Judging Humans By Their Covers


A quick online search for the Patagonia vest soon throws up the sort of thing it now seems Patagonia do not want to be associated with; tech and finance bros. The vest has become so synonymous with Silicone Valley tech types that it is now referred to as the midtown uniform, with a thousand and one instagram posts and memes mocking wearers, believing the uniform to represent privilege, elitism and homogeneity.

Last week I was invited on to BBC radio Scotland with Kaye Adams to discuss just this, as well as what judgements people make about others based on their clothing.

Let’s take a look at some of the psychology that might be at play here and might help us to understand what this midtown uniform displays and the responses to it.

Finding your tribe

Social stratification

Have you ever heard the phrase “looking the part”? This is an example of social stratification in our everyday language. Social stratification is the categorisation of people within society e.g. class. Clothing is just one way that we display sameness and difference, a way for us to say I am like you, but not so much like you, and to align ourselves with those we consider our peers. The Patagonia vest is just one example of this, the hoodie and youth culture is another, and the Park Slope mums in Brooklyn with their number 6 clogs and Salt Straps are another. On a micro-system level, picture an American high school with the Goths and Jocks identifiable by their dress. Clothing is a powerful non-verbal communication, it tells others something of our underlying values, beliefs, tastes and culture. The fact is, people dress similarly to the people they surround themselves with (or wish to); their tribe. This is social stratification and it is nothing new, humans have been doing this as long as they have had fashion; think of King Louis XIV in the 17th century who donned his court in red bottomed heels (sound familiar) to denote nobility, a trend that quickly spread throughout western Europe with others also wanting to show their social standing.

Symbolic interactionism

Symbolic interactionism is where a common set of symbols and understandings emerge over time; in the case of clothes this comes from repeated interactions between an item of clothing, the wearer and feedback from society until a shared meaning is reached. In the case of the Patagonia vest, it was worn by individuals who were or went on to be very successful, such as Dara Khosrowshahi the CEO of Uber. The vest itself did not represent anything but went on to do so through the repeated wearing of such types and the meaning observers made of this based on the character of the wearers e.g. that this item symbolised tech and finance working, success and competence, things that those also in field may want to have been aligned with and by wearing the item may have felt they would also convey. Burberry in the late 90s/late 00s is a prime example of symbolic interactionism, where a brand that wanted to be seen as luxury became popular with footballers, WAGS and as youth streetwear leading to Burberry’s signature pattern being derogatively named the chav-check. Because of who wore the clothes, the clothes took on a new social meaning, and those wearing the brands pattern were seen as belonging to a certain social group.

The judgements we make

That people judge others based on their clothing is a reality of our society, if it wasn’t we would not dress differently for interviews or work where a set uniform is not dictated. But we do; we put on clothes that we think will portray competence, confidence and being a “good fit” (social stratification at play again) and employers expect us to do so even though our clothing is in no way linked to our skill. Even though social media users did not know each of the men they encountered, photographed and mocked in the Patagonia vests, they believed they knew them; they even went as far as to ascribe stereotypical names to memes such as Chad and Brad. To them those donning vests and chinos were seen to be of a certain character. As I said before, clothes give us clues about a person, but they do not tell the whole story and like art, interpretations are subjective.

Self-perception theory

It is not only others making judgements about individuals, but we also make judgements about ourselves based on our dress. A study in the 80s found that individual s rated their competence and intelligence higher when they were wearing glasses even though their test scores didn’t actually differ! A later study in 2005 found that flight attendants wearing casual work wear led to negative self-perceptions such as lack of confidence, authority and professionalism.

Colour in context theory and attribution bias

Negative memes and companies not wanting to provide you with branded vests because of your perceived lack of environmental work is on the lighter side of making judgements about people based on their clothing. Colour in context theory is the effect of colour on psychological functioning including decision making, in different contexts and studies applying this to clothing have found worrying results. A 2014 study by Pazda found that women wearing red were rated as more attractive and as having more sexual intent by men, compared to women wearing white. Women rated women wearing red as more sexually receptive and less likely to be sexually faithful. All of this based on….colour.

