Full text of fashion psychologist Dawnn Karen’s talk: Styling from Inside Out™ at TEDxFIT conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Dawnn Karen – Fashion Psychologist
So in 2011, I arrived here as a bright-eyed girl all the way from Ohio. You see, I believe I was living my best life because I was engaged, I was attending Columbia University for Counseling Psychology, and I was pursuing a hobby which I loved a lot, modeling. I would enter the world of Freud during the day and enter the world of fashion at night.
Then came the day that would change my life in more ways than I could ever imagine. It started off as a normal weekend. My fiancé, he came up for a visit. And we were at dinner. I was being the typical bride-to-be, a chatty Cathy. And I would talk about the guests lists and the bridesmaids and the colors and all that fun stuff.
But I noticed that he wasn’t really engaging with me. Though, believe it or not, he was a bit more friskier than usual. So I kept chatting on and on and on and dinner finished. And we head home and I was wondering: was he okay? Was, was everything all right? What, what had happened?
And it turns out he wasn’t okay. And on that night, my fiancé sexually assaulted me. The man that I was willing to spend the rest of my life with raped me. I passed out. And when I came to, I was in utter disbelief. I could not believe that this had happened to me.
I was in so much shock that I ran out of my apartment and I called my parents and I told them what had happened. And they said, “Dawnn, what do you want to do? What do you want us to do?”
And although my parents knew that I loved him very much. They also knew the law. And so I didn’t want them to do anything. I didn’t want to do anything. I just wanted to continue on with my life. I just wanted to move on.
And so I hung up the phone and I walked back to my apartment. And my fiancé, he began apologizing to me profusely over and over again. And I told him that the engagement was off and that I never wanted to see him again.
And so the next morning he boarded a bus back to Ohio. To my surprise, I heard a knock at the door and I was hoping that it was my fiancé begging me to come back to him and for me, to put back on the engagement.
But I opened the door and it was the police. You see, my parents had called the police all the way from Ohio. And so I was forced about a police report. And so the police asked “Dawnn, would you like to press charges?”
And how could I press charges against the man that I love?
And so again, I told them, “No, I don’t want to do anything. I just want to move on with my life.” And so they said, “Okay”. And they left.
And I went to my closet and I picked out one of the best outfits that I had ever owned. And the next morning I put that outfit on and I went to class as if nothing had happened. As if I had a normal weekend.
I pushed myself to forget and forget, and I did my best. And I thought I was doing a great job, but I noticed that I was a bit more withdrawn. And if I was noticing that I know my professors were noticing as well.
And so on separate occasions, they called me into their office one by one. And they told me, they said, “Dawnn Karen, you’re not really connecting with your clients.” They said in but so many words that I lacked the empathy to be a traditional therapist.
I felt like a failure. And later then they went on to give me a suggestion and said, “Perhaps you need to take a leave of absence to get yourself together”. Again, I felt like a failure.
I could not return to Ohio. I had lost my fiancé. I lost everything. What was I supposed to do?
And so, you know what? I got a job as a nanny. Nanny, me a nanny! And so I began working with the most imaginative, kind, gentle soul, this seven year old boy. And he brought so much joy into my life at that time.
We would do a lot of pretend play. And on one particular day, he would say, “Miss Dawnn, Miss Dawnn I want to be a pilot when I grow up. Can I be a pilot?”
And I would say, ‘Yes, sweetie. Sure. You can be whatever you want to be.”
And so we would get on the number one train, and we would pretend to be pilots, soaring high into the sky. And on the second day, he would say, “Miss Dawnn, Miss Dawnn, can I be an astronaut today?”
And I would say, “Yes, honey, you can be whatever you want to be.”
And so we would get on the number one train and we would be holding onto the poles and soaring into outer space. And we will come back to earth only when we got to last stop.
And so on the third day, he said, “Miss Dawnn, what do you want to be when you grow up?” And I had no idea. I honestly had no idea.
