Fashion is slowly embracing the merge with psychology. After all, we're all amateur psychologists, assessing the behavior of others, and on a fashion plane, what makes certain clothes "us"? But what about the science-side - do clinicians acknowledge the importance of fashion, and whether our clothes influence us somehow? I asked Toronto-based psychiatrist Dr. Martin Katzman. Clinic Director and Staff Psychiatrist at the S.T.A.R.T. Clinic (Stress, Trauma, Anxiety, Rehabilitation and Treatment) for Mood and Anxiety Disorders, Dr. Katzman has been a clinician for over 20 years, and is highly skilled in the diagnosis and treatment of people with mood disorders and complex difficulties. His research involves an interest in biological factors causing psychopathology including low hedonic tone (a general predisposition for lower mood) and intolerance of uncertainty (people who worry excessively about outcomes they cannot control).
In your own words, what do you think the ties or correlations are between one's choice of clothes and their psychological profile, state or tendencies?
I think it is a bigger question; I think people choose how they present themselves, based on how they feel about themselves. For example, I think their current state (i.e. how they feel now), plays an important role. I think people who are socially anxious are more likely to choose ”a look,” that allows them to be less likely to stand out. I also think mood plays a particular role. For example, people dealing with a depressed mood, may differ in their choice of clothes from when they feel more euthymic (normal mood). So this is as much about their current state as well as their common trait or patterns.
Yet I think how people present themselves, also is more a long-term manifestation of who they are. In other words, there likely are traits that can be discerned from how people dress. I think there are those who always choose darker colours. Perhaps this creates a message of a classic look, or conservative attire, or just not being comfortable with colours. Nonetheless, I think asking these questions is important to glean more information and to get a better idea of who people are and how they are feeling.
"The more subtle messages of clothing and presentation...I think those may yield a lot more information than we have realized. I think this is an important area to understand."
In your practice, what are some patterns you've noted with patients? For example, are there correlations between progress and aesthetic changes?
I think that is an important question. One can look at this in obvious signs or subtle signs, but Psychiatrists or Psychologists etc., tend to look at the obvious signs. On our mental status exam (what is observed, in the here and now, as the patient sits in front of us), our first comment is about how the client looks. For example, are they well kept, or are they clean, do their clothes look worn out, or damaged. Have they chosen appropriate clothing for the weather, or the setting. For example, wearing a cocktail dress, a floor length gown, or a tuxedo for a clinical appointment would be seen as inappropriate for the setting and would engender questions to assess why they chose those clothes. Furthermore the dressing in shorts and a t-shirt during winter in Canada might concern the clinician. But these are obvious signs, that rarely provide information in more highly functional populations. What you are asking about is really the more subtle messages of clothing and presentation. I think those may yield a lot more information, than we have realized. I think this is an important area to understand.
Which psychological features or measures do you think are key in studying the psychology of fashion?
It's funny, as I have thought about these kind of questions a lot, but never really moved forward to ask them in a research setting. I think the biggest problem with this potential research question, is based upon how you would measure “type of clothing” or style. Nonetheless, I am really interested in how people tolerate uncertainty, and how perfectionistic people are and how that would alter their choice of clothing and generally how they present themselves. Impulsivity and risk taking likely would also be important. I think, if someone has a generally chronic low mood (called Low Hedonic Tone), that too would play a role in determining what they choose to wear. I also think factors like extraversion vs introversion, openness to try new things, how detail oriented, and accepting they are and how self punishing they would be in the presence of a fashion faux-pas, likely would also be of interest in determining what factors predict how we present ourselves at large.
Which neurobiological markers do you believe are key in studying the psychology of fashion?
This is an interesting area to explore, however we are far away from being able to connect fashion to personality and then to neurobiology. Still I think patients suffering with a depressive episode will have a certain diminished style, and will put much less care in to how they present themselves. I also have seen patients suffering with a bipolar mood disorder in an elevated state, dressing much more provocatively so, neurobiology, definitely plays a role.
What are your thoughts on enclothed cognition? Do you think clothes can help us embody more of the positive qualities we want? Should we dress how we feel? Or dress how we want to feel?
I think this is another fascinating question. In general, there is much data dating back to before the 1980s on self-perception. That is, there is evidence, that some of the information we glean to determine who we are and how we feel, is by self observation. As such, the more we invest in how we look and the better we think we look, the better we will feel. I think improvement in our mood can be helped by investing in how much work we put in to look and feel good, this tells us that we are worth the effort, and if we feel attractive, this too enhances our positive sense of self. So definitely - dress to feel better!