Fragments of cloth, lost and found: Remnants of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece.

cut piece Kyoto 1964

Cut Piece, performed by Yoko Ono in Kyoto 1964.

Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece has been variously described as a generous act of giving, a feminist critique, and an invitation to violence. Ono first performed the piece in Kyoto in 1964, following her ‘score’ (an set of instructions for performing an art piece):

Performer sits on stage with a pair of scissors in front of him.
It is announced that members of the audience may come on stage-one at a time-to cut a small piece of the performer’s clothing to take with them.

Performer remains motionless throughout the piece.

Piece ends at the performer’s option.

cut piece london 1966

Cut Piece, performed by Yoko Ono in London, 1966.

Cut Piece has since been performed by Ono herself in Tokyo, London, New York, and finally Paris in 2003. Numerous other performers have also presented their own interpretations. In 1968 John Hendricks, Ono’s exhibition manager, carried out the first male performance Hendricks performed the piece in his capacity as guest instructor at the “Semester In New York”, as part of the students’ induction to the course. He invited his audience of students to cut fragments from his suit, “as a kind of leveling of the student-teacher relationship” [1]. The performance acknowledges that, by being denuded, the instructor is stripped of some of his power, and that students, in their capacity as cutters, gained their own power and authority. Male performances such as this render obsolete the feminist readings of Ono’s own performances, instead expressing messages about the depowerment.

Ken Little is among many artists who have preformed Cut Piece. This performance took place in Texas in 2007

Ken Little is among many artists who have preformed Cut Piece. This performance took place in Texas in 2007.

Ono’s own interpretation of the piece also did not initially feature feminist ideals. Ono has herself confessed to having no notion of feminism at the time of her first performance [2] and Concannon observes that feminist readings did not begin to emerge until Haskell and Hanhardt’s 1991 book Yoko Ono: Objects and Arias. Ono herself began to explore feminist interpretations in her later discussions, prompted by critics and interviewers.

Yoko’s own interpretation of the piece was as a Buddhist act of “giving”. “I felt that I was willingly sacrificing myself”, recounts Ono [3]. The artist’s use of the term “sacrifice” seems to equally reference giving and taking, acknowledging that giving necessarily deprives the giver of something precious. Ono wore her best suit for the performance, conscious that it would be a more generous gift, and a greater sacrifice, than if she had worn a more disposable garment.

Ono’s gift to her audience was the fragment of cloth that each member removed from her body. In the 1965 performances, audience members were invited to keep the fragments that they removed. In the 1966 performances, participants fixed their fragments to a canvas at the side of the stage, producing a secondary collaborative output [4]. In 2003, in an effort to reignite peace movement in the in the wake of 9/11, Ono requested that participants give their fragments to loved ones in gestures of reconciliation [5]. In each case, the piece is extended beyond the initial performance as the fragments are distributed and redistributed, and so Ono’s act of giving is extended beyond the confines of the performance space.

Cut Piece Paris 2003

Cut Piece, performed by Yoko Ono in Paris, 2003.

Very little has been written about what happened to these fragments of cloth. Though Ono’s suit was her most valued item of clothing at the time of each performance, that value is lost as the suits are destroyed. The fragments instead adopt a new kind of value as mementos of the event. Johnson speculates that the fragments may have been “cherished as souvenirs or discarded as scrap” [6]. Some participants in the Parisian performance have preserved and displayed their souvenirs as evidence of their proximity to the notorious artist and widow of John Lennon (see, for example, Ian Ayres’ proud display of his fragment on his blog, alongside the sough-after ticket that allowed him access to the private event, pictured below).