Even more worrying are the judgements people make about a woman’s responsibility for her own sexual assault based on her clothing. Studies in the 1990s found that women wearing more fitted or revealing clothing were rated as more likely to provoke sexual harassment. Stepping outside of the psychology lab and into reality, shockingly this is exactly what was seen in a 2018 Irish rape trial where the victims lace thong was cited as possible evidence of consent.


Adomaitis, A, & Johnson, KKP. (2005). Casual versus formal uniforms: flight attendants’ self-perceptions and perceived appraisals by others. Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, 23(2), 88–101.

Johnson, KKP, & Workman, JE. (1992). Clothing and attributions concerning sexual harassment. Home Economics Research Journal, 21(2), 160–172.

Johnson, KKP, & Workman, JE. (1994). Blaming the victim: attributions concerning sexual harassment based on clothing, just-world belief, and sex of subject. Home Economics Research Journal, 22(4), 382–400.

Kellerman, J, & Laird, J. (1982). The effect of appearance on self-perceptions. Journal of Personality, 50(3), 296–315.

Pazda, AD, Elliot, AJ, & Greitemeyer, T. (2014a). Perceived sexual receptivity and fashionableness: separate paths linking red and black to perceived attractiveness. Color Research & Application, 39(2), 208–212.

Pazda, AD, Prokop, P, & Elliot, AJ. (2014b). Red and romantic rivalry: viewing another woman in red increases perceptions of sexual receptivity, derogation, and intentions to mate-guard. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(10), 1260–1269.

What is Fashion Psychology

Hello all,

I realised I launched this blog without first explaining what Fashion Psychology even is. So let me provide you with some brief information to help you contextualise my current and future posts.

What even is Fashion Psychology?

Currently there is not a single agreed upon definition of Fashion Psychology, the governing body that UK psychologists would typically turn to for an understanding of different areas of psychology is the British Psychological Society. However, the BPS does not currently have a definition of fashion psychology nor does it list the emerging field as a career option for budding psychologists. But, not to worry, there are many areas of psychology that aren’t officially listed by the BPS 1) because it tends to only list fields in which you can become a chartered psychologist; meaning a psychologist who can legally practice under said title, and 2) because each core field has a plethora of sub disciplines or investigative areas.

So, in order to provide you with a definition, or at least rough explantion, I turned to the interweb. When you Google, “What is fashion psychology?” you are provided with the following definition:

“Fashion Psychology is the integration and utilization of the science of psychology and the industry of fashion to create manageable therapeutic tools that ultimately assist in the development of desired results in both clients’ perceptions of self, their behaviors, and moods as well as targeted objectives within the business model.

Source: Careersinpsychology.org

Another explanation which I quite like was offered by Dr Aurora Paillard, course leader of the BSc Psychology of Fashion at the University of Arts London in an interview. Note, the University of Arts is the only establishment in the world to offer degree level courses in Fashion and Psychology, and was the first to do so.

When asked, Aurora describes the role of Fashion Psychologists as:

“Fashion Psychologists study the impact of fashion (clothing, cosmetics, accessories) on wellbeing but also on performance, they also assess consumer behaviour (brand loyalty, consumer decision making, stores atmospherics, etc.), and they work towards ‘Inclusive Fashion’ (a fashion designed for and about everyone).”

I like this definition because of how encompassing it is, and the inclusion of wellbeing, which for me is the crux and most important element of my work around Fashion Psychology, or rather Style Psychology as I prefer to call it.

For those interested in getting in to Fashion Psychology and new to the field of Psychology it is important to draw attention to the convoluted nature of Psychology.

After studying Fashion Psychology you may carry out phenomenal work and push the field forward in the way we need, but the title of chartered Psychologist is typically reserved for those meeting the BPSs criteria for chartered status. Typically, Psychologists are Doctors, meaning they have completed either a Phd or a professional Doctorate. Not all psychology professions require PhDs, like Forensic psychology, but even this requires a degree, a masters and completion of two years post qualification supervised practice.

