When people think of fashion education, what most likely pops into their heads is education related to fashion design. However, today I’d like to talk about the most basic form of fashion education – one that doesn’t even exist – the art of dressing well. The basics of personal style, or as I’ll call it, fashion literacy, is never considered crucial to one’s education.
Even Cinderella’s fairy godmother knew how important fashion is to making the first impression and to feeling confident. However, fashion education is neglected and even discouraged. No grants or foundations exist for its research and proliferation, even though there’s a silent code to look down upon the fashion illiterate.
What is Fashion Literacy?
A simple google search with the keywords “fashion education” will reveal that it exists, but mostly as a professional training for fashion design. Other forms of formal fashion education pertain to courses or degrees in styling, merchandising, history of fashion, photography or fashion marketing. Some rare courses include the psychology of fashion or sustainability, but that’s about it. However, all these are taken up by students who are planning to make a career in these industries.
Informal style-related training exists, but that’s either a part of prep-schools or is otherwise reserved for certain groups. No fashion education exists for others – the fashion outsiders – who will end up becoming your bosses, professors, presidents or just your regular colleagues at any regular office.
That’s why I’d like to introduce the concept of fashion literacy as a crucial aspect of literacy itself. I would define fashion literacy as the basic knowledge of fashion, how to dress well, common fashion-biases and how to dress in a way that reserves your cognitive resources.
Clothing, Perception & Power
Right from our childhood, our brains start creating mental images of people, based on media, children’s literature and sociocultural exposure. Toddlers develop the ability to categorize and evaluate things. With our cognitive development comes associative reasoning, and it helps us form perceptions and even stereotypes.
Fashion is an important factor that plays a subconscious role in our decision-making process. People use fashion-bias while hiring an employee, a leader choosing a role model or even while selecting their mate. For example, Obama wouldn’t have the same impact on the general public in a hoodie and jeans.
In a paper published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, scientists termed this influence as “enclothed cognition”. According to this research, clothes impact two independent things – the symbolic meaning of the clothes and the physical experience of wearing them.
Research shows that clothes affect people’s behavior. It is a type of soft power. A paper published in Harvard Business School defines soft power as the ability to influence someone without using tangible threats or payoffs. It is the ability to get others to, “want the outcomes that you want—co-opts people rather than coerces them.”
This is why we can often find examples of leaders or influencers being well-dressed, especially in younger groups such as the popular kids in high-school. Or groups of friends, co-workers or family members dressing in a similar way. As the above-mentioned HBS paper elaborates that soft power, “involves leading by example and attracting others to do what you want.”
What Clothes Say about a Person
Dressing sense reflects your personality. It can be used to describe and form the perception of a whole group. For example, wearing a suit is often more common among senior management, whereas wearing a cardigan or just a shirt is more common among junior staff in traditional workplaces. Similarly, gay men are often perceived to dress flamboyantly.
Dressing also plays a role in our understanding of people’s personalities, gender and sometimes, while forming gender-bias, too. Tomboys, for example, dress in androgynous clothing and are often perceived to be less feminine and more “cool”, or less, depending on the observer’s prior experiences. An article in the NY Times about tomboys mentioned that gender-nonconformists are often looked down upon or themselves look down upon the girlie girls.
Fashion is a Way to Create or Evolve your Identity
Sometimes dressing style helps build trust. People are often advised to ‘dress for success’ for a reason – it raises our performance and confidence. In my video “Why is Fashion Important: The Science of Personal Style,” I explained how style fulfills an important human need for self-esteem in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Famous people sometimes create a character through clothing. In fact, some famous personalities have made a name for themselves particularly for ditching conventional office attire. For example, Steve Jobs is famous for his black turtlenecks. The grey and black hoodies of Mark Zuckerberg have created headlines in GQ and Washington Post, among others.
Hilary Clinton’s supporters in the 2016 elections united by wearing pant-suits to the polls. Harper’s Bazaar even wrote that, “Hillary Clinton has turned the pantsuit into a powerful symbol a female power and feminism.”
The Neglect of Fashion Literacy & How it Affects People
While I can go on and on about how important fashion is, both in our personal and professional lives, education completely ignores it. While personal grooming is encouraged, students are never formally educated on how to create and evolve their personal style.
As early as elementary school, we subconsciously judge each other based on how people dress. We start associating certain fashion choices with gender, race, financial standing and profession. And although psychology of dressing well is well-established, schools offer no mandatory courses or fashion subjects that can teach young children how to dress well.
Fashion history or the art of personal styling is not offered as a course even in most colleges. Not even in those that offer professional programs, training students in careers that involve direct communication with clients or customers, such as medicine, IT or architecture.
Fashion Illiteracy Carries on to Adulthood
Many students grow up and enter the real world not knowing that fashion will secretly play a very important role in their professional (and personal) success. Unfortunately, as a result, a lot of adults spend much of their professional lives wearing outdated styles of trousers, mismatched outfits, the wrong shoes or poorly selected fabrics.
