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Fashion as a vehicle for change

11 May 2018 | by Guest

In today's guest blog Professor Carolyn Mair provides some background and additonal information in advance of her talk 'Fashion as a vehicle for change', which is being held in Bournemouth on Tuesday next week.

Psychology is the study of human behaviour, and its application aims to enhance quality of life across contexts. But although psychology has been applied broadly, it has all but neglected to consider the influence of clothing on our wellbeing. This is an oversight as our clothing is the closest thing to our bodies; our second skin.

As William James argued, our clothing is part of our identity. This is even more evident in the image-based 21st century when appearance is given increasing importance. Many reports demonstrate the power of the ‘halo effect’ and it is common knowledge that we make judgements about a person’s character and abilities in under one second and then seek to justify these by ignoring evidence that suggests otherwise.

Fashion is an important global economy. In the UK alone, it is worth more than £28billion annually. Although we may not consider ourselves fashionable, we all wear clothes. Fashion is built on our innate drive for novelty and the desire-satiation cycle. Trends are decided years in advance and become a self-fulfilling prophesy as fashion magazines and show ‘what we will be wearing next season’. By the time these items reach the stores, they are already past being fashionable and the next trend becomes the most wanted.

Of course, there’s a very broad spectrum of clothing brands from high-end luxury to fast fashion. Both luxury and fast fashion are responsible for fashion’s poor record regarding the environment. Although the sustainability movement has been active for decades and awareness is increasing among brands and consumers, real change is still a long way off. In addition to environmental issues, psychologists could work with the industry to support the mental health of designers and models who often work in unregulated conditions.

So how can fashion be a vehicle for change and who is responsible for driving change? Educators, the industry, policy makers and consumers.

Much of the anxiety created in fashion and other creative industries reportedly stems from the harsh way students in the arts receive feedback on their efforts. Many students report working long hours with little rest only to have their work brutally criticised during the notoriously brutal ‘crits’ they must endure in the mistaken belief that these will prepare students for the commercial world of art.

But critics like this can destroy self-belief and self-confidence, and perpetuate damaging treatment of creatives, as those graduates who later enter the industry believe that cruel treatment and excessive demands are the norm and therefore, acceptable. 

The fashion industry is attractive to many because it is portrayed as glamorous, dynamic, exciting and creative. However, the long hours and demands for ‘perfection’ endured by designers and models can exacerbate or engender mental health issues.

Body image is central to models and many have suffered in the attempt to stay very thin. The narrow body ideal portrayed by fashion influences consumers too. Increasing numbers of people have poor body satisfaction and many present with eating disorders. The demand for cosmetic interventions is also increasing. Several ‘celebrity’ designers have taken their own life and others have sought support to avoid the same fate. Yet the fashion industry glamorises unhealthy ideals in its imagery and its products (e.g., the perfume named, Addict).

Not all designers are sympathetic to those who can’t take the pressure. Karl Lagerfeld is quoted as saying “If you’re not a good bullfighter, don’t enter the ring. Fashion is a sport now, You have to run”. Lagerfeld seems oblivious to many current issues in fashion and beyond. When asked about the #MeToo movement, her reported criticised the treatment of a creative director who’d been suspended for mistreating a model.

Lagerfeld said “ A girl complained [he] tried to pull her pants down and he is instantly excommunicated from a profession that up until then had venerated him... If you don’t want your pants pulled about, don’t become a model! Join a nunnery, there’ll always be a place for you in the convent. They’re recruiting even!"

Clearly, the fashion industry is using much of its power in ways that are less than positive.  In addition to frequently objectifying women, it has shown disregard for racial equality, as well as representation of body type and ability and age. In one example, a white model was portrayed as an ‘African Queen’ in the Italian magazine, Numero.

At this point, I should stress that things are changing. We are seeing many more models of colour. This is something to be celebrated. We are also seeing more older models and occasionally a disabled model. When we see imagery of people who we feel look like us or represent our socio-cultural group, we feel included. This is fundamental to self-esteem and self-concept.

Understanding how we make sense of the world can bring renewed pleasure in how we relate to our clothing. The famous study by Adam and Galinsky in 2012 showed how belief in the symbolic meaning of an item of clothing and simultaneously wearing that item, can improve attention.

In their study, the symbolic meaning was given to the wearer, but it also possible for anyone to create their own symbolic meaning. Building narratives around what we wear can help us relate to it better, take more care of it and wear it more. This means we can buy fewer items and therefore, we dispose of less.

The psychological concept of essentialism demonstrates how an intangible quality of an object determines its value. When as child was offered an identical replica of a toy, the child refused. When Jackie Onassis’s fake pearls were sold at auction, they received a record sum because they had been worn by her.

Every single person can make a difference. Consumers can buy less by caring more for what they have. Educators, employers and policy makers can make fashion an industry that not only does less harm, it also does more good.

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