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Fashion Psychology: between the consumer and marketing

Business depends on the transactions of goods and services. It could be considered that what is sold is the most important factor in this exchange, but caution is necessary when emphasis is placed solely on the aesthetic aspects of design. The Postal Museum (2009) shared a snapshot of history where this mistake is illustrated. They highlight how in 1857, the design for the London Ornate Pillar Box was introduced despite a major flaw: it had no aperture for people to deposit their post within the structure. To solve this problem, they opened a hole on the upper part of the post box, thus creating a new problem: though letters could go into the pillar they had no protection from being ruined by the rain. This example shows how both aesthetics and function are not enough to create a successful product without taking into consideration the consumers’ behaviours, wants and needs.

While it could be easy to think of the post box only as an object that is part of the postal service, it could also be arguably tied to fashion. Solomon and Rabolt (2009) consider fashion is an industry. Though some may consider this industry to involve only clothes, they posit that fashion goes beyond apparel to include perfumes, music, furniture, architecture and so on. They explain that the fashion industry has an overarching effect on business practice because it drives people to change. This definition allows for the argument that fashion is the zeitgeist – a changing set of ideas and mores that will lead the individual to choices and actions in order to satisfy a variety of psychological needs. This is not to say that dress holds little importance. As material goods, clothes hold a special significance in culture due to their ability to allow for social belonging, exaltation of self and protection against the elements (Flügel, 1930/1969; Lennon, Johnson & Rudd, 2017). The study of consumer psychology in fashion is therefore paramount for successful design in business.

The aim of this essay is to explore the need of industries to engage consumers through understanding their changing attitudes. This work will first compare and contrast marketing practice and consumer behaviour to determine the relationship between them. It will subsequently explore how generational, sexual and cultural differences can influence an individual’s motivations and attitudes as consumers.

Marketing Practice and Consumer Behaviour

Kotler and Armstrong (2010) explain how marketing is most commonly understood as the practice of selling and promoting. They propose a more updated definition of marketing by positing that it depends on meeting customers’ needs by creating and producing goods and services to satisfy them. Consumer behaviour, on the other hand, is defined as the study of the different processes in consumers’ interactions with products and services, ranging from how they choose, buy, use and discard them (Solomon & Rabolt, 2009). From these definitions, systematic differences can be ascertained. Marketing could be defined as more business-centric and focused on achieving sales whereas consumer behaviour focuses on the consumer as an individual and studies the psychological processes involved in their interactions with business and goods.

Solomon and Rabolt (2009) highlight the importance of understanding motivations through a series of psychological theories. They also explain the study of consumers’ attitudes through the ABC model: affects, behaviours and cognitions. This implies that a series of motivations within the individual will lead to a manner of feeling, behaving and understanding. Taking this into account, consumer behaviour could be considered the first step that marketers need to understand in order to inform their procedures. “The aim is to know and understand the customer so well that the product or service fits… and sells itself” (Drucker as cited in Kotler & Armstrong, 2010).

Understanding the consumer’s psychology through fashion can also provide a niche, beneficial insight. Lin (2002) explains how people are normally divided into different marketing segments by either demographic (age, sex, nationality and so on) or psychographic (lifestyle) parameters. However, this can also present an inconvenience due to the existence of differences within groups. Fashion and clothing are said to have a code whereby individuals belonging to different groups can interpret and judge variations in their own style (McCracken & Roth, 1989). Understanding this principle could lead to different considerations to be undertaken when conducting consumer research.

Generational Differences

Social learning theory (SLT) describes how individuals model values and behaviours by observing people around them (Bandura & Walters, 1977). This is comparable to meme theory, which sees ideas and behaviours as self-replicating entities that travel from person to person (Dawkins, 1981). It could therefore be expected that individuals that live within the same time period and share the same age will influence each other in the creation of a collective identity, leading to age being arguably the most important demographic factor that marketers use for segmentation (Roberts & Manolis, 2000). Generations are age cohorts that are generally tied together within a 20-year span due to the idea that they share common memories and values, however, there are discrepancies on this principle and different sources cite different dates for dividing generations (see Berkup, 2014; Lennon, Johnson, & Rudd, 2017; Patino, Kaltcheva, Lingelbach, & Pitta, 2012). Berkup (2014) defines the following dates for segmenting the contemporary generations: Silent Generation (born between 1925 – 1945), Baby Boomers (born between 1946 – 1964), Generation X (born between 1965 – 1979), Millennials (born between 1980 – 2001) and Generation Z (born between 2000 – 2020).