Having a thousand letters after your name is not the be-all-and-end-all, but it is worth those of us within and linked to the field of Fashion Psychology considering the implications of the title and associated connotations. Like the title, medical Dr, it carries weight; It encourages others to trust in our words, opinions and advice. With such a title comes great responsibility, but not quite as much as Spiderman…

Perhaps, and hopefully as the profile of Fashion Psychology continues to increase, we will see more courses created, more chartered Psychologists showing an interest, more research in the area and perhaps one day Fashion Psychology will be listed by the BPS as a career option, amongst the greats.


The importance of touch: Amazon’s VR mirror


Mirror 2
Photo credit: Neiman Marcus


So, I wrote a little something a couple of weeks back for the brilliant multi-disciplinary platform Mind Fashion (check them out). They, or rather we are a community of design, technology, fashion, art, science and psychology professionals to name but a few who have come together to broaden and diversify the conversation around fashion.

You can read my blog about Amazon’s patent for a virtual reality mirror which allows you to virtually try on clothes and my musings on the possible personal, emotional, cognitive and consumer implications. It is entitled Mirror, mirror on the Wall Do I Want to Buy Them All; Happy reading 🙂


Deliberate Dressing


If one is to consider the frivolity of clothes, then consider we live our livesin clothes” Keenan, 2001


Ajax Lee
Photo credit: Ajax Lee


Who remembers those little paper dolls with the tab clothes? They would come in a book and you would cut or pop them out and fold the little paper tabs over their shoulders and around their impossibly tiny waists to make sure your carefully crafted ensemble was befitting your dolls plans for the day and their mood. We used to take so much time and care, considering and choosing what the doll should wear that day; tennis skirt perhaps if she was feeling in a sporty mood, or glittery party dress if she was feeling a little showy and ostentatious that day, (those who are too young to remember paper dolls 1) I envy you 2) Google it 3) Insert Barbie/ Ken/ or Bratz equivalent.)

How many of us can say that we take as much time, care and consideration with our own dressing on a day-to-day basis, not just when we’re going “out, out”? Granted, as adults we don’t have as much free time as we had as kids for such frivolous things (no judgment if you still like to dress dolls) or to ponder life’s big questions e.g. If Sabrina can cast spells, why does she still do her own homework? But I want to think with you for a moment, and question, is taking time to consider what we put on our bodies to face the day ahead really frivolous?

How many of us have gotten dressed in the morning, pulling and dragging on the first moderately decent clean thing we find and running out of the door or have had the experience of being out somewhere and wearing an outfit or item, that didn’t quite fit, or you didn’t feel wholly comfortable in? How did you feel? Compare that to how you feel when you have worn something you are happy, comfortable, and feel good in.


Pile of clothes


Whether you think yourself a fashionista or not what differentiates us from other species (as well as having Netflix) is that we dress. It is something, unless you’re a nudist, that we can’t avoid. So why not positively engage with dress and take charge.

I say over and over again, how we feel affects what we wear, and what we wear affects how we feel. If we continuously wear things we’re not comfortable or confident in, it can impact on our mood, self-esteem and ultimately our well-being. When we dress carelessly, it sends out a message of lack of self-care to the world and more importantly promotes feelings of being uncared for within ourselves. How many times have you said or heard a person say, “I just don’t have time to dress like I used to” or “I have more important things to do/worry about”. But we are important, and few moments aren’t going to hurt or take away from anyone. In psychological terms wearing clothes, you are happy in can promote something called hedonic well-being or hedonic happiness, also known as the feel-good factor. It’s the same little buzz of happiness you get, if you’re anything like me, from eating a slice (or two) of your favourite cake or watching a good movie (Magic Mike 2 anyone).


By all means, this DOES NOT MEAN spending hours getting ready each day, unthinkingly following all the latest trends (I’m sorry, I just can’t get on board with this dad trainer trend) or maxing out your credit cards to buy a new wardrobe. But just take a few moments in the morning to consider yourself, check in with yourself, and ask, “what do I WANT to wear today?” Dress for your day. Dress deliberately.


Suggested reading

Hefferon, K. (2013). Positive psychology and the body: The somatopsychic side to flourishing. Maidenhead, United Kingdom: Open University Press.

Pre Fashion Week Thinking: Fashion and Psychoanalysis

With London Fashion Week (LFW) less than a fortnight away, we’re all excited to see what treats lay in store, presented to us in metaphorical bows of silk, chiffon and lace from our favourite design houses and high street brands.

