When I first heard about fashion psychology as a field, I was intrigued. In college, I studied fashion and design at Parsons in New York City, and while professors constantly droned on about the repercussions of fashion on the environment, fair labor, and economics, rarely did they ever mention the idea that style might in fact have an effect on our inner psyche. Nevertheless, it’s something I’ve always thought about and wondered from time to time. For example, how does wearing all black affect one’s mood? Does wearing bright yellow really make you happier? And what about wearing something made with sustainable practices and fair labor versus a fast-fashion throw-away? Does it make a real difference on your conscience?
I decided to find out by getting touch with Dawnn Karen, the youngest professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who teaches psychology classes that weave in details about how fashion really makes you feel. Her online school is one of the only ones of its kind where students from around the world can gain accreditation for studies in the field. She’s currently working on a textbook and hopes to have a class centered on the science behind how clothes affect us next year and loosely defines the idea of fashion psychology as “the study and treatment of color and fashion and its effects on human behavior while addressing cultural sensitivities and cultural norms.”
Just like any other psychologist, Karen has clients that come to her for help. The process generally takes several months, as she talks them through everything from their childhood to why they like a certain color. She uses the findings that come out of these conversations to formulate new styles or wardrobes for them. “I style from the inside out,” she says. “I’m like any other stylists or image consultant, but I counsel them first, find out who they are, what their background is.”
Over the span of months, Karen talks to her patients to decide what they should wear. Focusing on the public’s general perception, she makes generalizations based on the person’s goals. For example, she might style someone who wishes to advance her career in a suit—but she also uses information she takes from their conversations. The color of the suit might be purple, if that was a particular hue that had positive meaning for them during a certain point in their life.
So—this process could potentially help define personal style. “Some people just follow trends, and you don’t know who the hell they are,” says Karen. Thinking about this, I was curious how the field could influence my own aesthetic. Here, I asked Karen for a few key pieces of advice when it comes to dressing in terms of thinking about psychology. These ideas are simply things to be aware of if you’re interested in how fashion might make you feel.
1. Instead of pre-planning your outfit, dress according to how you feel when you wake up in the morning.
Karen explains that thinking about your emotions rather than making your fashion choices based purely on aesthetic reasons. Why? Because if you always choose the highest heel and you feel slightly annoyed when you wake up, your shoes could enhance your annoyance. She calls this concept “mood illustration.”
2. When you feel like shit, wear your favorite outfit.
There’s something to be said for dressing up when you’re in a crappy mood. A few weeks ago, when I had a horrible day (the weather was bad, work was bad, I was fighting with my boyfriend) I used my favorite handbag (read: fancy) just to run errands and it made me happier.
Karen calls this concept “mood enhancement.” It functions as sort of the opposite of mood illustration. Both can be used in different ways to the wearer’s advantage and according to Karen, they are two different ways of dressing. If you feel terrible, try wearing something you love, and it may make you feel better.
3. Be aware that others may not always understand your sense of personal style.
I experience this all the time because I have purple hair. I style and wear it in a way that I believe is more high fashion than Hot Topic, but as soon as I leave New York City for any sort of vacation or travel, the looks I get (not to mention, the comments from guys) instantly indicate that others think I’m goth, a freak, or in the case of a recent visit to Paris: a prostitute. At the same time, I think it’s a lot of fun to play with different fashion personas—and even empowering to wear something one may be afraid to try. Karen explains this theory as “fashion incongruence.” This concept is simply one to be aware of because the way you dress obviously affects the way people perceive you. It all comes down to culture and opinion. You might love this season’s fishnet tights, but there will always be that one person who thinks otherwise.
4. Know that having a million of the same pieces in your closet is totally normal.
I consider myself a repeat offender when it comes to glittery Miu Miu shoes and All Saints T-shirt dresses in my wardrobe. Most people develop their own style and hang on to favorites–even shopping the same top multiple times. I’ve always thought it can help develop your own aesthetic. Karen also explains that this can happen a lot in your wardrobe if you feel overwhelmed by trends, and that there’s science behind this behavior. She calls it “repetitious wardrobe concept.” There’s some amount of safety in the fact that you’re buying something you know works and looks good on you. If you know what you love, why not stock up? Key pieces can easily add up to become a trademark look.
5. Do choose your outfits based on what you’ll be doing during the day.
It sounds super basic, but the advice is foolproof. If you’re going to meet with your conservative parents, maybe don’t wear fishnet tights or a tiny miniskirt unless you want a confrontation or to be made uncomfortable. Karen uses the example of a Western foreign exchange student adopting more modest clothing when studying in the Middle East. She calls the term “fashion situational code switching.”
If you’d like to learn more about fashion psychology, Dawnn Karen will be hosting workshops during New York Fashion Week.