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The Age of Post-Pandemic Dressing: An Interview with Fashion Psychologist Shakaila Forbes-Bell

Afterpay's in-house fashion psychologist Shakaila Forbes-Bell uses psychology to reveal the hottest trends of upcoming seasons

Photography courtesy of JKG Photography.


From lug-sole boots and maximalist jewellery to monochromatic ensembles and socks with sandals, there is no guarantee for what stays in the fashion world and what goes. And while we all wish we could have our very own That’s So Raven moment, the average style guru can’t foresee which cyclical spending habits and trends are coming for the masses. Unless that person is a Master’s educated fashion psychologist, like Shakaila Forbes-Bell. As the founder and editor-in-chief of Fashion is Psychology, “it is my job to investigate the why behind the what,” says Forbes-Bell. She isn’t just interested in the clothes, but the fabric of data that weaves its way into what’s motivating our purchases, and how the socio-psychological landscape informs what we’re about to buy.

What is fashion psychology?

Most people know the two terms (fashion, and psychology) as completely separate entities but they are actually one cohesive unit. Forbes-Bell describes the study of fashion psychology as “the application of psychological principles to every aspect of the fashion and beauty industry. It explores various topics such as the psychological impact of clothing and beauty on the everyday person, external and internal motivations behind consumer behaviour, the link between identity and style, and so much more.”

Even someone who claims they don’t care about style or the fashion industry is still affected by fashion. Everyday we get dressed. Take Miranda Priestly's "cerulean" monologue in The Devil Wears Prada, for instance. When Andy snickers about two turquoise belts looking "exactly the same," Priestly thinks it's completely comical that Andy's made a choice to wear a cerulean jumper as a way to exempt herself from the fashion industry, when in turn, that cerulean sweater is a product of "millions of dollars and countless jobs." While this scene is nowhere near in depth or reputable enough to validate the importance of the fashion industry and its connection to psychology, it does its job in reminding us that everything has a trickle effect.

“We often think of our clothes as possessions separate from ourselves when in reality, they act as a second skin helping us navigate our different realities and emotions,” Forbes-Bell suggests. Fashion psychology is vital because your personal style can speak to your personality, social status, political allegiance, sexuality, gender, religion, all of which make up your identity. Clothes are tools that can help us express our most authentic selves. Plus, with sustainability as a growing concern in the fashion world, Forbes-Bell also mentions that fashion psychologists just like herself can steer people toward more conscious shopping habits and reduce throwaway culture, essentially encouraging people to develop an attachment to their wardrobes.

Forbes-Bell’s journey to fashion psychology

Forbes-Bell is the first ever Black woman in the world to receive an M.A. in psychology for fashion. She tells us that her career’s journey took headway when she was younger and would make gowns for her Barbie dolls on weekends. Once she grew older, she realized that she wanted to study psychology in school, and with no doubt, Forbes-Bell flourished in school and even thought of herself as the “Black female Frasier.”

The liminal moment for the breakthrough of her career was when she explored the impact of clothing, race, and impression formation for her undergraduate thesis. This was in the wake of the 2012 Million Hoodie March, a societal response to the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin — a Black teenager who was fatally shot while walking outside with some Skittles, in his hoodie. It was here that she found out that fashion psychology is a versatile field with research spanning several decades back. Unfortunately, this research was buried in academia, so Forbes-Bell had a mission. She was determined to make that research accessible to everyone — sharing the psychology behind fashion and beauty could benefit many.

How fashion psychology helps consumers and e-commerce performance alike

And natch, with her niche expertise on consumer habits and spendings, Forbes-Bell is the in-house fashion psychologist for leading ‘buy now, pay later’ e-commerce website, Afterpay, which first launched in Australia in 2015. The site offers a platform to customers that allows them to buy whatever their heart desires, in affordable instalments. Afterpay’s main focus is making sure customers don’t put themselves in debt when spending, and financial wellness is an important factor in the buying decision of Gen Z shoppers, said Forbes-Bell. “We’re seeing more people in this demographic turn to ‘buy now, pay later’ because they can still buy the items they want, but with responsible spending in mind.”

“Pre-COVID, many people were shopping for how they felt they needed to dress based on the environment or occasion.” Now, Gen Z and Millennial shoppers are purchasing hybrid outfits that work for multiple occasions.

What trends and shopping habits will arise after 1.5 years of living in a pandemic?

It’s quite the tool when you consider what Forbes-Bell suggests will be on the rise, post-pandemic: Maximalist dressing. She explains that people want to take back the fruitful and enriching experiences that they missed out on during the pandemic, like dressing up, so they’ve turned to a phenomenon called dopamine dressing — a reference to the happiness chemical found in your brain. The two concepts arrive hand-in-hand since they both include a mass of conspicuous elements: vibrant prints, bright colours, and pretty much anything that will make you feel like your best self. Of course, when you wear a piece of clothing you love, you feel happy.

Many fashion aficionados have been pondering the same question for a while now. How will consumers’ shopping habits be different than before our world was hit with a life-changing pandemic? And it doesn’t end with maximalist-influenced dopamine dressing. Forbes-Bell dishes that “Pre-COVID, many people were shopping for how they felt they needed to dress based on the environment or occasion. People would typically have separate attire for things like work, going to the gym, going out to dinner and other social functions.” Now, Gen Z and Millennial shoppers are purchasing hybrid outfits that work for multiple occasions.

“We’re seeing Afterpay users purchase items with cozy silhouettes alongside formal attire like bodysuits or pumps. Going forward, people will find themselves getting into the habit of shopping for what makes them feel good rather than what society has deemed conventionally appropriate. Online shopping preferences are shifting too. For example, Afterpay's spring/summer trend report points to shoppers preferring to “coffee and shop” during pre-work hours rather than later in the day.” Essentially, daily commuting is, in a lot of cases, being replaced with online shopping.

Forbes-Bell has already seen two different types of dress modes reflected in the types of products that the customers of Afterpay are purchasing. In reference to Afterpay’s lists of top 10 purchased items, users bought cozy items such as sweatshorts along with maximalist items such as pumps. In conclusion, consumers are getting the best of both worlds by mixing cozy and maximalist together.

Photography courtesy of Vogue Runway.

Since breezy months are dawning near, we are curious as to what trends Forbes-Bell is forecasting for the cooler seasons ahead. “During the fall and winter, we’ll continue to notice cozy, cocoon-like silhouettes that were seen on runways [such as Rick Owens’ draped skirts and billowy floor-length vests and A. Potts' genderless collection showing balloon sleeves and similarly-shaped ankle-length coats] and in collections across the fashion industry. This is continuing with the cozy trend most shoppers stuck to while they were at home and will take form in soft, feel-good materials like fleece or knits.” advises Forbes-Bell.

With the Spring 2022 fashion weeks in session, and the much awaited return to in-person fashion events and shows, we’ll get to see a stately procession of street style stars likely demonstrating Forbes-Bell’s theories. And with Afterpay as a new, major sponsor for NYFW, many viewers will likely turn into shoppers with such accessible pricing plans available.

1 Comment

Dina Hejazi
Dina Hejazi
Sep 29, 2021

This is absolutely amazing!

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