One fragment from the 1966 performance found its way to the Tate gallery’s archive, and went on display in the exhibition Art Under Attack (2 October 2013 – 5 January 2014), a collection documenting 500 years of “assaults on art”. The exhibition firmly positions the fragment as the relic of a destructive act: it is exhibited alongside the remains of destructive art performances and the subjects of religious desecration [7]. The Tate’s setting equates Ono’s actions, or those of her audience, to vandalism. The attacks on each of the artifacts displayed in the exhibition sought to destroy its value and reduce its power over audiences. In this respect, Cut Piece could be presented as a violent protest against the superficiality of dress, or to undermine the powerful influence of the fashion system.

fragment cut piece

A fragment from the 2003 performance of Cut Piece, preserved by audience participant, Ian Ayres.

[1]  Hendricks, cited in Concannon, K. (2008), “Yoko Ono’s ‘Cut Piece’: From text to performance and back again”, The Journal of Performance Art 30(3), p. 91.
[2] Rhee, J. (2005), “Performing the Other: Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece”, Art History 28 (1), p. 90.
[3] Ono, 1974, as cited in Concannon, Op. Cit., p. 89.
[4] Rhee, Op. Cit.
[5] Concannon, Op. Cit., p. 82.
[6] Johnson, C. (2014), “Performance Photographs and the (Un)clothed Body: Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece”, Clothing Cultures 1(2):
[7] Cumming, L. (2013), “Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm – review”, The Observer [online]

Shoescapes: Picturing trauma through footwear

US Holocaust Memorial Museum - “Visitors frequently report that the sight and smell of the 4,000 victim shoes is the most searing memory from their time in the Permanent Exhibition.”

US Holocaust Memorial Museum – “Visitors frequently report that the sight and smell of the 4,000 victim shoes is the most searing memory from their time in the Permanent Exhibition.”

Visitors to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum are faced with a collection of shoes that were left behind at Auschwitz after their former owners’ were sent to their deaths (pictured above). The collection functions in part like permanent cemeteries “where prolonged spatial and material relations to the deceased are allowed to exist”, and in part like mass graves “where the dead are meant to disappear [1]. Shoes and other clothing are the only tangible evidence that remains of Nazi attempts to erase individuals from history, and the preservation and display of those artefacts has become a means of resisting disappearance. They attempt to recover the individual identity that was denied the victims at the time of their mass execution, if not by name then at least through a sense of continued presence.

These memorials must be considered not just collections of “memory objects” – shoes – but also as “memory landscapes” [2] – the spaces that the shoes occupy. As everyday objects, shoes do not commonly express the absence that is so powerfully felt in these memorial spaces. There is a relationship between these shoes, their arrangement in relation to one another, and their location in a particular space, that combines to create significant emotional impact.

Can Togay and Gyula Pauer’s Shoes on the Danube (2005, pictured below) is a memorial to the lives lost when members of the Arrow Cross party rounded up Jewish civilians in 1945 and shot them into the river. The shoes transform this otherwise peaceful river bank into a “traumascape” [3]. They force locals and tourists to contemplate the violent history of this location. Even to visitors who are unfamiliar with the precise details of the victim’s death, the location of these empty shoes next to the river provokes an uneasy assumption that their wearers must be lost beneath the water of the river.

'Shoes on the Danube Promenade' by Can Togay and Gyula Pauer. During WWII, Jews in Budapest were brought to the edge of the Danube, ordered to remove their shoes, and shot, falling into the water below. 60 pairs of iron shoes now line the river's bank.

‘Shoes on the Danube Promenade’ by Can Togay and Gyula Pauer, 2005. During WWII, Jews in Budapest were brought to the edge of the Danube, ordered to remove their shoes, and shot, falling into the water below. 60 pairs of iron shoes now line the river’s bank.

