in the context of fashion.

“Although fashion is an exciting, creative and dynamic industry, it has many problems. Applying psychology to solve these enables us to predict and ultimately change behavior for the better.”

Would you be interested in studying fashion psychology?