More than frills

We spoke to Carolyn Mair, Professor of Psychology for Fashion, on the eve of the publication of her new book, 'The Psychology of Fashion' (Routledge).

Do you think fashion has had the attention it deserves from psychology?
Fashion as an area of interest has been largely neglected by psychologists. There could be many reasons for this oversight. For example, fashion has been considered by academics from a range of disciplines, including psychology, a frivolous topic concerned only with frocks and frills. However, regardless of our attitude towards the academic or social value of fashion, it’s an important global industry… in the UK alone, fashion employs almost a million people and generates more than £26 billion annually. Fashion is creative, exciting and dynamic, and because of its nature and inextricably close relationship with the body, the fashion industry manifests many issues which affect us psychologically at individual, societal and global levels.

How are some of these issues expressed?
Whether or not we consider ourselves fashionable, we all wear clothes… well, most people do, most of the time! In line with other appearance-based judgements, what we wear says something about us to those we interact with. Our clothes have the power to align us with a particular group and dissociate us from others. In this respect, clothing is an important aspect of our identity. Clothes can influence how we behave across all ‘core’ areas of psychology – biologically, cognitively, socially, developmentally, and across personality and individual differences.

And not always positive?
The obsession with slimness for men and women, and more recently, with muscularity for men and fitness for women, lowers body satisfaction in many. The recent ‘fitspiration’ movement has much to answer for. The objectification of women seen frequently in fashion imagery is damaging for many reasons, as discussed in Fredrickson and Roberts’ objectification theory. This is paralleled by fashion’s obsession with youthfulness, which leads many to follow a lifetime of expensive regimes and increasingly cosmetic interventions in an impossible battle to fight the fear of ageing that is fed through the media. Social media has done little to alleviate this. In fact, in Viren Swami’s 2009 survey of 322 university students, he found that body appreciation, media influence and internalisation of media messages, as well as media coverage of cosmetic procedures and weight status, were the most significant predictors of consideration of cosmetic surgery among female undergraduates.

What about the industry itself, aside from the impact fashion can have on us?
Who better than psychologists to empower consumers and work with retailers and brands to develop strategies that enhance the experience of their consumers and increase brand loyalty? We can seek to understand creativity and other cognitive processes in the design of a garment, a store or a branding campaign, to promote awareness of and propose interventions for fashion-related mental health issues experienced by fashion workers and consumers, sexism, racism, ageism and ableism issues rife in the industry, understanding and predicting team and group behaviours, developing best practice for staff recruitment and management – including relevant, context-specific psychometric instruments.

And does psychology have a role to play in ensuring fashion becomes more sustainable?
Absolutely, on every level. Psychologists are the professionals who can develop behaviour change programmes that demonstrate mutual benefits for the industry and the environment. The sustainable fashion agenda has been on the table for more than a decade in fashion circles, yet very little has changed. This could be a result of lack of training in developing behaviour change programmes. In several cases, strategies are based on intuition rather than on theoretical underpinnings, and implemented without thought for iterative empirical testing. Worryingly, there tends to also be a lack of evaluation, and so the outcomes, if any, are often not assessed. While I agree that some fashion theorists and practitioners have done their part in raising awareness of the sustainability agenda, their activity has done little if anything to alleviate the issues. This is wasteful in terms of resources and ironic, when one considered the whole essence of sustainability. My question to fashion activists is ‘How do you know this will work/has worked?’ The response is often ‘I just know’.

Material scientists are working on developing truly sustainable materials, while fashion brands – for example, the Kering Group’s ideas on using fruit waste discussed on BBC Radio 4 – are talking about sustainable materials before they have been assessed for the impact of their development and disposal on the environment. The production of cotton is depleting the world’s water to such an extent that some of the world’s largest lakes have all but dried up in the last decades. Yet, fashion brands still talk about sustainable cotton. According to, this is a nonsense. No cotton is truly sustainable.

Many activists for sustainable fashion proclaim that their new brand is sustainable, but what is sustainable about starting a new fashion brand to sell more fashion? In reality, we have more clothes than we wear – research suggests we don’t wear 80 per cent of what we have in our wardrobes! We could probably survive just fine without buying anything new for a very long time. Nevertheless, as psychologists we know that desire and novelty are powerful forces. The fashion industry is based on this.

Fashion activists can be quick to blame producers and consumers of ‘fast fashion’ brands – those the majority of people can afford – for the landfill crisis brought about through careless disposal of clothing. The entire fashion industry has a poor reputation for caring about its workers, employing many in sweatshops and shocking working conditions overseas, and also in Europe. Despite activism from ‘ethical fashion’ organisations, sweatshops remain. Psychologists can help consumers as well as fashion brands understand the reciprocal benefits of sustainable behaviour in relation to clothing.

