You Are What You Wear: Inside The World Of Fashion Psychology

According to Dawnn Karen

by E. K. Hudson

Dawnn Karen can tell you what you should wear and why you want to wear it.

The 27-year-old Karen is a fashion psychologist—the only one in North America—and one of the youngest teachers at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT).

Fashion psychology examines what people express through clothing. Like a shrink, Karen uses talk therapy to understand how her clients feel about themselves, how they view the world, and how they believe the world sees them.

On a teaching break from FIT, Karen powers down Manhattan’s Fashion Avenue setting a mean pace in five-inch heels. She jaywalks without a second glance, never breaking her stride until she sinks into the cushioned bench at her favorite Midtown lunch spot, Vine.

“I want to know, unconsciously, why do you dress the way you dress?” she says. “How do you want to present yourself to the world?”

Most psychologists intuitively grasp the concept of fashion psychology, Karen says, but it’s a field that doesn’t officially exist apart from her work and a recently opened master’s program at London College of Fashion.

Karen began to developing her theories while studying for her master’s degree in counseling psychology at Columbia University.

“I didn’t create it,” she says. “It was already there, but I built a brand.”

Karen credits the idea to the 19th-century work of Henry James. As a part-time model and former opera singer in her Cleveland, Ohio, high school, Karen always felt at home in the arts and fashion industries. But at 17, she decided to leave music and study psychology at Bowling Green State University. She wanted to help people, but she never stopped dressing to impress. Four years later, while reading James’ work, she saw an opportunity to bring her interests in line with psychology.

Most of us understand that the clothes we wear affect the response we get from strangers, friends, or lovers, but few dig deeper into why we’ve chosen to appear the way we do, let alone try and figure out why it’s so difficult to transform our style—even if we want or need to. That’s why Karen is in demand.

The former Prime Minister of Ukraine is the highest profile person to have reached out to her for help to date. He invited her to speak at his annual security forum this April and explain to politicians, experts, and other dignitaries how fashion can help them keep the peace.

Karen will address topics like what the burkini incident in France means for European values, what a suit says about social identity, and how a country’s image is built upon its style.

“It’s about educating people on both ends,” she explains. “Some people are aware, and some people aren’t.”

Karen’s clients range from entertainers to entrepreneurs. They come to her when they want to make a change, but can’t do it alone. She remembers one client who was in the midst of a custody battle stating their goal in an early session: “I want to know how to present myself in a way that will give the judge sympathy.”

When Karen began her career five years ago, she imagined fashion psychology becoming a part of the fashion and entertainment industries, but, so far, she’s received the most attention from the business world. She’s been an expert source in the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and Yahoo Finance.

“It’s like crossing over,” she explains. “These people are not typical fashionistas.”

But neither is she. Sessions with Karen may lead to a makeover, but the transformation starts from the inside, with a thorough examination of feelings and experiences. She has two ground rules: She won’t treat one-time clients, and she doesn’t do shopping trips.

Any change must be gradual, she believes, otherwise “you’re going to just put clothes on top of emotion.”

Karen’s work is also deeply anchored in theory. In 2014, when she could afford to leave her roster of part-time jobs, she celebrated by going on a research trip. She spent almost a year traveling through the Middle East, Asia, and Australia, taking on new clients in every country she visited to discover how her fashion psychology theories could be applied in different cultures.

Once she returned to the U.S., she launched her own school, the Fashion Psychology Institute, and founded her own practice.

Talking about her work reminds Karen of her to-do list. She has to send out acceptance letters for the next cohort of Institute students today, but first, she’s got an appointment with a client.  

She logs on to Skype for a session with Nicole Lovince, an actress and new entrepreneur she knows from Bowling Green.

Karen’s in the middle of her working lunch and is reserved, almost shy, but as the call connects, she transforms into a bubbly, warm presence exuding a sense of comfort.

“I, literally, all morning was stressed about what to wear,” Lovince launches into how she wanted to simultaneously look like a successful actress, professional businesswoman, and an approachable boss last night.

“How do I pick something that embodies all of those people?” she asks.

Karen talks with her bejeweled hands. “We need to work on coming up with multiple outfits that fit with your multiple roles,” she says.

“You’re in entertainment, so you know how to put on a face, but you want to make sure it’s a solid foundation inside.”

They go back and forth for 30 minutes; Karen questioning, Lovince reflecting. They agree to create some outfits—no shopping required—during their next appointment. Karen blows kisses that morph into waving jazz hands before she hangs up.  

Earlier that morning, Karen performed a similar transformation while teaching a class. With music lightly playing in the background, she pranced around the teaching podium-turned-stage, acting out imaginary situations to explain the Freudian theory of psychoanalysis to her 20 FIT undergrads. She mimed calling a friend, her dark wine-colored lipstick and immaculate brows accentuating each expression.

Karen looked more like a DJ than a professor, head bobbing to the rhythm as she went through her PowerPoint.

After a monologue about ego and id—“Anyone heard of Sasha Fierce?”—which involved a re-enactment of scenes from Lemonade amid much laughter, Karen ended the class center stage.

The music, the dancing, the pop culture references are all part of a well-planned strategy. “It sets the vibe that I’m one of them,” she said afterward.

Karen’s charismatic performances are just that, a show. She’s an introvert who has spent the majority of the past five years developing fashion psychology on her laptop, in the privacy of wherever she was calling home that month.

“I’m a hermit when I’m doing this,” she says. “My friends they all know—Dawnn’s under a rock.” And with good reason: Karen’s writing a textbook, working on a second master’s degree at Columbia, and holding down two teaching positions in addition to running her practice.

Her mentality is, “I’m just going to create. I’m going to do my thing. I’m going to research, I’m going to study, that’s it.” But as her profile rises, she can’t maintain her isolation.

After teaching her fashion psychology course for the first time at FIT this fall, one of her students came up after class and started crying. “I was just trying to console her, and then she got herself together, and she was like, ‘You inspire me. I want to be just like you.’”

Karen’s response is to keep working hard and try to inspire her students to pursue their own paths in fashion psychology. She’s building a movement and a global community.

“I’m carrying a torch now, and I don’t want to drop it,” she says.