Lennon, Johnson, and Rudd (2017) argue that generational gaps can be catalysts for cultural differences. The members of each generation are defined by particular moments in history that will influence the beliefs and morals they adhere to. They explain, for example, how Baby Boomers – born after the Second World War – were strongly influenced by the values of the Cold War and were motivated to be activists as teenagers, adopting a different style of dress from what their parents wore, becoming beatniks, hippies, mods, rockers and so on (Young, 2016). Attix (2002) exemplifies how this has been important in their lifespan development and has manifested in their interest in new-age spirituality that has, successively, turned into travelling purchase decisions as they matured and earned the money to spend on their interests. This could arguably also be attributed to nostalgia. Though research suggests memorabilia may be important for an individual’s wellbeing (Masuch & Hefferon, 2018), it may also be tied to the individual’s self-concept and autobiographical memory (Çili & Stopa, 2019). As Baby Boomers age and have the available time, they spend money on activities that remind them of their ideals when they were younger, fulfilling their need for self-actualization.

Generation X differs from Baby Boomers in various ways. They faced growing up with divorced parents, they lived through the AIDS crisis and they grew up with a more abudant use of recreational drugs (Lennon, Johnson, & Rudd, 2017). Despite Baby Boomers seeing the first television sets in their homes when they were young, Generation Xers are said to have been metaphorically raised by television. Roberts and Manolis (2000) explain how this has impacted Generation X to be more materialistic and more driven to earn money than their Silent Generation and Baby Boomer parents. Considering SLT, they make the interesting point of how television adverts, and not brand promotions, have shaped Generation X’s buying behaviour. Seeing something portrayed in the media can be influential to an individual’s understanding of values and behaviours (Nimon, 2007). Due to the mass distribution of media images, these can form a master narrative that the individual then understands and carries with them as a point of comparison for their own actions, thus becoming instrumental in forming a sense of identity (Çili & Stopa, 2019). Seeing this master narrative reflected on the attitudes of their peers through social interaction could then serve as reinforcement of the generation’s identity.

Millennials’ exposure to the media has also been a matter of study. Nimon (2007) explores how Generation Xers were exposed to television programming that fostered individuality while Millennials were shown programming that fostered the importance of peer groups. To Millennials, she argues, friends supersede family and romantic ties. The advent of the Internet is also a point of comparison between the two generations. While it is said to be a tool for Generation Xers, the Internet and social media have created a lens through which Millennials perceive their lives (Nimon, 2007; Stein, 2013). This change in perception has lead to differences in motivations and behaviours that have subverted business practice. For example, Millennials are heavily involved in e-commerce and online purchases (see Díaz, Gómez, & Molina, 2017; Park, Hill, & Bonds-Raacke, 2015). In addition, it could be argued that Millennials’ pro-social nature and pragmatic use of limited economic resources have contributed in founding the sharing economy (Hamari, Sjöklint, & Ukkonen, 2016), paving the way for new business models and revolutionising the way business is performed and ownership is understood.

In regards to the effects of postmodernist values on the youngest generations – Millennials and Generation Z – it has been argued that a major difficulty these generations face is not that they have a need to rebel against a system or establishment, but rather that there is no longer an establishment to conform to or rebel against (Stein, 2013). This lack of centralized authority has also been reflected in the fashion industry. In her doctoral thesis, Pena (2005) argues that younger generations no longer consider fashion magazines or brands to be style references. She highlights this as evident in the more rapid resurgence and constant succession of vintage trends in shorter periods of time. The forfeiture of style codes and the blurring of gendered clothing, she argues, are also symptoms of the legacy of postmodernism. This is not to say that there are no longer any reference groups that draw consumers’ aspirations. This is considered a plausible explanation for the rise of influencer marketing (see Glucksman, 2017). This implies a change in the understanding that individuals have of role models as well as the manner in which they are exposed to and communicate with them. This is especially important if considering a business’s wish to develop brand equity. Younger generations are loyal to people, therefore the personality of a brand becomes of paramount importance (Stein, 2013; Solomon & Rabolt, 2009).

Sexual Differences

In a marketing report, JWT Intelligence (2016) note that over 50% of Generation Z in the United States have shopped for clothes that were not designed for their own gender. The report further explores definitions, terms, identities and orientations from Millennials and Generation Zers. While it may be interesting at first glance, on closer inspection many questions are still left unanswered. While the survey clearly involves generations, the reader is left to wonder what the gender identities of the respondents are, what their biological sex is and whether these have any impact on the answers that they provided. Other demographic information and recruitment criteria are not provided.