With modern workplaces suggesting open dress codes or confusing and vague terms like ‘dress appropriately,” workers across industries report the feelings of stress and anxiety while choosing their daily outfits, according to a recent report published by CNN Business.
A study by OfficeTeam that was featured in Forbes, found that “86 percent of workers and 80 percent of managers feel clothing choices affect a person’s chances of being promoted.” Furthermore, one of its key findings was also that, “Men take longer picking work clothes than women (12 minutes and 9 minutes a day on average, respectively).”
Fashion subconsciously affects both how they perceive themselves and how others perceive them. However, once you enter the professional life, there’s not much you can do to change this. Being well-dressed, or the lack thereof, almost becomes a part of your personality and work-ethic. And there’s no one to turn to for advice. After all, modern workplaces may offer yoga sessions, spas, team building games and emotional support dogs, but no in-house personal stylists!
The perception about hiring personal stylists, or even reading fashion magazines, is another issue here. Stylists are usually reserved for celebrities and socialites. And a lot of people believe that fashion magazines are only for those who are really “into fashion.”
Young hard-working people often believe that talent and experience are enough to be successful. However, anyone who’s talented and experienced will tell you that talent is overrated. There are so many other factors that come into play when one tries to achieve something in life. Indeed, one of them is social and presentation skills.
If everyone knew how much personal and professional potential is wasted just due to not being perfectly dressed, stylists would be so much more common and accessible. A lot of people I have met personally, across professions, report wondering, but not understanding, what the big deal about fashion really is.
Why Fashion Education is Neglected & Even Looked Down Upon
According to me, here are some of the reasons why fashion has never been considered to become a part of our primary education system, and why fashion education is neglected even by adults.
1. Fashion & Classism
Traditionally, fashion was reserved only for the royalty and the elites. In the late thirteenth century, fashion became a way of displaying one’s wealth, culture, and social status. In the twenty-first century, lifestyle choices and consumption propensity signifies one’s social class, and that fashion is all about luxury or consumerism is still a common belief.
Secondly, fashion perceptions manifest themselves like a modern form of classism, only at a much more micro level, where everybody, consciously or subconsciously, judges each other on the basis of their dressing style. Some form negative perceptions about the less fashionable, for example, people who don’t dress well aren’t taken seriously at work.
2 Fashion & Gender-Bias
In our society, an interest in fashion is typically associated with women. Most fashion designers design women’s clothing and common wisdom is that women shop more than men. Dressing up is usually considered a “girly” thing, and that’s perhaps why it faces negative bias. Questions like, “Why do people make fun of fashion and the fashion industry,” and “Why do people look down upon those who love to get dressed and wear make up?” are some of the most common on Quora.
The fashion industry, in 2017, increased in size to $2.4 trillion according to McKinsey Global Fashion Index. Yet, fashion education or fashion careers are not considered as serious as those in say, science. One unfortunate reason is that fashion industry and an interest in it, face the same bias that female-dominated professions do.
3. Negative Stereotypes about Fashionable People
Some people also form the negative stereotype that those who spend a lot time thinking about how to dress as being less intelligent, hard-working or serious in life. While the 2001 American comedy film Legally Blonde tackled this issue in the world of fiction, we also have real-life examples. Mark said in 2014 that he wears the same thing every day because he doesn’t want to spend, “energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life.”
4. An Interest in Fashion Gets a Bad Rap in the Media
Sometimes, fashion in media itself creates negative perceptions about an interest in it. Fashionable people are almost never shown taking up power positions, for example, Cher Horowitz in Clueless or Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City. Or if they are, they are often shown as disdained by those who consider themselves to be smarter, in pursuit of more serious things in life, such as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde or Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada.
In fact, gender bias even manifests itself in media’s representation of fashion. Fashionable male characters are shown to be aspirational, smart or heroic, like James Bond, Tony Stark in the Avengers films, Chuck Bass in Gossip Girl or Harvey Specter in Suits.
However, fashionable female characters are shown as either traditionally unintellectual, like Cher Horowitz in Clueless or Rachel Green in Friends. If they are, then they are shown to be unlikeable in some way or other, either lacking emotional depth or with huge character flaws, like Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada or Blair Waldorf in Gossip Girl. Similarly, female characters who are traditionally smart, aren’t usually shown to be well-dressed, like Anne Hathaway’s character in Interstellar or Princess Leia in the Star Wars films.
These TV and cinema tropes further reinforce the common adage that if you’re smart, you don’t want to waste your time thinking about fashion, unless you’re male.
5. Fashion Careers are Not Taken Seriously
Lastly but most importantly, careers in fashion aren’t taken seriously by the world’s most brilliant minds. According to a list published in Forbes, careers in fashion rank nowhere among the best paying and most sought after jobs in the US.
And although fashion psychologists and cognitive psychologists are bringing to light how fashion affects your confidence and personality, these still remain very new areas of research. This is why most professionals don’t place importance on it, or don’t know how to.
What is Fashion Quotient?
I personally believe that just like IQ (intelligence quotient) and EQ (emotional quotient), there’s also an FQ (fashion quotient). Certain models that measure EQ include social awareness and relationship management in it. I will extend that part and give it a new name.
