What Does a Fashion Psychologist Actually Do?

Jessica Schiffer

When I recently learned that a friend of a friend was studying to be a fashion psychologist, I immediately wondered what that could possibly entail. Though I understand fashion and psychology, I was curious to find out what it meant to merge the two on a professional level. So, after doing some digging, I discovered Dr. Carolyn Mair, a renowned British psychologist and scientist with a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience, who has even been interviewed by Alexa Chung. I reached out to Mair and asked her to fill me in on her unusual career.

1. How would you define fashion psychology?

To me fashion psychology sounds like “wardrobe therapy,” which isn’t at all what I do. I’m a cognitive psychologist who applies psychological science to the context of fashion. So, I am concerned not only with clothing (fashion) but with human behaviour across all aspects of fashion from design through the entire supply chain, to consumption and disposal. We are concerned with the many and varied individual, societal, and environmental issues that result directly or indirectly from the fashion industries.

Beauty is a huge focus, as well as body image, self-esteem, confidence, the sexualisation of women, and the selection/treatment of models. With regard to money, [we’ll study] debt that comes from compulsive spending, and over-consumption that results in the disposal of unworn items. This results in the problem of landfill sites and other pollutants. In regard to production, there are many ecological issues, such as pollution of lakes and rivers from dye, depletion of natural resources from over-production, etc.

2. What exactly does a fashion psychologist do? What’s a typical day in your life like?

I am mainly an academic, so like most other academics, my days are busy and varied. In addition to preparing teaching materials, supervising research students, managing staff, conducting research projects, and attending meetings, I spend a good deal of time meeting people who want to find out how to make a positive difference in a particular area of interest. For example, I was recently contacted by a major U.K. charity that wanted me to help young people overcome body-image issues that have manifested as bullying or as eating disorders. I have also been contacted by an organisation that works with older people to help them boost their self-esteem through the vehicle of fashion. Another example would be a research study I recently completed, investigating older women’s perceptions of the industry’s advertising [geared toward] older women. The work is always varied and interesting. I can honestly say I’m never bored! 

3. How did you get involved in fashion psychology in the first place?

Like many women, I have always been interested in fashion and appearance. Although I’ve not had any formal training in fashion, I started designing and making clothes for myself when I was 13 years old and then started making them for other people. I also worked as a visual merchandiser and graphic designer before becoming a psychologist. The London College of Fashion is world famous, and I really wanted to visit, so when the opportunity came up to present a paper there, I seized it. The rest is history

4. What would you recommend people do if they want to give fashion psychology a shot?

I developed the world’s first and only master’s courses that apply psychology to the context of fashion. These are the MA psychology for fashion professionals or the MSc applied psychology in fashion at London College of Fashion. I’m delighted to say that the MSc has been accredited by the British Psychological Society, which enables graduates to continue studying to become Chartered Psychologists at some point in the future. To be accepted into the MA or MSc programs, students need to submit a proposal in which they identify an existing issue in the fashion world that could be investigated using psychological science, with the aim of making a positive difference. Although we don’t expect the applicants to propose a perfect study, we do expect them to demonstrate a curious mind and the capacity for abstract thought.

Very little empirical research in fashion psychology currently exists. As a result, the students need to identify and transfer concepts from other domains to the novel context of fashion. This requires abstract, critical, and creative thinking. Many of the students are psychology graduates, but this isn’t a prerequisite, and some come from [backgrounds in] business, law, anthropology, fashion, fine arts, history of art, or communications. The important characteristics for success in either the MA or MSc programs would be a strong work ethic (there’s a lot of independent study), curiosity (we want to find out how and why phenomena occur to enable us to predict and then change behavior), and the ability to think creatively (to transfer concepts across contexts to generate new hypotheses).

Would you ever consider a career in fashion psychology? Let us know in the comments, and shop some of our favorite fashion books below!

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