This blog is an amended version of a piece I wrote for Public Seminar, a journal “dedicated to informing debate about the pressing issues of our times and creating a global intellectual commons.” Public Seminar is produced by New School faculty, students and staff, and supported by colleagues and collaborators around the globe.
As someone who loves fashion as a way of expressing my identity, I was naturally drawn to the relationship between what we wear and who we are. As a psychologist, I have long appreciated the value that psychology can bring to understanding the power of what we wear. Recent events have demonstrated the urgent need for the fashion industry to make radical changes that can only come about through understanding behaviour.
In 2011, I had the opportunity to give a talk about psychology and fashion at the London College of Fashion (LCF), part of the University of the Arts London (UAL). At the time, I was Professor of Applied Cognitive Psychology at Solent University in Southampton, UK, where I had created a final year module which engaged students in applying psychological theories in a range of contexts, such as art, interior design, business, food, and advertising and marketing.
Psychology is the scientific study of behavior. It is applicable, and valuable, in every context in which people are involved. Psychologists are analysts, trained to synthesize information and conduct analyses to provide deeper understanding of behavior in order to be able to predict it—and where desirable, to change it for the better.
After my talk at LCF, I was invited to back to describe how I could bring psychology to the college. I was then invited to establish a department for the Psychology of Fashion and create Master’s programs for the college. As a professor at UAL, I embraced the opportunity to support a new generation of fashion professionals to support the industry to become more sustainable and more ethical. After five wonderful years at UAL, I left to start my own consultancy. Now three years in, my main consulting role is to advise a global fashion company on many aspects of the business.
Many people have asked me why psychology matters in fashion, as these disciplines seem so different. My response is that they are both essentially about people. Clothing is our second skin. It is the closest thing to our bodies. And everyone wears clothes! The fashion industry is a mighty economic power which generates billions annually and employs millions around the world. Given that the fashion industry has such a ubiquitous global presence, it is the perfect vehicle to apply psychological insights to make a change.
What we wear says a lot about us. In fact, we make a judgment about whether we like someone or not in under a second, and then seek evidence to support and extend that judgment to relate to nonphysical characteristics such as temperament and abilities. This is known as the “halo effect,” and once generated, it is hard to change. This is why first impressions are important, and why we think about what to wear when we are going to an important event such as a first date or a job interview. Dress codes exist to help us navigate this abstract notion of nonverbal communication. When we go to a wedding or a funeral, or to most workplaces, people generally follow what is “expected” in terms of dress. In recent years, workplace dress codes have become more relaxed, perhaps because of the rise of creative jobs in tech and media industries where the unwritten dress code is casual, or because people are being encouraged to be themselves—to be authentic and not follow any particular style. Regardless of any existing code or not, some people make a statement by wearing the same sort of clothes to work everyday. Take, for example, Mark Zuckerberg who famously wears jeans and a T-shirt to work every day as this supposedly frees cognitive capacity to deal with more serious problems than what to wear. However, during a recent court appearance, Mr Zuckerberg chose to wear clothing that are associated with conscientiousness and professionalism: a business suit.
I am often asked to comment on the influence of what we wear on our mood, particularly the influence of colour on how we feel. While we might feel good as a result of our clothing, the reasons are more complex and nuanced than people generally think. For example, there is no “magic” colour for us. The influence that a colour has on our mood and behaviour is a result of the sociocultural associations we make with that colour. Not only are these associations not global, colour varies as a result of many factors. The sense of experiencing colour is based upon the physical properties of light, artifical or natural lighting, texture, visual capacity, expectations, and more. For example, if we see a banana in a poorly lit room at night, the banana will look grey, but we still recognize it as a banana and “know” that it is yellow. This is known in psychology as “discounting the illuminant,” which means that we adjust our perception as a result of our familiarity with an object and the colour we expect it to be. Although there exists no colour theory in psychology, there is a color-in-context theory, which explores how our perception of colour depends on the context it is in. “The dress” phenomenon that went viral in 2015 is a perfect example of how colour depends on our prior experience and our assumptions. Our eyes can be fooled easily by our expectations. As a result, our worldview is a result of our experience. Optical illusions are excellent examples of how our eyes can be fooled as is clearly demonstrated in this TED talk by nueroscientist, Beau Lotto.
So if colour by itself can’t make us happy, why does our mood change depending on what we wear? Again, this is complex. We make associations between objects, events, and so on, and these form our mental models. If we have worn a garment to an event that was salient and registered with us on a conscious level, we may have an association with that garment that is triggered when we wear it again. Repetition reinforces associations and so the feeling becomes embedded and automatically triggered when we see, wear or even think about that item. We may associate a garment with a celebrity lifestyle (hence the popularity of celebrity and influencer marketing) and that can boost our confidence when we wear it. We can also associate a garment with a particular profession and the characteristics associated with that profession.
