Even if you don’t see yourself as someone who’s particularly ‘into’ fashion, the simple act of putting on clothes every morning makes a statement.
It’s a choice – whether you put a lot of thought into it or none at all – and gives clues about your background, culture and personality.
“Getting dressed, making that decision – the type of clothes you have access to, how you choose to present yourself, and the way people respond to you – everybody takes part in the process of fashion every single day. We’re not nudists, we all have to be wearing clothes,” says fashion psychologist Shakaila Forbes-Bell, who has released her first book, Big Dress Energy.
“We all make judgments, we all want to represent part of our identity or conceal parts of our identity. Whether it’s to fit in or to stand out, fashion is so much more than meets the eye,” Forbes-Bell adds.
“I think if people are more aware of that, they’ll be able to have more benefit from it, and more insight into the way they’re responding to people too.”
How can simple psychology benefit your approach to fashion?
Bringing you closer to your clothes
There’s no denying the huge impact the fashion industry is having on the planet, with the Ellen Macarthur Foundation saying total greenhouse gas emissions from textiles production clocks in at 1.2 billion tonnes a year – more than international flights and maritime shipping combined.
However, Forbes-Bell suggests the conversation needs to shift to actually make people more mindful about fashion. She says it’s easy to ignore the very real issue of overconsumption: “We all get that rush of instant gratification when we buy something new, it makes us feel good – we want to fit in, we want more stuff. So I think looking at it from a psychological perspective gives people another way of understanding why it’s important to really look at your clothes.
“Understanding how your clothes make you feel, if they’re something you like, if it makes me comfortable, makes you feel confident – doing that bit of introspection will help you have a better attachment to your clothes,” she explains. “So you’re not going to be so willing to jump on the latest trend, you’re not going to have a wardrobe full of things you only wear once and don’t want to wear again.”
Through this, she says “you’re inadvertently having a more sustainable relationship” with fashion – plus it will be better for your wallet too.
“People are genuinely selfish – they just care about themselves, it’s hard to get people to act in pro-social ways,” she suggests. “So fashion psychology, what it does is it makes people understand the personal benefits, how they can make their lives better – that makes them feel more secure and empowered. I think that’s an angle missing from the conversations around sustainability.”
Much of Big Dress Energy is dedicated to understanding how your clothes can make you feel, and ‘dopamine dressing’ can play a big part in this.
“It’s the psychological theory behind the ‘look good, feel good’ concept,” says Forbes-Bell. “So when we feel happy, when things are going well for us, you get that rush of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which makes us feel pleasure. That’s something we constantly seek, because it makes us feel good.”
While Forbes-Bell wants more scientific research to be done into the impact of dopamine dressing, from a personal level, she’s a big fan of dressing to boost your mood.
And for her right now, the outfit that really lifts her mood is a suit – “bright pink, massively oversized,” she says. “It fits me so perfectly, and I get lots of compliments when I’m wearing it. It makes me feel good.
“I wore it recently to a talk when I was feeling so tired, because I have a chronic illness that causes me a lot of pain and fatigue. I was like, right, what’s going to get me in the zone and help me deliver this talk? I wore the pink suit, and I smashed it.”
Understanding the emotional significance of clothes
While you can use fashion to boost your mood and make you feel powerful, Forbes-Bell also wants us to consider the emotional importance of what we wear – something she calls ‘wearapy’.
“It’s about understanding the emotional significance and attachment your clothes have,” she explains. “Within that, it’s asking you to understand when you’re putting something on, not just thinking, does this look good? But also, how does this make me feel?”
Nostalgia dressing can play a big part – “wearing clothes that have a special memory or significance to you”, she says. “I have a lot of clothes I’ve had for several years that I associate with very positive times and memories. When I wear those clothes, I embody those times, and I embrace that nostalgic thinking. In turn, that makes me feel good.”
Forbes-Bell has also experienced first-hand how clothes can help you work through grief, when she suddenly lost her older sister. In the aftermath, she says she denied her own feelings of grief. “One day, I was getting ready for work, and I saw the dress I wore to her funeral,” she remembers. “Wearing it, bringing back memories of that day – it was almost like the physical manifestation of the grief I was hiding. It allowed me to let go of the guard I had up, and to really give in to the emotions I had been cutting off for so long.
“It just goes to show how clothes have the power to bring out certain emotions – even my sister’s clothing, they have such a significance to me, I really cherish them.”
Big Dress Energy by Shakaila Forbes-Bell is published in hardback by Piatkus, priced £16.99. Available now.