The Psychology of Style in India

Design to me is about creating viable solutions instead of physical deliverables. This involves understanding the gap and figuring out how could you fill it up. It could be as simple as sending out an email or as engaging as an interactive invitation to your video podcast.

To create solutions like these — which make valuable impact — we have defined how elements of design affect human behavior, while adjusting for cultural norms and sensitivities. It has been established that certain colors, fonts and layouts will make people feel a certain way. It’s all down in the books. As a designer if you take serious participation in finding out how the industry is changing with the times, design solutions will be easy.

And fashion is a tributary of design itself. The industry’s image might not portray it — but it is a design oriented industry. But we are yet to come to terms with its value because of its long term association with flamboyance and frivolousness. Good design is considered necessary — its value appreciated tenfold, yet when it comes to fashion we believe it is materialistic to stress on how we dress ourselves.

Is style an exact science?

Even though I have studied styling, body shapes and silhouettes, I keep asking myself the bigger questions — Why do we either conform to a stereotype of dressing or defy it? What might be the emotional value attached to the garment for people in different spheres of life? Does the socio-cultural impact of garments justify how the fashion industry professes commercialism? How can body image and beauty standards be questioned and changed when the industry seems to survive on it?

What IS personal style?

And through the years, I have felt that taking a scientific approach to understanding human behavior in context of fashion might give me the kind of perspective I need to answer these questions. Predicting human tendencies and thereby creating a wave of revolution excites me. I hope pursuing psychology of style as an academic subject will eventually give me the right tools to create an informed dialogue on how important personal style can be.

Despite the obvious psychological implications the work of a personal stylist has not been explored from a psychological perspective.

Take the example of power dressing in the 80’s — masculine shapes were adopted by women seeking success in the corporate world and became an icon of women’s attempts to smash the glass ceiling so much so that it defined the fashion statement of the era. A classic mind game played up by personal style. For a personal stylist to come to a conclusion like this before it became a trend, a norm if you must say, she/he had to know the women of that age, what she wanted, what she dreamt of, what she consumed.

Shoulder pads for the win.

And there haven't been many solutions in the market for this.
I had hoped StyleCracker would do the above. When they first entered the market, looking at their process I had expected them to take forward the role of an online stylist to a personal and tangible level. Despite some gaping holes in their process, I had high hopes because they had the right tools to achieve this : the personal chats and their curated list of brands. They have launched a new website and the suggestion pop-up is not updated yet so it’s yet to be seen how they are going to take this forward. But somehow it feels like they have become a marketing tool for the rest of the retailers in the market. Their quiz is a joke — feeding into the classic stereotypes and putting women in brackets that personal style is supposed to break through. You want me to categorize my style according to the recent trends and what my body shape is? But I’m much more than that. Why don’t brands look past the sales and into the minds of the women they are catering to?

Chapar and bla have the same business model as previous service. Even though I have yet to avail their services, their systems seem to be more authentic than the others in the same market.

Image consultancies like I am Mr. or Styl Inc. apply some of the existing dictums and vow to take your perception of your own self as well as that of others; and balance the two. But it comes with a rather hefty price. And somehow they too seem to be pushing you to an existing clique. And almost always they are started by people who got connected at the right time with the right people and took the opportunity to make a business out of it. They never have the perspective of what fashion really is. I’m sure there are people who need exactly what they are giving but it is not a system I believe in.

Trend forecasting delves into this of course — to create a trajectory for a trend, they need to consider psychological studies. But they are not accessible. They are not approachable. Their mountain of data gives an idea of how we can go about it but someone will have to pick on that information.

Compared to this, i-D does a brilliant job at showcasing the best and the weirdest. They give you real women and real style icons who went above and beyond and dress how they want, when they want. They do not marginalize fashion. Their dialogue is fresh, inspiring and in sync with the human we are today. They are not a system but they have given the power in your hands by making conversation about it. Not only is it empowering but it is also changing a generation’s mindset about fashion being something that only a few can subscribe to.

i-D exploring the topic of sexuality in fashion

One of the classic harbingers of personal style would be Bill Cunningham. With the sheer power of documenting life as we know it on the streets of New York, this zesty old blue vested guy on the bicycle showed the fashion world where real style exists.

