The Promises of Fashion Psychology

Why do you wear what you wear? Forget trends, buzz brands, and what influencers are wearing. You feel good in an outfit when it feels the most “you”. When sub-consciously you feel that this outfit most accurately captures your identity, and your mood on the given day. This feeling of ‘me-ness’ is also what makes you spend. The most ‘you’ pieces are also the ones that you wear the most, and the brands that provide them are the ones you return to.

Fashion psychology, which looks into how individuals make fashion decisions, or simply, why we wear what we wear, dictates that nothing about personal style is random and that the diversity of sartorial taste is a natural consequence of our different inner needs. After repeat observations that many similarly dressed people, both in and out of the industry, were also like-minded, I began to explore the relationship between personality and aesthetic, and why we respond to different styles based on an interplay of traits, mood, or even to compensate for a quality we feel we may be lacking. As we all make aesthetic choices every day, this dynamic between the internal and external affects everyone, even those who aren’t followers of high fashion.

To date, much of what has been referred to as 'fashion psychology' has focused too much on altering people’s impression or manipulating an outcome, such as wearing red to appear more attractive to a mate or an ivory cashmere sweater to appear more innocent in court. But we need to go deeper and look at the dynamic the right way around. You already are someone with deep-seated traits and the clothes you respond to reflect that. You can also “dress how you want to feel” as is often suggested to attempt to embody a certain characteristic, but even those clothes would be ones that already resonate with your identity at its highest point.

Psychology has traditionally focused on the “Big 5” domains of personality - extraversion, agreeableness, openness to experience, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. And when it comes to fashion, it’s neuroticism (being prone to moodiness, anxiety, worry and romanticism) and openness to experience (receptivity to new ideas and experiences) that seem to draw the most correlations. After all, you can be avant-garde or conventional in both mindset and in dress sense.

In my own preliminary fashion psychology study, I focused on examining patterns between personality traits and aesthetic choices, and analyzed for correlations between low or high scores on neuroticism, traditionally feminine vs masculine traits, and romanticism (intuition, spontaneity) vs classicism (logic, structure), against how much black one wears, whether they like prints, which designers they like, and which silhouettes they prefer.

Interestingly, those who scored higher on neuroticism were much more likely to prefer wearing black, preferred solid colours and disliked prints, were more likely to work in the fashion industry than in other fields, favoured the fashion-forward styles of Olivia Palermo and Lauren Santo Domingo, and had the strongest preference for the feminine-avant garde hybrid brands (Alaia, Alexander McQueen and Delpozo).

The less neurotic, the happy-go-lucky group who rarely experienced anxiety, were much more likely to like “classic uncomplicated brands” such as Ralph Lauren, Max Mara, and Burberry, preferred brighter colours, liked prints, were seven times more likely to prefer the conventionally glamorous Blake Lively or Rosie Huntington Whiteley as a style icons, and were four times more likely to work in finance or consultancy than fashion.

It’s worth nothing that each individual falls somewhere on a spectrum, and has their baseline and range, and can also be influenced by mood and life stage, but these were the areas where people answered differently and where the strongest profiles emerged. There is also the impact of cultural influence - trends, tribe and the city and neighbourhood you live in – but it’s more likely that one also sought those out also as a result of personality. Larger-scale studies will have to be held to discover more profiles and sub-groups.

These findings can be particularly interesting commercially. Experts tapping into why-we-like-what-we-like can help brands make effective, strategic business and creative decisions. But we need to be weary of focusing on consumer psychology only through the lens of the brand, with the aim of pushing stock. What fashion psychologists don't want is misuse of the framework to create cookie-cutter marketing ploys. In any case, when people become aware of a strategy, it becomes less effective. The development of fashion psychology is mutually beneficial, but needs to be focused on the consumer first.

For consumers, a fashion psychology framework will aid in better self-knowledge and justified aesthetic aspirations that lead to more mindful purchasing, more satisfying self-styling and increased wellbeing.

Greater self-awareness around one's personality traits and how these translate aesthetically will establish a strong 'fashion sense of self', making it easier to know what you want to wear and buy. Having the self-knowledge to be aware of what specifically makes a style “you” would make shopping and getting dressed so much more meaningful and even therapeutic.

The right outfit not only sends a message to others, but makes you feel better in your own skin, leading to increased mood and confidence. In fact, research reveals that wearing clothes that feel right can make a person less anxious and less depressed.

Feeling justified in buying more of the things that you feel legitimately connected to over mindlessly buying into trends because of cultural context and everyone’s-rocking-it social pressure will lead to a better feeling around materialism, less fashion waste and increased sustainability within the industry, and more money to spend on experiences. These are all highly relevant themes for today’s consumer.

Understanding the depth of fashion in this way will also help non-traditional fashion consumers engage better. Many shoppers are confused by trends and want to know where these come from and why, and no longer buy into things simply because a magazine declares something to be “in”. Fashion content would have to be looked at. Pieces that simply dictate trends without any real context and endless posts about how to dress like a French girl will have to be presented in a way that appeals to people in a more individual way. A collection may be “romantic”, but what does that mean for you specifically? It doesn’t mean you have lots of dates lined up in your calendar and need a romantic dress, but it may tap into the fact that you value spontaneity and intuition over logic and rigidity, and this is a quality you may want to convey at a social gathering in a flowing maxi dress rather than one of the structured shifts you wear to the office to convey something else entirely.

In turn, fashion psychology will help brands establish a broader yet more loyal customer base, as well as give them powerful ways to communicate their brand message. Neuroscience shows that the brain codes brands the same way it codes people and once the consumer deeply connects with a brand and sees it as contributing to their wellbeing, they’ll be more likely to spend with them. Streamlining the psychological aspect of the design and brand message will help strengthen that connection.

Currently. there are fashion psychologists who are working with brands in this way, including Kate Nightingale of Style Psychology, who helps brands identify their “sensory brand signature” and works with architects and designers on store design and various other elements of the brand experience. Elements such as room temperature, lighting, display and how thick the carpet should be, are all considered.

The English writer Caitlin Moran was right on the money when she wrote that when we say "I have nothing to wear", what we really means is, "there's nothing here for who I'm supposed to be today". With a deeper understanding of how fashion makes us more of who we are, we can change the very nature of the industry and consumerism for the better.