Erica Doss observes a recent “memorial mania”, particularly in Europe and the United States, fuelled by a faith “ in material culture to mediate… histories and memories”. In particular, there has been a rise in DIY and spontaneous monuments, constructed by mourners themselves, rather than appointed councils. The race to urgently memorialize the victims of tragedy is very different to the lengthy process of agreement, planning and manufacture that precedes the construction of permanent monuments. With the understanding that “memory itself is predictable and unstable”, and in consumer cultures that thrive on disposability, communities seek instant gratification and personal involvement in the visible expression of their community’s grief. [4]

Temporary shoe memorials transform a landscape into a memory space, as if to suggest a ghostly audience or crowd. Much like a crowd can disperse, these memorials also vanish. They are gathered and cleared, leaving the space empty again, and so the space returns to its usual function of park or street. The diversity of shoes presented in vernacular memorials such as the Ocean Grove 9/11 memorial (see below) reflects the diversity of the lives lost. There are adults, children, women and men represented in this absent crowd. Just as the crowd of people in a city park may include individuals from every age, race or gender, the 9/11 killings were indiscriminate.

The Ocean Grove 9/11 memorial - 2,974 pairs of shoes representing all of the lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001

The Ocean Grove 9/11 memorial – 2,974 pairs of shoes representing all of the lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001

Fourteen hundred pairs of shoes, representing the average number of people killed on Australian roads each year, fill Martin Place in Sydney on May 25, 2012. The shoes were laid out for the Australian Road Safety Foundation's Fatality Free Friday campaign.

Fourteen hundred pairs of shoes, representing the average number of people killed on Australian roads each year, fill Martin Place in Sydney on May 25, 2012. The shoes were laid out for the Australian Road Safety Foundation’s Fatality Free Friday campaign.

The sheer size of the space that is covered by cloth shoes at the Najing memorial (pictured below) helps to give visitors a sense of the scale of the trauma that took place during the Japanese invasion of Jiangsu Province. These shoes are more sparsely spaced than the American memorials pictured above, spreading almost to the horizon, and so reinforcing the sense that the deaths were innumerable and inescapable.

6830 pairs of cloth shoes at a memorial service in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province

6830 pairs of cloth shoes at a memorial service in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province

1,558 pairs of shoes to represent those who have jumped to their deaths from Golden Gate Bridge

1,558 pairs of shoes to represent those who have jumped to their deaths from Golden Gate Bridge

The victims of sexual violence are memorialized in red shoes lining the streets of Milan (pictured below). Here, the traumascape is the everyday space of a street. Pedestrians pass by and turn their heads in curiosity, but are not there specifically to mourn. The familiar location and the everyday behaviour of the pedestrians in this image are reminders that these acts of violence occur are themselves commonplace. They occur around us, in familiar locations, and are so frequent that they seem to warrant no special attention. The memorial provokes people to view their environment as one that is tainted by violence, and to consider crimes that take place right under our noses but are too often ignored.

Hundreds of red shoes in Milan to protest against violence on women.

Hundreds of red shoes in Milan to protest against violence on women.

Unusually for shoe memorials, Doris Salcedo’s Atrabiliarios (1992-1997) places empty shoes in indoor spaces in memory of disappeared individuals in Colombia. These shoes are sealed inside semi-opaque boxes, embedded into gallery walls, making implicit reference to bodies bricked up inside a wall. Salcedo only reveals hints of the details of each pair of shoes, as they are partially obscured by a cow-bladder curtain. Clarity evades the audience, just as it evades the victims’ families.  Each pair is displayed separately, expressing that each disappearance was a separate act, and yet over the exhibition space the number of separate boxes contributes to the sense that each disappearance was part of a much larger picture of Colombian political and social unease. The shoes are spaced apart in the gallery, as if Salcedo is imaging the loneliness that each victim must have felt in his or her final moments.

Doris Salcedo, Atrabiliarios, 1993 | plywood, cow bladder, surgical thread, and shoes belonging to women who were 'disappeared'

Doris Salcedo, Atrabiliarios, 1993 | plywood, cow bladder, surgical thread, and shoes belonging to women who were ‘disappeared’.

In this spaces, shoes become part of our material culture that expresses identity through the ownership of objects. When those objects are located away from their owners, there is an uneasy sense of loss. Clothes are intended to be worn, and when they appear anywhere other than on the body, that body becomes noteworthy in its absence. Inside a dressing space, such as a wardrobe, the absence of a body to wear the clothes is expected. But in a public space, as in the memorials pictured in this blog post, the presence of unworn clothes speaks of loss. Viewers are forced to consider the events that forced the shoes and their wearer apart, transforming an otherwise ordinary object into a signifier of trauma.

[1] Sørensen, T. F. (2010), “A Saturated Void: Anticipating and Preparing Presence in Contemporary Danish Cemetery Culture”, in M. Bille et al. (eds), An Anthropology of Absence: Materializations of transcendence and loss, London: Springer, p. 115.
[2] Saunders, Nicholas J. (2002) “Memory and Conflict”, in V. Buchli (ed.) The Material Culture Reader, Oxford: Berg, p. 177.
[3] Trenzise, B. (2009), “Ambivalent Bereavements: Embodying loss in the twenty-first century”, Performance Paradigms 5(2), p. 18.
[4] Doss, E. (2008), The Emotional Life of Contemporary Public Memorials: Towards a theory of temporarym, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, p. 5.

Les sapeurs of Congo

Guest post by Enrica Picarelli

Last January, Guinness released an advertisement and a short film featuring a group of Congolese dandies called sapeurs. The campaign was shot in an unspecified South African location to document a day in the life of a community of unskilled/manual labourers who devote themselves to collecting and wearing old-school European menswear. This obsession makes for an iconic spectacle, where fashion and self-styling reconfigure identities across histories and continents.

Parading through the streets of Brazzaville, Kinshasa and Paris, the sapeurs are “all about defying your circumstances through inner conviction,” states the creator of Guinness’ features. And the campaign inspects just how these everymen make the best of modest means to be reborn as modern-day Brummels-es.

The sapeurs profess a narcissistic cult of style, where the tailored masculine body takes centre stage in an identitary play that builds upon gender and class issues. Also known as “Parisiens”, “cracks” and “playboys,” their use of fashion and sophisticated self-styling defines who they are and how people should perceive them. Although sapologie has many incarnations, the iconic sapeur never wears more than three colours at once, favours three-piece suits by renowned designers, bowler hats or fedoras, leather shoes and a cane, which he coordinates always to harmonious and lively effects.

Héctor Mediavilla(1)

The sapeurs of Brazzaville

The sapeurs of Brazzaville, photographed by Héctor Mediavilla

These items are worn elegantly in the course of elaborate performances, organised at designated social spots. A number of accessories enhance the attire, including eyewear, pocket squares and watches. But the most daring outfits can go as far as including alligator shoes, or a kilt and tam-o-shanter, as seen in Guinness’ videos.

Per Petterson(1)

Per Petterson

The darker/post-punk style of Kinshasa sapeurs, photographed by Per Petterson.

Creativity and an eye to composition are indeed the main requirement of would-be sapeurs. The right arrangement of textures, materials and chromatic tones beautifies the masculine body, infusing the cult of style with gendered meaning. At the same time, the possession of clothes by famous brands creates a material display of acquired social capital that sets the sapeur apart from his peers.

Scholars of sapologie, like Didier Gondola, point out that the use of fashion items as means of social distinction dates back to the colonial “politics of costume” of the mid-19th century, when the trade of European military uniforms and hats in the Congo region was instrumental to the colonizing mission. The French handed second-hand clothes to local chiefs to win their favours and the latter, in turn, wore them to exercise power on their subjects. In the first half of the 20th century, this practice extended to the civil society and the SAPE informal association was established in Brazzaville. This Societé des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, whose acronym refers to the French verb saper (“to dress with style”), involved urbanised colonials that worked as houseboys in French and Belgian mansions, where they developed an appetite for European fashion. The exotic clothes of the masters marked the sapeurs’ status of “évolués”: individuals who “could not become whites and no longer looked like other blacks,” Gondola reports. These men never simply reproduced the European style, but experimented, and at time subverted, the designated use of the clothes in a creative gesture that defined aesthetic and cultural standards.

