This is What a Psychoanalyst Looks Like

According to the comedian Eddie Izzard there is a thing called the ‘Circle of Cool’ and each of us is situated somewhere on its circumference. There’s looking utterly dreary, then further around things get marginally more interesting, gradually edging towards quite-cool-actually before reaching ‘hip and groovy’, which is then liable to tip over into ‘looking like a dickhead’. If you wear the same style of clothes your whole life you may find yourself inadvertently moving around the circle; your checked suits take you from looking conventional to eccentric and then back again, ad infinitum. Each cycle takes about twenty years.


In Nina Coltart’s classic book, How to Survive as a Psychotherapist, she advises fellow therapists on their choice of work clothes; nothing too extreme, apparently. The point is to look ‘regular’ and, most importantly, not too narcissistic. Female therapists mustn’t appear sexy. Make-up needs to be kept to a minimum and skirts should fall below the knee. You’re there to listen, not to seduce your patients, nor to make them envious. Portrayals of therapists in films tend to fall in line with this advice. For men the choice is between looking like Freud (Spellbound) or going smart-casual (Hope Springs), perhaps straying into eccentric knitwear if you work with more creative clients (Some Kind of Monster). For women the trajectory is much the same, from utterly-drab-but-affluent (Get Out) to droopy-wacky (Meet the Fockers), either option being purchasable at Hampstead Bazaar.

My first interest in psychoanalysis was very much bound up with an interest in fashion. While studying Fine Art at Goldsmiths’ I had the double pleasure of being encouraged to study Freud, and never being discouraged from looking like a dickhead. The two weren’t seen as contradictory. Using psychoanalytic ideas to think about fashion, and what people might be trying to do with clothes, had a venerable history. Not only had the subject of fashion been discussed at Freud’s Wednesday meetings, but there was J.C. Flügel’s brilliant Psychology of Clothes, and even Edmund Bergler’s Fashion and the Unconscious (if you were able to stomach his ludicrous ideas about ‘curing’ homosexuals).  

The first point of conflict between my two big areas of interest came when I started to see a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in my third year of college. He was pretty forthright about viewing my outfits as a symptom in need of fixing, and recommended that I try dressing ‘more normally’ for a week or two ‘to see what kinds of feelings it brought out’. The idea was horrific. Fashion, it seemed, was functioning like a drug for me, buffering unbearable thoughts and sensations, absorbing libido, and intermittently making it enjoyable to inhabit a body. Perhaps it was even warding off self-destructive impulses — I certainly spent huge amounts of time doing vicious things to clothes, cutting them, dying them and generally tormenting them. If I hadn’t been doing that I dread to think what I might have done instead. It was a symptom I didn’t feel I could afford to drop. The therapist himself was wholly committed to the ‘smart casual’ option, and I eventually decided I’d like to remain as far away from his position on the circle of cool as possible. The therapy ended with me feeling like a ‘bad patient’ who was choosing not to get better. 

A few years later, my interest in both fields still intact, I found myself choosing between working in fashion — as either a stylist or journalist — or thinking about psychoanalysis more seriously. I offered myself as an unpaid slave to Katie Grand, went to meet a scary woman upstairs at Vogue House, found a lacanian analyst (who looked like Freud in a big way), and started going to psychoanalytic events. The first of these was a Christopher Bollas talk at Regent’s College, and it was one of the worst visual shocks of my life. I had never seen so much soft, bland-coloured fabric in one room. The overwhelming neutrality made me nauseous. How could anything be differentiated from anything else in this space? Perhaps one at a time these therapists might have appeared calm, trustworthy and admirably lacking vanity but, en masse, they just looked spooky. (It’s incredible to think that, around two decades later, in 2016, these people might have found themselves firmly in the hip and groovy zone, comfy neutrals being the core concept of Kanye West’s ‘Yeezy Season 2’…) 

