Dress Your Best Life

How to Use Fashion Psychology to Take Your Look -- and Your Life -- to the Next Level


By Dawnn Karen

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$19.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around April 14, 2020. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Harness the power of your wardrobe to achieve your dreams with this timely take on personal style from a world-renowned fashion psychologist.

You may get dressed every day without really thinking about what you’re putting on, but did you know that what you wear has a powerful effect on how you feel? Or that your clothes influence the way others perceive you? By making a few adjustments to your wardrobe, and learning to style from the inside out, you’ll not only elevate your look, but level up your entire life.

Dawnn Karen is a pioneer in the field of fashion psychology, and she has spent years studying the relationship between attire and attitude. In Dress Your Best Life she goes far beyond well-known makeover advice, pushing you to ask yourself: Are my clothing choices hurting me or helping me to achieve my life goals? Her book will help you discover your unique style story, become a smarter shopper, use color to your advantage, match moods to clothing choices, and embrace new or different standards of beauty. This knowledge is a power that you’ll exercise every time you open your closet door or walk into an important meeting in just the right outfit.

Packed with practical tips and cutting-edge advice, Dress Your Best Life will teach you to harness the power of fashion for the life you want to live.


Chapter 1


Clothes… change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.

—Virginia Woolf

Feeling anxious about what to wear or disconnected from the way you present yourself? Welcome. As a Fashion Psychologist, I find that my clients represent the full spectrum of ages, races, ethnicities, genders, and nationalities. Clients from all walks of life seek me out to address a variety of concerns, from personal development to shopping addiction to dating advice to career advancement. I counsel c-suite executives and new moms recovering from C-sections (and some women who are both!). Some people want help polishing their online profiles, others with navigating their exploding closets. One client going through a custody battle even wanted to know how to dress so that the family court judge would be sympathetic to his side. While none of your problems is unique, all of the solutions are, because they lie within you. Now let’s go find them together.

Did you know your clothes are talking? Mine are too. One recent morning I had to get up to teach class after having basically pulled an all-nighter writing an article for a news site. I lay in bed and assessed my mood. I was grouchy and exhausted with a side of the midwinter blahs. I wanted to reach for my go-to comfort outfit: a matching pair of sweats. Still, I anticipated that as I would be getting up in front of my FIT students to give a lecture, I would need to adjust my attitude and seriously boost my energy level. Fashion dilemma moment. So I added a leopard-print trench coat, some leopard heels, and you know what? I felt so much better! Combining the ease of sweats with the stylishness of the jacket and heels really did lift my spirits. And my students seemed to perceive me as on-point and au courant, appreciating my sleek spin on the popular athleisure trend. By dressing in this eye-catching way, I was sending them a message: I see you guys as creative, visually oriented, trend-savvy fashion students. I communicated to them that while I was in a position of authority (high heels), I also didn’t take myself too seriously (sweats).

In this moment I was also combining two of my essential Fashion Psychology philosophies: Mood Illustration and Mood Enhancement Dress. In a nutshell, Mood Illustration is when you dress to honor or match your mood; Mood Enhancement is when you dress to change it for the better. I was honoring (or illustrating) my emotional state by self-soothing with soft, effortless sweats. And I was simultaneously amplifying my mojo (or enhancing my mood) with outerwear and shoes that popped. We’ll delve deeper into these mood-based styling concepts in chapter 5. But for now, I want you to get a taste of how they apply to real life—to understand that your clothing really does connect to your emotions.

There’s also a second, equally important dynamic at play when you get dressed: the one between you and other people. What I wear sends signals to you, my perceiver. And what you wear sends signals to me, which I interpret. This unspoken dialog happens between us as we cross paths and silently scan each other for visual clues. Whatever we infer about each other sets the stage for our social interaction. Much of this happens on an unconscious level, almost instantly. Now, if other people react strongly to your fashion statements, you may want to insist that you haven’t even said anything. But with fashion, the message is already woven into the medium. When others look at you, size you up, and consider what you have on, they’re gathering information about who you are. It’s inescapable. Unavoidable. Your clothes are talking. They can’t be silenced. We watch this dialog unfold every day in the public sphere. In the era of social media, political polarization, and the rapid-fire, headline-hungry news cycle, Fashion Psychology is more relevant than ever. Obsessed with our likes and followers, we are all putting ourselves on display and reading each other 24/7. What are you wearing? Who made it? How much did you pay for it? Who are you? Where do you come from? Where do you stand?

