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Image / Style / Off The Cuff

How to build your personal style – as told by a fashion psychologist

by Erin Lindsay
12th Oct 2020

Wondering how to build a capsule wardrobe for autumn? Professor Carolyn Mair has the science behind it

It’s not every day you hear of a profession like a ‘fashion psychologist’. Although, Professor Carolyn Mair doesn’t describe herself as that; she’s a psychologist, working in and with the fashion industry. Having gained her PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience and becoming a Professor of Psychology for Fashion at University of the Arts London , Mair carved out a career that many of us would only dream of – combining a love of fashion and style with the mechanics of the brain that come with it. But what does Mair’s job actually entail? “I apply the knowledge I have in psychology within the context of fashion, in every sense of it; production, design, to retail, to consumer behaviour to disposal and sustainability”, Professor Mair said. Having developed the world’s first masters courses in psychology applied to fashion in the University of the Arts in London, Mair is a rare breed. But many people pass her career focus off as ‘fluffy’, when in reality, it’s so much more. “ I think people judge it because the fashion industry is considered frivolous, instead of being seen as a hugely important global industry and a very powerful way of changing behaviours. I’m interested in encouraging consumers to be more empowered and to make the most of how clothes can work for them”, she said.

Through her groundbreaking work, Mair was recruited by TK Maxx for their ‘Maxximum Style’ campaign, which focuses on eradicating the awkwardness of ‘twinning’ with someone with the exact same outfit, and celebrating and cultivating a unique personal style. As a psychologist who works with fashion, I was interested to hear how she defines personal style. “It’s really individuality; what we wear is an expression of our identity,” Mair replied. “Identity can change depending on the context we’re in, on the role we’re acting as at that moment in time – as a parent, a partner, or our role in a job. Personal style depends on that role, it depends on the agency we take on.”

So how do women find that style? And I don’t just mean models or Insta-girls; real women, the ones who aren’t always catered for in mainstream fashion. Mair says that one of the biggest challenges she finds facing women is how difficult it is for them to actually shop. “The traditional perpetuated ideal in fashion suits a very small portion of population. People larger than a size 12-14, older women, people who have disabilities all find it difficult to find fashion. What stores have in stock are not geared towards the diverse population that actually exists.”

This is not news – criticism of mainstream fashion has upped the ante in recent years, as brands are called out for their distinctly non-diverse campaigns. But the likes of ASOS, featuring models of different dress sizes and abilities regularly, are a shining example to other brands. But women can’t wait around forever – while the rest of the high street catches up, what can they do in the meantime to cultivate their style?

According to Mair, it’s all down to experimentation. “I try to advise these women to go to a store that has lots of different styles and silhouettes; ultimately, a choice with items that you wouldn’t normally go for. I always go to places like TK Maxx because they have items that are completely unexpected and yet suit me so well.”

But what about mindset? Mair is a psychologist after all. When it comes down to the meeting of style and grey matter, she says that confidence is key. “People will make a judgement about your appearance in under a second. It’s so important to be mindful of how you look, how you feel when you’re interacting with someone, because how other people see you is based on how you feel,” she explained. “If you feel confident in your clothes, you will look good – you’ll stand better, your clothes will look better on you and you’ll be better equipped to engage with people. Don’t underestimate the power of confidence to change how you look.”

As she headed off for more work around the Maxximum Style campaign, Mair’s parting words were about inspiring to a fashion lover; the importance of fluidity. “Realising that personality is not a fixed entity and that it changes over your lifetime and even day to day is something that I wish more women understood when it comes to style”, she said. “Understanding that dressing for your personality is just as much about dressing for the context of the moment and feeling great in that moment is important.” Confidence is key.

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