The merits of psychology are well-documented. By identifying unwanted behaviors and replacing them with more fulfilling habits, a psychologist can change a person’s life. But fashion psychology? Pure mumbo jumbo, surely?
While the idea might sound suspect, it’s growing in popularity. Just look at Dawnn Karen, whose notions of “mood enhancement theory” and “repetitious wardrobe complex” have earned her a seat at the table with big brands and political leaders.
Fashion psychologists want us to understand our aesthetic impulses, informing both people and businesses of the implications of what they wear and produce. London College of Fashion even has a Masters course in the subject, and three recent graduates, Judith Achumba-Wöllenstein, Susan E. Jean, and Pak Lun Chiu, have founded an online magazine to introduce fashion psychology to the world. Hajinksy is named after Hajo Adams and Adam Galinsky, the psychologists who realized the link between garments and human feelings.
Below, the editors speak to the Cut about debunking trade myths, how fashion can create a better society, and why kindness is the way forward.
A lot of people are skeptical about the term “fashion psychology.” What actually is it and how does it work in the modern world?
Pak Lun Chiu: Have you ever come across claims that if you wear a lot of yellow, it means you are a happy person? Or if you own a lot of sundresses, it means you are an extrovert? In the past, fashion psychology has been more related to trivial comments and insights. A bit like weekly horoscopes, but a lot of people put their trust in it.
The word “psychology” can sound daunting in itself, but fashion psychology doesn’t tell people who they are based on what they wear. Nor does it dig out their deepest, darkest secrets and have them sewn onto garments. Instead, it’s about identifying the relationships that we have with clothes and understanding these connections to create a richer, longer-lasting experience with fashion.
Why did you start Hajinsky?
Judith Achumba-Wöllenstein: Fashion is a very human experience. We are the only mammals that put on this “second skin.” We started Hajinsky after realizing that people are still struggling to understand what fashion psychology is and what it can offer. We don’t expect to have all the answers but hope that Hajinsky will be a place of dialogue.
What can society learn from the various branches of fashion psychology?
Judith: My background is fashion branding and communication, and my research has been in the area of cognitive psychology, which looks at things like attention, memory, perception and problem-solving. It’s about understanding how what we wear can influence how we think, act, and feel. I went into the course thinking I could answer all my questions about fashion. But every new piece of information we discover opens up more questions. It’s both exciting and a little bit frustrating.
Pak: I come from a clinical psychology background, which means using psychology to support people, a.k.a. the typical shrink. I try to understand the problem from the person’s point of view. This is another beauty of Hajinsky. There aren’t many fashion psychology organizations that have the proper training to step into someone else’s shoes, and understand what fashion can do to create a better society.
Susan E. Jean: I started out in fashion design, creating clothing for plus-size women, a group that still struggles for representation in the fashion industry. This led me to focus on social psychology, which looks at how people are influenced by and how they influence their social settings. I study how we construct our identity based on the social groups in fashion we belong to and apply that knowledge to develop solutions for greater diversity and inclusivity in fashion organizations. I have spoken to BAME [a U.K. acronym meaning Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic] women working for fashion brands and found that most felt like they didn’t belong in their workplace, and that their career progressions were limited because of their racial identity.
What do you believe is the purpose of fashion?
Judith: The reality is, fashion is part of everyone’s daily life. It’s political and can cause societal shifts. Fashion also influences our interactions with one another and the way we perform, and can improve lives by reestablishing a sense of identity.
Research has shown that wearing formal clothing can improve a person’s abstract thinking, which is linked to things like the ability to save money. It’s also shown how brands can improve lives by making their designs more inclusive. For example, individuals with physical impairment often wear tracksuits for comfort and thus suffer from double discrimination: firstly, because of their disability, and secondly, because of the way they are dressed. Brands considering that could change a person’s life.
One of your articles says that kindness is no longer a trend. How can fashion be used to shape a better future?
Pak: There’s no doubt that fashion gives the world plenty of excitement, but the ever-accelerating market has put a lot of pressure on fashion professionals. Financial demands have taken the heart out of creativity.
Brands need to recognize the social importance that fashion has in order to create change. For example, many parts of the industry are tackling the issues of sustainability through science and technology. Yet, without finding out the real emotional relevance of fashion and sustainability to people’s lives, this tech cannot be translated as well as it should be.
Lastly, are there any myths about fashion psychology that you’d like to dispel?
Susan: Definitely! The most common misconception we hear is that we can read your mind and are making judgments about you based on what you are wearing. While having psychic abilities would be pretty cool, we’re more concerned with creating richer fashion experiences for every individual. Fashion psychology is empowering and can help people reclaim their sense of value and self-worth.