4 fashion psychology secrets to know

mannequin facing forward at department store
Don O’Neill, who has designed eveningwear for celebrities (though not the clothing above), says of his work, “There can be no hesitation. It has to be put on, and they just need to know that the dress they're wearing checks all the boxes, and that they feel confident in it.” (Yuliya Klochan/MEDILL)

By Yuliya Klochan
Medill Reports

The fashion industry globally reached $1.9 trillion in retail sales of clothing and footwear in 2019, according to Statista, with the U.S. emerging as the largest apparel market. And what Americans wear has major consequences on both their physical and mental well-being. 

“If you felt good in your dress, and you felt good about yourself, and that inner confidence was on fire — it’s that inner light that shines through my whole design process,” said Don O’Neill, a designer of evening wear and custom bridal apparel who’s dressed celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Meghan Markle and Carrie Underwood. “When you walked into a room in one of my dresses, I wanted people to say, ‘You look great,’ instead of, ‘That dress was awesome.’ It was about you rather than the dress.” 

Here are four fashion psychology ideas to understand as the global apparel and footwear market rises toward a projected $3.3 trillion annually by 2030, according to Statista


Secret #1: Can’t stop buying Prada? The psychology of brand addiction.

fast fashion storefront
Brand addiction feels different for luxury versus fast fashion brands. Those following fast fashion are fueled by the desire to stay up to date and “keep up with the buzz,” marketing and fashion expert Mona Mrad says. (Yuliya Klochan/MEDILL)

“One of the participants, he said, ‘Apple is like your wife. Can you divorce your wife?’” recalled Mona Mrad, assistant professor of marketing at the American University of Sharjah. 

Mrad and her colleagues led a series of focus groups to explore the concept of brand addiction (BA), and she has many stories to tell, some published in a subsequent study in 2018 in Journal of Business Research

One woman enrolled in the university for a master’s degree so she could get a better-paying job to buy Chanel. Another participant’s brother convinced everyone around him to buy Hugo Boss. And one man recalled how his friend, having run out of clothing in the middle of a  trip to Rome, convinced his group of friends to search for a Ralph Lauren shop with him, since he was unprepared to wear any other brand. 

BA is defined as “a psychological state that entails an emotional attachment to a particular brand, driven by compulsive urges that generally provide pleasure,” according to a research paper published by Mrad in Qualitative Market Research in 2018. 

BA can activate the same brain area linked to other addictive behaviors such as alcoholism, but it’s not the same as compulsive buying, although the two conditions can coexist. In fact, the presence of BA — which gives people feelings of gratification from buying their favorite brand’s products — can weaken the negative effects of compulsive buying, according to a 2020 study co-authored by Mrad and published in Journal of Business Research

One brand addict described her experience of buying a coat as, “‘This brand shouts Emily,’” Mrad recalled. “You feel that it is you, it’s who you are. And this is the reason why you become addicted to this brand — because it’s representing you. It’s giving you this kind of branding, this kind of positioning of who you are.” 


Secret #2: What people wear influences how they think and feel 

mannequins dressed in men's clothing
In a work-from-home environment, more people are opting out of matching tops and bottoms in favor of a “Zoom mullet.” (Yuliya Klochan/MEDILL)

The “Zoom mullet,” according to Urban Dictionary, is “business on top, pajama pants on the bottom.” Many have adopted this attire during the remote work era, but what are the psychological consequences? 

A January 2022 study, published in Academy of Management Discoveries, showed wearing full-on home attire, top and bottom, increased workers’ authenticity and engagement, while neither full work attire nor the “Zoom mullet” had these positive effects.

This experiment is one of many exploring the concept of “enclothed cognition,” coined in 2012 to describe how “what we wear can influence how we think, feel, and act.” In that first 2012 study, published in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers observed that wearing a doctor’s lab coat increased people’s attention. They did not observe this improvement when participants were given the same garment, but were told it was a painter’s coat. 

A multi-university research team failed to replicate the lab coat study with a larger sample in a 2019 experiment, but, given that other studies on enclothed cognition exist, the 2019 experiment did not debunk the theory entirely. 

More recent experiments, besides the one on the Zoom mullet, reveal new ways what people wear influences their behavior. In a 2022 paper, published in Trends in Psychology, wearing anti-COVID-19 face masks made people more willing to be spontaneous, at least in imagined social interactions. In a 2019 study, published in Psychological Reports, researchers demonstrated that participants wearing police uniforms were more likely to shoot unarmed targets in a first-person video game simulation.


Secret #3: Painful heels and restrictive skirts—the role of gender in fashion choices

shelf with colorful stiletto heels
Studies have shown wearing heels can increase perceived attractiveness, but also the risk of chronic muscle and skeletal problems. (Yuliya Klochan/MEDILL)

“My mom always said, ‘Vanity knows no pain,’” recalled Kathlin Argiro, an evening wear designer and instructor at Fashion Institute of Technology. “It’s a very old saying, but I wouldn’t say I prescribe to that.” Argiro has sold her collection to Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s. 

“If you don’t feel comfortable and confident in what you’re wearing, you’re not going to have fun, and it’s going to show,” Argiro said. But not every designer agrees, and people continue to wear clothing that can be uncomfortable and even take a physical toll.

The burden falls mostly on women, who are significantly more likely to wear clothes or shoes that fall under one or more of the painful, self-distracting or restricting categories. These results, collected prior to the pandemic, were published in a 2021 research paper in Sex Roles. The most stark contrasts were the gender differences in shoe comfort: Women were up to 10 times more likely to wear painful footwear. Up to 55% of women, but only up to 12% of men, said they’d worn clothing that left “red marks or welts” on their bodies. 


Secret #4: How the COVID-19 pandemic affected fashion choices

mannequins dressed in eveningwear
Retail stores have a mean inventory turnover ratio of almost 11, according to Investopedia. This means that stores, on average, replenish their whole stock more than 10 times a year due to high demand. (Yuliya Klochan/MEDILL)

“What (the pandemic) has done is to realign a lot of values that people have and what they’re looking to get out of apparel and other fashion related items,” said Michael Solomon, professor of marketing at Saint Joseph’s University. “Probably the biggest change is the consciousness about sustainability.” 

Solomon said the lockdown gave people time to reflect on their values, which led to rethinking fast fashion and purchasing from companies that have not expressed social responsibility. 

O’Neill shared a similar sentiment: “I think there’s been a global awareness of where your clothing comes from,” he said. Designers graduating from fashion school know the origin of their products and the manufacturing process, striving to make it ethical and the materials renewable. 

The customers are catching up too. “I feel like the pandemic shone a huge light on sustainability and environmental fashion, responsible sourcing and responsible fashion,” O’Neill said. Customers today also demand transparency. 

“It’s not that we stopped buying,” Mrad said. “We will keep buying, but we will buy differently.” The trend for consumers is to purchase products that are intended more for comfort than showing off. Hard items — those fashion pieces, like Rolex watches and luxury handbags, that last longer — are outselling soft items, as people are thinking of their new products more as investments. “I would rather buy a handbag that is going to have value even after a few years, instead of buying an outfit that I don’t know whether I will wear it or not. And then after one year, it will not be trending anymore,” Mrad said. 

Argiro is not planning her next collection yet, but she has some ideas on what she could change post-lockdown: “I’d probably do a combination of real glamorous type of evening wear, but then also have some things that were a little bit more of athleisure.” In the end, “people would want a little bit of fantasy” after being in sweatpants for so long.

Yuliya Klochan is a health, environment and science graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @YuliyaKlochan.