To this day, sapeurs continue to use fashion to boost their social condition, all the more so in the context of transnational migration fed by the growing disenfranchisement of former colonial subjects. Sapologie has become one of Europe’s many urban subcultures. In this contexts, ownership of expensive or unique items puts a distance between the dappers and other, supposedly ‘uncouth,’ African migrants. Testimony of the sapeurs’ maniac obsession with fashion is found in Alain Mabanckou’s novels, where it becomes a cypher of alienation. Here, designer clothes are the tangible traces of a compulsory self-transformation, but also of a delusion. Miserable migrants living on the outskirts of Paris wish to appropriate them and sacrifice anything to turn themselves into men of the world – a desire that is imbued with political implications, even if they are not always acknowledged by the sapeurs themselves. Arguably, as Dominc Thomas observes, the “adoption of alternative aesthetic codes presents itself as a symbolic gesture aimed at reclaiming power.” But awaiting the well-dressed gentleman in the métropole is not a happy ending. Rather, the change is so radical that he becomes “a man without identity,” and the clothes a mortifying reminder of alienation.

Héctor Mediavilla

Today’s spectacular rise of the sapeur in Western media does not address this richer and more tragic history. On the contrary, while giving visibility to this community, the Western discourse on sapologie overwrites a cruder, less glamorous reality. These men may make for excellent performative characters, suited to appear on the front page of lifestyle magazines and in dazzling advertisements, but beyond sartorial mastery and savoir faire trite processes of disenfranchisement and social paralysis stop the sapeurs at the gates of the metropolitan universe they wish to enter. For even though Guinness endorses a message of self-affirmation that in life “you can always choose who you are,” the campaign fails to address the ambiguities of self-styling a living while moving between two worlds, never fully belonging to any of them.

The dandified body of the fictional and real-life sapeur is, then, not just a lay figure for the display of beautiful clothes, or a universal symbol of perseverance to be appropriated by anybody. Rather, it is a living archive that makes present the contradictions of neo-colonialism. Furthermore, it betrays the West’s biased interest in “Africanness” that smacks of appropriation. In fact, the unprecedented currency the sapeurs have been enjoying since the release of Guinness’ campaign seems to confirm the growth of the “demand for more authentic, virgin, black culture to consume” noted by Emma Dabiri. In this sense, the fashion discourse seems to contribute to the othering of the sapeurs, silencing the ambiguities inherent in this lifestyle behind a hollow, or at best paternalistic, stereotyping.

Watch a short documentary about the sapeurs here.

Dabiri, Emma, “Why I’m not an Afropolitan”. Africa as Country. 21 January 2014.
“The Sapeurs: A New GUINNESS Campaign for 2014”,,
Gondola, Didier, “La Sape Exposed! High fashion among Lower-Class Congolese Youth” in Suzanne Gott and Kristyne Loughran (eds.), Contemporary African Fashion. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2010.
Mabanckou, Alain, Blue, White, Red: A Novel. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2013.
Thomas, Dominic, Black France: Colonialism, Immigration and Transnationalism. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2007.

Enrica Picarelli has a Ph.D in Cultural and Postcolonial Studies of the Anglophone World from the University of Naples, “L’Orientale”. Her research interests bring together cultural theory, media theory, postcolonial studies and gender studies, touching upon questions of representation and affect transmission.

How Cosplayers became Post-Human

Cosplay is a form of dressing-up that embraces gadgets and gizmos. No Doctor Who would be complete without his Sonic Screwdriver, and Batman would be naked without his utility belt. What sets James Bond apart from other suavely dressed cocktail drinkers is the pistol concealed in under his jacket. For some cosplayers, the object of their fandom is entirely dependent on some kind of portable technology. Iron Man, for example, has powers and an identity that are entirely bound up in the technology that it his suit.

