On Saturday I woke up to find out, over coffee and the New York Times, that “fashion psychology” is now a thing. Dawnn Karen—a Columbia grad who, in 2012, made history as the first black female psychology professor (and also one of the youngest) at New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology—is an academic and entrepreneur at the forefront of furthering the area of fashion psychology.
According to Karen’s website, the field was originally created by Harvard professor Henry James in the 19th century to encompass the “study and treatment of how color, image, style and beauty affect human behavior, while addressing cultural norms and cultural sensitivities.”
While the field of fashion psychology is not yet officially recognized as a subspecialty by academia or the medical profession, perhaps it’s an idea whose time has come.
In the world we live in now, brands can be brought to their knees in an instant by a blunder. Think of the H&M campaign featuring a black boy modeling a “coolest monkey in the jungle” sweatshirt. The image sparked a global internet outrage, leading to the ransacking of H&M’s stores in Johannesburg and Oslo, Norway.
The Glow Up has reported on the phenomenon of brands trolling black people as a means to get some sort of Insta-fame, like the Italian nail polish color marketed as “Thick As a Nigga.” Most recently, Groupon posted a discount on a brand selling “Nigger Brown Moccasins”—an offer that was withdrawn with an apology from Groupon.
Black Twitter can’t be the eyes, ears and the watchdogs and do it all alone! Someone has to put on a cape and stilettos and step in to save brands from themselves and keep consumers from having to ask the question, “Is everybody who works there crazy?”
The Glow Up reached out to Karen via The Glow Up’s Instagram account regarding the offensively named “Thick As a Nigga” nail polish and “Nigger Brown Moccasins.” She had this to say:
Essentially it is about brands trying to give these products or services or styles new meanings; however, they’re not mindful of the psychological impact of picking up a nail polish that has the word “nigger.” Brands just aren’t aware of the damage or psychological impact.
That’s where Karen, who is 29, hopes to make a difference as a teacher at the Fashion Institute of Technology and separately as the founder of the first-ever online course in the field of fashion psychology at her own Fashion Psychology Institute.
Karen offers classes at both institutions on the perceptions of fashion and race. “The Hoodie Effect: George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin” is a class that asks why America loves black style so much, but a black man can get killed or thrown in jail just for wearing a hoodie.
Karen also challenges stereotypes and perceptions by teaching class dressed in sweats. (Mind you, she’s also been known to throw on matching leopard heels and a jacket to elevate not only the outfit but also her mood.)
Fashion may sound frivolous or like an afterthought to some people, especially when you hear about some of Karen’s assignments, like “the fashion psychology behind a laundry detergent,” which even she admits was “a bit absurd to decipher.” (Answer: Detergent improves clothes, which, in turn, improves mood.)
However, the story of how Karen came to study the relationship between fashion and its psychological power to enhance a person’s mood is quite a serious matter.
Fashion is the tool Karen used to heal herself as a survivor of a devastating, violent sexual assault. Karen’s 2017 TEDx Talk, “Styling From the Inside Out,” lays out how fashion helped to rebuild her self-esteem and career, both shattered by rape and battery: “I went to my closet and put on the best outfit I ever owned as a way to get on with my life.”
Karen says that she was emotionally withdrawn as a result of the attack, and as her studies as a psychologist began to suffer, she recounts in her TEDx Talk, professors were telling her that “she was no longer connecting with her clients and lacked the traditional empathy needed to become a therapist.”
During a leave of absence, which made her “feel like a failure,” Karen was encouraged by her father to research a new career, which led to a stint as a fashion journalist stationed in the Middle East and then to finding the field in which she is now a trailblazer: fashion psychology.
As she told the New York Times: “Every day, I used clothes as a way to heal myself.”
With what she’s accomplished, she makes a strong case for tackling every day with style.