Increasingly people are stopping to consider the psychology of fashion e.g. what it says of us. McQueen famously spoke of his work as a form of therapy, stating that it was a way to exorcise his demons; suggesting that fashion may not only speak of us, but to us and have psychological and therapeutic benefits. But what does psychoanalysis have to say about the different realms of fashion? Last year I attended the world’s first Fashion and Psychoanalysis conference at UAL, hosted by UAL’s London College of Fashion in collaboration with the Freud Museum London (my old stomping ground).

The conference was hosted over two days with talks from curators, researchers, scientists, artists, fashion designers and more (see end of article for full list of contributors).

But what did I learn from the conference that might help inform my thinking as we slide into fashion week? What lens, or lenses might the thinking shared provide, through which to view the fashion world?

Over my next few posts I will share my most thought provoking ummm…. thoughts from the Fashion and Psychoanalysis conference. Enjoy

Part 1)Fashion is a substitute for the woman’s penis Umm, what!?

Hold on, before you spit out your gin fizz, let’s think about this together a little bit. Valerie Steele dubbed the Freud of Fashion maintains that sexuality is central to the study of psychoanalysis and central to fashion. She proclaims that sexual symbolism can be seen all across fashion, and that more overt sexual symbols in the form of fetish themes have also crept in. While showing one Versace campaign picture, she described the “multiply endowed woman”, covered in hard, rigid, erect straps, donned in impossibly high heels.


In this way the woman becomes more powerful, with her many phallices..phalli? Phallics? Symbolic penises (because that’s where all power lies don’t you know). Steele who has researched the connection between fetishism and fashion also shared that high heels are ubiquitous with female fetishism, and although Freud spoke very little about clothing he believed that heels protected men against homosexuality by endowing women with a phallis (Freud, oh Freud oh Freud. This is definitely going too far for me, and in today’s day and age, is just offensive and outdated in times where most women prefer a good pair of Converse ((other brands available)) over a pair of heels and homosexuality is not something that needs protecting against. Anyway, let’s take a deep breath and continue).

Not only is much of fashion tied up with sexuality and fetishism (pun intended), but according to Steele’s research it seems to be sexuality from the benchmark of being a man e.g. endowing ourselves to be more powerful, or for the benefit of men e.g. as above (let’s not repeat it). The shaping impact of male gaze is something we’re aware of, but Steele’s example of the way fashion has shifted attention to different parts of the body over time, is a powerful one e.g. the bum enlarging bustle in the late 1800s, hip widening panniers in the mid 1700s, boob enhancing stays and dresses in the late 1700s and early 1800s, belly flashing crop tops in the 1990’s.

But with our increased knowledge of the impact of male gaze and internalised gaze [1] [2], having more female fashion designers than ever before and the increasing rise of feminism, what are we seeing in fashion now?

Only last month Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss stomped it out on the runway for Kim Jones’ last Louis Vuitton show, in wait for it…..FLATS! Also, just last October Miu Miu sent a plethora (yes plethora) of models down the runway in flats.


Picture credit: Vogue and Indigital.tv

Perhaps the lens therefore is one of change, of shedding of phalli, and of womanliness, for women. Let’s see shall we…


Fashion and Psychoanalysis conference contributors

Zowie Broach 
Introductory ThoughtsValerie Steele
Freud and Fashion

Claire Pajaczkowska 
In Fashion : Sexual Selection and the Fetish/ Understanding ‘Empathy by Design’

Anouchka Grose 
Ugliness+Time: Fashion and the Prisoners’ Dilemma

Shaun Cole 
The ‘Great Masculine Renunciation’ Re-assessed

Philip Mann
The Dandy : Pathological Hero of Modernism

Caroline Evans
Denise Poiret and the Material Mnemonics of Fashion

Bella Freud
in conversation with Amanda Harlech

Katerina Fotopoulou 
Body Imaging: Mentalising and Modifying our Bodily Appearance

Emilia Raczkowska
‘There Remains the Area of Clothes’ – Enclothed Cognition from the Lab to the Couch



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.