As N. Katherine Hayles observed in 1999, we are all cyborgs now. Reading glasses, artificial limbs, digital watches and hearing aids have transformed us into cybernetic organisms, extending our physical selves. Since the publication of Hayles How we became Posthuman, innovations such as Google Glass are making us reliant on what Amber Case describes as ‘external brains': technologies that extend our  intellectual selves.

For cosplayers, the augmentation of self extends into fantasy. Cosplayers will strap on jet-packs and brandish light-sabers for an aesthetically complete costume. Until recently, these accessories have been non-functonal parts of a costume, contributing to the ‘play’ element of cosplay. Thanks to a few committed fans, it is becoming increasingly possible to construct and purchase accessories that actually function as they do in the fictional source text.

Superheroes gain their powers from fictional technologies, real-life technologies do not lag far behind. When technology is incorporated into the costume, the costume grants access not only to the aesthetics but also the abilities of a superhero. Iron Man’s costumes are entirely responsible for his superpowers, while Batman’s gadgets significantly enhance his abilities. The technologies incorporated into superhero costume disintegrate distinctions between human and nonhuman. A hero may, through invention and appropriation of technologies, make himself more-than-human, or, superhuman. When cosplayers aspire to dress like their costumed hero, they necessarily aspire to the abilities that are enabled by the various parts of those costumes. Since the costumes of cyborg superheroes are the source of their abilities, a cosplayer’s pursuit of authenticity must extend to the desire to replicate those abilities through their own costumes.

Opportunities to replicate the gadgets, and therefore the abilties, of a superhero are offered by engineers including Patrick Priebe, whose website offers fully-functional Spiderman web-shooters, Iron-Man gauntlets, and laser-shooting googles inspired by the X-Man Clycops. These are more than just a superficial replicas; they extend the phsyical abilities of the wearer, rendering him/her as a real-life superhero.

As designers like Priebe develop these technologies, the line between cosplayer and real-life superhero is increasingly blurred. If a cosplayer is able to purchase the technologies to transform him into a real-life Spider-Man or Iron Man, we are all potential superheroes. Fact and fiction converge, as technology catches up with science-fiction, and cosplayers use it to transform themselves into their fictional heroes.


Clowns and Class

I recently attended the Subverting Fashion conference at St. Mary’s University, and saw a brilliant and entertaining range of papers that will inform my posts for the rest of the summer. I will start with Yvonne Augustin’s discussion of clown costume, with particular emphasis on subversion.

Leo Bassi identifies origins of the clown costume in pauper dress [1]. In times when ready-made garments were not commercially available, and only the wealthy could afford to have their clothing tailored to fit, many found themselves dressing in whatever garments they could find. These garments were inevitably loose-fitting and uncoordinated. Even after they began to have their costumes specifically designed for clowning, many continued to imitate the ‘hobo’ look.

Circus clown, "Bumpsy" Anthony, dressed in clothes that appear to have been appropriated in an act of bricolage, rather than tailored to fit his body.

Circus clown, “Bumpsy” Anthony, dressed in clothes that appear to have been appropriated in an act of bricolage, rather than tailored to fit his body.

Re-coloured 1940s images from the Barnum and Bailey Circus depict clowns with a 'hobo' look.

Re-coloured 1940s images from the Barnum and Bailey Circus depict clowns with a ‘hobo’ look.

The introduction of ready-made clothes transformed the meaning of baggy clothes. During wartime austerity, when the rationing of fabric was presented as patriotic and utilitarian, minority groups in the USA took to wearing over-sized zoot-suits in an act of as a symbol of nonconformity (eventually resulting in the zoot-suit riots of 1943). For the men who wore zoot-suits, excess fabric signified prioritising oneself over the state. Baggy and uncoordinated clothes entered into mainstream fashion at several times during the twentieth century, most notably in 1980s grunge. The grunge look embraced hobo attire, with draping clashing colours, and fabric printed to look like old newspaper. Finally, hip-hop culture embraced baggy t-shirts and low-waisted trousers, which look as though they are about to fall down as they do in clowning skits. It is noteworthy that these fashionable presentations of clown-like attire relate directly to class. They all seek to take signifiers of the lowest social classes and elevate them to the status of fashion (in examples of ‘trickle-up’). In hip-hop culture, baggy shirts are paired with shameless displays of wealth – bulky gold chains and diamond-encrusted pendants.