He always believed that you need to stay on the street and let the street tell you what it is.

“A lot of people have taste but they don’t have the daring to be creative.”

And that’s exactly what the street gave him. And he would never photograph the celebrity. Ever. Other photographers and journalists thought him mad to let glorious opportunities pass by but he always cared about one thing only. The clothes. “The cut, the new cut, the lines, the colors, that’s everything.” That’s all he wanted to see and that’s all he’ll take the photograph for. Nothing less and nothing more.

The movie will tell you more about style than this year’s fashion magazines

Personally, I applaud much of what Manaou (Wearabout) does. His photographs are never for the sake of the person. He has a collection of quite some interesting people with interesting outfits up on his blog even if he has done a few commercial projects.

Real women. Real style. By Wearabout.

This ideology is so refreshing from the content we see splashed in publications and media platforms in India. Our style icons are almost always the celebrity and it is a very well planned move by the media to showcase who they want for their own personal agenda. Sometimes it’s not even a mainstream celebrity. It is the blogger with the most Instagram followers. A rich swanky kid from Gurgaon who has the money to splurge on brands. It is probably one of the reasons that there is no depth or pioneers of style for the sole reason that our aspirations are based on such specific individuals and never for the right reason.

In India, It is only recently, in the past few years, have Bollywood celebrities started realizing the value of a stylist and thereby personal style. Pernia Qureshi and Anaita Shroff Adajania are part of an era when Bollywood actors have become intensely fashion-conscious and acutely aware that their fans are watching every outfit they step out in. But unlike in the past when celebrities had a favorite designer and would patronize nobody else, today it’s about a stylist creating a unified look. Sonam Kapoor did a brilliant job combining powers with her sister Rhea Kapoor and making other celebrities realize a personal stylist can do so much to portray the real person you are outside the movie sets. Of course, It helped that she had a vigorous appetite for fashion. Bollywood has always been a rather important tool to penetrate values like this into the mass culture, mostly due to the lack of proper style icons in the past.

Even then, much has to be done to promote its value to the masses. It is already underway with influencers and bloggers translating the trends in a way that the girl next door can feel comfortable to incorporate it in her wardrobe. As Malcolm Gladwell says in The Tipping Point, “The Law of the Few” contends that before widespread popularity can be attained, a few key types of people must champion an idea, concept, or product before it can reach the tipping point.

This works for generating the concept of style as well but in a country such as India, so much more has to be considered to understand how the values and social infrastructure found in our culture influence our approach to fashion. For example, take the social stigma that men/boys face when they take the extra effort to dress up. Their masculinity is questioned and laughed upon. Somewhere along the way they come to hate the process of choosing their own wardrobe. To be able to understand why men think like this and how can we change it — would be more than just an interesting academic study. Even if we don’t associate a gender to this thought — imagine a tomboy of a girl attempting to understand why to be considered feminine, the beauty standards dictate that she must wear certain clothes a certain way. Even when the fashion industry has the power to address her doubts — it does not.

Much of this also depends on a healthy body image. Women will only be comfortable wearing their own style when they are comfortable with how their bodies look like in those clothes. And there are designers, illustrators, stylists and models who are working towards a revolution of breaking the idea of a beauty standard.

Kritika Trehan’s Excess talks about bodyshaming and gender stereotypes

Personal style here is yet to be broken down, to be understood, to be appreciated. But how much ever value I put forth in owning up to my own style and my love for fashion , I do not know how to justify it to strangers and that worries me as well. More than other people, I have a feeling that I, myself, need this justification as well. This process will need research, data, actual numbers and actual people. I’m not professing the idea of a make over, I’m professing the idea of making you.

Therefore the existing system needs to be questioned. Fashion can be empowering, inspirational and completely you. You need to be shown that. The way you think, your conscious and unconscious decisions. Your motivations. Your psychology. They can be translated in colors, fabrics and silhouettes. There is self discovery in the process but a dialogue needs to start. That was my intention with this article. I hope to identify further factors that address this dilemma through an academic research and at the end of it find a practical relevance where my findings can be used to execute a strong and accessible discourse of what fashion was always meant to be — an expression of who you truly are.