The Psychology of Fashion: Interviewing Professor Carolyn Mair PhD
You may remember last May I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Professor Carolyn Mair on the psychology of fashion, and it inspired me to write this piece on why colour matters. But, not only did I find the talk fascinating, I found it really interesting that Professor Mair didn't start in fashion; she was a psychologist who eventually decided to focus on the industry.
Fashion is sometimes thought of as an industry that's stupid and only for 'bimboes'. But it's far from it; in the UK alone it's worth £32 billion, so there has to be some brains behind it! And Professor Carolyn Mair is an excellent, inspiring example. So I had to find out more...
Thank you so much for speaking with me today Carolyn. First thing I'd love to know, what is your career background?
I left school as soon as I could after GCEs and was fortunate to find a job working with a visual display company. I also trained in ticket writing which I think is an outdated skill now (sadly) and graphic design and created the images and copy for the stores’ adverts in local newspapers.
At this time, I also made clothes for myself and friends and earned a reasonable income from painting murals and portraits. After I married and had my children I extended my creative activities to birthday cakes, interior furnishings and also interior design. Because I had children by this time, I needed to work around them so I trained as teacher of English for foreign students. I did that for years and loved it but there was little opportunity for progression. It was then I decided I needed to do a degree.
I applied to my local university and enrolled on the BSc (Hon) Applied Psychology and Computing. I did well on the course and was lucky enough to get funding to do my MSc which was Research Methods. After that I went back to TEFL for a short while and then became a part-time lecturer in Research Methods. Because I needed to earn more than a part-time wage, I found a part-time Research Assistant role as well. I wrote a successful paper shortly after starting that led to me being asked to do a funded PhD. My PhD was in Cognitive Neuroscience and my postdoc was spent in a Computer Science Department investigating decision support systems using machine learning. After this, I became a Senior Lecturer and then Professor of Applied Cognitive Psychology at Southampton Solent University. An opportunity arose to give a lecture at London College of Fashion so jumped at it. The rest is history! I was at LCF for 5 years and left when I felt I wanted new challenges. By that time I’d established the Psychology Department there and written two Masters courses as well as the BSc Psychology of Fashion.
That's a very inspiring journey; your career has changed so much over the years. So your lecture at the London College of Fashion was your first step into the Fashion Industry, but what was it that made you decide the psychology of fashion would become your main focus?
I’ve always loved fashion. From making my own clothes as a young teenager, through visual merchandising and just enjoying clothing as a means of self-expression. I also saw the problems within the fashion industry that I believed, and still do, could be reduced or even eradicated by applying psychology. For example, sustainability, (lack of) inclusivity, mental health issues in fashion professionals, as well as in fashion students and fashion consumers.
The issues around body satisfaction and all the …isms can be investigated and improved through a psychological perspective.
Yes, I agree. Fashion is emotive, so there's clearly a link between it and the mind. And I think it's great you decided to use your expertise to tackle issues within the Industry. What have you found to be the most fascinating part of what you do?
That it hadn't been done before! Psychologists have neglected fashion as a topic of study which I find incredible.
Which is why it's great you developed the first Fashion Psychology degree programs. What was your mission with this?
I want the fashion industry to be informed by people who are trained to understand human behaviour rather than by those who base their understanding on their own experiences and opinions. The idea was that graduates from the MSc and MA would find jobs in the industry and apply their psychological literacy within their role. The opportunities to do this are everywhere in the industry. Small changes can make big differences.
Absolutely. And I think it's really important to understand and respect that, especially if you want to make change within the Fashion Industry - whether that's from the inside, or the outside.
The fashion industry is about people. It employs millions worldwide and needs to consider their mental health. Aside from this, we all wear clothes so fashion affects everyone. Fashion can be a great source of pleasure and confidence. Yet it has many problems. Fashion imagery can be damaging as it excludes 99% of the population and promotes an unrealistic image of what’s beautiful. This has led to body dissatisfaction for a large proportion of the population as well as the increased demand for cosmetic interventions.
Being natural is no longer seen as being fashionable. Psychology can help people come to terms with who they are rather than chase an unattainable ideal.
Psychology can also devise personalised behaviour change programmes to change habits such that we improve our relationship with fashion and therefore with ourselves.
And despite this, fashion is still often dismissed as frivolous and superficial. Why do you think that is?
Probably because it’s not well understood as a discipline by outsiders. Also the claims made by fashion academics may be difficult to apply broadly. For example, claims about its power, based on opinion, single observations or a focus group are not generalisable and therefore predictions can’t be made from findings. If this isn’t the intention, then it needs to be stated, but because there’s little or no training in ethics or research methods until PhD level, fashion researchers can be unaware. This is further perpetuated because many staff in Fashion education are also practitioners who haven’t had research training and so are unaware.
That's really interesting, I hadn't thought of it like that. I completely agree that we have a responsibility to distinguish when statements are opinion based vs. based on actual verified research.
There's a lot of talk about how both the Fashion Industry and our shopping habits are changing. Have you noticed attitudes shift?
I think the fashion industry is changing, but slowly. It is more inclusive. For example, it’s not so rare to see an older, larger or black model as it used to be. But despite the hype, there’s still a very long way to go. When there’s a feature on a particular issue, fashion media tend to use a model that represents that issue, but in the majority of images in magazines we still see the same stereotypical model.
Exactly, diversity is still in the minority. Another big topical issue is sustainable fashion vs fast disposable fashion. What are your thoughts on this?
I don’t have a problem with fast fashion per se. I believe there’s a place for fashion at all prices. It doesn’t necessarily follow that slow (i.e. expensive) fashion is more sustainable that fast (cheap) fashion.
I think we need to stop blaming the consumer and ask producers to make less using polymers rather than depleting and polluting natural resources.
For example, many people think that ‘organic’ cotton is the solution, but cotton production in any shape or form is not sustainable. Another example is artificial fur. I can’t think of anything more sustainable than real fur (excluding animals farmed exclusively or killed solely for their skin). Artificial fur is a problem to dispose of and uses polluting substances in its production. The problem is complex and we need to look at it from a more holistic angle and consider the ethical implications of the potential solutions we propose. Natural is not always better and expensive is not the solution. How can spending more than £600 on a designer T-shirt be ethical? We need to support people to look after their clothes better, wear them more and take pleasure from them. Basically I would suggest: buy mindfully, ask when will I wear this and what will it do for me? If you can’t answer those questions, then don’t buy that item.
Yes, it's a highly complex issue with problems at both ends of the fashion spectrum. As you've highlighted there are several 'myths' that need debunking, and we really need to try to look at sustainable fashion in a different way.
And finally, what, if any public perception of Fashion needs to change?
Fashion can be a force for good, but in my opinion, it needs to change its image from being so elitist to become a tool for everyone to enjoy and enhance their wellbeing. That’s not too much to ask is it?
Thank you very much Carolyn!
To find out more about Carolyn's work, her book "The Psychology Of Fashion", or to attend one of her courses, visit: