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The science of making a fashion statement

January 5, 2010

Article by contributing author Sasha

We’ve all been there before. At a party, enjoying ourselves, having weird if not slightly awkward conversations. Then, slowly, as the current conversation starts to fade your eyes begin to drift and survey the room. Suddenly out of nowhere you’re struck with something out of the ordinary. It’s an outfit that you can’t help but stare at. It’s unconventional. It’s striking. But somehow it just works. You try to make sense of it in your head but for some reason you can’t. This outfit has unwittingly made a lasting impression on your brain.

Party scene... what stands out to you?

So what did it? What made you stare with such interest? What made your brain do cartwheels in how it worked? For that answer we need to look to the world of psychology for some clues.

WTF is a schema

In life we take in a lot of information at any given time. Across our five senses we see, hear, smell, feel and taste millions of things every day. If we had to interpret every piece individually our brains would be so preoccupied with processing it we’d have no time to interpret or react to it. We’d be paralyzed by the sheer volume of information we’re hit with. So to help ourselves with this problem we create mental frameworks which help to categorize all that information in way that can be easily accessed and interpreted. These frameworks are what psychologists call schemas. You with me? How about a quick example.

I love swans

Let’s just say for argument’s sake that you love swans. Their elegance, their beauty, their wonderful white feathers. They’ve always been your favorite bird and over your lifetime you’ve seen thousands of swans all of which were tall, elegant and white. These three characteristics are the foundation of your mental category of swans. This is your ‘swan schema.’

But what happens when something disrupts that schema? What happens when there’s conflicting information that challenges your perspective on what a swan should be? Enter the black swan from New Zealand.

Black Swans and Santa... both real

The first time you see it you’re completely perplexed. It’s tall like a swan. It’s elegant like a swan. But its feathers are black. You fixate on it, trying to make sense of it, and your brain races to understand how this anomaly now fits into our existing swan schema. The thing is that it doesn’t fit. You now have two choices. One, disregard the black swan altogether, pretending it doesn’t exist and continue believing that swans are only white. Or two, alter your swan schema to accept that swans can now be either black or white. Either way we’ve paid an inordinate amount of attention to one bird which challenges the way we look at the world of swans.

Back to the party

Over your lifetime you’ve consumed a wealth of fashion content. Whether it’s from experience, magazine, websites or television, all this content has shaped your perspective on what people are supposed to wear at parties. And in reality, you probably share that same schema with most of your friends and acquaintances at the party. But it’s that one person that disrupts that collective schema, making that statement of fashion, that forces people to reappraise the way they think about what to wear.

Disruptive? For sure. Too far? That's up to you now, isn't it?

Rules of challenging people’s schema

So how do you leverage this idea to benefit you in the way you make a statement with your outfit? Well here are three quick rules to doing so…

1. Understand your audience

It’s important to understand who you’ll be around and what your relationship is with them. If they are new friends they’ll have no expectations of you and you’ll be able to take of advantage of the first impression schema. If they’re old friend’s you’ll have to understand what the current expectations are of you and how you can disrupt that perception.

2. Understand the norms

The second key thing worth noting when it comes to making that statement is understanding what the collective expectations are for the event you’re in. If everyone is expecting formal dress you can quickly disrupt those expectations with some street chic elements.

3. Know the limits

Probably one of the most important rules when it comes to a statement is understanding the limits of the schema you’re challenging. For example, if the black swan mentioned earlier had a tail, pink spots and an Afro it would be disregarded from the swan schema as it is too different. When choosing your approach, evaluate #’s 1 and 2 to give you a gauge of how much flexibility you’ll have and pick your distinction(s) appropriately.

There’s obviously a lot more that goes into both the psychology of fashion.

Things that jump to mind are understanding of self, color theory, introvert v extrovert, and need states. But what I hope doesn’t get lost is the fun you can have with fashion. Sure there’s science behind everything but if you’re not having fun with it, what’s the point.

Article by contributing author Sasha.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 5, 2010 7:52 pm

    Awesome post!

    I agree with your schema model of how to make a fashion statement. I like to disrupt the schema once in a while but for me it’s always a matter of balancing personal comfort and other people’s expectations. Nothing wrong with ruffling a few (swan) feathers once in a while :)

  2. Marina permalink
    January 5, 2010 8:10 pm

    Loved your insights, and the three quick and dirty rules to making a fashionable statement! Welcome to FIM!!! Can’t wait to read more of your posts!

    P.S. It is all about having fun with it, isn’t it?!?!

  3. Kathlyn permalink
    January 5, 2010 9:46 pm

    I think we can all relate to your article based on our choices and those reactions in our social settings. I think the best thing is to wear what you like and want and let the conversations open regarding your choice.

  4. Jordana permalink
    January 5, 2010 10:43 pm

    Great post Sasha! I particular like the NZ swan because it matches most of what I have in my closet. :) Thanks for reminding us that it’s okay to have fun with fashion (within limits?!).

  5. carol permalink
    January 6, 2010 8:32 am

    This was very interesting…I have never thought about it that way before. Maybe THAT’s why I am constantly having to “explain” my shop to people. They have never seen anything quite like it and don’t know how to categorize it. I get the stupidest questions, from “Do people actually WEAR this stuff?” to “Did you get this clothing from dead people?” to “What era is this from?” NOW it makes sense to me that they just don’t understand it in their framework of what a store should look like (“cookie-cutter” retail). If my store were in California, there would be no explanations needed…being in Edmonton, Canada…they need to know. I GET IT! Thanks for writing the article!

  6. sashagrujicic permalink
    January 6, 2010 4:17 pm

    Thanks for all the kind feedback, responses and welcomes to the family. . . it was a ton of fun writing the article and I’m psyched about the chance to be a part of FIM.

    @carol, schema’s are finicky things that rule a lot of what we expect out of the world . . .including store layouts, fashion and what comes out of a faucet (imagine someone switched the pipes to Clamato for a day). The good news is that if you want to stand out / be memorable it is important to challenge people’s schemas.

    One interesting piece I didn’t include in the piece was how, as we further delve into specific topics, we build a much broader and flexible set of expectations from that topic. This is why runway shows go to such extremes . . .it’s so hard to show something new to a journalist that follows the industry and has seen ‘everything.’

    Anyway . . .thanks for the interest and comments.

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