The psychology of style

June 16, 2008

Yesterday was in danger of not being a great day. I was stood up by my original date, and my flatmate, my usual best playmate, was laid up and lying on her bed moaning feebly. I was bored. I was checking my email every five minutes – not good recovery behaviour – and was scarily close to spending the afternoon raiding the fridge for all the wrong reasons.

So I got the hatboxes off the cupboard and went through all the hats. Old hats have gone away and new hats have come out. I put together some new outfits, using each hat as the basis for new combinations of clothes, ideas that I’d never thought of before. I made my poor sick flatmate try on hats and outfits as well, and gave her two that no longer suit me. By the time we had to leave for Mass, she had perked up noticeably and I was fizzing with energy.

I spend a lot of time playing with clothes, both my own and other women’s. My flatmate sometimes claims I think she is a doll, so often do I dress her up. I have been through many of my friends’ wardrobes, helping them to define their style and learn to put together outfits that they love. I’ve done it semi-professionally. I love it, and it makes me very happy.

But is it a good thing?

There are arguments both ways. I list some (not exhaustive):

In favour:
(1) I’m helping women to be happier with how they look. This raises their confidence and makes them happier in general.
(2) I’m often helping them to save money, by being more creative with their existing wardrobes and learning what they really want to wear.
(3) It is lots of fun. Everyone has a good time.
(4) It is creating more choice for the client – the more she can control how she looks, the more options are available for her.

(1) It is colluding with a social problem. Part of the way women are discriminated against in our society is that we are judged on our looks, and this becomes a competition. The act of helping someone to move up the scale is implicitly condoning the validity of this. It is not really useful for these women, even if they do better in the short term- instead, it is binding them more closely to this way of being. And it is not helpful for women in general.
(2) It is shallow, devoting time and energy to the way we look when there are so many more important things to pay attention to.

I often wonder what I am doing when I play with my own wardrobe, trying on hats and new outfits. Am I creating my feminine identity in a positive, empowered way? Am I playing, childlike, bringing light and magic into my day? Or am I a prisoner of my beliefs about how I should look, always looking for ways to make myself more attractive to others, trying to win a competition with other women? Am I using my wardrobe like another drug?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions.

My gut instinct is that it is not all bad. There was no hangover of guilt and shame after my hat orgy – instead, I was happy all day and I’m still smiling at the memory. All the clients I’ve stayed in touch with have continued to be excited and enthused about how they look, and in touch with the benefits for their confidence and sense of self. They have stayed interested in how they look. (Of course, they would not necessarily tell me if they felt very differently.)

But my instinct is often wrong. And I have no answer to the critiques. These are questions that I have been grappling with for years, and I’m always very interested in new perspectives. I think the arguments both ways are compelling.


7 Responses to “The psychology of style”

  1. John Says:

    Part of the way women are discriminated against in our society is that we are judged on our looks, and this becomes a competition.

    I’m not sure this is very different for men. The rules are different and the judgements may be more in/out than rank order but the process exists.

  2. Alithea Says:

    In my opinion, (1) in favour is the clincher – increasing happiness in the world is a very good thing provided it is not done by making others miserable, and while the social problem referred to in (1) against may contribute to misery, I do not think it is witnessing/being a woman happy and secure in her looks which makes us miserable on that front.

  3. Amelia Eve Says:

    How is it different from other visual arts?

    Most paintings and sculpture don’t “do” anything, but they often make people happy. We have to wear clothes anyway, so why not have clothes that make us happy, too? I mostly think of my wardrobe and makeup as crafts projects that I get to change every day. And that makes me happy.

  4. Francesca Says:

    Reply to John:

    I don’t doubt that the process exists, but I don’t think that its significance is so great for men.

  5. Nicholas Says:

    What is really peculiar is that my five-year-old, autistic, speechless daughter really loves to look pretty; she admires herself in the mirror and demands favourite items of clothing to wear. She certainly has no concept, and is unable to develop a concept, of judging anyone except herself on her looks. It has made me realise that it is not all socially constructed – or if it is, it may be at a much less sinister level than we are sometimes asked to believe.

  6. Francesca Says:

    Hello! Didn’t know you were here. Lovely to hear from you. *beaming*

    That is interesting indeed.

  7. Ros Says:

    I agree with Amelia Eve: making things – or people – beautiful is not shallow. It contributes to the beauty of the world and the happiness of the people in it. So although I think you’re right in your first negative point, it would be a shame if we allowed that to outweigh all the positive points. Making everyone look the same so that they can’t be discriminated against because of their appearance simply has the effect of making everyone miserable.

    Making people beautiful and happy seems to be a great gift of yours. Have you thought about making it your job?

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