The dress doctor is in
FASHION PSYCHOLOGY HELPS ANALYSE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN ATTIRE AND ATTITUDE
[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’.