Rebecca Smith is a Creative Londoner with an extraordinary message of how fashion can create positivity. Her current project, Wearing Wellbeing, is forged at the intersection of her interests in design and psychology, and creates conversations around dressing and happiness.
I meet Rebecca at her home in Forest Hill, a leafy area of south London with a distinctly suburban feel. A south-facing window bathes us in golden-hour, afternoon light as we begin our interview.
At the age of four, growing up on London’s border with Essex, Rebecca was routinely mesmerised. Every Saturday night, her mother and father would dress up and go to dances. Her father wore black tie and her mother wore a long gown — the pair looked stunning, Rebecca reminisces. But it was her mother’s footwear that inspired her the most.
For Christmas that year, we went shopping and I got silver bar shoes. It was absolute nirvana: I had these silver shoes that I was going to wear at Christmas and they were just going to make me so happy — and they did.“
Soon after, the shoes became a pivot point for two different interests: fashion and dancing. And there were many more silver shoes as the years went by. But by the time she reached her teenage years, she reached a fork in the road. At 14, she had a mental breakdown and developed an eating disorder.
Rebecca, inevitably, had to put dancing to one side; she was not well enough or fit enough to continue.
“Sometimes, silver shoes might be all that’s really needed to bring about a change or start a moment of transformation. They’re kind of like a talisman, I suppose. I’ve had this thread of silver shoes running through my life.”
Just as Rebecca had equal pleasure in looking and admiring the shoes as she did dancing in them, drawing and designing were no consolation prize.
Because of her mental health, Rebecca was home-schooled for her O Levels (aged 14-16). She got through the time by incessantly drawing and creating things.
Before long, she had her sights set on going to Central St Martins and becoming a fashion designer. She convinced a local art school to take her on for a foundation, though she had no experience in formal art, and by the end of her first year, she had put together an impressive portfolio full with her passion and creativity. She took it down to Central St Martins to apply.
“I was 17 years old with bright blue hair, thinking: This is amazing! So many successful fashion designers have been here.”
What happened next was to become a formative moment in the young Rebecca’s life.
A panel of three professors looked at Rebecca’s work. One of them shut the portfolio and remarked: “Who told you that you have any talent? Well, you could apply again, but you need to learn how to draw.”
That was that. I went back to my art college. Half way through my second year, I picked myself up went. I had lost the confidence to make art.”
Finding work in a boutique, Rebecca took an alternative route into fashion. This route became a catalyst for her designing her own clothes. She soon found her style with her label Angels of the Hearth, for which she upcycled garments by hand and sold them at Portabello Road, Spitalfields and various London boutiques.
Two strands occupied her creative thoughts throughout this time. After the traumatic incident at Central St Martins, Rebecca had never gained the courage to call herself a designer. At the same time, she began to realise that her creativity was taking her beyond fixed concepts, such as “designer” and “artist”. She was not just remaking clothes: she began telling stories of the clothes she was upcycling, as well as contributing to their story along the way. She was onto something.
But when Rebecca was in her mid-40s with the creative cogs in full motion, everything changed. Her father died, her first marriage fell apart and the mental health struggle returned.
After getting through this time, she had a radical career change. Having first-hand experience of depression and eating disorders, she decided to train as a therapist. After working for some time as a counsellor, she became interested in positive psychology. Eventually, she decided to go back to academia and enrolled onto an MSc in Applied Positive Psychology at the University of East London.
The first day, we were asked what we were planning on writing our dissertations on. I hadn’t even finished my coffee and I had to come up with something off the top of my head. And I thought: the only thing I know any real theory about is fashion. I’ve written a thesis for my undergraduate and I already have a postgraduate in creative entrepreneurship – it’s going to have to be that.
“I’m going to write a dissertation on why fashion is good for us”, I said.
It was completely off the top of my head (which I think is the way a lot of creatives work — we don’t always have a reason why we launch a project; we naturally have that intuition available to us). As it was coming out it was making perfect sense to me. I thought: actually, that’s not a bad idea. And everyone in the department – there were proper psychologists — said “OK then, sure”.”
She had thought the topic to be an obvious connection — an area with well-worn debate. But when she started looking into it, to her surprise she found that the connection between emotions and dressing was under-researched.
Creative Londoners: How did you get on with the topic?
Rebecca Smith: It seemed to me so blatantly obvious. But then that’s because, as a subjective researcher, that’s how I am – that’s how my connection has always been. I can tell stories about clothes making me happy as far back as I can remember — and not just personally making me happy but connecting me to other people. The biggest breakthrough in flourishing and thriving is this idea that relationships are the thing that are so connected to our wellbeing. We have an epidemic of loneliness in western society. And I’m not saying that clothing can necessarily change that, but I am showing in my research that we do create relationships with others through the way we dress.
