Fashion is a word with diverse meanings. You can talk about how Michelangelo “fashioned” the David out of a single block of marble. You can also use it to describe how someone is out of touch with the times. A young girl might confide to her best friend, “My grandmother is old-fashioned—she thinks I should spend more time outdoors playing in the fresh air and sunshine than trying to go to the next level of Super Mario Odyssey.”
So, besides a prevailing style of dress, it can also mean to make something, a habitual manner, or a mode of action. What’s more, the word itself has been fashionable, used as a literary device by Horace Sutton, William Shakespeare, and Franc Shore, to share profound reflections about human nature.
Yet, even in the most popular use of the word, as a way of describing a hairstyle, seasonal clothes, or shoes, it’s loaded with many shades of meaning. These aren’t literary meanings, but psychological ones. Meanings that strike at the heart of our conflicted psychological quest to belong to the society we live in yet still preserve our unique sense of individuality.
The Psychology of Fashion
Let’s explore this psychological aspect of fashion a little deeper by looking at fashion as a tool for reinvention, as a rite of passage, and as a way of bonding.
1. Fashion as a way of reinventing yourself. If you want a new hairstyle, you might wear the latest Malaysian hair weave. This new look refreshes your outlook on life and it makes you think of yourself in a different way. In this instance, fashion helps you to individuate, express your unique identity. At its essence, you’re not seeking a way to “improve” your appearance—your hair may have been lovely the old way, too—but you’re exploring a new sense of personal identity.
2. Fashion as a rite of passage. When you’re young and carefree, you think of fashion as wearing six-inch heels on a night out. It’s a way of celebrating life, as a way of enjoying the warmth of friendships and the thrill of a casual adventure. But when you become a mother, then you start to look for clothes that always make you feel comfortable. Now your priorities have shifted—you’re no longer interested in hanging out with your friends and having fun but you’re now engaging with life in a more holistic way, seeing it as an opportunity to explore larger existential issues.
3. Fashion as a way of belonging. When you describe one friend to another one as “she always wears the latest fashions,” you are referring to someone who keeps up with the culture, who fits in with the latest transitory, social trends. We all want to belong to something bigger than ourselves because we’re wired to be social beings. When we spend a great deal of time alone, we feel lonely, isolated, vulnerable. We get depressed, thinking morbid thoughts, asking futile questions about our role in the great scheme of things.
The Benefits of a Psychological Perspective
Understanding the psychological aspects of fashion can be immensely useful.
First, it can help you shift your mood. If you want to get out of a funk, you can buy a new pair of shoes to help you walk taller. By dressing up, you feel better.
Second, if you want to be successful in business, you can research what clothes you should wear to “dress for success.” By dressing sharply, you know you’ll have more of a social impact.
Third, if you want to feel special, you can “make a fashion statement.” This will help you anchor your sense of self-worth and build up your self-confidence. By dressing well, you can transform your identity and reshape your reality.
In conclusion, fashion isn’t just about what to wear, when to wear it, or how to wear it. It has many shades of meaning, and once you understand some of its more subtle meanings, you can use them to your advantage, appreciating how your sense of taste and style can serve as a way to express your personality.