A Conversation with a Fashion Psychologist: What Your Closet Says About You

An interview with fashion psychologist, Dr. Dawnn Karen, on the hidden meanings behind our clothing choices, where tech comes into play, and what she sees for the future of getting dressed.

Lauren da Silva
Aug 3, 2020 · 5 min read
Photo by Devin Yalkin for The New York Times

A year into graduate school at Columbia, Dr. Dawnn Karen was sexually assaulted by her fiancé.

“The next day, I went to my closet and picked out one of the best outfits I have ever owned. I remember going to class with these huge feather earrings I’d made. Every day, I used clothes to heal myself.”

Enter the Fashion Psychologist

Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to virtually sit down with Dr. Dawnn Karen, the pioneer of fashion psychology, to learn about the emerging field and her role in reshaping the fashion industry.

The psychology of fashion is defined as:

“the study and treatment of how colour, image, beauty, style and shape, affects human behaviour while addressing cultural norms and cultural sensitivities.”

In short:

“styling from the inside out.”

Being the first fashion psychologist in her field, Dr. Karen is adamant about promoting her research across various channels. She is currently a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, a consultant, a therapist, a regular on morning shows, and runs her own global Fashion Psychology Institute. Oh, and did I mention she is now a published author of “Dress Your Best Life” ? Needless to say, Dr. Karen is a force to be reckoned with, as her research can be the change the fashion industry needs.

A Look into a Therapy Session

Dr. Karen’s therapy sessions are comparable to traditional therapy, only she connects her client’s problems with how they present themselves in the real world. Through utilizing clients’ clothing, she goes through items to uncover what each piece means, and styles accordingly. She can often tell what issues you’re facing just by the clothing you own, and has even performed psychoanalysis on many celebrities like Melania Trump and Meghan Markle to get a reading on their private lives.

“I was asked to do an analysis of Carol Baskin from Tiger King. She seemed to have an affinity for leopard print; I thought ‘maybe she had something happen to her in her childhood.’ Typically, when people have a certain infatuation to a particular print it means something traumatic happened to them in their upbringing. I finally ended up watching the show and I was right!”

Additionally, Dr. Karen has developed many theories, including “repetitious wardrobe complex’’ and “mood enhancement theory,” to explain the buyer psychology behind our purchases. The repetitious wardrobe complex explains why some people routinely wear the same thing (think Mark Zuckerberg), while mood enhancement theory explains how specific pieces can enhance your mood.

Dressing in a Pandemic

Photo by Alec Kugler for Coveteur

Designer brands are taking a hit during this pandemic, as fashion shows have become digital and their items lack the exclusivity they once had. As a result, Dr. Karen believes these luxury brands will become less attractive. She explains people often purchase luxury items to conform and impress others.

“It’s the need to feel superior and embody whatever the brand’s message is. If it’s Chanel you want to feel classic. It gives people access to a certain in-crowd that people want to feel a part of.”

Perhaps this should not be our main focus during a pandemic.

A more practical approach to dressing right now is using colours to convey how you feel about yourself. It’s the psychology behind why people gravitate towards wearing black, or why wearing white can represent innocence. Dr. Karen emphasizes the colours we wear impact our mood more than we think, in a way that is often overlooked.

“You can heal someone by wearing a certain colour. My client was feeling depressed because her friend had Covid-19 and wasn’t doing well. I wrote her a prescription to wear the colour yellow. By our next session her mood improved significantly. It didn’t rid her of her depression, but it made a big difference in lifting her spirits.”

Technology & Fashion Psychology

Viewing technology and fashion as synonymous, Dr. Karen has always utilized the digital space to deliver her services. Now, she has big plans for incorporating more technology into the world of fashion psychology. She believes her research could yield extremely useful data for brands to predict the next trend.

“I would like to work with more tech companies that intersect with fashion, so I can give them access to the psychology of fashion. It can help forecast and heal. Forecast the next trend and then tap into the psyche to provide healing.”

We know influencers have a large impact on what we buy on social media. Perpetuated by fast fashion, we are influenced to purchase more clothing at the expense of our planet. Here is Dr. Karen’s number one tip for being more mindful about what you purchase when faced with the overwhelming noise of social media:

“Purchase with a purpose. I think that’s the number one thing. Be mindful of what you’re buying instead of just aimlessly buying. That’s how we can help the world and bring yourself equilibrium and balance to your psyche.”

Changing the Mindset

Dr. Karen told me her favourite part about her job is working with people: journalists, clients, and students. Despite her research and success, she has been undermined both due to her young age as well as the colour of her skin. She explains her teaching gives her the opportunity to influence the younger generation; the audience that understands the power of clothing and what she is trying to achieve.

“I deliberately dress down to debunk the notion that a young black girl in sweats is from the hood, or the ghetto, or isn’t smart,” she said in The New York Times. “Students see me, and I give them a whole different idea of what an urban dresser can be.”

With the fashion industry going through drastic changes, fashion psychology could be a game-changer for brands and consumers in the future.

The truth is: your closet says more about you than you think. Maybe it’s time we dress with intention to align our attitude to our attire.

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