In Fashion Psychology, politics, religion, race, gender, nationality, age, class, and culture collide, whether we’re talking pussy bows or pantsuits, a black teenager’s hoodie or an $895 Balenciaga sweatshirt emblazoned with street graffiti worn by Taylor Swift. (Yep, that happened.)1 What does a burkini trigger in us? How about Yeezy Boosts? Why did Steve Jobs wear the same outfit every day? Why did his would-be successor Elizabeth Holmes? What are rappers saying with designer logos and diamond grillz? How do we feel when Kim Kardashian matches her neon latex dress to her neon luxury car? How does Instagram influence retail? Do Kylie Jenner’s selfies make young people want cosmetic surgery? I have been asked to discuss these topics and more by international heads of state, students at FIT, executives at major fashion labels, Good Morning America, and many others. Here’s what I tell everyone: Once you understand how powerfully fashion drives perception, you can take the wheel.

But first, back to those snap judgments. One important study published in the journal Psychological Science revealed that we determine someone’s attractiveness, likability, trustworthiness, competence, and aggressiveness within one hundred milliseconds of seeing them.2 That’s all it takes. Bolstering this point is a great quote from drag performer Trixie Mattel. “In society,” she told the New York Times Magazine, “we are what we’re dressed as.”3 If you’re in a police uniform, you’re a cop, she explains, a person in a position of power. If you’re in scrubs, you’re a doctor, an intelligent, caretaking authority figure. If you’re in head-to-toe Lululemon, you’re a privileged wellness fan who perhaps lives a life of leisure. We rarely question what our eyes tell us, or the soundness of these assumptions. And instinctively, we are pretty convinced our first impressions are spot-on. They aren’t always. But they certainly can be. For example, when people are under stress or really going through some drama, it can seem like they’re wearing their heart on their sleeve. They say your eyes are a window into your soul; I say your clothes are. When a depressed person wears drab, unkempt clothing, this too is an example of Mood Illustration Dress. After all, your clothing selections reflect the full range of emotions, and that includes some unhappy ones. This was the situation my client Jim* found himself in. Let’s meet him.

Self-expressing through clothes is not a new thing. In fact, it’s a tale as old as time—or at least as old as the Middle Ages, when historians say people first started wearing clothes that designated their position in society.4 The fact is, we’ve been using clothes to declare our gender identities, our group memberships, our class, our unconscious feelings and desires for a loooong time. Pulitzer Prize–winning fashion critic Robin Givhan once said: “As soon as man emerged from the cave, clothes took on a social significance. I don’t think there’s ever been a period where a shirt was just a shirt!” Throughout history, people have used clothes to signify their tribe, their wealth or status, their position in the social hierarchy. “Those things have always been wrapped up in fashion,” Givhan notes, “whether we consider the era of the French courts or even the emergence of hip-hop.”5

Now this is some cerebral stuff! But when you boil Fashion Psychology down to its essence, we’re simply looking at how clothing affects human behavior. So what does any of this have to do with what you’re supposed to wear to work tomorrow? First of all, my mission is to convince you that your clothes can be utilized to make people respond to you in the way you’d like, as well as to make you feel your best. No more getting dressed on autopilot. Those days are done. (See “Have a Mindful Morning” here.) Next, I want to help you define your fashion personality and home in on your signature style (aka your personal brand). I’ll help you break unhealthy retail habits and bust out of style ruts—all using Fashion Psychology techniques.

Once you have a clear-eyed sense of your own ideal style and a savvier awareness of what triggers you to shop, we’ll explore different, more simplified ways to approach getting dressed. My goal is to help you streamline the process to reduce stress. You’ll learn to be more conscious of your mood before you set foot in your closet, to identify clearer goals for how you want to feel each day and for what reactions you hope to inspire, and then to actualize those goals by wearing items you already own. I’ll give you all the tools you’ll need, like a time-saving Capsule Wardrobe, anti-anxiety jewelry, and power colors to improve your look and your outlook.

