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Jennifer Baumgartner
Jennifer Baumgartner Psy.D.

The Psychology of Fashion

A clinical analysis of Fashion Week

The blaring music, the flashing lights, the clothes, the models, the glamour! From New York to Milan, Fashion Week has begun... and there is so much more to this event than the ensembles. In this creative space and time, novelty, trends, masstige, reinvention, impulsivity, and technology create the underlying current that drives the fashion force.

So what is it about Fashion Week that captures our attention? It is often our lack of attention that draws us in. The newest, the latest, and the greatest that emerge from these events are what we call trends. The brain loves trends because they are fast acting short-lived blasts of novelty... and our gray matter simply loves new things! In 2006, Drs. Nixo Bunzeck and Emrah Duzel showed that the substantia negra/ventral tegmental area, associated with the reward circuitry of the brain, is stimulated when presented with something new. From an evolutionary perspective, if we encounter a new stimulus in the environment, for our survival, we must attend to it in order to assess the level of danger or benefit it may offer. The study also showed that we seek novelty in order to receive reward. In essence, new things give us a neuronal payoff. Finally, learning is enhanced in the context of novelty. When we are presented with something we have not seen before, whether it is grappling with the world of Twitter or solving our first Sudoku puzzle, all cognitive processes involved in learning (working memory, visual processing, problem solving, etc.) are enhanced. Who knew that Fashion Week and the trends borne from it were good for the brain?

I spoke with Jill Marinelli, a personal stylist who describes herself as having "a passion for helping everyday women look anything but ordinary," to find out more about the trend machine. She believes that trends are not only a source of novelty but reinvention. Like painting the walls or changing the pillows of our home, an addition of a new and trendy item in our wardrobe allows for us to experience the excitement of self-reinvention. Unfortunately, with this opportunity also comes the downside of trends. We are pressured to remain current, but Marinelli cautions that keeping up with the ever-changing runway is impossible. She also believes that "personal style is not about blindly following fashion trends, but about knowing what works for your body type and communicating who you are through your dress." In order to best dress her clients Marinelli asks them if their image reflects who they are and where they want to go. If they decide to incorporate trends finding those that speak to the client and enhance the internal and external components is the best way to use the novelty from the runway.

Of all the many trends, new, reinterpreted, or copied, Marinelli reported femininity, bold colors, and strong structures dominated the runway. The fit and flare design of the peplum, seen at Carolina Herrera, Lela Rose, and Rebecca Taylor, accentuates or creates the ideal hip-to-waist-ratio that our brain is instinctually attracted to. This ratio indicates not only femininity but fertility and health. The prim and proper ladies who lunch look, modernized by Oscar de la Renta, and the head-to-toe-floral ensembles further feminized many of the collections.

The return to femininity has important sociological implications. Feminine fashion was often used to "keep women in their proper place" in the kitchen, on a shelf or out of the boardroom. As women were given greater rights, privileges, freedom, and opportunities for success and independence their fashion choices shifted. Feminine fashion was rejected and women embraced "power" clothing, which translated into masculine items spearheaded by Donna Karan. The power suit, pant, stacked heel, and war paint makeup of the 80s prepared women for the concrete jungle. Times and the accompanying uniform have changed, we are able to be powerful and female. Feminine clothes do not deplete our strength but add to it, and that is evident in our trend selection.

Bold colors saturate Fashion Week. Marinelli cites an all-winter white look, which is an "elegant alternative" to the all black ensemble. Doo.Ri, who also has a line at Macys, perfected this trend for Fall 2012. Tangerine tango, from Spring 2012, is still popular for the fall season. Similar to the color of a construction sign, our brain is naturally drawn to this bright color. A new hue on the runway, burgundy, was found in coats, and PVC materials in clothing. Burgundy creates feelings of warmth, comfort, and elegance. In a world haunted by economic crises, international warring, and political uncertainty, colors defend against sadness and anxiety. As the weather worsens, the temperature drops, and daylight decreases, the fall and winter are lit with super saturation.

Amidst soft femininity and strong hues, highly architectural designs use fabric to create silhouette structure. Marinelli reports that these clothes are perfected by Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, and Helmut Lang. As part of the structural focus, Marinelli states that military inspired details, such as the epaulets found in Victoria Beckham's collection, are "not going away." These looks speak to the cross pollination of fashion and art. The consistent feedback-loop of inspiration brings sculptural details to the runway.

In addition to art, fashion was also inspired by technology. On the runway items, our technological advances pushed fashion forward. Many pieces were decorated with new patterns or reinventions of preexisting patterns using digital enhancements. But technological trends did not end with the production of clothing pieces they also influenced the delivery of Fashion Week. Live stream presentations of the runway shows were de rigueur. Tweets and Facebook updates from designers, celebrities, and show attendees bombarded the virtual world. Blogs and online media outlets analyzed, scrutinized, and glorified the latest looks within the day. Our need for immediacy is satiated by here-and-now-views of the runway. The days of waiting for new looks are over! As Marinelli reported, ABS's designer Alan Schwartz uses the immediacy of the media to recreate looks from award's shows for his collections. Within twenty-four hours, his staff was sewing looks for production.

In addition to technology aiding in the delivery of the latest runway trends, financial accessibility has increased revenue for many designers. Fashion for the masses was initially the antithesis of Fashion Week. In this economy, creating and displaying low-end items with high-end looks will now keep designers in business. Collections from QVC, Jason Wu, Karl Lagerfeld, and Missoni can be seen on the runway and/or your local Target. Psychologically speaking, individuals who may never be able to purchase high-end items can become part of an elite brand by buying the lower-end items. Masstige, or prestige for the masses, allows us to have a small piece of a glamorous inaccessible world... even if it is only in the form of a polyester scarf or plastic plate. Marinelli supports obtainable fashion but feels that "much of fashion is not obtainable." She states that "much like a Picasso that cannot be bought, but can be seen and appreciated" we can still enjoy fashion's creations.

Amidst the constant stream of runway fashion, Marinelli believes that dressing must ultimately communicate a reflection of the truest self. She states that "everyone wants to be known" and fashion allows an expression of authenticity. As I address in my book, You Are What You Wear, all dress choices are internally motivated and can be analyzed to reveal the inner self. Trends chasing is often motivated from a desire to fit in, feel current, and masks insecurities. These ever-changing fashion dictates never allow for a concrete identification of your look, your preference, and ultimately the message you want to put forth in the world. Marinelli suggests "plucking out the trends that work for you." Find those that are harmonious with that which you already are!

Jill Marinelli works with individual clients, teaches classes, and speaks to groups about creating a unique, authentic personal style. She is also a regular on-air contributor to The Rhode Show on CBS Providence and FOX25 Boston's Morning News. Email:

About the Author
Jennifer Baumgartner

Jennifer Baumgartner, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist who examines the underlying reasons for clients' style choices and creates a wardrobe to facilitate positive internal change.

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