Calling in the fashion doctor

17:00, May 24 2014
fashion doctor
FASHION DOCTOR: "Mediocrity and blind acceptance of the beige and bland makes my blood boil.”

My husband refuses to wear trackpants outside the house.

And I don't mean to social occasions - he won't even run to the dairy to pick up cold medicine in them, or step into the front garden. He's no diva; he's worn the same basic shirt and jeans for his entire adult life.

But to him, those trackpants change who he is. They make him lazy and vulnerable, a side of himself he refuses to
reveal outside the confines of home.

DENIM DEMONS: A woman will spend thousands over the course of her life trying to find a pair that is comfortable and flattering, Pine believes.

My husband, like most of us, has a gut-level understanding of how fashion psychology works. We all know that how we dress can affect how we feel. But if the data emerging from the burgeoning field of fashion psychology can be believed, your clothes do more than make you feel fat or pretty.

There is some serious personality development taking place at the closet door.

Dr Karen Pine, one of the world's pioneering fashion psychologists, spends her working life pondering this very fact.


"Fashion has never been a major player in psychological research, even though William James, the grandfather of psychology, believed clothing to be the most important part of the self," she says.

The internet is rife with stylists and specialists busy branding themselves as "fashion psychologists", but Pine is the real deal.

She splits her time between the University of Hertfordshire, where she is a professor of developmental psychology, and Istanbul Bilgi University in Turkey, where she is a professor in the department of fashion.

Her job involves teaching, overseeing research, writing books and delivering presentations, all in pursuit of giving fashion the psychological attention it deserves.

"Everyone wears clothes, and selecting what to wear is a behaviour that will have a component of psychological motivation behind it," she says.

"If we can understand more about that, then we may get to know ourselves better, project a better image to the
world, and choose clothes that make us feel good about ourselves."

If Pine's comments come across as obvious, or conjure images of Clueless and its vapid but delightful Cher Horowitz ("I have more fun vegging out than when I go partying - maybe because my party clothes are so binding"), think again: Pine is no fashionista, and she doesn't follow trends.

Her interest comes from the broader field of non-verbal communication research.

This encompasses all the things we say without using our mouths, from facial expressions to the gifts we give.

Fashion, according to Pine, is a powerful form of that communication, and research findings repeatedly demonstrate the fascinating interplay between what we wear and the behavioural outcomes - "enclothed cognition", in academic jargon.

Pine points to an experiment by her colleague, psychology professor Barbara Fredrickson.

"She found women do worse on a maths test if they're wearing a swimsuit than if they're wearing a sweater. But it had nothing to do with the cold; it was because their cognitive resources were being diverted to worrying about their body."

Then there was the great white-coat experiment by researchers Adam and Galinski. Subjects were given the same white coat, but were told it belonged to one of two different professions.

"They found people actually have better levels of attention if they put on a white coat that they've been told is a doctor's coat, than if they've been told it's a painter's coat," says Pine.

"It was just a coat, and the subjects knew wearing it didn't make them doctors, but somehow the virtues of an attentive and respected professional seeped from the article of clothing into the mind of the subject."

Of particular interest to Pine is that Holy Grail of every woman's closet: blue jeans. A woman will spend thousands over the course of her life trying to find a pair that is comfortable and flattering, and rarely will she feel she's succeeded.

Interestingly, Pine's research shows that, for most women, jeans are - literally - our sad-pants. We put them on when we're unhappy.

"Jeans don't look great on everyone. They are often poorly cut and badly fitting," she says.

"They can signal the wearer hasn't bothered with their appearance. People who are depressed often lose interest in how they look and don't wish to stand out, so the correlation between depression and wearing jeans is understandable. Most importantly, this research suggests it is possible to dress for happiness, but it might mean ditching the jeans."

In Pine's most recent study, she asked students to put on a Superman T-shirt and tested their feelings of superiority and inferiority, their likability and their own perceptions of their physical strength.

"When wearing the heroic T-shirt, their scores on these dimensions were higher than groups who simply wore a blue T-shirt or their own clothes."

Other experiments have shown that what you wear affects how intelligent you're perceived to be: when women dressed in 'masculine' clothing in a job interview, they were more likely to get the job. And teaching assistants who donned more formal or 'professional' attire were seen as brainer overall.

What does a fashion psychologist wear?

Despite her vibrant field of research, Pine chooses to dress mostly in black, saying she focuses more on the shape and silhouette of her outfits than the colour.

"You can be wearing the most beautifully coloured garment in the world but if the shape is wrong for you - or worse still, if it's simply boring, like a shift or an A-line skirt - it won't do anything for you at all. And it's such damn hard work putting coloured pieces together. When it's overdone, I have that matchymatchy look. It's so contrived and predictable and screams 'control freak'."

That said, just because an outfit is colourless doesn't mean it must also be bland.

Pine makes up for her monochromatic palette with variety in her lines and shapes.

"I'm more tuned in to shape, to bold lines and beautiful contours and asymmetry - like a piece of art. I believe most
garments, and most people, look better in black or neutrals."

When a person has devoted that much time and effort to the science of clothing, seeing someone intentionally choose to be dull can infuriate.

"Mediocrity and blind acceptance of the beige and bland makes my blood boil," she says.

"[I] bemoan only those who lack any sort of style, who have just given up and bought a 'look' off a shop mannequin or off the pages of a magazine. Most of those looks were designed for someone with a different body and a different lifestyle, yet people still seem to put them on unthinkingly.

"Like [people] whose body shape thickens out around the middle but they still wear sweaters or tops that finish at the mid-line. I look at them and think, 'Wear something longer, direct the eye to your best feature - your slim thighs, ankles or that bit where your body narrows - why on earth are your drawing attention to your bulging midriff?'"

It's this sentiment that underpins Pine's book, Flex: Do Something Different.

Just because you've always done it one way, doesn't mean it still works. You must adapt. Even the slightest change can revitalise both your mind and appearance.

"The trouble is," she says, "most people are habitual and get stuck in a wardrobe rut without realising the shapes that suited them in their 20s don't look so good on them a couple of decades on. They haven't reassessed themselves or their new body shape, and just look plain wrong."

To dress in a way that reflects who you are requires courage, least of all the courage to resist brainwashing by mass culture, reckons Pine.

"I like to see other people who are strong enough to stand out or to make a stand or to know what they think and aren't afraid to communicate it to the world."

As one of the world's leading authorities on the secret messages of shirts and shoes, it must be a little crippling - every single clothing choice a subtle representation of the soul, and all that?

No, says Pine, "It's not. At all. It's just about choosing how I want to live my life and developing the corresponding habits. I'd say that rather than being crippling, it makes for a more coherent and easier life."

Even her lazy clothes are carefully thought through.

"I don't put on grubby jeans and a sweatshirt - I don't even possess them - but that doesn't mean I can't relax
or dress down," she says.

"I'm very good at doing both those things. I love an elasticised waist as much as the next woman, but that
doesn't mean I have to look a slouch."

Ultimately, Pine dresses to demonstrate something of herself to the world: "My clothes, I hope, communicate
my individuality. I'm trying to say, 'I am me - I designed me. No one else did: not a brand, not a celebrity, not
a store. I am not afraid to be different.'"

Sunday Magazine