The dress doc­tor is in

FASH­ION PSY­CHOL­OGY HELPS AN­A­LYSE RE­LA­TION­SHIP BE­TWEEN AT­TIRE AND AT­TI­TUDE

Gulf News - - Today -

[Fash­ion psy­chol­ogy is] the study and treat­ment of how colour, im­age, style and beauty af­fects hu­man be­hav­iour, while ad­dress­ing cul­tural norms and cul­tural sen­si­tiv­i­ties.”

Dawnn Karen | Fash­ion psy­chol­o­gist

Last Fe­bru­ary, Dawnn Karen, a brand con­sul­tant, ther­a­pist and in­struc­tor at the Fash­ion In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, ar­rived at a Mar­cel Ostertag fash­ion show wear­ing 12-cen­time­tre stud­ded stilet­tos and a black jump­suit with a cape.

“This cape makes me feel like Su­per­woman,” she said. “It’s that sense of con­trol.” She strut­ted off to pose for pho­tog­ra­phers at the show’s en­trance.

A self-de­scribed “fash­ion psy­chol­o­gist,” Karen pays close at­ten­tion to the re­la­tion­ship be­tween at­tire and at­ti­tude: not just how clothes make you look, but how they make you feel. She had come to the Ostertag show, she said, to an­a­lyse the psy­chol­ogy be­hind the col­lec­tion.

When a model walked by in a silky pink blouse, Karen pro­nounced it an ex­am­ple of “mood en­hance­ment the­ory”: how an item could am­plify pos­i­tive emo­tions. When an­other model floated past in an all-sil­ver get-up, Karen said the out­fit rep­re­sented “rep­e­ti­tious wardrobe com­plex,” the ten­dency to use clothes for emo­tional com­fort.

“Ostertag seems to be a para­dox,” she said af­ter the show. “I would la­bel him and his col­lec­tion as ‘pro­gres­sive-con­ser­vatism.’”

Not found in text­books

To be clear, none of these the­o­ries or la­bels can be found in any psy­chol­ogy text­book or DSM man­ual. Karen, 29, de­vel­oped them over the last few years, as she cul­ti­vated her aca­demic ca­reer and per­sonal brand.

Fash­ion psy­chol­ogy, as she de­fines it, is the “study and treat­ment of how colour, im­age, style and beauty af­fects hu­man be­hav­iour, while ad­dress­ing cul­tural norms and cul­tural sen­si­tiv­i­ties.” She be­lieves the field is es­pe­cially rel­e­vant today, as con­sumers are in­creas­ingly crit­i­cal of the fash­ion in­dus­try and its tonedeaf­ness to­ward body im­age and race.

“There are so many blun­ders in ad­ver­tis­ing and fash­ion,” said Karen, who is African-Amer­i­can. She pointed to mis­steps in­clud­ing H & M us­ing a black child to model its “coolest mon­key in the jun­gle” sweat­shirt; Zara’s miniskirt with the alt-right sym­bol Pepe the Frog; and a Dove skin care cam­paign that fea­tured a black model who turned into a white one.

“Peo­ple are speak­ing out about all this,” she said. “That’s why you need a fash­ion psy­chol­o­gist on your ad­vi­sory team.”

Karen has taught fash­ion psy­chol­ogy at the FIT’s Cen­tre for Con­tin­u­ing and Pro­fes­sional Stud­ies. She also has an on­line Fash­ion Psy­chol­ogy In­sti­tute, where she of­fers cour­ses in “The Hoodie Ef­fect: Ge­orge Zim­mer­man and Trayvon Martin” and “The Nazi Hair­cut” (in which she ex­plores why the “un­der­cut” is so at­trac­tive to white su­prem­a­cists).

Now, FIT’s so­cial sci­ences depart­ment, where she teaches the psy­chol­ogy of colour and gen­eral psy­chol­ogy, is re­view­ing her pro­posal to make a fash­ion psy­chol­ogy course part of the un­der­grad­u­ate cur­ricu­lum.

Karen calls her­self a “pi­o­neer” of the “Fash­ion Psy­chol­ogy Field,” (a phrase she has trade­marked), but she is not alone in com­bin­ing the top­ics.

For the past decade, the depart­ment of fash­ion and ap­parel stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Delaware has of­fered a course called the So­cial Psy­cho­log­i­cal As­pects of Cloth­ing. Its pro­fes­sor, Jae­hee Jung, says it’s one of the few re­quire­ments for both ap­parel de­sign and fash­ion mer­chan­dis­ing ma­jors.

Whereas a fash­ion busi­ness class may teach stu­dents how to de­sign and mar­ket a prod­uct based on de­mo­graphic trends, Jung’s stu­dents ex­plore the psy­chol­ogy be­hind con­sumer be­hav­iour. “We talk about per­cep­tions and stan­dards of at­trac­tive­ness,” she said. “Where these come from and how we use them to judge oth­ers.”

Karen has a mas­ter’s de­gree in coun­selling psy­chol­ogy from Columbia Teach­ers Col­lege, but she is used to scep­ti­cism. Some peo­ple think she made up her name for the at­ten­tion.

(Though she did drop her sur­name, Brown, dur­ing a mod­el­ling stint in grad­u­ate school, her mother named her af­ter the de­signer Donna Karan and Dawnn Lewis, an ac­tress from “A Dif­fer­ent World.”)

Fight­ing through bar­ri­ers

Karen is also aware of race bias. “I have to fight through a lot of bar­ri­ers,” she said. “When they see me, I know they’re ex­pect­ing some­one else. ‘You couldn’t pos­si­bly be a black woman.’”

Much of the in­ter­est in Karen’s work has come from out­side the United States. In 2017, Kyiv Se­cu­rity Fo­rum, which is based in Ukraine, in­vited Karen to speak about the burkini and the in­ter­sec­tion of re­li­gion and fash­ion.

In May, a pub­lic re­la­tions firm is fly­ing her to Aus­tralia to con­sult on con­sumer be­hav­iour and clothes care.

And she has com­ing pre­sen­ta­tions at uni­ver­si­ties in Malaysia and Rome. Most re­cently, a be­spoke Ital­ian-Cana­dian menswear brand called Cat­tivo Ragazzo hired Karen to de­sign a per­son­al­ity test for cus­tomers on its new e-com­merce plat­form.

Karen calls this work “styling from the in­side out.” As she said, “most of the time we go into our closet and say, ‘I’ll wear this colour.’ But we’re not in tune with how we’re feel­ing.”

Dawnn Karen has ■ de­vel­oped the­o­ries over the last few years, as she cul­ti­vated her aca­demic ca­reer and per­sonal brand in a field she terms ‘fash­ion psy­chol­ogy’.

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