According to me, there should also be an SQ (social quotient) defined as a part of EQ, which can measure how well someone can adjust in a society, either by conforming to traditional roles, or by making people accept their nonconformism. According to me, this SQ includes three parts:
- Verbal communication, or the knowledge of how well we’re able to socially interact with each other.
- Unconscious visual communication through body language, or non-verbal cues.
- Conscious visual communication, through self-presentation in society, personal-grooming or fashion communication.
I divided this into three parts, as these are independent of one another. Someone who is visually well-dressed or has refined body language may not be so adept when it comes to verbal social interaction. Similarly, someone who is not skilled in fashion communication may fare much better at verbal.
FQ & Fashion Communication Skills
Fashion communication is a skill that one can develop. This skill is the power to communicate based on our fashion choices, and the ability to make quick decisions when it comes to daily style choices. I would define fashion quotient as a score or measure to assess one’s personal styling knowledge and fashion communication skills.
I understand that since this is an unheard-of concept, I may get a lot of criticism. However, anyone with it, can attest that fashion knowledge can be judged and possibly, even scored. People already do it at a subconscious level. Just like someone with a lower IQ can often judge someone with a higher IQ as smarter or more intelligent and vice versa, same is the case with FQ.
One may argue that fashion or personal style is extremely subjective and something like a Fashion Quotient can’t be measured. However, since no research has ever been done about how to measure FQ, we can’t argue that it can’t be measured at all. Someone who first set out to measure IQ would have faced similar challenges and doubts.
A Fashion Education for All?
The only exposure a layman usually has of fashion is through fashion ads or magazine covers they see in newsstands, or the occasional coverage of celeb style in their favorite newspapers. When they think of fashion, it’s usually about luxury fashion or runway models.
This makes people feel that the fashion world exclusively focuses on the art of excessive or that it is not for them. It feels both inaccessible and irrelevant to the so-called fashion outsiders.
However, fashion is just couture or for the celebrities. It’s not just the runway clothing most non-fashioners call “ridiculous” and “unwearable”. Fashion is all around us – we all have to make fashion choices on a daily basis, which create people’s perceptions of us, and even affect the way you are treated.
As I mentioned before, fashion education exists, but mainly at a professional or advanced level. The basics of fashion are often self-taught, and not formally learned in school, just like social skills. Some of it is taught, along with grooming and communication skills, as a part of prep schools or finishing schools, but those are usually attended by youngsters in the high-economic groups.
In all other cases, while primary education aims at improving social skills through class debates or group projects, fashion skills are never even mentioned. In fact, while teachers and parents encourage top students to participate in debates or public speaking events, they rarely encourage them to learn more about fashion or do fashion-experimentation.
Should there be a Basic Fashion Course in Schools?
At the risk of going too far and being called crazy, I would propose all schools and colleges to consider a basic course focusing on fashion literacy. This course would be designed to help students understand how it’ll help them in life or how to further evolve their style over time. Just like studying maths or science aims to increase our IQ and knowledge, a basic fashion education would aim at increasing one’s FQ.
This course would focus on the following:
- What fashion communication is and why it’s important.
- How to communicate based on our fashion choices.
- How to create personal style and how to evolve it throughout your life.
- The ability to make quick decisions when it comes to daily style choices.
- Basic knowledge of garments, silhouettes, accessories, cuts, fabrics, body types and dress codes.
- Personal grooming.
One may also argue that a basic fashion education may be expensive for the underprivileged, however, my simple argument is that fashion is not supposed to be about consumerism and buying expensive items. No matter their financial background, everyone wears clothing, buys it or gets it handed down, just like those who study buy books or use donated ones.
Such a course would be a part of social skills, including verbal and non-verbal communication. Considering schools teach languages, and some even teach ethics/morals, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to include a fashion and communication course.
Shilpa Ahuja a designer and entrepreneur. She is the editor-in-chief of ShilpaAhuja.com, which she founded with the goal of inspiring confidence in the modern working woman through fashion.
Fashion has traditionally been for the rich, white, thin woman. That’s how it evolved over centuries and that’s how it’s been represented in fashion media. But Shilpa believes that with the changing role of women in the society, fashion has changed, too. She believes that fashion is for everyone, regardless of their age, gender, color, body type and background. So she translates runway fashion into easy style advice that one can incorporate into their daily lives.
Shilpa’s work has been published in the University of Fashion blog and Jet Airways magazine. She is also an artist, illustrator and cartoonist. She is also the creator of Audrey O., a comic series that represents the lifestyle of millennial women. She enjoys creative writing and world travel. Her art has been exhibited at Harvard Graduate School of Design and the Aroma Hotel, Chandigarh and been published in Chandigarh Times.
Originally from Chandigarh, Shilpa also has a professional degree in architecture and has worked in interior project management. She is also the author of the book “Designing a Chinese Cultural Center in India”. Shilpa has a Masters in Design Studies degree from Harvard University. For feedback and questions, please email [email protected]