Fashion, self expression and mental health

This week, it’s London Fashion week (16th – 21st September). A huge event in the sartorial calendar. And although I’m not a massive follower of fashion myself, I do appreciate it as a form of self expression.

Just look at Rhianna’s street style. The bold colours, daring hemline and creative styling all suggesting a woman who’s sexually confident, determined and in control. Or the elegant and bohemian style of Vanessa Paradis, indicating her artistic upbringing, international lifestyle and self assured nature.

The idea that how you dress reveals your inner self, isn’t a new one. In fact it’s prehistoric. For as long as people have been wearing animals skins, they’ve been deciding which ones suit them best, which are ‘just too much’ and which would benefit from some bone detailing

Fashion as a form of self expression may be as old as time, but the research into it, and how it impacts our mental health is all relatively new.

Researchers from America’s Northwestern University found that wearing specific articles of clothing impacted the wearer’s psychology and performance. The study suggested that some clothes are imbued with symbolic meaning. And when we wear these clothes they can influence our psychological state and performance. This is called, ‘enclothed cognition’.

An example of this is changing from your work clothes into a little black dress for a big night out. Because the black dress has symbolic meaning (seductive, formal, exciting) then there may well be a measurable impact on our mental state and subsequent behaviour.

Another interesting study published in 2019, found that women tend to dress to reflect their emotions, whereas men dress for how they want to be perceived. This means that women assess how they’re feeling and dress in accordance. For them fashion is self expression. But men are more likely to dress to impress others, particularly their peers at work.

There’s more to what we wear than we might think

The worlds first self-styled fashion psychologist, Dr Dawnn Karen, has coined the phrase dopamine dressing. This means dressing to feel happier and stronger. I’m aware how frivolous and fickle this all sounds. However, it’s worth noting that Dr Karen’s first foray into fashion was following a serious sexual assault by her former fiance. After this devastating event, she employed clothes as her armour, which allowed her to face the world looking like a woman in control. If you’re interested, Dr Karen shares more about the restorative power of fashion in her Ted x talk

And, If you’ve ever been depressed, or overwhelmed, then you’ll understand how your sense of style can just disappear. As a new mum, I emerged from my cocoon of sleepless nights and endless breast feeding with no idea what to wear. My body has changed, my lifestyle had altered, and my sense of self had deserted me. And this isn’t an unusual experience. But trying to find the brain power to dress authentically, when your inner self has changed dramatically, can feel impossible.

Books about fashion, self expression and mental wellbeing

This post on fashion psychology really is the tip of an ever growing iceberg. But as a mental health professional it’s an area I find fascinating. If you’d like to explore more about fashion, self expression and mental health, then these are my reading recommendations:

First up You Are what You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You by Dr Jennifer Baumgartner. As the title suggests this is an excellent book for understanding the connection between clothes and your psychological inner life. Dr Baumgartner believes that every garment in your wardrobe is an expression of who you are. So, if you repeatedly buy the same garments, or stare at your overstuffed wardrobe thinking you have nothing to wear, then there may be an inner conflict that needs resolving. It’s a genuinely interesting book, filled with fascinating case studies from real life clients. Well worth a read.

Then there’s 10 Steps to Fashion Freedom by Malcolm Levene and Kate Mayfield. This is a work book with writing exercises to complete in every chapter. You’ll be journaling about your earliest fashion memories, considering whose look you admire and selecting three words to best describe your own style. If you like hard work, and enjoy self reflection, then this is the book for you.

And finally, Dress your Best life by Fashion Psychologist Dr Dawnn Karen (pictured). Dr Karen has a Masters in Counselling Psychology and studies how clothes impact human behaviour. Within this book she outlines the connection between style and wellbeing, and also shares her own experiences. It’s an easy and enlightening read.