This latter sort of association is exactly what psychologists at Northwestern University demonstrated in a 2012 study on “enclothed cognition,” in which they asked participants to wear a white coat, alternatively described as a doctor’s coat or a painter’s coat, while performing tests of attention. Prior to conducting the tests, they established for the participants that doctors are associated with attentiveness. And they subsequently found that the participants who were told that they were wearing the “doctor’s coat” outperformed the participants who were told they were wearing the “painter’s coat.” Attention matters because the ability to sustain attention is fundamental to many cognitive processes, including problem-solving, learning, and memory. We can bring meaning to what we wear without being told of its symbolic meaning. We can create narratives around the items we wear to create associations that help us exploit the power of belief to help us in a specific context.
If what we wear is an expression of our identity and it forms an important part of the basis of first impressions, its power cannot be underestimated. However, like any communication medium, it can be misunderstood if the two sides—in this case, the wearer and observer—don’t speak the same language. For example, if I’m not really into sneakers, I might not know that the pair you’re wearing are the most desirable things on the planet. This is one of the reasons we enjoy being with like-minded peers, as these people usually do speak our language: they share our beliefs, values, and attitudes. By aligning with our in-groups, we distinguish ourselves from other groups, the out-groups. Our in-groups are a source of pride—we feel they are superior to the out-groups—but this is often the source of stereotyping, as well. In psychology this phenomenon is predicted by theories of social identity and social comparison.
Optical illusions fool our vision; cognitive illusions also known as cognitive biases fool our thinking and convince we are correct when we are not; that we are sure when we should doubt; that we have all the information we need, when we have only that which supports our own perspective.
Unfortunately, fashion has historically promoted and perpetuated an ideal that excludes the majority of the population. Although recent pressure to feature more diverse body types and skin tones in fashion imagery has had some impact, so much more needs to be done. Many in the industry are under the illusion that consumers want to see inspirational fashion imagery, but in reality, consumers want to be inspired by imagery that represents them.
How can psychologists help?
Many changes in behaviour are urgently needed now more than ever across the industry. Sustainability is usually associated with environmental and climate issues, but it also includes social sustainability, staffing and human rights. Psychologists are often employed in HR and their skills could be used to highlight the impact of cognitive biases and develop strategies that could be used to help reduce them. Cognitive Psychologists in particular, understand how people think, feel and act and because they understand behaviour, they can design training progammes that lead to sustained behaviour change at all levels in the industry, and measure and monitor that change. By conducting well-designed research studies, psychologists can provide reliable and valid evidence for fashion professionals to understand and provide for their consumers better. Psychologists can help the industry cater better for those consumers who feel marginalized or excluded in fashion imagery by demonstrating the value of creating inclusive imagery that truly represents the customers brands hope to serve. In addition to the perpetual lack of diversity in imagery, the fashion industry would be better served by a more diverse workforce that is inclusive and fair.
Environmental activists have been raising awareness on issues of sustainable production and consumption for decades, and while we are witnessing an increase in activism, this has not been reflected in the behaviour of the majority of consumers. In part, as a result of recent global activism, many large and small players in the fashion industry are taking steps towards a “circular economy.” However, consumption patterns are slow to change. “Spend more and buy less” advice is considered elitist for many fashion consumers and consequently dismissed as not for them. And in my experience, more expensive does not necessarily equate to better quality. Also, many of the more expensive brands use the same factories to produce their garments as the cheaper ones. They simply make more profit. Psychologists know that is not enough to raise awareness of an issue and then leave it up to individuals to change their behaviour accordingly. Shock tactics don”t work either. People need support to change their behaviour until it becomes automatic. Environmental sustainability as well as social sustainability must be inclusive. All individuals need to know that every small act such as washing on a colder temperature, or mending rather than discarding, renting instead of buying and so on, is not insignificant. Cumulatively, every individual action in the right direction is valuable. Ultimately, in order to help change behaviour, we have to understand what underpins it.
We must act to support sustainability in fashion, as in every industry which damages the environment. We can support a love of fashion through alternative ways of engaging with it. We can encourage consumers to buy mindfully by asking them to question themselves at the point of purchase—for instance, by asking themselves if they really need to buy multiple items at once, when one might do. We can help consumers take better care of their clothes once they have them, such as by washing on a cold wash, spot cleaning, and washing less often. We can demonstrate the opportunity to do something for someone else which also makes us feel good about ourselves by swapping clothes with our friends, or by shopping and donating at charity shops. There are also many online second-hand clothing businesses covering the entire range from luxury to street fashion and accessories.
Sustainability and inclusion are just two of the areas that benefit from psychological input. In every system across the industry—from design to visual merchandising, AI ethics and usability to communication, strategy to leadership—psychological experts can improve processes and measure impacts to benefit businesses, workers, stakeholders, customers, and the planet.
In the eight years since its initiation at LCF, the application of psychology in the context of fashion (also known as fashion psychology) has become a global phenomenon. I am proud to be recognized as the founder of this initiative and look forward to seeing a truly sustainable and ethical industry in the near future.
For more on the topics in this blog, and many others, please see my book, The Psychology of Fashion.
The original piece was published on Public Seminar on July 10th 2020.