This book will not include “Dos & Don’ts” lists or sidebars on the perfect little black dress (which is not a solution for every sartorial situation, no matter what experts say!). Instead, I will teach you how to maintain your cultural identity anywhere, anytime, to level up your Instagram game, to prevent the dreaded “I have nothing to wear” feeling, to sidestep trends when they won’t work for your lifestyle (keep it moving, bike shorts!), and more. By sharing Case Studies featuring real people I’ve counseled (like Jim), I will illuminate how your style habits and beliefs are either helping or hurting you. And I will prove to you that you are not the only one with issues. I have lots of motivating, thought-provoking exercises up my sleeve (ahem). They’re the same ones I offer my clients, and they’ll help you get to work right away. But before I do all that, I’d like to tell you a little bit more about what I will not do.


Here’s the deal: I am a professor and a therapist with a background in and a passion for the fashion industry. I am skeptical of rules, flash-in-the-pan trends, retail therapy, and paint-by-numbers styling advice. I want to know how you feel in your clothes so I can help you find clothes that make you feel phenomenal. I also believe fashion can be a catalyst for social change. Whether I am chatting over tea with abaya-clad clients in Dubai or developing curriculum on “Trayvon Martin and the Hoodie Effect,” I am deeply cognizant of the way cultural stories play out through our clothes. I have always been, and remain, voraciously curious about people. How you dress is just one aspect of who you are, but it is a significant one. If you’ve got style questions, I’ve got answers. I’m just going to ask you to do some soul-searching first.

I can help you dress and feel better. But I am not a stylist, at least not in the traditional sense. A stylist, image consultant, or personal shopper tells clients what to wear on the basis of the latest trends, what’s new and now on the runways and racks, and what she thinks will make them look their best. In Hollywood, dressing celebrities is a full-blown industry with its own exclusive ecosystem. A star’s “personal style” is generally bought and paid for, though usually not by the star. Instead, it is the creation of a team of professional artists, known as a glam squad. It is their job to bring glamorous fashion fantasies to life. My job is to improve your real life—and, yes, ideally make it a little more glamorous.

I’ve worked with my share of boldface names, but one reason being a celebrity stylist isn’t #goals for me is the lack of inclusivity in the industry. Stylist Jason Bolden, who works with Mindy Kaling, Serena Williams, and Taraji P. Henson, among others, has described the racially charged roadblocks he’s encountered on the way to the red carpet. When he has approached A-list fashion houses seeking dresses for a sample-size Oscar nominee who happens to be a minority, their answer has been “‘Oh, no. Pass,’” he told New York Magazine’s website The Cut. “But then I see them work with someone [white] who has no career, no fashion profile. It’s bizarre.”6

Size-ism also comes into play. Stars who do not fit into size 00 sample gowns tend to be shut out of the designer garment game. You may remember when Saturday Night Live comedian Leslie Jones couldn’t find a designer dress to wear to the 2016 premiere of her film Ghostbusters. She tweeted: “It’s so funny how there are no designers wanting to help me with a premiere dress for a movie. Hmmm that will change and I remember everything.”7 While fashion houses often cite legitimate reasons for producing collections in only a limited number of sizes (cost, engineering, etc.), this “You can’t sit with us” mean girls shtick is starting to feel old. Not only do I not play this game, I never even set foot in the arena.

In my world, whatever body type you are, whatever skin tone, whatever nationality, whatever generation, whatever is in your bank account, I am here to help you examine your life and reimagine your relationship with your clothes. I’m laser-focused on how people use fashion either as a means of empowerment or as an emotional crutch. Stylists may be amazingly skilled, but their primary concern is optics. They care about how their client appears. I care about how you are. In the fashion industry, in the world of Instagram influencers, and in Hollywood, authenticity counts, but image counts more. My job is to help you connect what you wear on the outside with how you feel on the inside. For a stylist, the client’s inner life is a secondary, incidental consideration, if it ever comes up at all. You would probably find it pretty inappropriate and unprofessional if your stylist started asking probing questions about your romantic situation, your past traumas, your family dynamics. Girl, that’s where I begin.