I love extravagant (well, I don’t think it’s extravagant) shoes and boots. That’s my thing. And I have a collection of silver shoes and gold boots and I wear them most of the time as pretty neutral, bog standard, everyday things. I don’t think anything of them. Between here and the station I collect smiles. People smile at the sight of my shoes. Sometimes they stop and talk to me. And if I see someone wearing something I think is great, I stop and tell them. Those micro-moments that we collect every day of connecting ourselves to other people impact not just our mental wellbeing, but our physical health. It’s really vital to us as human beings to have those connections. We think of fashion as being quite superficial – the way we fashion ourselves and get dressed in the morning, we think of it as something we just chuck on – but actually, if we pay a bit more attention to how we feel when we dress, what we’re expressing and how that’s going to impact on our day, I wonder what would happen then.
Rebecca’s current project, Wearing Wellbeing, builds right off the bat of her dissertation.
Creative Londoners: What is Wearing Wellbeing about?
Rebecca Smith: One of the things the forefathers of psychoanalysis, Jean-Martin Charcot and the Paris group, noticed when they were documenting what was going on in Salpêtrière, was that the women with hysterics there had very particular ways of dressing. They made note of this: there are photographs, there’s descriptive evidence of when these women were in the throws of madness, the way they wear their dress changed. That was all lost. We decided for whatever reason that that wasn’t necessarily relevant. William James actually wrote an essay on the psychology of dress, but that kind of get dismissed along the way.
Dressing is actually quite a logical way of communicating: when we feel depressed, we really just haven’t got the energy to express ourselves; we need to create safe environments and we do that with our clothes. When people have eating disorders, it’s so obvious because they cover themselves up with their clothes: they’re trying to be safe and secure. Therapists aren’t taught to look out for those things, which seems a shame to me because they are signifiers. I’m not saying dress is a language, because it’s not – if someone is changing the way they look, there might be something going on beneath the surface.
For me, Wearing Wellbeing comes down to self-awareness. In the morning, when we get dressed, we can’t make that decision until we’ve reflected on “Who am I today?”. It’s not about looking in the mirror at all; it’s not “How do I look in these clothes?”, it’s “How do I feel?”. Certainly for a lot of women they might have an outfit or dress that they felt fantastic in last week, and yet they get dressed on one particular morning and they just don’t feel right. They might not take the time to notice that, and all throughout the day they might not feel right, but they might not be aware that there’s something about their mood or emotion that that dress doesn’t psychologically fit who they are that day. It’s not about our physical changes, it’s about being aware of who we are, our own needs, and responding emotionally to that.
It’s about how we paint that emotional landscape. It’s using all aspects of our knowledge to do that. Just as someone who is a truly great artist will be able to pick up on the right tones and the right shapes and the way that all comes together. And I guess that’s where creativity comes into that aspect as well. We’re giving ourselves the space and the time and allowing ourselves to do that.
It’s about finding pleasure and happiness and contentment and knowledge and meaning in what you already have. There’s this huge debate around sustainability, values and ethics — and it’s fantastic that it’s all out there. But I think what’s often missing in those conversations is that we’re still being asked to consume. So within fashion as an industry, we’re still being asked to buy sustainable products, to buy ethical products, and what I’m saying is: “Hang on a minute, why do we need to do that when we have probably everything we really need, but we’re just not playing with it, we’re not looking at it from a different way”.
Of course I shop, but I don’t actually shop very often. Most of the time if I’m buying clothes, I buy them from charity shops because that’s just something I love. I love the experience of finding something and I don’t want to look like everybody else. Not necessarily in a conscious way, but that’s just who I am. And when I see people who have this insatiable need to shop, my first thought – when I see people with all the bags – is what unfulfilled need have they in themselves that they’re trying to make ok with buying that stuff? I can’t go up to someone and say “why are you so unhappy that you’ve just gone out and bought all that stuff?”. It’s none of my business for a start and I’m not judging people for doing that, but I think it’s sad that so much of the conversation we’re having around sustainability is in still trying to encourage people to consume rather than create.
I’ve come up against a lot of barriers with this. I have wanted to take this to PhD but I just haven’t been able to find anyone that’s interested, which is why I’ve branched off and done this on my own. I’ve been creating this, what some people have been calling a movement, around Wearing Wellbeing. And how creativity and fashion connects to a very positive aspect of our lives. That’s kind of where I’m up to at the moment. And the way the project has been going is I’ve been creating workshops around getting people to express themselves creatively through dress.
Sometimes through just putting a big dressing up box in the middle of a room and getting people to play in the same way you would with children. Sometimes it’s about giving people the space to tear clothes up and put them back together and see how that feels different – so creating fashion rather than consuming fashion. A lot of it has been in the workshop arena. My most recent event was a way for me to share my research. It’s a kind of iterative process for me because I share the research but at the same time I’m collecting data. I ask people to come to the workshops wearing an outfit that makes them happy.
You can follow the Wearing Wellbeing project by joining the group on Facebook.
Photographs by Michael Wayne Plant, a London-based social documentary photographer. See www.michaelwayneplant.com.