Sex and gender are variables that share complication in their meanings. Currently, it is mostly agreed among social scientists that sex depends on the biological definitions of chromosomes, hormones, and physiological differences while gender is a social construct that determines the individual’s role in society (Hines, 2018; Lennon, Johnson, & Rudd, 2017). The fact that gender depends on how individuals perform their sex-defined role in society throughout different cultures has led to the term ‘gender fluidity’ to be used among sociologists and designers (Hilton, 2011; Hines, 2018). This echoes back to the blurred gender boundaries in fashion and research on the younger generations’ attitudes towards gender inclusivity (Lennon, Johnson, & Rudd, 2017; Pena, 2005). However, research on the richness of variability in sex and gender is not necessarily new.

Bem (1985) developed a Sex Role Inventory in the late 1970’s to determine the gender of the individual’s character. This was accompanied by her development of Gender Schema Theory (GST). She explains how GST borrows from previous theories like SLT that states the individual models behaviour they are exposed to, and Cognitive Developmental Theory (CDT) that states the individual is conscious of which behaviours to incorporate into their identity, being active developers of their own personality. GST proposes that, as a child, the individual readily accepts or rejects concepts of maleness or femaleness in their social environment and adopts these schemas into their notion of self. The theory further proposes that regardless of biological sex, the individual can be sex-typed, – masculine or feminine – androgynous, – having strong characteristics both masculine and feminine – or undifferentiated – having little defining characteristics that are either masculine and feminine.

Despite the implications of GST, researchers have found biological sex to be a better predictor of differences in cognition and behaviour than the psychological construct of gender, including aspects like occupational success and clothing (see Davis, 1985; Davis 1987; Gould & Stern, 1989). Research has also been conducted into how gender may be used in sensory marketing. Using the stimulus – organism – response (SOR) paradigm, Spangenberg, Sprott, Grohmann, & Tracy (2006) found that gender congruency between a product and ambient scent could increase the probability of consumers engaging with the product. However, these studies are either outdated or fail to address other subtleties that sex and gender imply.

Lennon, Johnson & Rudd (2017) explain how queer theory analyses and compares the experience of ‘normal’ individuals to that of non-heterosexuals to determine why they are considered outside the norm. While these studies tend to be qualitative in nature, there still seems to be an important lack of research on LGBTQ individuals as consumers. Moreover, people who identify as gender non-binary have expressed feeling underrepresented in media and society in general (Skinner, 2017).

Cultural Differences

Though generational gaps are said to imply cultural distinction (Lennon, Johnson & Rudd, 2017) and sex is associated with cognitive and behavioural differences (Davis, 1985; Gould & Stern, 1989) geography is as important a factor to consider when talking about people and their attitudes. Kitchin, Blades, & Golledge (1997) explain how the field of environmental psychology developed as a cross-disciplinary practice between geography, psychology and anthropology in the 1960’s. Part of this field consists of studying how spatial factors affect an individual’s cognitive processes and decision-making behaviour. From a psychoanalytic point of view, Flügel (1930/1969) explains how clothes are used by individuals to express their belonging to a locality or nationality and this may be reflected on either the clothes’ modest or ornate nature depending on cultural factors. He also explains, relating back to physical geography, how clothes are worn as a form of protection from the elements, signifying an importance to consider the individual’s physical surroundings to understand their needs.

It is important to remember, however, that given the context of the XXI century, people have moved from their home countries around the globe. Various ethnic groups that behave, understand and express themselves differently cohabit nations. Solomon and Rabolt (2009) exemplify this principle by explaining how Hispanics, Asians and Africans form three important subcultures within the United States. However, the cultural mix is different in every country, and international marketing suggests that to communicate effectively to consumers, it is important to gauge each country’s national character (Clark, 1990). As this tendency toward immigration becomes more pronounced, acculturation may develop into a more discussed topic, whether for its usefulness in developing a new global culture, or its vicissitudes in exploiting marginalized groups for profit.


Though it can be easy to think that one can understand an individual’s wants and needs through understanding their gender, their culture or their age; it is important to remember that humans are complicated beings, and a variety of factors can lead to differences in motivations and attitudes. CDT establishes an interesting point in stating the individual actively chooses how to process and adapt to information. Furthermore, research suggests that the acquisition of belongings, such as clothes, is part of an individual’s negotiation of selfhood (Masuch & Hefferon, 2014). It is therefore a responsibility of businesses to forego the idea of making things aesthetic and functional to avoid situations like what happened to the London Ornate Pillar Box. An understanding of the consumer’s psychology can aid marketers and designers in creating and selling products that will not only satisfy consumers’ demands, but may positively impact their sense of self and wellbeing through the fulfilment of psychological needs. Consumer Psychology is a process, and as individuals change with time, the research must as well.


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