A Fashion Psychologist starts by excavating what’s beneath the surface, hence my motto “styling from the inside out.” I want to know why the person sitting in front of me chooses to dress the way she does. So I ask. I ask questions about her love life, her racial-ethnic-religious-cultural background, her family history, her self-esteem, her body image, her lifestyle, her relationships, her fears and insecurities, her challenges and strengths—long before we ever consider changing a stitch of clothing. I typically meet with a client for three sessions of talk therapy before I look at her wardrobe. Now, because this is a book, I can’t come and see your closet. But I can teach you to style yourself, using clothes and accessories you already own.

So let’s get to where the rubber meets the road. How does Fashion Psychology actually work? In the following Case Study, you’ll see Fashion Psychology in action and begin to understand how it can help you.

As you can see, I didn’t suggest Tracey alter her style dramatically or max out her credit card on a special occasion investment piece. All the “new” looks I prescribed were made up of outfit elements she already owned. As you’ll hear me say repeatedly, I don’t do makeovers. Makeovers don’t stick. They’re like the style equivalent of a juice cleanse: dramatic initial results, impossible to sustain. In fact, sometimes the wardrobe changes I suggest to clients are so subtle, no one else ever even notices them!

Makeovers entertain us because they play into our deepest desires for beauty, glamour, escape, transformation. We binge-watch shows to see how clothes can create (and re-create) identities. Think of the heart-pounding “big reveal” moments on Queer Eye, What Not to Wear, Say Yes to the Dress, and countless others. On those shows, the subjects morph—frequently via bandage dress—from drab to fab, their new look the key to happily ever after. Glam squads with red carpet résumés swoop in, work their magic on hair, makeup, outfit, and voilà! Heretofore hidden confidence is uncovered and, usually, true love acquired.

But you know how those stories end. The effects evaporate once the director yells “Cut!” The clock strikes midnight and the star-for-a-day turns back into the wallflower dressed in rags. You’re too smart to fall for that fairy-tale formula. In this day and age, we’ve all been forced to grow up. We are no longer willing to be spoon-fed the same tired old tropes. Today, gender is more fluid, yoga pants are more popular than jeans, and lifelong singlehood is a viable version of happily ever after.8 If you hit the job market after the 2008 recession, you probably care more about how to dress for an informational interview than you do for a date. Fashion Psychology is the natural next step as we evolve beyond the passé makeover mindset. I’m betting you are ready to approach your look—and your life—from a more intentional place.

My role is to help you get in touch with who you are, with how you are feeling underneath it all. If you want to rethink your look or reform your shopping habits, I’m down. But the first step in getting where you want to go is examining where you are coming from. Clothes are simply a vehicle to empower you on your path. Or in some cases, stumbling blocks to be cleared from it.

More things I don’t do:

Dress you according to your “body shape” or compare your body to produce. For the record, I have yet to meet a person whose self-esteem was improved by identifying as “pear-shaped.”

Take you on Pretty Woman –esque shopping sprees. In fact, I rarely shop with clients at all.

KonMari your closet. I could watch Marie Kondo fold t-shirts all day (#SparksJoy). And I do have tips about how to edit your closet and create a Capsule Wardrobe (see here). But your junk drawer is none of my business. And there’s no way I’m showing you mine.

When I work with clients, we talk—really talk—about the psychological motivations behind their wardrobe choices. And you’re about to meet a bunch of them who were brave enough to bare their secrets. I bet you’ll relate to many. And I hope they’ll inspire you to think more deeply about your own story and how it drives you to dress. I’m interested in helping you reconnect with your truest, most authentic self. I firmly believe you cannot look good until you feel


On Sale
Apr 14, 2020
Page Count
288 pages
Little Brown Spark

Dawnn Karen

About the Author

Dawnn Karen is a pioneer in the field of fashion psychology. A graduate of Columbia University and a former model, Karen is currently a professor in the social sciences department at the Fashion Institute of Technology, in addition to maintaining her private therapy practice, Fashion Psychology Success, and her online classes, the Fashion Psychology Institute. Dubbed the “Dress Doctor” by the New York Times, Karen has been featured by the Wall Street Journal, NBC News, Cosmopolitan, Glamour Italia, Good Morning America, Inside Edition, and many others

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