Why our fashion choices should make us feel good

From colour, cut and fabric, we are often unsure why we make the clothes choices we do. It's why fashion needs the input of a psychologist, Dawnn Karen tells Jennifer Miller.

Models walk the runway for Marcel Ostertag during New York Fashion Week. Picture: Getty

Last February, Dawnn Karen, a brand consultant, therapist and instructor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, arrived at a Marcel Ostertag fashion show wearing five-inch studded stilettos and a black jumpsuit with a cape. “This cape makes me feel like Superwoman,” she says. “It’s that sense of control.” She struts off to pose for photographers at the show’s entrance.

A self-described “fashion psychologist,” Karen pays close attention to the relationship between attire and attitude: not just how clothes make you look, but how they make you feel. She had come to the Ostertag show, she says, to analyse the psychology behind the collection.

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When a model walks by in a silky pink blouse, Karen pronounces it an example of “mood enhancement theory”: how an item could amplify positive emotions. When another model floats past in an all-silver get-up, Karen says the outfit represents “repetitious wardrobe complex,” the tendency to use clothes for emotional comfort. “Ostertag seems to be a paradox,” she says after the show. “I would label him and his collection as ‘progressive-conservatism.’”

To be clear, none of these theories or labels can be found in any psychology textbook. Karen, 29, developed them over the last few years, as she cultivated her academic career and her personal brand.

Fashion psychology, as she defines it, is the “study and treatment of how colour, image, style and beauty affects human behaviour, while addressing cultural norms and cultural sensitivities.” She believes the field is especially relevant today, as consumers are increasingly critical of the fashion industry and its tone-deafness toward body image and race.

“There are so many blunders in advertising and fashion,” says Karen, who is African-American. She points to missteps including H&M using a black child to model its “coolest monkey in the jungle” sweatshirt; Zara’s miniskirt with the alt-right symbol Pepe the Frog; and a Dove skin care campaign that featured a black model who turned into a white one. “People are speaking out about all this,” she says. “That’s why you need a fashion psychologist on your advisory team.”

Karen has taught fashion psychology at the FIT’s Center for Continuing and Professional Studies. She also has an online Fashion Psychology Institute, where she offers courses in “The Hoodie Effect: George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin” and “The Nazi Haircut” (in which she explores why the “undercut” is so attractive to white supremacists).

Now, FIT’s social sciences department, where she teaches the psychology of colour and general psychology, is reviewing her proposal to make a fashion psychology course part of the undergraduate curriculum.

Karen calls herself a “pioneer” of the “Fashion Psychology Field,” (a phrase she has trademarked), but she is not alone in combining the topics. For the past decade, the department of fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware has offered a course called the Social Psychological Aspects of Clothing. Its professor, Jaehee Jung, says it’s one of the few requirements for both apparel design and fashion merchandising majors.

Whereas a fashion business class may teach students how to design and market a product based on demographic trends, Jung’s students explore the psychology behind consumer behaviour. “We talk about perceptions and standards of attractiveness,” she says. “Where these come from and how we use them to judge others.”

The London College of Fashion offers what may be the field’s most comprehensive academic programme. In 2014, the school introduced graduate programmes in applied psychology in fashion and in psychology for fashion professionals. Last year, the school started an undergraduate major in the psychology of fashion.

“The fashion industry speaks so much about memory, problem solving and nostalgia,” says Carolyn Mair, who founded the programmes and now runs a consulting firm. “And yet in the industry, these psychological concepts lack academic rigour and training.”

Mair gives the example of sustainably produced clothes. Brands have been good at raising awareness of the issue, she believes, but not at influencing our purchasing decisions. “If the fashion industry was to work with psychologists who understand human behaviour,” she says, “they could implement scientifically based behavioural change programmes” to influence what consumers buy.

Mair, a psychologist with a PhD in cognitive neuroscience, is careful to call herself a “psychologist who works in the fashion industry,” because the term “fashion psychologist” isn’t recognised by any official academic or licensing body.

Karen has a master’s degree in counselling psychology from Columbia Teachers College, but she is used to skepticism. Some people think she made up her name for the attention. (Though she did drop her surname, Brown, during a modelling stint in graduate school, her mother named her after the designer Donna Karan and Dawnn Lewis, an actress from A Different World.)

Karen is also aware of race bias. “I have to fight through a lot of barriers,” she says. “When they see me, I know they’re expecting someone else. ‘You couldn’t possibly be a black woman.’”

Much of the interest in Karen’s work has come from outside the United States. In 2017, Kyiv Security Forum, which is based in Ukraine, invited Karen to speak about the burkini and the intersection of religion and fashion.

In May, a public relations firm is flying her to Australia to consult on consumer behaviour and clothes care. And she has coming presentations at universities in Malaysia and Rome. Most recently, a bespoke Italian-Canadian menswear brand called Cattivo Ragazzo hired Karen to design a personality test for customers on its new e-commerce platform.

“Dawnn is looking at who our customer is: where on the scale of introvert to extrovert; are they jet-setters or homebodies; flamboyant or conservative?” says Dino Minichiello, 49, the brand’s founder. “You need to extract the personality of the customer to know if high-contrast stitching on lapels will make him feel uncomfortable.”

Karen calls this work “styling from the inside out.” As she says, “most of the time we go into our wardrobe and say, ‘I’ll wear this colour.’ But we’re not in tune with how we’re feeling.” In both her brand consulting and counselling practice, for which she charges $1,000 to $5,000 per month, she is constantly assessing how clients use clothes – either as an emotional crutch or a means of empowerment.

One client is a widow who continued to buy black clothing two years after her husband’s death. “She didn’t know that she was doing it,” Karen says. “And I thought, ‘Why aren’t you aware?’” Addressing that “why” helped the client work through her grief, Karen says.

Chris Rob, a Brooklyn-based musician and DJ in his late 30s, said Karen helped him use clothes to build confidence as a performer. “I’ve worked with stylists who will say, ‘Hey, this would look nice on you,’” he says. “Dawnn’s attitude is, ‘Let’s start with you. Why do you choose what you wear, and how is it holding you back from making stronger choices?’”

For Karen, clothes have been a kind of personal armour. She first considered exploring the role of psychology in fashion during graduate school at Columbia. She was a year into the programme, she says, when she was assaulted by her fiancé. “The next day, I went to my wardrobe and said, ‘OK, I’ve got to look good.’ 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.”

Now that she’s the one teaching, Karen dresses more for her students than for herself. “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 says. “Students see me, and I give them a whole different idea of what an urban dresser can be.”

© NYT 2018