From Depressed Dandies to Neurotic Muses...

This month saw the inaugural conference of Fashion and Psycholanalysis take place at The London College of Fashion. Sponsored by the UAL and the RCA and organised by The Freud Museum, the event brought together speakers straddling the distinct disciplines of fashion, psychology and psychoanalysis, in an effort to join and swap notes on the importance of fashion and how it affects psychological health.


You might have thought that Analysis and Fashion are worlds apart, but Zowie Broach, Head of Fashion at the Royal College of Art, would have put you right. She introduced the weekend by immediately making the link between two mighty branches of our culture. Broach shared an ‘Aha moment’ she had when looking up the definition of psychoanalysis and realising that the very same words could be used to describe fashion design. Both endeavours discuss patterns of behaviour, refer to dreams and the influence of families; both describe to an outsider what brought a person to where (wear?) they are today. Each offers a space like no other in which hidden things can be freely expressed: ‘a place where the ego is not master in his own house’. Both artists and therapists, she noted, ‘are tasked with making the holes in the fabric visible’.

 Image by Niall McInnery

Image by Niall McInnery

Following Broach, Valerie Steele, author, editor and curator, once dubbed ‘the Freud of Fashion’, gave a talk on how Freud has influenced our understanding of fashion. An engaging public speaker Steele started by remarking that in fashion terms Freud’s brand is really successful - ‘everyone’s heard of him!’ The famous Father of Psychoanalysis may not have had a lot to say about fashion, but he did write about sexual fetishism, and Steele has written books on the subject. There were juicy anecdotes along risque themes (like Steele’s research visit to a Torture Chamber where ‘most people were wearing fab clothes and some just a cock ring’, and the trial of Trump’s one-time PR who admitted to a sexual relationship with the president’s ex-wife’s shoes). There were observations on today’s push towards androgyny and gender-blurring in fashion. Steele posited that the fashion image is like a fetish – a ‘story masquerading as an object’ – and encouraged us to pick the image apart asking, ‘what is the photographer trying to say with it?’ Although Steele suggested that therapists consider the clothes their patients are wearing because they ‘communicate without words’, she also conceded that sometimes fashion can only be understood amongst particular style tribes and the therapist, as an outsider, may well misinterpret the language.

Hot on Steele’s high heels came Claire Pajaczkowska, a senior tutor at the RCA talking about the ‘sexual selection of a fetish’. Her case study was the currently ubiquitous ripped jeans. She referred to them variously as ‘torn’, ‘gashed’, ‘holy’, ‘ripped’, ‘distressed’, and made a compelling argument for their current ‘fashion moment’: it’s about ‘protecting from Intimacy with Uniformity’. So the hole in my Top Shop jeans may reveal an intimate part of my normally hidden knee, but it’s exactly the same as the hole in your Top Shop jeans, so, no, it doesn’t really. Pojawesca spoke quickly, packing psychological insights into her talk. She posited that it’s impossible to divide ‘craft culture’ from the knowledge and ethics of industrial capitalism in this day and age because the two exist side-by-side in You Tube videos. She compared Kim Kardashian’s famous cascading ripped jeans to the fringed skirts of Malawi boys in their Rites of Passage ceremonies. We raced with her mind to a comparison between the cutting of the skirts, the ritual marking of skin and the moving on ceremony, with the wearing of distressed denim in urban cities. Both could be cultural ways of making a severance.

Anouchka Grose, author and practising psychoanalyst, came next and remarked on the difference in sartorial turn-out between today’s audience and the audiences of psychoanalysts she usually delivers papers to. Grose talked about the Mirror Phase and the Prisoner’s Dilemma in relation to the fact that people like to wear the same clothes at the same time to be in fashion. Taking the example of Dierdre Barlow’s glasses, now a sought-after fashion accessory from Prada and Gucci, she said, “No matter how hideous an item of clothing might seem, over time it can become elevated and redeemed. You have to do it at the right time, and with conviction.”

 From Coronation Street to Catwalk: Dierdre's Glasses

From Coronation Street to Catwalk: Dierdre's Glasses

Grose asked whether fashion made people feel temporarily better about inhabiting their bodies (the Mirror stage dictating that imitation can bring only temporary relief), or is it in fact an asetheticised form of self-harm?

Continuing the cultural analysis Shaun Cole, Associate Dean at the London College of Fashion spoke on ‘The Great Masculine Renunciation’.  He considered Flugel’s idea that in 1930 men had given up ‘their right to the brighter, gayer, more elaborate, and more varied forms of ostentation - abandoning the claim to being beautiful and concentrating on being useful.’

Following Cole came art historian, author and expert on ‘matters sartorial dandiaecal’ Phillip Mann, to speak about Dandyism. Starting with Beau Brummel he gave an insight into the life of the Dandy, suggesting that the reason Dandies dressed so elegantly was because they in fact believed themselves to be very inelegant. Mann talked us humourously and quickly through the fashions of the Dandy. He pointed out that a 'real Dandy' displayed certain specific characteristics or life experiences: he underwent a 'retreat from doing to being', and suffered from an illness, whether it was physical or mental or both. Dandyism was short-lived, Mann told us, and according to Barthes, it ‘had to go when mens’ fashion started’.

Caroline Evans, a professor at Central St. Martins, spoke about Denise Poiret, wife of designer Poiret and the ‘Material Mnemonics of Fashion’. This was a detailed history of the lives of the couple and the way in which Denise had kept and labelled the garments she had showcased for her designer husband. She modelled them with her body, recorded them in lists, was photographed in them, took them with her to France, and finally hand-sewed labels into them. Denise was responsible, in so many ways, for imbuing the present with the past. Evans told us that ‘in the technical jargon of sewing, the wrinkles in the elbow of a jacket are called ‘memories’, remarking on the way in which ‘memory seems to lodge in clothing’.

