In The Psychology of Fashion, Carolyn Mair brings a psychological approach to understanding current significant issues within fashion studies, including the role of fashion imagery and the rise of sustainable fashion. Showing that fashion is not only inseparable from the body but also highly associated with our mind and behaviour, this book offers a vision of fashion through the lens of most recent psychological theories, writes Xiaoqing Wang.
The Psychology of Fashion. Carolyn Mair. Routledge. 2018.
You may not be into fashion, but you cannot escape fashion consumption. Fashion is an important way that we present ourselves to the world in our everyday life (Erving Goffman, 1956). As consumer culture conquers the world, fashion is not a peripheral, frivolous matter; rather, it holds more individual meanings in contemporary society. Accordingly, fashion studies is no longer a marginal research area as it was portrayed decades ago (Elizabeth Wilson, 1985). Feminists, cultural theorists, sociologists and scholars with interdisciplinary backgrounds have initiated multidimensional explorations in their research into fashion. Mair’s psychological approach in The Psychology of Fashion, however, not only brings in a new vision for understanding current significant issues, but also opens up discussions within these underexplored areas.
Fashion, with its own logic of novelty and change, is stubborn to adapt to contemporary social transformations. On the contrary, it acquires increasing ideological power to dominate our ways of dressing, looking and living in the global village (Gilles Lipovetsky, 1987). Sociologists have theorised fashion as a pursuit of class distinction or a sort of ‘conspicuous consumption’ (Georg Simmel 1904; Pierre Bourdieu 1984; Thorstein Veblen, 1899). However, Mair argues that ‘fashion became more accessible across socio-economic strata’ in the twentieth century (80). She also points out that people dress to fulfil more diverse purposes than ‘looking prosperous’ (93). In Chapter Four, Mair adopts theories of the self and social identity to explore the psychological functions of fashion, including ‘self-enhancement’, ‘self-categorisation’, ‘self-expression’ and the construction of social identity. Her analysis echoes sociological research on subculture styles as a way to negotiate social group membership as well as to express individual uniqueness (Dick Hebdige, 1979).
The meanings of fashion are therefore of keen interest for cultural theorists. Semiologists regard fashion as a sign system and endeavour to disclose the hidden meanings of fashion discourses and fashion symbols (Roland Barthes, 1967). Cultural sociologists attempt to interpret the cultural values and social identities associated with a style. However, these approaches have been criticised for subjective readings of meaning or for neglecting the multiple possibilities of interpretation by different individuals. Mair’s psychological approach sheds more light on individual differences in terms of interpreting fashion. She argues that how a person perceives a style is a result of many personal factors, from preference and personality to emotion and mood (94).
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The (mis)representation of fashion imagery and the sustainability of the fashion industry are two keen concerns in current fashion studies that are discussed within The Psychology of Fashion. Feminists have often criticised the unreal ideals represented in the fashion media as not only having damaging social impacts, such as contributing to eating disorders among the young (Naomi Wolf, 2002), but also sexually objectifying women and reinforcing gender inequality (Rosalind Gill, 2007). Mair provides diverse supporting empirical research data in Chapter Three to show how unrealistic fashion discourses of the body and beauty reinforce structures of inequality in our society, including those not only related to gender and appearance, but also age, ethnicity and economic status. Meanwhile, she employs psychological theories such as self-perception (58) and self-objectification (51) to explore the underlying psychological reasons behind the social phenomenon. Her particular emphasis on the adverse influence of the ideal body image on young children (35) is a fresh alert for the consequences of fashion (mis)representation.
The book also discusses some additional psychological problems associated with the fashion industry, involving both fashion producers and fashion consumers. Although some health problems such as the eating disorders experienced by fashion models have been noticed by both the public and academia, there is little attention paid to the mental health of fashion workers. Mair explores this issue by introducing studies on the correlation between creativity and mental health problems (25). She claims that fashion designers and models work in a challenging and stressful environment and suffer from a high risk of poor mental health due to the creativity and continuous reinvention demanded by the fashion industry (27). Mair identifies the need to improve the psychological health of fashion professionals but admits it is a challenging problem to solve.
Compulsive buying disorder (CBD) is a mental health condition experienced by some fashion consumers. Many criticise the economic waste and environmental damage caused by overconsumption, but Mair’s psychological perspective exposes a less noticed aspect of the issue: CBD as a shopping and spending addiction arising in consumer society. Compulsive shoppers typically experience ‘feelings of tension or anxiety before the purchase, and a sense of relief following the purchase’ (81). Those with CBD can obtain a sense of control but also often suffer from guilt. Like other impulse control disorders, CBD can lead to further stress, anxiety and depression (82). Given the large number of compulsive shoppers, CBD is not a trivial social problem and deserves more social intervention. The book recommends treatments such as attending therapy or support groups.
Sustainable fashion has been advocated by both environmentalists and sociologists. The movement aims to counter the overconsumption of clothing promoted by ‘fast fashion’ which leads to environmental problems as well as poor working conditions for fashion workers in less affluent regions (83). Advocates have offered suggestions such as second-hand fashion and material innovations as solutions (Kate Fletcher, 2008). Mair gives these discussions further depth. In Chapter Five, she examines various psychological reasons behind fashion adoption in consumer society. People shop for fashion not only for utilitarian purposes, but also to construct an image of the self, to pursue a particular lifestyle or social identity, to express one’s beliefs and values and sometimes also for fun. To promote sustainable fashion consumption in a society, these factors cannot be neglected. The chapter furthermore analyses the inadequacy of fashion recycling through the theory of contagion: some people refuse recycled clothing as they may associate the garment with its previous owner, or consider it an old and unwanted item. Upcycling, which involves creating something new with existing things, seems a better strategy for these consumers. Meanwhile, Mair also suggests a psychological way to solve the problem of overproduction: to construct ‘conspicuous non-consumption as the new signifier of self-worth’ (85).
Fashion is not simply a matter of clothing or physical appearance. While some fashion theorists claim that fashion is inseparable from the body (Joanne Entwistle, 2000; Malcolm Barnard, 2014), Mair manages to prove that fashion is also highly associated with our mind and behaviour. The increasing individualisation of contemporary fashion in the postmodern age reminds us of the significance of the psychological approach. By uniting psychology and fashion, this book offers a vision of fashion through the lens of most recent psychological theories. It is also a good introduction to a number of fashion theories, and students will find rich information covering classic social and cultural theories and texts relevant to fashion studies.
- This review originally appeared at the LSE Review of Books.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of USAPP– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Xiaoqing Wang – University of Edinburgh
Xiaoqing Wang is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Edinburgh. Her research project focuses on the semiological analysis of historical visual data in fashion discourses. She has particular interest in visual research methods, sociology of art and cultural theories.