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We often see style as a projection of ourselves; a way to emphasise personal uniqueness or seek group similarity. But whatever the purpose of our fashion ‘identity’, the acute awareness societies have accumulated across places and time could actually be a method of self-affirmation and consequently, protection from potential mental disorders.

Cultural dressing and mental health

What we wear is a reflection of who we are and knowing who we are as individuals can help improve mental wellbeing by giving us a sense of direction, purpose and security. For example, clothing preferences can influence mental wellbeing and reduce the general risk of mental health issues – so long as it is synonymous with an individual’s social groups (Bhui, et al, 2008). For some, making culturally traditional clothing choices can lead to a lower risk of mental health problems, but for others making ‘integrated’ clothing choices (ones which are trend-led) can reduce this risk.

Wearing traditional clothing can feel protective; it reflects a sheltered upbringing and adherence to religion, whilst wearing trend-led pieces can give others a sense of social status and confidence. Therefore, perhaps it’s not literally what one wears that enhances wellbeing, but rather what it stands for in our social circles. Adopting another culture’s traditional clothing style can not only be interpreted as cultural appropriation, it can also create intrafamilial conflict as it differs to the identity of your peers. Therefore, style potentially has the power to mediate relationships with others, affecting our mental health.

Dress yourself happy

Having a sense of personal style may also be influential at a cognitive level. Having positive self-evaluations, and an exaggerated perception of control and optimism can promote a positive mental state (Taylor et al, 1988). This may seem self-explanatory but what you may not know is that fashion can be a mechanism by which we can enhance our self-perceptions. By giving ourselves the power and freedom to dress as we please, we can enhance our preferred features and mask our insecurities, contributing to an increasingly positive, optimistic view of oneself.

Having a positive illusion of our bodies and capabilities has been reported to aid us in dealing with negative feedback more constructively. Therefore, the next time you have an important event, make sure to wear those special heels, your favourite tie or even your lucky underwear – it could be your secret weapon to happiness.

Take Pride in your Appearance 

With all of this in mind, much of our mental well-being arguably pins on our levels of self-esteem. Having high self-esteem can help to reduce the livelihood of suffering a mental disorder to displaying antisocial behaviours (Mann et al, 2004). Therefore, encouraging young children and adolescents to take pride and care in their appearance could stretch further than vanity, rather it could be used as a preventative measure from troubled behaviours and poor health later in life. Focussing on boosting self-esteem via fashion may in fact be beneficial in healthcare and education programmes – it will give individuals more confidence and security in who they are. This can also have the additional benefit of boosting job prospects; by knowing how to dress well improves first impressions and chances of succeeding in an interview. The additional income and ability to maintain busy can also keep people out of trouble – also giving wider societal benefits.

Fashion clearly has a role to play in promoting a positive self-image and reducing mental health issues in individuals. Although it may not be the sole cure to mental disorders, feeling confident and comfortable in your own skin can boost your sense of identity and self-esteem, which consequently improves mental wellbeing. Treating yourself to a new t-shirt or tie may not necessarily be something to feel guilty about – it could be contributing to a positive self-image and protecting you from a predisposed mental health issue.

My chief remit was not to show ethnic diversity as a policy…you would sell fewer copies. It’s as simple as that.” –

Alexandra Shulman, former editor-in-chief of Vogue U.K.

It’s one thing to know in your heart that racist comments like this are not true but another type of satisfaction arises when you scientifically prove it to be incorrect. In my new paper published in The International Journal of Market Research, I’ve done just that.

Before I had the language to articulate it, I knew that my relationship with fashion would always be somewhat one-sided. As easy as it is to get lost in the flourish of patterns, shapes and fabrics, as a young Black woman, you can’t help but notice something’s missing and that something is you, or rather, a reflection of you. At the moment, the number of active models of colour are on the rise. It’s true, fashion shows and magazine covers are becoming increasingly diverse. However, many of us still remember the days when if someone asked you to name 5 black fashion models you’d say Naomi, Tyra, Alek, Beverly and then your voice would trail off into a mumble.

I’m happy to say that this list is growing everyday but to say that fashion has fixed its diversity problem would be a step too far. Last year, the Guardian published data after analysing 214 covers from the 19 best selling glossies in the UK with less than positive results. In two months in 2017, the front covers of every publication featured images of white people, exclusively. The covers of four magazines – Marie Claire, HomeStyle, Your Home and Prima – did not feature a single person of colour throughout 2017. When analysing children’s magazines, the data revealed an even more dire lack of diversity where 95% of the cover models were white.

Increased inclusivity in fashion and movements like #unfairandlovely and #blackmodelsmatter will continue to be celebrated but for people of colour, our brains are simply hardwired to be hyper-aware that the industry is still not truly representative. 

‘Distinctiveness Theory’ refers to “the idea that people define themselves on the basis of traits that are numerically rare in their local environments.” Research suggests that race and ethnicity are two of the most meaningful self-defining traits associated with distinctiveness and are often the first things that pop into your head when you’re asked to describe yourself. So in general, minorities are more “saliently aware of their race” “and consider their race a prominent factor in their interpersonal communications”. As our race and ethnicity are prominent self-defining features, we’re more acutely aware when an industry, that has an important by-product in its ability to legitimize and publicize the existence of often-ignored ethnic groups, doesn’t.

The bi-product of underrepresentation is the fostering of the belief; especially among younger people of colour, that they’re undesirable. Hashtags and protests are powerful tools of change but money will always be the most persuasive motivator of change. It was this realisation that made me embark on my latest research paper investigating racial representation in fashion and beauty media. Ethnic minorities have a $3.9 Trillion Buying Power and yet very few brands consider us when creating advertising and marketing campaigns.

Fashion is Psychology
Example of stimuli used in the experiment

In my new paper ‘Testing the effect of consumer-model racial congruency on consumer behavior’ published in The International Journal of Market Research I tested the consumer behaviour of Black and White consumers when presented with adverts featuring Black and White models. The results proved that both black and white consumers will spend significantly more money on product when its advertised by a Black model. Models of colour have tremendous value. 

With this research I hope the industry will fully wake up to the damaging impact of  underrepresentation by understanding that it not only impacts the mental wellbeing of their consumers but it also impacts their bottom line.