Why We Shop the Way We Shop: An Interview with Fashion Psychologist, Dr. Carolyn Mair
When we are shopping for clothes, what makes us buy a particular item over and above another? It could be that it caught our eye in a fashion advertisement or editorial, or that we’ve seen it worn by a particular influencer. But, more often than not, there are also far more subtle influences at work. Major fashion brands are increasingly turning to psychology to understand not only why we shop the way we shop, but also to examine how they can improve their own practices in areas such as psychological wellbeing within the industry, representation, inclusivity and sustainability.
A renowned expert within this field is Dr. Carolyn Mair, a cognitive psychologist working in the fashion industry. Dr. Mair wrote The Psychology of Fashion, published in 2018, and was also Professor of Psychology for Fashion at the London School of Fashion, where she developed the world’s first Masters and Bachelors degree programmes to apply psychology in the context of fashion. Dr Mair now works with clothing brands and media outlets as a freelance consultant and was recently appointed spokesperson for Oxfam’s latest Second hand September campaign.
As part of Slow Fashion Movement’s flagship Slow Fashion Season campaign, Dr Mair kindly agreed to chat with us to discuss why we shop the way we do, and to look at ways in which the industry can change and diversify to ensure a brighter fast fashion future for us all.
- Why is what we wear so important?
That’s a great question. Why is what we wear so important? Because what we wear is a way of showing ourselves to the world, of showing our identity. Our clothes are the closest things to our bodies, they are our second skin. They align us with certain groups and distinguish us from others. They also enable us to change our identity, or to show an identity that we would like to have. We change our clothes according to context — we dress differently at home than we would going to a party, going to the beach, or even going to work, depending on the work we do.
In some sense, clothes are quite high up the chain of needs in order to survive. We need our food and shelter, then we need some social engagement and a sense of community. Finally, we need esteem, and that is very much about appearance. Regardless of whether we think that’s good or bad, we make a judgement about someone in under one second; we make a judgement about whether we like them or not and then we find all these other attributes to build on to show that we are right in liking or disliking this person, based entirely on their physical appearance. Fashion is a big part of that.
2. Research indicates that women generally only wear 20–30% of the clothes in their closet, suggesting that we are guilty of over-buying. If we already have enough to meet our needs, what entices us to keep buying more?
It might be that we over-buy, but it might also mean that we over-keep. We keep clothes for different reasons. We might think that we will fit into them again, if that’s the reason we’re not wearing them. We might think the occasion will arise when we will wear that item again. We might lose interest in what is in our wardrobe, items we once loved, but don’t anymore — there are very few items that we are going to love forever but those kept items are perhaps very functional or symbolic of a significant event, such as a wedding dress, or Christening gown. Of course, some people over-buy and then they’ve possibly got more than 80% of things in their wardrobe that they never wear! Overbuying is a problem, but it’s not the only reason why we might have a lot of things in our wardrobe that we don’t wear.
3. Shopping for clothes has historically been considered as a feminine amusement. In The Psychology of Fashion you point out that men are increasingly shopping for fashion as a leisure pastime. Can you explain what is driving this?
There has been a big push to increase the assortment available in men’s fashion, and men are certainly caring more about how they look. From a young age, the pressure has always been on women to look great and do great things, whereas men used to get away with it. It didn’t really matter so much how men looked, it was much more about what men did. That is changing and it’s a complex picture.
As a consequence of the fashion industry producing more menswear, we also start to see more men in fashion imagery. This triggers an ‘I want to buy that so I will look like that’ or ‘I don’t look like that’ or ‘I feel bad about myself’ response. This is exactly the same that has gone on for women for decades.
4. Everything now is so immediate and fleeting. Catwalk fashion can be on the High Street within a matter of hours. Clothing can be bought at the press of a button, without having to get up off the sofa, items delivered the next day, your purchase photographed and disseminated via social media and paid for via credit or try before you buy schemes. Shopping for fashion is now incredibly easy and fast, so how has this impacted the industry and our consumption of fashion?
Well, the industry makes that happen. If they create something that is successful, which, from a business perspective, fast fashion is, they will keep doing it to bring in a profit. Some consumers buy into this. But at least 50% of what we buy in this way is returned. This contributes to environmental damage impact through transportation, plus delivery and packaging costs. Some brands do not reuse or resell returned items and some are not even recycled. We heard not long ago about Burberry burning almost thirty million pounds worth of clothes! Regardless of the financial cost, what did the burning do to the planet? This is a luxury brand which people are supposed to aspire to!
In my opinion, buy now, pay later schemes are absolutely awful. I’m very much a fighter for people on low incomes and I think it’s terribly important to support them to become part of the fashion world. But encouraging people to get into debt is a really big problem. People like buy now, pay later schemes because it allows them to buy into luxury; we can buy more expensive things. But if we can’t afford them, we can’t afford them and it’s super problematic.
5. You’ve made it very clear that you enjoy shopping second-hand and of course, you’re now collaborating with Oxfam on their Second Hand September campaign. The Psychology of Fashion discusses the way in which some consumers apply negative associations to vintage or second-hand clothing. How do you think this attitude could be addressed in order to reduce overproduction of new garments?
