Photograph via Getty Images.

Does Ralph Lauren Make You Anxious? Enter the Fashion Psychologist

Anxious people dislike Ralph Lauren and melancholics wear chunky knits. The growing field of fashion psychology tells clients what their clothing choices reveal about their id and their super-ego.

by Alice Hines
Jun 1 2018, 2:52pm

Photograph via Getty Images.

On a recent afternoon, I meet Dawnn Karen—a former model and current adjunct FIT instructor, with the demeanor of a nerdier Tyra Banks—in a quiet corner of the Nomad Hotel in New York. It is her third media interview of the day; she carries a Birkin bag and orders a pineapple juice.

“How are you feeling today?” she asks in a soft voice.

We discuss a deadline (missed) and my habit (henceforth unconscious) of cackling while recounting misfortune.

“I’m sensing anxious energy. And you’re wearing something that has patterns, right? It shows us what’s on your mind.”

I’m in the care of an #ivyleaguegrad #adjunctfaculty #dreamchaser #mediaexpert, as #fashionpsychologist Karen describes herself in Instagram captions. Fashion Psychology is the “study of color, beauty, style, image, and shape, and its effect on human behavior, while addressing cultural sensitivities and cultural norms,” she explains. Karen trademarked the phrase in 2018. Since graduating from Columbia with a master’s in counseling psychology, the 29-year-old has made herself into the new discipline’s public face. Which, depending on who you ask, is either a job akin to astrologist Susan Miller’s, or positive psychology pioneer Martin Seligman’s (if either had a large repertoire of street-style poses).

She’s not alone. Anabel Maldonado, a London-based journalist and brand consultant, recently started (and trademarked, naturally) The Psychology of Fashion, an online platform financed by Net-A-Porter investor Carmen Busquets. While Karen incorporates fashion insights into talk therapy and TV talk shows, Maldonado publishes on the link between personality and style. “Melancholics are five times more likely to like ‘a good chunky knit’ in textile preferences,” one pilot study, of unclear methodology, posits. “Ralph/Burberry haters are twice more likely to be anxious.”

The peer-reviewed set is having a crack, too. In 2015, London College of Fashion launched a Masters in Applied Psychology in Fashion. Three of its recent graduates founded Hajinsky, an online journal, this year. Its name is a spin on those of Northwestern University researchers Hajo Adams and Adam Galinsky, whose 2012 paper showed that wearing a doctor’s coat increased study participants’ performance in attention-related tasks. The coat was white and nondescript; when a control group was told the same garment was a painter’s, their attention showed no such improvement. “The clothes we wear have power not only over others, but also over ourselves,” concluded the researchers.

“I’m sensing anxious energy. And you’re wearing something that has patterns, right? It shows us what’s on your mind.”

Which sounds like something fashion critics and cleverer department-store clerks have been saying for years. So what begets the interest in codifying it as a field? In part, it’s self-promotion. “I didn’t invent Fashion Psychology,” says Karen, who cites Sigmund Freud and William James as influences. “I just branded it.”

It’s through media appearances like this one. Early on, there was Nylon, Vanity Fair Italia, and W Radio Columbia; more recently came the New York Times and Good Morning America. (A recent widely-read Karen appearance in the Daily Mail: “Melania’s Secret Messages In Her Outfits.”) Karen also runs a YouTube channel, and recently started a Training Institute where students can become certified Fashion Psychology professionals for fees ranging from $925 to $2,625.

Not all of her colleagues are celebrating her success. “You’re supposed to have white hair and glasses by the time you come out as a psychologist [in the media],” she tells me. “It took people twenty or thirty years to brand themselves as an experts. Now you can do it online.”

Like self-styled experts of all ages, though, Karen’s authority stems from categories which make messy concepts simple. She separates her individual clients—and the populace at large—into two types: those who dress to please others (“For instance, people who closely follow fashion blogs”), and those who dress to please themselves (“My student who wears the same sports jersey to every class”). For the first, and, she says, more common type, Karen recommends mood illustration, or identifying and articulating one’s emotions through dress. For the second, a prescription of mood enhancement—considering emotions in the context of one’s social sphere—is given. “The goal is to balance perception and reality.”

These recommendations are explored, as in traditional talk therapy, through sessions. While a stylist might immediately instruct a client to hack away at her wardrobe, Karen spends at least three meetings listening to clients expound on everything but clothing—childhood experiences, relationships, their subconscious. Often, goals evolve. “Perhaps you’re considering plastic surgery. But we get you to consider things like, ‘Is this desire coming from me, or from other people?’”

I’ve asked to begin our interview with a trial session to get a better sense of Karen’s methods. My outfit is, typically, a mishmash: vintage Easter Egg florals and a Forever21 Chinoiserie fanny pack, 2000s-era orthopaedic sneakers by the New Jersey brand Z-Coil that I bought on eBay after seeing a recent Christopher Kane collab. Also typically, I’ve spent far too long getting dressed, overwhelmed by choices.

Karen is across the table, in head-to-toe monochrome salmon.

“It’s saying that you want to seem like you have things under control,” she says of my outfit. “Not like you’re drowning, like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t do this, I’m about to hyperventilate!”

I cackle. Typical!

Except I’m not sure I agree. I wonder if, in fact, my outfit might be less a reflection of internal anxiety than the condition of dressing in the modern age. People turn to Fashion Psychologists for the same reason they turn to clothing subscription-services and head-to-toe branded looks: to find comfort and clarity in a great deal of noise and mess. In the West, and particularly in New York City, rules that govern dress essentially no longer exist. We can wear sweatpants to the office. Tutus to Boy Scout meetings. Nipple clamps over oxford shirts over board shorts—for no reason other than we felt like it. It’s reassuring to think these choices might reflect something important. But what if they are random, permutations of nothing more than too few boundaries and far too many choices strewn across the bedroom floor?

“Do you ever wonder if you read too deeply into fashion?” I ask Karen.

“Every piece of clothing has a meaning,” she says wisely. “Even if it doesn’t have a meaning, it’s meaning is that it doesn’t have a meaning, you know?”

Which, in the end, is quite soothing. I’d rather believe my mish-mash is a mish-mash with a purpose, whether or not that’s true. Roland Barthes claimed that clothing is a language: it communicates between interior life and exterior reality, mind and body, intention and reception. The promise of Fashion Psychology is that what’s said isn’t gibberish.

Last month, while hosting a state visit with France, the first lady of the United States wore a frisbee of a hat, designed by her personal stylist, Hervé Pierre. It was blindingly white, with a brim that hid its wearer’s eyes (and was a beacon for everyone else’s). Some said it recalled Beyonce; others the Godfather; still others the surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. It was, naturally, memed. But what did it mean? CBS’s Inside Edition called Karen. "She’s letting you know that she is powerful,” she said.

To me, though, the hat seemed more of a modern-day Rorschach test, designed to test our associations while ultimately resisting interpretation. It was, in other words, the brand of Fashion Psychology incarnate.

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