Friday, 7 June 2013

What that 'red dress' symbolises: The psychology of fashion.

The dress sends many signals that explain why this image went viral. (Image: Reuters)

The image above, currently circulating on the internet, shouts fashion psychology more than people realise.

It’s of a young woman in a red dress being sprayed with tear gas by a policeman during the Istanbul riots. I have just come back from Istanbul (where I work in the fashion department at Bilgi University) and I was struck by the multitude of messages in this simple, momentary image. This is what fashion psychology can tell us:

Red and white outfit. Red and white flag.
First it’s not just a woman in a dress. It’s a woman in a red dress. And she’s carrying a white shoulder bag. This colour combination mimics that found on the Turkish flag. So this image will have a more powerful, albeit subliminal, impact on Turkish people at this time.
The woman's outfit echoes the Turkish flag:
more than mere coincidence?

Red for fertility
Secondly, the red dress has more resonance than any other colour. As well as being the colour of passion and love, red is the symbol of female fertility. In many species redness conveys that the female is ready to mate. So the image packs another punch; this young, fertile female is the mother of the next generation, of the future of Turkey.

Flared waist and fertility
Look at the style of the dress too. It isn’t a shift or a smock. It flares from the waist. This emphasises the women’s waist-to-hip ratio, which is about 0.7. That's the ratio that, on women, has been shown to correlate strongly with fertility.

Had she worn a blue dress, or a t-shirt and jeans, this image would not have been so powerful. Nor would it, I suspect have gone viral around the globe.

Dress choice is shaped by unconscious forces
This woman was largely unaware of the power of what she was wearing. Just as most of us are when we reach into our closets every day.  When she chose her red dress and grabbed her white bag that morning, it could have been a mere coincidence. But unconscious forces may have been at work too. We don't always understand why we wear what we wear, but our choices are rarely accidental. And they will be psychologically motivated. 

The masked man in black
And what about the guy firing tear gas at her? Research shows that his black uniform will have made him more likely to behave aggressively. His masked face will have reduced his sense of personal accountability. It will have lowered his threshold for expressing inhibited behaviours. By hiding behind his anonymity he was able to unleash his aggression on her. Was he drawn to her because of what she was wearing? It's possible. Although we do know from the indiscriminate firing of tear gas at protestors that she certainly wasn’t singled out for this treatment.

More than meets the eye
Yet the image stands out not just because of the appalling actions it depicts. The strong visual imagery reaches deep within us too. We look at it and we process the action in the photograph at a conscious level. But unconsciously the signals in the characters' clothing also have intensely powerful emotional resonance for us.

It's tempting to dismiss fashion as mere fluff. Until, that is, we start to decode its many meanings and marvel at what it reveals.

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