I’m very much in favour of second-hand shopping. It’s an amazing thing — you may find a bargain, or a unique item, and at the same time, you’re doing something good for someone else and supporting a charity. What’s not to like?
We have to understand, however, that people who were brought up in poverty and had to wear hand-me-downs or secondhand clothes may prefer to buy new items, if they have the opportunity. Also, until quite recently, second-hand shops were not like they are now. When I was a young teenager second-hand shops were few and far between, and they didn’t have ordinary clothes because a lot of people wore their things until they fell apart. Nowadays, charity shops are lovely, they are like boutiques. They’re not the smelly, jumble sale places they used to be. However, some people are worried the clothes might have been worn by someone who has died. Not everyone is going to be open to buying from charity shops and I think we just have to accept that.
However, we are definitely seeing a change. I have shopped all my life in charity shops and, as a ‘regular’ size, I could always find something. Now it’s more difficult to do that because there are far more people from all age groups shopping second-hand. The stigma is changing, particularly when you label second-hand as vintage or pre-loved.
I firmly believe that the more we buy second-hand, the less we will buy brand new. One of the messages for this year’s Second Hand September is ‘It’s new to me.’ In other words, a second-hand garment may not be brand new, but it’s new to me and I still get that buzz as if I’m buying brand new.
There is a danger of over-buying and I have been guilty of that. The things I took back to charity shops were always the things I had bought in charity shops that didn’t go with anything else in my wardrobe. But for me, that doesn’t matter too much. It means I’ve given my money to a good cause, regardless of whether I keep the item. Also it means I’m trying new styles and if it doesn’t work out, I’ve spent £5 or £10 and hopefully I’ve made a small difference to somebody’s life, or contributed at least.
I think one of the issues with charity shops is that they need more donations, particularly since the rise of resell sites such as Ebay. DePop, Vinted etc. There are a lot of ways to get rid of our unwanted clothes now so charity shops are receiving less. We need to give them more clothing and cater for menswear, larger sizes and bodies that are not the ‘standard’ type. These people can find it incredibly difficult to buy second-hand. Until there is more assortment in the shops, generally, you are not going to find the range in charity shops as they only receive a small proportion of what is available.
Most of the clothing in charity shops is fast fashion, but it does last, provided you look after it, and most of it doesn’t fall apart after one wear. If we can keep our clothes in circulation for longer, regardless of where they’ve come from, that has to be a positive thing.
6. The Psychology of Fashion was first published in 2018. What positive changes have you seen since then and what next steps would you like to see being taken?
The Psychology of Fashion was published in 2018, but I actually started writing it in 2016, so it’s a long time ago! I think we are seeing positive changes in the industry. There is more circulation through second-hand, upcycling, and recycling. The rental market has mushroomed, although this also has its sustainability issues such as dry cleaning and transportation — nothing is without its own problems.
There is more representation and inclusivity but we still have a very long way to go. There is still a huge problem regarding lack of visibility and representation for people with disabilities. There is a myth in fashion that says women want to aspire to look like what they see; the reality is that they want to see people who look like them, and there are studies that show that.
The fashion industry needs to change its business model right across the value chain. The snobbery that goes with luxury is ridiculous and also damaging when we have a cost of living crisis, or indeed, at any time. I am really sick and tired of the haves and have nots and the divide is getting bigger and bigger.
I want to look after the people who love fashion, who are at the lower end of the value chain. That really matters to me. If you can make a difference to them, you’re making a real difference. If you make a difference to the 0.09% of the population who buy luxury, then what difference does that make? That’s not going to change the climate crisis. Bashing fast fashion all the time and bashing the people who buy it, that’s a huge problem because you just turn them off. And the fast fashion industry continues to make its profits.
Like luxury brands, fast fashion brands need to think about different ways to make money. They could build hotels, or build beauty empires, or go into education, or a thousand different things. They need to recognise that fast fashion is not the only way to earn money. Also, they need to investigate materials science. That will change the fashion industry. It will keep clothes in circulation for longer and it will enable us to get rid of our clothes in a sustainable way that doesn’t damage the environment but, in fact, does good for the planet.
There is no easy solution to where we are at the moment without brands changing their business model. Fast fashion brands do have to reduce what they sell and all fashion companies need to cater for people with disabilities, not by designing special collections, but by making things more accessible for people, including their stores.
I want to see brands:
- Thinking about people with disabilities
- Focusing on inclusivity
- Investing in better materials
- Working with scientists
- Being honest
- Changing the business model to remain profitable without producing more and damaging the planet
Fast fashion is not going away, we need to make that absolutely clear. It employs billions of people around the world, mainly women and mainly women of colour. For 99% of the population, mass produced clothing is their entry point to fashion. Change is not impossible, but it is absolutely critical.
As a kickstart to Slow Fashion Season 2022, Dr Mair recently participated in a fascinating panel discussion with Slow Fashion Movement and Emily Stochl, Director of Education and Community Engagement for global advocacy organisation, Remake. If you’d like to hear more about why we shop the way we shop, and why it is important to pause and reflect on our shopping habits, listen to the conversation to learn more!
By Donna Gilbert