Pre Fashion Week Thinking: Fashion and Psychoanalysis

With London Fashion Week (LFW) less than a fortnight away, we’re all excited to see what treats lay in store, presented to us in metaphorical bows of silk, chiffon and lace from our favourite design houses and high street brands.

Increasingly people are stopping to consider the psychology of fashion e.g. what it says of us. McQueen famously spoke of his work as a form of therapy, stating that it was a way to exorcise his demons; suggesting that fashion may not only speak of us, but to us and have psychological and therapeutic benefits. But what does psychoanalysis have to say about the different realms of fashion? Last year I attended the world’s first Fashion and Psychoanalysis conference at UAL, hosted by UAL’s London College of Fashion in collaboration with the Freud Museum London (my old stomping ground).

The conference was hosted over two days with talks from curators, researchers, scientists, artists, fashion designers and more (see end of article for full list of contributors).

But what did I learn from the conference that might help inform my thinking as we slide into fashion week? What lens, or lenses might the thinking shared provide, through which to view the fashion world?

Over my next few posts I will share my most thought provoking ummm…. thoughts from the Fashion and Psychoanalysis conference. Enjoy

Part 1)Fashion is a substitute for the woman’s penis Umm, what!?

Hold on, before you spit out your gin fizz, let’s think about this together a little bit. Valerie Steele dubbed the Freud of Fashion maintains that sexuality is central to the study of psychoanalysis and central to fashion. She proclaims that sexual symbolism can be seen all across fashion, and that more overt sexual symbols in the form of fetish themes have also crept in. While showing one Versace campaign picture, she described the “multiply endowed woman”, covered in hard, rigid, erect straps, donned in impossibly high heels.


In this way the woman becomes more powerful, with her many phallices..phalli? Phallics? Symbolic penises (because that’s where all power lies don’t you know). Steele who has researched the connection between fetishism and fashion also shared that high heels are ubiquitous with female fetishism, and although Freud spoke very little about clothing he believed that heels protected men against homosexuality by endowing women with a phallis (Freud, oh Freud oh Freud. This is definitely going too far for me, and in today’s day and age, is just offensive and outdated in times where most women prefer a good pair of Converse ((other brands available)) over a pair of heels and homosexuality is not something that needs protecting against. Anyway, let’s take a deep breath and continue).

Not only is much of fashion tied up with sexuality and fetishism (pun intended), but according to Steele’s research it seems to be sexuality from the benchmark of being a man e.g. endowing ourselves to be more powerful, or for the benefit of men e.g. as above (let’s not repeat it). The shaping impact of male gaze is something we’re aware of, but Steele’s example of the way fashion has shifted attention to different parts of the body over time, is a powerful one e.g. the bum enlarging bustle in the late 1800s, hip widening panniers in the mid 1700s, boob enhancing stays and dresses in the late 1700s and early 1800s, belly flashing crop tops in the 1990’s.

But with our increased knowledge of the impact of male gaze and internalised gaze [1] [2], having more female fashion designers than ever before and the increasing rise of feminism, what are we seeing in fashion now?

Only last month Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss stomped it out on the runway for Kim Jones’ last Louis Vuitton show, in wait for it…..FLATS! Also, just last October Miu Miu sent a plethora (yes plethora) of models down the runway in flats.


Picture credit: Vogue and

Perhaps the lens therefore is one of change, of shedding of phalli, and of womanliness, for women. Let’s see shall we…


Fashion and Psychoanalysis conference contributors

Zowie Broach 
Introductory ThoughtsValerie Steele
Freud and Fashion

Claire Pajaczkowska 
In Fashion : Sexual Selection and the Fetish/ Understanding ‘Empathy by Design’

Anouchka Grose 
Ugliness+Time: Fashion and the Prisoners’ Dilemma

Shaun Cole 
The ‘Great Masculine Renunciation’ Re-assessed

Philip Mann
The Dandy : Pathological Hero of Modernism

Caroline Evans
Denise Poiret and the Material Mnemonics of Fashion

Bella Freud
in conversation with Amanda Harlech

Katerina Fotopoulou 
Body Imaging: Mentalising and Modifying our Bodily Appearance

Emilia Raczkowska
‘There Remains the Area of Clothes’ – Enclothed Cognition from the Lab to the Couch



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