A visit to a lacanian conference in Paris a couple of years later proved decisive. The analysts were unapologetically dickheaded. (Lacanians are famous for this.) They wore brightly coloured dresses, vintage kimonos, sunglasses indoors, there were men in McQueen skulls, and some of them smoked some kind of prototype e-cigarettes during lectures. They were also completely uninterested in ‘curing’ people if curing meant bringing them into line with some kind of social norm. I had been warned off these dangerous types by a pair of dour beige-wearers at a West London psychotherapy clinic, and their spitting disapproval probably clinched the deal. It had to be possible to use psychoanalytic ideas to think and to write, and to have dynamic dialogues with people who were suffering, without dressing up as a human blur. I even wondered whether this purposeful dowdiness made patients’ fantasies about their therapists more lurid, as if the too-obvious mask of respectability was a veritable provocation.
Of course the world of fashion can be cruel. Its capriciousness, its treatment of women’s bodies, its snobbishness, its encouragement of unnecessary expenditure, and its production of waste, are all appalling. But then again it can be incredibly tolerant, welcoming a huge array of people, many of whom might be seen as misfits elsewhere. While it has a reputation for valorising a narrow vision of beauty, it also celebrates difference, lauding people and things that the rest of the world may consider ugly. As my first, dear object relations therapist might have understood, fashion is both good and bad. 
For Freud, the thing that was striking about fashion was its hold over otherwise sensible women, who appeared to be defenceless against it. (Perhaps a disavowal of his own investment in fine clothes?) This idea is very much reflected in both Zoolander films, where everyone’s in thrall to a huge, spooky system. The films present the most idiotic face of fashion — literally — but are much loved by people in the industry. (Or at least the first one was; Zoolander 2 apparently seemed a bit passé.) The ‘copying’ aspect of fashion suggests something mindless; you wear something because other people are wearing it. Fashion involves a kind of cloning. This unquestioning suggestibility is perhaps not the quality one might expect to find in a therapist, who maybe ought to exhibit more independence of thought. But how strange that therapists’ traditional insistence on a disinvestment of one’s own image produces yet another series of clones…

Last year I found myself regularly wearing a mushroom coloured wool sack dress without the slightest hint of irony. I wondered what it meant. Was I finally cured of my symptom? Had I become a ‘proper’ therapist? Or was it just that I had had the good fortune to stumble across this brutally minimalist Margiela dress in the New Cross TKMaxx? The answer remains unclear. 

Anouchka Grose is a psychoanalyst and writer practising in London. She is a member of CFAR and The College of Psychoanalysts-UK. She has written non-fiction: No More Silly Love Songs: A Realist’s Guide to Romance (Portobello, 2010) and Are you Considering Therapy (Karnac, 2011), as well as writing fiction: Ringing for You (Harper Collins, 1999) and Darling Daisy (Harper Collins, 2000). She is the editor of Hysteria Today (2015), a collection of essays on hysteria in the contemporary psychoanalytic clinic. Her journalism is published in The Guardian, and she also writes for numerous art and fashion publications. She has taught at Camberwell School of Art and gives talks on art and psychoanalysis in museums and galleries, as well as sometimes speaking on the radio. .

Her latest book, From Anxiety to Zoolander: Notes on Psychoanalysis, has recently been published by Karnac.


The book will also be available to buy at the forthcoming Fashion and Psychoanalysis International Conference on Saturday 14th & Sunday 15th October 2017, at Freud Museum London. This conference brings together psychoanalytic thinkers and fashion experts to offer fresh perspectives in fashion thinking. Speakers will address a wide range of themes connecting fashion, clothing, style and the body to psychoanalysis, creativity and unconscious emotional life. The conference will also explore the largely neglected role of fashion in clinical and mental health settings – aiming to address the many idiosyncrasies, taboos and paradoxes involved.

The second day will be dedicated to wellbeing and mental health in the context of fashion. Through research and clinical perspectives, it will invite you to unravel two rather paradoxical phenomena: the relative absence of psychology in the fashion world and the apparent absence of fashion in the clinical encounter. The conference will end with a panel discussion on ‘Enclothed cognition’. The panel will include Carolyn Mair, Anouchka Grose, Katerina Fotopoulou, Claire Pajaczkowska and others. To buy tickets for the event, please click here.


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