Why do we need a psychology of fashion?

Fashion is an important global industry employing millions worldwide. The global apparel market (including sub-industries such as menswear, womenswear and sportswear) is valued at $3 trillion. It accounts for 2% of the world’s gross domestic product and employs 57.8 million people across the world, generating an income of more than £26 billion annually in the UK alone.

Clothing is our second skin; it becomes part of our identity. We may think of fashion as purely visual, but when we perceive it we may use all our senses. Consider the sense of smell for the fragrance and beauty industries, as well as for items made from leather. The touch of textiles on the body, the sound of the material as we move, shoes as we walk. These sensations are processed and interpreted in the brain through perception which draws on previous experiences, expectations and individual differences to bring meaning to world.  Until recently, few psychologists engaged with fashion as a valid topic of study. Most of the literature on fashion comes from cultural theorists, fashion historians, sociologists, anthropologists and philosophers. Although these scholars have contributed broadly, the psychological aspects have been largely neglected. The fashion industry is becoming increasingly aware of the need to understand its workforce and consumers. It is reaching out to psychologists to generate plausible, evidence-based interventions that can address the industry’s practices in response to its ethical and social responsibilities.

The mass market for fashion came about as a result of the Industrial Revolution which revolutionised production and transportation. In recent years, the speed of fashion production has escalated to such an extent that we have a ‘see now, buy now’ culture at catwalk shows during the Fashion Weeks. This demand for instant fashion is provided by consumers eager to be on trend and provided for them by high street fashion chains which produce cheap copies of the pieces modelled during Fashion Week in record time. This ‘fast fashion’ has changed the way fashion is designed, produced and consumed, to the detriment of all three. Fashion activists are campaigning to change the status quo and bring about a more sustainable fashion industry. While their intentions are admirable, the time has come for more than awareness-generating. Psychologists understand human behaviour and are therefore the appropriate experts to create behaviour change programmes.

Statistics tell us that 1 in 4 people has, or will have, a mental health problem, many of which are alleviated through counselling, medication or both. The positive psychology movement was born out of knowledge that 3 in 4 people were not reporting a mental health issue, yet they were also not flourishing. As a shift away from a psychology that dealt only with ill people, positive psychology aims to enhance the lives of everyone through accessible behaviour changes that build resilience, gratitude and appreciation. It would be valuable to apply this subdiscipline within the fashion industry and measure its affects on mental health of its workforce as the incidence of poor mental health for those working in creative industries is much higher than 1 in 4. Whether the industry creates mental health problems or whether it attracts those who have existing issues, is unknown. Fortunately, the recent move to speak out about mental illness has been heeded by those in the fashion industry and elsewhere. Many designers have spoken out about the increasing pressures of the industry on their mental health and sadly, some have taken their own lives.

Models also report mental health problems and unsurprisingly body satisfaction issues. Demands for them to be stay very slim while maintaining an exhausting schedule especially during the fashion weeks can result in poor eating habits, lack of sleep and ultimately, burnout. Models are often very young and consequently inexperienced and vulnerable. Recommendations for support for this population have been proposed, but whether they have been implemented remains to be seen, Psychologists could provide a valuable resource for models during Fashion Weeks and at other times when they are pushed to the limits of performance.

Maintaining the thin ideal presents problems for consumers as well as models as it is unattainable for most and exacerbated by the ubiquity of imagery especially on social media. On one hand, social media offers an opportunity for ordinary people to have a voice and to be seen. On the other hand, social media provides access to imagery 24/7. Many people are influenced by fashion imagery believing they are not attractive or desirable if they don’t look like the images they see. Often the images have been digitally altered, but researchers have found that even when we know this, we are still negatively influenced by the image. Researchers have found associations between exposure to fashion and media imagery and body image issues that can result in starting unhealthy diet and exercise regimes, developing eating disorders or undergoing cosmetic surgery or non-surgical procedures. These effects are noticed across the age span and genders. The cosmetics industry is big business with much of it based on fighting the fear of ageing. This creates an ageist, appearance-obsessed society which equates youth with beauty and many other positive attributes and ignores women who have chosen to age naturally. The obsession with appearance is worrying particularly when it manifests as objectification. The backlash against this has just started. It will be interesting to see what changes the #MeToo movement generates in the fashion industry.

Clothing can be functional, decorative or both. It can be used in many positive ways to enhance our life chances, self-esteem and wellbeing and as a vehicle for promoting ourselves to others. Fashion allows us to negotiate our identity. However, what is communicated through our clothing is not always interpreted as intended. Unless we test and measure, it’s not possible to determine the language of fashion or even if it exists. As humans, we are motivated to belong to social groups. Clothing communicates our affiliations, by showing allegiance to some groups and distancing us from others. It’s common knowledge that fashion can influence mood, self-esteem and observers’ impressions, and interestingly what we wear can influence our cognitive abilities if we believe in its symbolic meaning. This is described by the fascinating concept of ‘enclothed cognition’.

Consumers are become more demanding, knowledgeable, discerning and less predictable in their purchasing behaviour, using multichannels before deciding what and how they’ll buy.

It is now commonly understood that a positive consumer experience is the most important aspect in brand loyalty. Who better than psychologists to understand and predict consumer behaviour? In addition, each time we shop, use our phones or log onto the internet we leave a trail of data that are analysed to tell organisation about our lifestyles and preferences. However, crunching numbers isn’t enough. Data analysis requires the insight to interpret the outcomes. Psychologists are trained to do this. The unprecedented advances in technology have given us more than big data. Technology provides an exciting opportunity to create clothing that works for us and potentially improves our lives. Wearable tech, 3D printing and augmented and virtual reality are being combined will be an integral part of fashion in the near future. Psychologists can devise interventions and experiments that measure user experience and engagement. As a result, when a product is released, it meets user demands and expectations.

vPsychologists add value to every aspect of human behaviour within the fashion industry. In addition to those mentioned here, psychologists can help understand the creative process that is highly prized in the industry. They can work on education programmes that build confidence and resilience in graduates. They can understand consumer behaviour from the initiation of the thought to purchase an item, through motivation to seek information about it, to purchase and reflect on it, to its disposal. They can determine optimal store design and atmospherics to give consumers the best experience and brands the loyalty they crave. Psychologists can support professionals working in the fashion industry to promote a more inclusive and diverse representation of what is ‘beautiful’ through the application of psychological science.

So, what does the future hold for the fashion industry and for psychologists working within it? Fashion can be beautiful, dynamic, exciting, creative and fun. It is a powerful vehicle for individuals, communities and societies to bring about change. However, the industry faces many challenges including finding effective ways to reduce and potentially reverse the environmental damage it has caused. These can be found through the application of evidence and deep understanding of human behaviour. Working conditions throughout the industry need reviewing. While we acknowledge mental health problems exist in all professions and populations, psychologists could provide accessible support services across the industry as is common in many others. The fashion industry needs to embrace diversity in its imagery not only in terms of skin tone, but also in terms of age, body shape, size and ability. Psychologists can be more involved with the cosmeceutical industry to help identify and counsel vulnerable people who select surgery or other interventions as a cure for a psychological problem. For these and multiple additional reasons, there has never been a more important time to apply psychology within the fashion industry.