You can use fashion to express your emotions and heal from the inside out. Yes, it works. Here’s how.
“What are you wearing?” Dawnn Karen asks me, as I interview her over the phone. It’s the first time I’ve been asked that question, though I’ve been a reporter for more than a decade.
I was wearing all black. I’m always wearing all black. I’m from New York City. It’s sorta my uniform.
Karen approves. I think.
“You have a repetitious wardrobe complex,” she says. “Your mood isn’t fluctuating, you’re level-headed, and your emotions are pretty consistent. I applaud you, because most people don’t have the guts to wear the same thing every day. I’m all for it.”
Karen, who holds a psychology master’s degree and is a candidate for a master of education degree, is the founder of the Fashion Psychology Institute, an online school dedicated to fashion psychology. She’s also the unofficial mother of fashion psychology, a new academic discipline focusing on the study of beauty, style and their effect on human behavior.
“You’re going with your black, and you feel confident every day,” Karen says of my wardrobe choices. And she’s correct. If I donned a yellow top, for example, I’d feel out of place and wouldn’t be me.
Fashion psychology is a big deal today, and it’s a growing field that not only influences your clothing decisions daily but also plays a role in how clothing brands are viewed and want to be viewed.
When you enter a store and pick up a pair of skinny Calvin Klein jeans, how do they make you feel and why do they make you feel that way? And how much will a brand pay to influence your decisions? Why do you make the choices you make when selecting your clothing, and how can you make more positive choices to feel better about yourself?
These are all fields that Karen dominates.
She was always interested in psychology, but Karen fell into the fashion psychology niche after a traumatic event that occurred while she was attending Columbia University’s graduate school: she was sexually assaulted.
The next day, Karen dressed in her finest, most colorful clothing, accessorized by massive homemade feather earrings. “There’s a theory: mood enhancement dress,” says Karen, who’s no stranger to the fashion world. She’s a former model and fashion public relations representative. “It’s dressing to optimize your mood. I was trying to improve my mood, heal myself by wearing my best fabrics, the brightest colors — I was practicing styling from the inside out.”
When Karen meets with clients, she first practices talk therapy. Unlike image consultants, fashion psychologists first want to find out what’s going on in their clients’ lives and how they want to portray themselves.
You need to know your mood and your head space before you get dressed, because your clothing should be a reflection of your feelings. Your clothing is your tool to physically embody your purpose for any particular occasion, says Joseph Rosenfeld, personal brand and style strategist based in New York and Silicon Valley. “How does the wearer want to feel?” he says. “What messages does the person want to convey to onlookers? And how will the clothes’ nonverbal cues support those messages?”
It’s a topic that should be intertwined with fashion designers’ goals, as the industry should be thinking not only about producing products, but about producing the right kinds of products that can be intimately connected to consumers’ minds that will make them feel good, says Jaehee Jung, professor of fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware, where she teaches the Social Psychological Aspects of Clothing class. This class is a requirement for fashion merchandising and apparel design majors. Psychology is at the core of everything, she says, adding that after the brands decide how they want their consumers to feel, they can create the fashion.
For the consumer, it’s a similar experience: Figure out how you want to feel, then choose the clothing. Karen wants to increase her confidence, and she feels that elevation helps. So she wears heels. She also likes to be comfortable, so she adds a pair of leggings to her outfits. As a self-described “glamorous minimalist,” she likes to add a frilly shirt or blouse and an oversized bag.
Not everyone is as in tune with their feelings or able to connect those with clothing. And not everyone has access to a fashion psychologist. Still, it’s not too hard to apply the basic principles to your shopping experience.
Karen recommends that before shopping, you should ask yourself how you’re feeling. “Before you get overwhelmed by the colors or by the event you’re shopping for, think, ‘How do I want to feel?’” Karen says. “If you’re feeling in a funk, acknowledge what mood you’re in, and select the clothing accordingly, or acknowledge what mood you want to be in, and style from the outside in.”
Not into clothing and don’t care what you wear? Even those who express no interest in fashion or clothing are still affected by what they wear. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, wears the same T-shirt and jeans outfit daily. Like me, he has a repetitious wardrobe complex. He’s got a steady mood, he found what he likes to wear, and he sees no need to change it.
But what about the people who have no idea of what they like and don’t like? Those people who turn to boxed fashion like Stitch Fix (a personal stylist sends you a box of clothing, and you decide which pieces to keep and which to return)?
Karen likes fashion subscription boxes because they minimize anxiety for those who get nervous when they shop. But she doesn’t like the fact that an expert is picking out your clothing.
“Is that who you are? Is that who you want to be? Or is that who they want you to be?” she asks. It becomes problematic when the personal shopper is projecting who they want you to be onto you. But if you’re carefully selecting pieces from the box or from a personal shopper because you love them and because you feel they represent your mood and yourself, then that’s a great way to go.
Jung agrees, remembering giving advice to shoppers. One time she helped a woman buy a handbag, and another wanted her opinion on a dress. “As a fashion psychologist, I am more interested in giving that confidence than picking products for other women. They shouldn’t be afraid of choosing products on their own,” Jung says. “It’s all about encouraging positive self-image so that women can feel more positive about themselves and their bodies.”