What’s your own favourite fashion item and why?
I still dress similarly to how I dressed as a young teenager when I became interested in fashion. At that time, I wore hand-me-down Levi’s from kind boys who gave me their cast offs. I adapted men’s Ben Sherman shirts to fit me and wore these with a short black leather jacket. Apart from the adapted shirt, I still wear second-hand jeans, usually found in charity shops, and usually team them with a cashmere jumper in winter. I have a very soft, black leather T-shirt style top, which is probably my favourite fashion item.

I prefer plain to fancy clothes, but love dressing up for an occasion. Like many women, I love footwear and have far too many shoes. When I’m wearing my jeans and leather top or cashmere jumper, the interpretation I would give the look is straight-talking, no frills and hard-working. But change the boots for my silver stilettoes and it’s a different story. This is the power of fashion that fascinates me.

In the book you refer to research identifying three perspectives of self in relation to clothing (from a study by Guy and Banim): ‘the woman I want to be’, ‘the woman I fear I could be’ and ‘the woman I am most of the time’. When shopping, which self should we have in mind?
It depends on what item you’re shopping for and for what purpose, event, context it will be worn. But it would be wise to bear all three in mind. For example, if you’re buying an outfit for a job interview, it might seem obvious to buy for the woman you want to be to formulate positive self-projections, but you should also consider the women you fear you could be to avoid a shopping faux pas, and the woman you are most of the time to increase the chances of deriving pleasure from the item. That way you’ll be more likely to love the item, wear it more and keep it longer.

As I get older, the choices seem to be ‘Look like a bloke off Top Gear’ or ‘Find a wardrobe staple and stick to it’. To what extent are changes in fashion sense as you age about identity, and to what extent about availability?
I agree that a lot of clothing purchases depend on what’s available, but other factors, such as lifestyle and degree of fashion involvement, are also important. Most people are aware of the limited availability of fashionable clothing for individuals who are outside the narrow stereotype provided in fashion chains. As a result, the majority of the population – individuals who happen to be larger than size 12/14, older, with different body types – is not represented on the high street. However, as we age, we tend to settle into a comfortable style, maybe because of the lack of availability of what we would like and are less likely to experiment with looks. Again, this may be a result of lack of fashion for older people, but if we are in a long-term relationship we may be less interested in clothing than when we were single and seeking a partner. As parents of young children and later as grandparents, we need clothes that are durable, comfortable and practical. When we retire, we may have less disposable income for, and potentially less interest in, buying ‘fashion’ items that might be on trend for a short time.

One recent phenomenon that has been reported is the ‘work uniform’. This relates to workers electing to wear the same style of clothing every day so they needn’t waste cognitive resources on what to wear… they can deal with more important issues. One example of a high-profile person who does this is Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook.
In a lot of portrayals of the future, clothing tends to be either (a) uniform, drab and utilitarian, or (b) wildly colourful, expressive and individualistic. Which way do you think we’re headed?
This is really interesting. Even with the prospect of technology replacing many mundane and repetitive roles, creative and cognitively demanding work is likely to increase. Individuals involved in these roles may well choose utilitarian clothing to save cognitive resources for work-related decision-making. As a result of this, they may choose wildly colourful, expressive and individualistic, as you suggest, for their leisure time. In fact, we are already seeing this in ‘athleisure’ clothing. Also, Gucci’s bright and colourful designs boosted their sales more than any other brand last year. They used the psychological concept of nostalgia to draw in consumers who related to the items and voted with their wallets. This again demonstrates the power of psychology for informing brands about consumer behaviour.
- Carolyn Mair is a Chartered Psychologist, Fellow of the British Psychological Society, and Professor of Psychology for Fashion. She is a consultant working with the fashion industry and fashion educators. Her book, The Psychology of Fashion, is part of Routledge’s ‘The Psychology of Everything’ series. 

Find much more from Carolyn in our archive.

Further reading
Fredrickson, B.L. & Roberts, T.A. (1997). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women’s lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21(2), 173–206.
Johnson, K., Lennon, S.J. & Rudd, N. (2014). Dress, body and self: Research in the social psychology of dress. Fashion and Textiles, 1(1), 20.
Swami, V. (2009). Body appreciation, media influence, and weight status predict consideration of cosmetic surgery among female undergraduates. Body Image, 6(4), 315–317.   

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