It seems that everywhere you go, fashion surrounds you – in ads for clothing and makeup, a billboard, the cover of a magazine, or virtually anything featuring a model. These images provide us with the idea of what makes a perfect person: If you wear this color lipstick and this kind of dress, you’re considered beautiful. The fashion industry has been doing this for ages, but over time it has increasingly raised issues about confidence, self-esteem and body image. Our guest discusses why it’s important to look beyond the advertisements and find the fashions that are right for you, how cheap clothing is hurting developing countries and the environment, and why designers and manufacturers need to change how they create clothing for and market to older men and women.
Dr. Carolyn Mair, Chartered Scientist and Psychologist, Associate Fellow at the British Psychological Society and a Reader at the London College of Fashion, author of the upcoming book, The Psychology of Fashion due out in mid-2017
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The Psychology of Fashion
Marty Peterson: It seems that everywhere you go, fashion surrounds you, whether it’s advertisements for clothing and makeup, a billboard, the cover of a magazine, or virtually anything featuring a model. They’re there to make us think, “I want to look like that!” These images provide us with the idea of what makes a perfect person: If you wear this color lipstick and this kind of dress, which hangs perfectly on this kind of figure, you’re considered beautiful. The fashion industry has been doing this for ages, but over time it has increasingly raised issues about confidence, self-esteem and body image. The evidence is all there. But who provides and studies this evidence? It sounds like the job of a psychologist.
Dr. Carolyn Mair: The psychology of fashion is really about human behavior within and across the fashion industry. It’s about the industry, it’s about sustainability, it’s about production, it’s about management, it’s about retail, it includes consumer behavior.
Peterson: Dr. Carolyn Mair is a Chartered Scientist and Psychologist, Associate Fellow at the British Psychological Society and a Reader at the London College of Fashion. She also developed two Master’s programs for the college, both in the psychology of fashion. Her day is a juggling act of public engagements, writing papers and conducting research, but Mair’s programs are priority, and for good reason.
Mair: A lot of my work is involved with the students and developing them, getting them to really understand the mission of the course, the ethos of the course but also their mission on being graduates from the course and that is to go out and make a difference.
Peterson: In order to make a difference, Mair and her students address the issues in the fashion industry, such as the economic and ecological effects they cause by growing so much cotton for clothes and by manufacturing so many items.
Mair: The overproduction of cotton is affecting the environment. And if we look at Eastern Europe as it stands there is this sea called the Aral Sea – A-r-a-l – which used to be one of the world’s largest inland lakes. And over the last, probably, 40 years it shrunk to about one-tenth of its original size and it’s now a desert. We have landfill site problems, the people disposing of their clothes, and they’re buying too much because it’s cheap and just often never wearing it, then chucking it out or taking it to charity shops. It all goes to Africa to help the commerce of poor townships in Africa and so on, but the problem is that when the clothing goes to these areas, these regions, it stops the fashion industry within those regions. So it stops the potential for industry to develop in those areas because they have this glut of clothing coming in. Ideally we should buy less; we should buy better and buy less. We should shop carefully.
Peterson: But raising awareness on these issues is only step one. Making a change relies completely on the support and involvement of other community members.
Mair: But what we have to do next is we have to put in interventions that make a difference because we ‘ve done enough raising awareness. We need to make the consumer change. Young people are the people who need to go out and make these changes, make their voices known and say, “No, we’re not buying this.”
Peterson: Although young people are the ones who can make a change, they’re not the only ones who need change. When it comes to styles made for older women, designers often get it wrong. Through many studies, Mair has found that older women are less interested in looking younger, like advertisements suggest, and more interested in looking good, healthy and feeling confident. When it comes to clothing, this may be hard to achieve.
Mair: There are very, very few designers who (design) for older women. We sometimes have images of older models wearing clothes that are supposedly suitable for a woman of a particular age, but that in itself is problematic because models tend to be very stereotypically tall, thin, and like the young ones and also have very long gray, naturally gray, hair They’re not representative of the samples of population that they are supposed to represent. And this causes a problem for older women in general because as women – and as men – as we get older our bodies change and we still want to look good but we can’t wear a crop top. We just can’t wear that even if we want to, but we want to look good, we want to look fashionable and finding those kind of clothes out there is very difficult particularly if you’re not, you know, very tall and very thin. They want to look good, they want to wear clothes that make them feel good. They feel confident when they’ve got whatever outfit that they’ve chosen to wear that they don’t look frumpy, they don’t look old fashioned, they don’t look matronly. They want to look good, they want to look appropriate for the context they’re in.
Peterson: While women over 45 are misrepresented in their fashion style, women of all ages are misrepresented in a different way: pants size. While men’s pants are sized by their actual measurements, women’s pants are sized by numbers as low as the single digits, which can vary from store to store.
Mair: I think it’s about feeding our vanity because of this obsession with being thin so we’d much rather see ourselves as a size 2 than a size 6. That also can cause problems because in some stores they vary so it can be quite stressful for a lot of women. You have low body satisfaction, you believe they are a size, let’s say U.S. size 8, and then they go into another store and it’s typically the more expensive (store) that has the lower numbers and I think that encourages consumers to go back and buy more from there because it makes them feel good if they believe that being thin is good. Then they’ll go back to where they can get into a size 2 rather than thinking “This is just a number on an article of clothing.”
Peterson: But these numbers can do quite a number on us. One of Mair’s students found that these varying sizes can draw our attention away from more important issues.
Mair: Her main concern with this was the worry that if people put on weight, and they keep trying to find lower and lower sizes, they might miss the indicators that their health is at risk. Her argument was that if we’re always getting into lower and lower numbers — an indicator of potential heart disease, cardiovascular disease, is your waist size — so if you’re thinking that you’re still very small but in fact your waist is growing in size in comparison to your hips, that it’s not being related to the fact that you’ve got to buy a larger size in clothes, you might be fooling yourself even though these people could be aware that they are putting on weight. And they might miss, you know, the health indicators that they need to stop putting on weight.
Peterson: Vanity sizing can be both physically and mentally damaging, but what gets us to the point of low confidence and self-esteem are the images in fashion, such as the models chosen for advertisements. Mair says that one of the most important parts of fashion psychology is facing the industry and telling them that they need to represent the population as we are.
Mair: This single idea of what’s perfect is really damaging for everyone because even the images they have out there are airbrushed and that’s not what the models look like in real life. You need to think about these damaging images that you keep presenting and change. Represent the populations as they are, the diversity, the beauty of every body. Everybody has something beautiful about them to value and respect, not everyone has to end up looking the same.
Peterson: And, contrary to popular belief, these images don’t just affect women.
Mair: Men are becoming more and more interested in fashion, looking nice, the blending of what’s male and female, for example, and judging fashions just like we (women) are — really that men can be as well-dress and as glamorous as women can be. And so there’s this definite surge in men’s wear and I believe it was one of the biggest-growing areas in fashion last year. Men are becoming more and more obsessed with how they look, as women are now, and the “gym body” — where the passion is now — rather than being a size double zero, it could be very lean and muscle-y for men and women. So we have issues around body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, mental health issues around appearance that people are not matching up to what is promoted constantly as the norm about how we should look. A norm of having this very thin, very fit, very young ideal of how we should be affects both men and women similarly, and increasingly men.
Peterson: Dr. Carolyn Mair is currently writing the book, The Psychology of Fashion, scheduled to be released in mid- 2017, which discusses the industry and how psychology can make it more ethical, sustainable and responsible. You can read more about her on the London College of Fashion’s teaching staff and staff researchers profiles, and on her website, cazweb.info. For more information about our guest, log onto our site at viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter and Emily Parker. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.