Mental Health Awareness Week: The troubled mind of fashion
How much does what you wear say about you? Anecdotally, we all know there's some kind of link between how we feel and what we wear. Who hasn't spent whole days in their pyjamas, or a tracksuit, while feeling stressed, burnt out, or depressed? Not to mention the burst of confidence and self-esteem that comes from pulling on your best outfit and leaving the house looking a million dollars. In recent years, scientific research has confirmed what many of us already knew: how we feel affects what we choose to wear, and what we wear affects how we feel.
Researcher Karen Pine, a Psychology professor at the University of Hertfordshire, is the author of Mind What You Wear, and co-author of Flex: Do Something Different. According to her research, women who are feeling down tend to put less effort into how they dress – opting for baggy tops, jeans and sweatshirts – than women who are feeling happy and positive. "When we are feeling depressed or unhappy, looking our best is not on our minds," Pine explained. "In fact, it becomes a hassle and waste of time. Mental energy is turned inwards towards emotional thoughts. Dressing simply becomes function versus adornment or fun" (http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/link-between-clothing-choices-and-emotional-states-0330124)
As well as our mood determining our fashion choices, Pine's research also found that choosing to wear certain clothing can have an influence on our mood, self-esteem and confidence. In her study, she found that women performed worse in maths tests when wearing a swimming costume, and simply putting on a Superman T-shirt gave students a confidence boost, and made them rate their own strength more highly. "Putting on different clothes creates different thoughts and mental processes. My book aims to make people more aware of this, to understand how changing their clothes can change their mood and their thoughts," she said of Mind What You Wear. (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2644076/You-DRESS-Clothing-significant-effect-self-esteem-confidence-claims-expert.html)
Think too of the women on Gok Wan's How To Look Good Naked, who almost invariably start out hiding their bodies under baggy fleeces, and wearing miserable beige underwear. By the end of the hour-long show they're posing naked, in exactly the same body they once loathed – and a big part of that confidence comes from learning to dress well for their bodies, instead of drowning them under shapeless clothing.
A separate study, from Northwestern University in the USA, also explored the idea of "enclothed cognition", lending weight to the idea that you should dress how you want to feel, not how you do feel. Fake it till you make it, so to speak. "When you dress in a certain way, it helps shift your internal self. We see that when we do makeovers, and even actors say that putting on a costume facilitates expression of character. That's just as true for everyday life," explains psychologist Dr Jennifer Baumgartner, author of You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You. (https://www.forbes.com/sites/learnvest/2012/04/03/what-your-clothes-say-about-you/)
Of course, our psychological relationship with how we dress can also have a much darker side – and women in particular are vulnerable to the kind of body image issues and eating disorders that are often associated with the world of high fashion. Although things have moved on somewhat from the size zero debates that dominated the early 00s, there's no doubt that fashion is still affected by some pretty serious mental health concerns – both around the weight of the models involved in the industry, and the body dysmorphia instilled in consumers by fashion catwalks, advertising, and magazines.
But it's not only the pressure to maintain the perfect body size that blights the mental health of fashion industry insiders. As in other creative industries, there's a longstanding debate within the fashion world about the link between artistic genius and mental illness. In stylists and designers we repeatedly see the 'tortured artist' figure that's been around for centuries, since Aristotle said: "No great genius has ever existed without a strain of madness."
With its fast-paced, high-stress demands, the fashion industry is undoubtedly a challenging environment to work in. And, since getting dressed every day is non-negotiable for most of us, working in fashion means the lines between work and life can quite easily be blurred by the cultural pressure to be on trend and ahead of the curve at all times. "You've got to be perfect and you've got to be on the ball all the time, you've got to be networking, you've got to be going to these parties, drinking with the other people… and yet, you've got to be up the next day," said Dr. Carolyn Mair, director of Psychology at London College of Fashion. (https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/careers/does-the-fashion-industry-have-a-mental-health-problem) "It's very difficult for people to maintain that level of energy, and the lifestyle, and the creativity."
You don't have to look far to find designers and models struggling to cope with the demands. Isabella Blow, Alexander McQueen, Ruslana Korshunova and L'Wren Scott are amongst the fashion icons to have taken their own lives – not to mention the well-documented prevalence of alcoholism, disordered eating, burning the candle at both ends, and cocaine use (http://oxfordstudent.com/2014/03/22/fashion-and-mental-health-the-one-trend-nobody-mentions/).
Indeed, while there may be some truth in the idea that creative people are more predisposed to mental illness – or that mentally ill people are drawn to the creative industries to provide an outlet for their self-expression – there's also no doubt that the industry's culture significantly contributes to a lot of burnout and mental illness. While our choice of clothes may be able to influence the way we feel about ourselves, the fashion industry just goes to show that the ever-present need to meet certain ideals can also take its toll on our mood and self-esteem. Dressing to feel your best is all well and good, but remember that you are more than just what you wear.