Fashion invests in the field of psychology and helps those who want it to feel better in their minds. There are even courses now. Dawnn Karen, the forerunner of this new discipline, reveals the basics.
Want to improve your results on a cognitive test? Put on a suit or suit instead of jogging! This is by no means a joke, but the completely scientific conclusion of specialists in fashion psychology – a still relatively new academic field interested in the relationship between our clothes, our behavior and our emotions. Another example? Investigators asked a group of people to don a white coat, claiming that half were a medical apron and half an artist’s apron. Subjected to a series of attention tests, the former achieved significantly better results than the latter. So our clothes are clearly not just used to cover us! They could guarantee us an aura of intelligence, better observation or an ability to react… But we still need to know how to translate scientists’ conclusions into our wardrobe.
It was American psychologist Dawnn Karen, 33, who unveiled this new specialty. Since graduating from Columbia University in 2012, she has multiplied the number of TED Talks and today is the youngest professor in the history of the Fashion Institute of Technology. His book Dress up your best life has been translated into four languages. †
A body-oriented approach is stigmatizing, psychologically harmful and too inclusive
The basis is scientific, but anyone can apply it daily, she tells us from her New York office. A very important first point is not to open your closets right away, but to take the time to ask yourself how you feel. It is this reflection that will be the starting point of your outfit for the day. †
From there, three options are available to us, the expert continues.
- The first, the “mood-enhancing dressing or dopamine dressing” (referring to the hormone happiness), mood and thus self-confidence will improve.
- The second, the “mood illustration dressing or serotonin dressing”aims to reflect our current mood in our look to promote calmness, balance and concentration.
- The third, called “repetitive wardrobe complex”, is to always wear more or less the same, as Steve Jobs did with his perpetual black turtleneck. “This iteration is not popular in the fashion world, but it does have real benefits. By limiting the choices to be made to the absolute minimum, you can focus on what really matters: work. †
However, Dawnn Karen’s approach is: much more than a personal styling service, embellished with a bit of psychology. Its purpose is by no means to give advice on sticking to a morphology or color of hair or skin. Here everything starts from the mind: instead of focusing on the appearance of the person in a particular outfit, she wonders about her feelings. “To me, a body-centered approach is stigmatizing, psychologically damaging, and under-inclusive,” she notes. My approach is really to embroider from everyone’s personal style. Three quarters of my clients are women, but the rest is a little bit of everything from politicians to musicians. †
For example, among her patients we find a lady from the Middle East who lives in the West and struggles to reconcile her two identities or even people belonging to the LGBT community… “In my practice I integrate the fashion aspect during my therapy sessions, the expert continues.
Recently I prescribed yellow clothes to a depressed client. To help Covid, she hadn’t been out of the house much in months, and during our Zoom session, she was wearing sweatpants she hadn’t taken off in a week — the kind of outfit made to further exacerbate a gloomy mood. ! She started to reject my suggestion because she thought that yellow didn’t suit her skin tone… But when I saw her again a few weeks later, she told me that this optimistic color had really made an impact. †
The first studies into the link between fashion and psychology date from the 19th century† Professor William James, founder of Harvard University’s psychology department, saw in our outfits an essential part of our material, social and spiritual identity. However, it was Dawnn Karen who turned fashion psychology into a profession in itself in 2010, which she even patented.
If it has now earned its stripes, it was initially met with a lot of skepticism. “I was young, black and feminine. No one took me seriously, least of all the college dinosaurs who clearly defined their backyards. For them, fashion was a superficial phenomenon that didn’t deserve any research attention… And since I don’t care about things like trends, the fashion industry wasn’t very hot either. †
It was a not very happy coincidence that finally allowed her to break through… During her studies she supplemented her income through modeling, which opened the doors to the sector for her, but unfortunately also exposed her to sexual violence. “I didn’t want to talk about it, so I chose to express myself through what I was wearing. My body had been abused and to regain control I started wearing ultra-glamorous outfits in the style of Diamonds in the bank† I call this ‘pain relief’. Thanks to my wardrobe, I was able to overcome this trauma and discover the enormous power of fashion. That’s where it all started,” she recalls.
Master of his image
In 2014, Dawnn Karen launched her own training institute, the Fashion Psychology Academy. Our compatriot Marleen Beevers followed her courses online in 2018 and now offers her services to an audience of individuals, but also to companies that want to strengthen their brand identity. However, the Belgian coach’s approach is much more instinctive than that of her American colleague: “I defined from a series of Eastern and Western psychological tendencies – yoga, feng shui, embodied cognition… – five main personality types, to which I then associated textures, colors and garments. For those with a structured personality, I recommend monochromatic pieces in gray or pastel tones and soft materials such as cashmere, silk or delicate knits, while active people benefit from wearing leopard prints, bright colors and materials full of personality such as leather. We all have a little bit of each of the five types in us, but there’s always one that dominates. Dressing accordingly is a way of expressing your identity through your appearance† †
Dawnn Karen points out that the pandemic has given his specialty a huge boost† To believe that only when obligations and expectations disappear do we fully appreciate the importance of our clothes! In the past two years, we’ve barely had the opportunity to wear our best suit to a summit or put on our thirty-one to a wedding, so we’ve comforted ourselves with soft and comfortable. Teleworking in negligent clothing, however, soon turned out to be much less idyllic than expected, because this carelessness has a disastrous effect on our productivity and our mood!
Thanks to the coronavirus, we no longer need to dress for others, but it has actually become essential to do so for ourselves. Personal drives – such as the desire to feel good – have become more important and we have learned to use our wardrobe to influence our mood. Have we all become a bit of clothing psychologists? At least that is the view of Professor Carolyn Mair, British specialist in behavioral psychology and founder of the very first bachelor’s and master’s degree in fashion psychology at the University of the Arts in London. “What we wear affects the eyes of others, as well as our own,” she says in her book. The psychology of fashion† Clothing can even be a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: When you are convinced that you are more productive in a blazer, you feel more efficient… and you will be! †
Mirror, my beautiful mirror…
This fall, at the Dr. Guislain Museum in Ghent and the Fashion Museum in Antwerp, the Mirror Mirror double exhibition will address this link between fashion, psychology, self-image and identity. The two institutions will be especially interested in the questioning of beauty ideals by fashion designers and artists, but also in the psychological protection or strength that our looks can give us. At a time when gender and its fluid variations are becoming increasingly central, they will focus on the personal experience of the body. guislain.be and momu.be From October 1 to February 26, 2023.