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Why Personality Science Is the Future of Fashion

By Anabel Maldonado

Felicia Yap

As Instagram turned fashion into a spectator sport, and influence really started gaining influence, the onslaught of fashion content has also fuelled the opposite desire. We feel a need to be able to efficiently filter through all these shiny objects, make fashion personal again and end the stressful effects of this overwhelming amount of choice. And as such, personalisation is the word on everyone’s lips — everyone with a digital storefront that is. Well, that, along with AI, data, deep learning, machine learning, and of course, the algorithm. Although these terms have been thrown around to the point of seeming like empty catchphrases, and indeed it seems every company wants to stick ‘AI’ on their brand to sound innovative, deep learning, which is a subset of AI, is developing quickly to answer one question: Why? In terms of fashion, why do we like what we like? Answering what (“Big headbands!”) is not enough, as that answer is going to be a one-off. Most people don't buy big headbands over and over again. The real key to understanding consumer psychology lies in why, because only the real motivation — for instance, being an extravert or a heavy social media user, or liking statement pieces in general and feeling especially insecure lately — can create more reliable product suggestions.

Retailers need to know why so they can sell. And the rest of us benefit from knowing why because self-knowledge is power. You know that life-affirming feeling when a good friend correctly remarks that a dress is “so you”. (We all have that friend that has a better grasp on our style better than we do.) Well let’s think about what makes it you. Is it because you fit neatly into a predetermined style archetype? A romantic dresser. Classic. Bohemian? While, yes, sometimes these labels apply, they are too linear, arbitrary and unreliable to check out with any type of reliable scientific precision. Reliability in science means that the result can be replicated, that it isn’t a one-off. No one is one type, and we have to consider the context. The same woman who buys a buy a romantic floral dress may also likely buy a studded avant-garde leather jacket to offset said romantic dress. This can be highly confusing to equate using simple algorithms. Her personality, and as a consequence, her style, is more complex, and composed of different ingredients that create a unique style code.

Yet there is a measure that’s much more reliable that can tell us ‘why’ with more precision: Psychology, and more specifically, personality science, is what’s currently missing from personalisation. The study of personality traits can be quantified, tested and predicted. The most popular method, the one being used by the majority of personality scientists since the ’70s, is called the Five Factor Model or the Big Five Model. The Big Five are often abbreviated as OCEAN (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism). Openness describes how favourably a person reacts to new ideas and novel experiences. Conscientiousness implies a desire to do a task well, keep the rules, and to take obligations to others seriously. Extroversion is based on whether individuals get their energy from other people or by being alone. Agreeableness reveals how driven people are to cooperate and be liked by others. Neuroticism measures how emotionally stable someone is. Your personality then can look something like this: 30% open, 55% conscientious, 85% extroverted, 65% agreeable and just 10% neurotic.

All these traits are reflected in aesthetic taste, and this very framework, the relationships between personality traits and aesthetic preferences, is the basis for the burgeoning field of fashion psychology.

Sceptical? You shouldn’t be. The correlations are strong. Political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica was able to utilise US Facebook users’ fashion preferences to gauge their personality traits and tailor marketing messages to help President Trump rise to power. The method worked because social media users' affinity for specific brands was directly linked to personality traits. According to the data obtained, fans of American denim brands such as Wrangler and Lee Jeans could be more closely linked to low levels of openness and mistrust — and therefore more likely to engage with pro-Trump messages. Those who showed affinity for more experimental brands such as Kenzo or Alexander McQueen tended towards more openness, which meant more towards democratic voters.

Now let’s imagine a future where we can make positive use of this knowledge, where fashion consumers, content creators and companies operate from this psychological framework to fix some of the problems in the industry.

You’re looking for a dress to wear to a friend’s wedding in Cebu. Unlike before, you haven’t been scrolling through pages of midi-length cocktail dresses on multiple sites for weeks trying to find something that’s you. The endless choice, and wasted time scrolling and searching are over. Perhaps a single e-commerce platform powered by intelligent deep-learning models is smart enough to personalise the shopping experience and factor in context, mood, and your baseline core personality. When personalisation is really good, it won’t be creepy or clumsy. Users won’t even know their experience is being personalised at all. High-value AI-enabled experiences will great for everybody. Users see better products and smarter websites, feel more inspired and get to the things they want quickly.

This type of online personalisation will require a ton of data, not to mention consumers not being squeamish about providing it and staying logged in. Retailers will have to pledge to be responsible with data, while consumers have to come to terms that giving more information will improve their experience.

But at this point in the technology’s development, really sophisticated AI is not easy to carry out in fashion e-commerce. The science is hard, the math is even harder, and the level of subject-matter expertise needed to derive true value from AI is scarce. Here’s where personality science comes in. The value that we can derive from AI comes from leveraging shoppers’ personality data: It tells us why.

Understanding the workings of fashion psychology would also affect content. Fashion features will become more personal, and less redundant, and perhaps this turnaround will save magazines from their decline. There will be less articles about the bags the editors are loving and how to copy this, copy that, and copy Kim Kardashian. While, yes, it’s clear that we as humans need social proof, and that is what currently helps drive value, that process already happens organically as we spectate others’ style and subconsciously pick up on styling cues and product only when it resonates with us. We don’t respond to every influencer and every trend, only the ones that align with our personality and mood.

There’s a difference between this naturally occurring socially-created value and articles that dictate you should buy something because so-and-so is loving it. The fashion content of the future reads a bit more like it’s written by a therapist. Here’s what’s new on the market, here’s examples of how it can be styled, and here — perhaps in lighter terminology — is what the psychological pay-off is. Want to cultivate self-esteem? Dampen anxiety? We have just the dress.

When asked to condense all of his knowledge and wisdom into one succinct takeaway, the Athenian philosopher Socrates simply responded: “Know thyself.” And this is perhaps the best thing that personality science can do for us and our relationship to clothes. Without true self-knowledge, we are doomed to choose things that are unsuited to us. Self-knowledge can help us to stop looking outward and start looking inward for style guidance, because we have a superior understanding of the relationship between fashion, our moods, personality and identity. It’s the key to ending over-consumption and mindless purchases. Self-knowledge fosters happy dressing that’s in alignment with our true self, and a closet full of clothes that are very us, as if they were curated by that good style-savvy friend. Or perhaps, a really great algorithm.

Anabel Maldonado is a London-based fashion journalist, psychologist and founder of The Psychology of Fashion.