Last February, Dawnn Karen, a brand consultant, therapist and instructor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, arrived at a Marcel Ostertag fashion show wearing 5-inch…
A self-described “fashion psychologist,” Karen pays close attention to the relationship between attire and attitude: not just how clothes make you look, but how they make you feel.
She had come to the Ostertag show, she said, to analyze the psychology behind the collection.
When a model walked by in a silky pink blouse, Karen pronounced it an example of “mood enhancement theory”: how an item could amplify positive emotions. When another model floated past in an all-silver get-up, Karen said the outfit represented “repetitious wardrobe complex,” the tendency to use clothes for emotional comfort. “Ostertag seems to be a paradox,” she said after the show. “I would label him and his collection as ‘progressive-conservativism.'”
To be clear, none of these theories or labels can be found in any psychology textbook or DSM manual. Karen, 29, developed them over the last few years, as she cultivated her academic career and her personal brand.
Fashion psychology, as she defines it, is the “study and treatment of how color, image, style and beauty affects human behavior, while addressing cultural norms and cultural sensitivities.” She believes the field is especially relevant today, as consumers are increasingly critical of the fashion industry and its tone-deafness toward body image and race.
“There are so many blunders in advertising and fashion,” said Karen, who is African-American. She pointed to missteps including H&M using a black child to model its “coolest monkey in the jungle” sweatshirt; Zara’s miniskirt with the alt-right symbol Pepe the Frog; and a Dove skin care campaign that featured a black model who turned into a white one. “People are speaking out about all this,” she said. “That’s why you need a fashion psychologist on your advisory team.”
Karen has taught fashion psychology at the FIT’s Center for Continuing and Professional Studies. She also has an online Fashion Psychology Institute, where she offers courses in “The Hoodie Effect: George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin” and “The Nazi Haircut” (in which she explores why the “undercut” is so attractive to white supremacists).
Now, FIT’s social sciences department, where she teaches the psychology of color and general psychology, is reviewing her proposal to make a fashion psychology course part of the undergraduate curriculum.
Karen calls herself a “pioneer” of the “Fashion Psychology Field,” (a phrase she has trademarked), but she is not alone in combining the topics. For the past decade, the department of fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware has offered a course called the Social Psychological Aspects of Clothing. Its professor, Jaehee Jung, says it’s one of the few requirements for both apparel design and fashion merchandising majors.
Whereas a fashion business class may teach students how to design and market a product based on demographic trends, Jung’s students explore the psychology behind consumer behavior. “We talk about perceptions and standards of attractiveness,” she said. “Where these come from and how we use them to judge others.”
The London College of Fashion offers what may be the field’s most comprehensive academic program. In 2014, the school introduced graduate programs in applied psychology in fashion and in psychology for fashion professionals. Last year, the school started an undergraduate major in the psychology of fashion.
“The fashion industry speaks so much about memory, problem solving and nostalgia,” said Carolyn Mair, who founded the programs and now runs a consulting firm. “And yet in the industry, these psychological concepts lack academic rigor and training.”
Mair gave the example of sustainably produced clothes. Brands have been good at raising awareness of the issue, she believes, but not at influencing our purchasing decisions. “If the fashion industry was to work with psychologists who understand human behavior,” she said, “they could implement scientifically based behavioral change programs” to influence what consumers buy.
Mair, a psychologist with a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience, is careful to call herself a “psychologist who works in the fashion industry,” because the term “fashion psychologist” isn’t recognized by any official academic or licensing body.
Karen has a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Columbia Teachers College, but she is used to skepticism. Some people think she made up her name for the attention. (Though she did drop her surname, Brown, during a modeling stint in graduate school, her mother named her after the designer Donna Karan and Dawnn Lewis, an actress from “A Different World.”)
Karen is also aware of race bias. “I have to fight through a lot of barriers,” she said. “When they see me, I know they’re expecting someone else. ‘You couldn’t possibly be a black woman.'”
Much of the interest in Karen’s work has come from outside the United States. In 2017, Kyiv Security Forum, which is based in Ukraine, invited Karen to speak about the burkini and the intersection of religion and fashion.
In May, a public relations firm is flying her to Australia to consult on consumer behavior and clothes care. And she has coming presentations at universities in Malaysia and Rome. Most recently, a bespoke Italian-Canadian menswear brand called Cattivo Ragazzo hired Karen to design a personality test for customers on its new e-commerce platform.
“Dawnn is looking at who our customer is: where on the scale of introvert to extrovert; are they jet-setters or homebodies; flamboyant or conservative?” said Dino Minichiello, 49, the brand’s founder. “You need to extract the personality of the customer to know if high-contrast stitching on lapels will make him feel uncomfortable.”
Karen calls this work “styling from the inside out.” As she said, “most of the time we go into our closet and say, ‘I’ll wear this color.’ But we’re not in tune with how we’re feeling.” In both her brand consulting and counseling practice, for which she charges $1,000 to $5,000 per month, she is constantly assessing how clients use clothes — either as an emotional crutch or a means of empowerment.
One client is a widow who continued to buy black clothing two years after her husband’s death. “She didn’t know that she was doing it,” Karen said. “And I thought, ‘Why aren’t you aware?'” Addressing that “why” helped the client work through her grief, Karen said.
Chris Rob, a Brooklyn-based musician and DJ in his late 30s, said Karen helped him use clothes to build confidence as a performer. “I’ve worked with stylists who will say, ‘Hey, this would look nice on you,'” he said. “Dawnn’s attitude is, ‘Let’s start with you. Why do you choose what you wear, and how is it holding you back from making stronger choices?'”
For Karen, clothes have been a kind of personal armor. She first considered exploring the role of psychology in fashion during graduate school at Columbia. She was a year into the program, she said, when she was assaulted by her fiancé. “The next day, I went to my closet and said, ‘OK, I’ve got to look good.’ I put on something elaborate and fashionable. I remember going to class with these huge feather earrings I’d made. Every day, I used clothes to heal myself.”
Now that she’s the one teaching, Karen dresses more for her students than for herself. “I deliberately dress down to debunk the notion that a young black girl in sweats is from the hood, or the ghetto, or isn’t smart,” she said. “Students see me, and I give them a whole different idea of what an urban dresser can be.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.