The Importance of Sartorial Armour

Last Monday I had the privilege of speaking at The Dragon Café’s  Mental Fight Club, as part of their Festival of Freud. I’ll be honest, when I was first approached at the Fashion and Psychoanalysis conference last month, I did not see it as a privilege; a great opportunity yes, but I hadn’t considered what I might also learn from the experience.

The Dragon Café is a creative space in Southwark where issues around mental illness are explored through exhibitions and performances, seminars and workshops, and generally by coming together.  I was there to do an interactive talk on the link between clothes, personal style, and wellbeing.

My first question to the audience was, “what does personal style mean to you?” Calls of “Identity!”, “Individuality!”, “Comfort!”, “Tribe!”, and “Armour!” rang out.

My second question to the audience was, “Can you tell me of a time when you wore something that made you feel a certain way, or an item of clothing/outfit that evokes a particular memory?” I had expected replies telling stories of wedding dresses or outfits from childhood (I still remember my Teenage Ninja Turtles sweatshirt), but what I heard was less about the presence of outfits and choices, but the absence.

“When I was sectioned I was kept in the same outfit I came in, for 6 weeks” Just let that sink in. I was humbled into silence by the power of what had been shared. He went on to explain, “when I came into the ward I was in a bad way, obviously. But I felt because I was wearing the same clothes, that when they looked at me they saw the person I was when I arrived.” Clothing can be a reflection of mood, of seasons, of occasion, it speaks of temporality, and for this gentleman his state had been visually frozen in time. Although he felt his health had improved, he felt this could not be seen while he still wore the uniform of one of his lowest moments.

More tales came of being incarcerated and the clothes people found themselves reaching for upon their release, wanting to confer status, and relatedness to those they used to associate with. Tales of “greens”, referring to the green cotton trousers and tops inpatients are given to wear in mental health facilities and the loss of identity that follows as they become just one of the many “greens”.

I don’t think I need to over explain the power of these stories and what they highlight of the integral link between our personal style, sense of self and wellbeing. This is fashion psychology in everyday life.

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