To end the first day there was a live conversation between Bella Freud, fashion designer and great-granddaughter of the inventor of psychoanalysis, and Amanda Harlech, writer, muse and creative consultant, on the subject of ‘Fashion Neurosis’. The conversation started with ‘why did you wear what you’re wearing today?’ and ended with harsh ruminations on the nature of the fashion industry. It was a special treat, and a welcome change from the more formal talks, to listen to the two women share their friendship and sartorial experiences with a live audience. The general consensus, after discussion, seemed to be that if you’re ever in doubt about what to put on (hands up many in the audience!) the default mode ‘should always be to go back to yourself and that’ll be your good outfit’. Both women advised not to follow trends too closely, as ‘dressing is part of finding out what the self is that particular day’.

Whilst Saturday explored ‘Fashion Thinking and Psychoanalysis’, Sunday wasconcerned with ‘Fashion, Psychology, the Clinical Encounter and wellbeing’.

The day began with Claire Pajaczkowska returning to share the story of a recent funded project with textiles called ‘Empathy by Design’. Prompted by reports of a ‘compassion deficit’ in care homes for the elderly, her research team had started a textile class in just such a home. Providing threads, wools, pieces of material, buttons, etc, and giving residents free reign to create with the materials, the team facilitated a weekly class. The artistic results were then encased in clear tiles for display in previously bare corridors, lending personal expression and character to the interior walls of the home. Residents had enjoyed participating in the activity, and named the weekly event ‘The Wicked Girls Club’ – a reflection of the conversations they had during the collective experience. Family members had been invited to join, so making visiting time spent with loved ones less awkward and more engaging. Care workers had also joined in, promoting better understanding between the workers (who felt under-appreciated for their long hours and minimal pay) and the residents (who felt oppressed by the pressurised workers). Pajaczkoska reported that the result was a greater reciprocity in relationships and a helpful difference to the hierarchical structure the care home had tended to enforce. Touching, holding and handling the fabrics , even just winding the threads, was experienced as comforting. Pajaczkowska reminded us of the powerful reciprocity in touch, as compared to the visual gaze, which is one-way.

 Empathy by Design: a textile piece by care home residents and workers

Empathy by Design: a textile piece by care home residents and workers

After this Katerina Fotopolou, a psychodynamic neuroscientist from UCL, presented a paper called ‘Body Imaging: Mentalising and Modifying our Bodily Appearance’. The paper inspired me to jot down some interesting quotes (‘Is the body the unquestionable, inescapable background of all experience?’), and acquainted us all with some engaging psychological experiments involving touch and body identity, but I found the arguments hard to follow and clear conclusions even harder to draw. I concede I could be a bit thick, and apologise.

Lastly, Emilia Raczkowska, a psychologist and part of The Freud Museum’s Education Team, talked about the relatively ‘neglected’ role of fashion in the therapy setting. She noted that far more research has been done on the clothes worn by patients than on those worn by therapists, and she aims to change that. So far she has talked to some ‘very senior’ psychoanalysts about what they wear to see their patients asking them whether they have ever considered the question in much detail. An obstacle she has encountered is prejudice against fashion by ‘people who take themselves too seriously to talk about clothes because they have more important issues to talk about’. This harked back to a point made by Grose the previous day: that in France academics refer to fashion disparagingly as ‘chiffon’ – a light, cheap subject of negligible importance). Freud, by contrast, appeared to take fashion seriously. According to Raczkowska his personal letters reveal that although he could barely afford the rent of his Viennese consulting room, he still forked out for a barber to visit every day and bought elegantly cut suits for work. Freud did advocate ‘fairly neutral clothes’ for a therapist in order to prevent the patient making unhelpful judgements, but this, suggests Raczkowska, has been ‘taken the wrong way’ as if it indicated a ‘coldness’ towards the patient. ‘There is a need’ she concluded ‘to think about clothes more seriously’.

The weekend ended with an intellectual exchange on ‘Enclothed Cognition’ between five of the female speakers, contributed to and moderated by Carolyn Mair, Professor of Psychology for Fashion. Claire Pajaczkowska conceded that fashion ‘doesn’t win the gold medal for emotional stability’ as the speakers touched on the ‘tough and crushing industry’ it can sometimes be. The questionable mental health of some of those who work within fashion, such as designers, models and journalists, is as well-documented as the dire physical wellbeing of those who work in the sweat houses feeding it.

Sustainability of garments, both materially and emotionally was an issue of particular concern – ‘You can’t just tell consumers to ‘Buy Less’, said Carolyn passionately, ‘you have to imbue the clothes with symbolic meaning to enable wearers to keep them longer. There has to be something in it for them.

The issue of manipulated images (think thin, white and young) causing low self-esteem and emotional dis-ease in the consumer population was touched on, the panel deciding that even though people knew these images were carefully curated they are nevertheless still negatively affected by them. One speaker quoted that of the 96 million selfies taken a day 40% are modified amongst adults, and a huge 99% of selfies taken by teenagers are modified. Grose remarked that ‘fashion is on the locus between enjoyment and suffering’, and the final conclusion was that until we can all appreciate ourselves for more than how we look, but for who we really are, the mental anguish brought about by fashion will prevail.

On that note I give you one unfiltered, untouched picture of me on my way to a riveting and throughly enjoyable conference. You can see I made a mistake getting dressed. It’s a Freudian Slip (sorry).

 What to wear to Fashion and Psychoanalysis: A Freudian Slip, surely?

What to wear to Fashion and Psychoanalysis: A Freudian Slip, surely?


Karen Dobres, Chief Freedom Fighter