Better living through fashion
“Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.” Coco Chanel
What does psychology have to contribute to the fashion industry? At the start of her thought provoking workshop in Liverpool, Dr Carolyn Mair (Reader in Psychology at the London College of Fashion) drew upon the famous Chanel quote to highlight the pervasive nature of fashion in our everyday lives.Employing around one million people in the UK and with a turnover of more than £25 billion per year, the fashion industry can dictate not only the clothes that we wear, but also the way in which we perceive ourselves and others. A clear example of this comes from the images of models that are used in advertising, and the messages that are used to sell clothes and beauty products. However, despite this potentially powerful influence, the field of fashion psychology is relatively new.
Dr Mair was clear to focus on the many positive aspects of the fashion industry during the workshop. Creativity and innovation drive the industry forward and engage many people in fulfilling and absorbing careers. However, Dr Mair argues that there are numerous aspects of the fashion industry that have a negative impact on people’s lives, and this is where psychology has an important role to play. Three of the issues described at the workshop were around the human cost of cheap fashion, body image representation, and anti-ageing products.
Clothing is cheaper and more readily available than ever before, with high street clothing shops seeming to cater for our need for reward. Delegates discussed the short-term buzz they gained from purchasing a new item to wear (perhaps for a party, night out, or even a conference). But do we consider the human impact of the availability of such ‘disposable’ clothing? In April 2013, Rana Plaza, a factory in Bangladesh producing garments for shops such a Primark and Matalan collapsed killing 1134 people. Inadequate safety standards were blamed, after warnings to evacuate the building when cracks appeared were ignored. Despite widespread shock and condemnation of working conditions, it appears that little has changed to improve the lives of workers. During the workshop, delegates and facilitators discussed whether attempting to connect consumers with the people who manufacture our cheap clothing would alter our desire for new products. If this changed perceptions and purchasing habits, then what impact might this have on the workers who depend on our desire?
Another key issue raised in the workshop concerned the impact of imagery and advertising on consumers. Dr Mair demonstrated the Eurocentric bias in the modelling industry with reference to the famous fashion magazine ‘Vogue’. In 123 years of publication, just 14 (<1 per cent) cover photos depicted models from black or minority ethnic groups. Furthermore, the almost ubiquitous use of tall, thin, and able-bodied models means that for most of us, our body shape and size is unrepresented in the mass media. Research has shown that this fuels body dissatisfaction in women, and this can contribute to mental and physical health issues (Grabe, Ward & Hyde, 2008). Delegates agreed that a wider representation of body shape, size, race and ability would be a positive move, but were unsure of whether this would be adopted by the industry.
Why do we prize the appearance of youth so much so that the ‘anti-ageing industry’ is worth billions of pounds per year? In stark contemplation, it may seem slightly bizarre to think that we can halt the natural physical changes that accompany the ageing process. However, many women (in particular, although men are not immune) seek to ‘hide’ grey hairs, or ‘reduce’ wrinkles, sometimes beginning this inexorable relationship during their twenties. Dr Mair’s research has explored this phenomena and she seeks to challenge the industry norm that ageing should be concealed. During the workshop, delegates considered whether Western cultures could learn to celebrate the signs of ageing, rather than stigmatise them.
I attended this workshop alongside some of my undergraduate students and we came away with our interest piqued in an area where we had scarcely considered the application of psychology before. Dr Mair now aims to build a network of psychologists who might be interested in working on addressing the issues raised in the workshop. Her goal is to draw up an action plan for using psychology to enhance well-being through the vehicle of fashion.
Grabe, S., Ward, L. M., & Hyde, J. S. (2008). The role of the media in body image concerns among women: a meta-analysis of experimental and correlational studies. Psychological Bulletin, 134(3), 460.
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