And so I went home and per my usual, I called my dad and I said, “Dad, you know, I had an interesting conversation with my young boy and he asked me, what did I want to be when I grew up? And so, I knew I didn’t want to be at nanny.”
And my father, he encouraged me to explore what did I want to be. And so I began revealing to him that while at Columbia university, I was inspired by a professor who was pioneering the multicultural psychology field.
And I said, “Maybe I can do something like that.” Like after all people who had came out of Ivy League Universities, they’ve done like some amazing things, they’ve done innovative things, revolutionary things. And maybe I could be a part of that.
And so my father told me to do some research. And so I was doing my research and I stumbled upon a professor at Harvard University, who in the 19th century illuminated this notion of fashion psychology. He was one of the first professors; one of the first persons to aluminate this notion. His name was William James.
And so I had this epiphany, like perhaps I could continue where he left off. And so I landed a second job: writing magazines. And thus began my career as a fashion psychologist.
I ended up traveling to the Middle East and living out there for nine months. And I was working alongside journalists, doing media interviews, after media interview. And I was doing them as far as Australia, all the way to Asia. And I ended up in about 25 countries. And so I said, “Hmm, I think I got something here.”
And so when I felt completed, I took a plane back to New York and I ended up receiving a position as one of the youngest professors here at FIT at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
And so as I look back on my journey, I couldn’t help, but to wonder why on one of the most horrific weekends of my life, did I want to wear one of my best outfits? What was that all about? Like, what was I trying to achieve? And so, in a sense, I had become a client as a therapist. I had become a client.
So I bet you’re wondering what is the difference between a fashion stylist and a fashion psychologist, right?
So a fashion stylist seeks to dress you and what looks good on you, according to your body type, dresses you on according to season, according to trend. But as a fashion psychologist, I would dress you and I would get to the root of why you wear what you wear and how that impacts you in your everyday life.
So let me give you an example. When I was in the Middle East I had a client and she particularly lived in Abu Dhabi. And so she wore the traditional Abaya, which is a long black cloak.
And she struggled with some identity issues. She didn’t really feel like herself. When she would travel to Europe, she would wear more revealing clothing. And when she would return, she would put back on her Abaya. And so she really felt inauthentic. She felt incongruent.
And so I began counselling her to get to the root of her issues. And we later placed her in some elaborate pretty fancy scarves. And we placed her in some fashions that was reminiscent of what western women wore in the 1950s and 1960s, similar to Jackie O.
And over time, she began to tell me that she felt like she was being her true self. She felt like she was being authentic, like there was some congruency on from the inside out. And so like many things around you, clothing can be used to help you feel better.
According to Researchers and Queensland Business School, they interview participants and people actually did say they use clothing to help themselves feel better. They actually said clothing reflected their mood.
And so I had an idea to coin two theories, they’re called mood illustration dress and mood enhancement dress.
So how does this all work?
So basically I tell my students and my clients, to get off autopilot. When you’re on autopilot, you usually go to your closet and you trash your room because you have nothing to wear, but there’s like a slew of clothes everywhere.
So what I tell them to do is center themselves before they placed their feet on the ground, lying in bed and asked yourself self, how am I feeling today? And most of you guys don’t do that. So how are you feeling today?
So in particular, I was feeling, I woke up on the wrong side of the bed. I was having a bad morning and I had to lecture on this particular day and I wanted to wear sweats. But you know, you can’t wear a sweat as a professor.
So I was wearing sweats. And I said, perhaps if I paired it with some leopard heels in an elaborate coat, perhaps that would make me feel better. And so I performed my lecture and actually improved my mood.
Now this might not work for all of you, but I love leopard heels. And I love to be comfortable in my sweats and look at me, don’t I look happy?
So today I am here and I can tell you that I returned to Columbia University to finish what I started. And I was able to found the first ever online institution dedicated to disseminating and teaching the fashion psychology field. And I ultimately want my students and my clients to learn how to style from the inside out as a fashion psychologist.
Now that horrific moment could have been a defining moment. It could have been defined by the hurt that I felt, but instead I used it to inspire me. And for that, I am healed. Thank you.