Patterned harem pants are fashion items that would not look out-of-place in a clown costume.

Patterned harem pants are fashion items that would not look out-of-place in a clown costume.

Despite the fact that these core elements of his look became chic, the clown never became fashionable. He has remained on the margins, and his identity is in part defined by his position as an outsider. Clowns are liminal creatures. It is with this in mind that Augustin presented her analysis of the Joker, a recurring villain of DC’s Batman comics. The Joker is typically presented with green hair, over-sized purple suit, and clown make-up. Like numerous other subversions of the clown (see also, Stephen King’s It), The Joker’s painted smile is used to unsettle the audience. The make-up makes his emotions, and therefore his actions, unreadable and unpredictable.

Augustin’s analysis focuses in particular on class. The Joker’s wardrobe is a hybrid of clown costume and business suit. He subverts clown and businessman identities by combining them both. Like clowns, The Joker is a liminal character. In The Dark Knight (2008), he is presented as a loner, in contrast to Gotham City’s underworld leaders, who are always flanked by henchmen. He has voluntary withdrawn from mainstream society, positioning himself as an outsider via his actions and his costume. This incarnation of the Joker wears a tailored suit (indeed, he makes reference to its cost), tie and waistcoat. In the scene depicted below, he introduces himself to Gotham’s crime lords by removing a playing card from his inner breast pocket as if it were a business card.

Health Ledger as The joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (). The Joker's costume presents a convergence of clown and businessman. His suit is wacky, yet over-priced. Here, he presents a playing card from his inside chest pocket as if it were a business card.

Health Ledger as The joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). The Joker’s costume presents a convergence of clown and businessman. His suit is wacky, yet over-priced. Here, he presents a playing card from his inside chest pocket as if it were a business card.

Following this example, perhaps it is possible to conclude that clowns exist outside of class. They may take wardrobe cues from both ends of the social spectrum, but are themselves classless. Their expression of class is almost always satirical, as they parody and tease their audiences. To that extent, a clown’s identity is almost always a mirror [2]. Like any mask, his costume is ‘known to have no inside’. He is colourful and animated, but ultimately empty, with no personal history or certainty of self. This unsettling emptiness makes clowns ideal monsters and villains.

[1] Bassi, Leo (2014), ‘The History of the Bassi Clown Family’, lecture performance presented at Cultural Genealogy and Theory of the Clown, 25-28 May, Congressi Stefano Franscini, Monte Verità, Ascona, Switzerland. Cited in Augustin, Yvonne (2014), ‘Oversized, colourful, extraordinary – the costume of the clown in movies as a subversion of fashion’, paper presented at Subverting Fashion, St. Mary’s University, London, 11 July 2014.
[2] Peacock, Louise (2009), Serious Play: Modern Clown Performance, Bristol: Intellect, p. 89.

Dressed to Undress

James Bond has a reputation for being well-dressed. He is equally notorious for his tendency to undress. His many encounters with Bond girls require speedy and easy undressing, and hand-to-hand combat often occurs with shirts removed or cuffs rolled up. The costume designers for the first Bond film, Dr. No (1962) recognised the peculiar needs of the Bond character, and designed his wardrobe accordingly [1].

The Cocktail Cuff (a.k.a. the Bond Cuff) was, legend has it, developed by Savile Row tailors for Sean Connery in his role in Dr. No [2]. Bond continued to wear cocktail cuffs when Roger Moore adopted the James Bond role in 1973. Bond’s lifestyle required cuffs that could be quickly unbuttoned, so that the sleeves could be rolled up for hand-to-hand combat, or the whole shirt swiftly removed for romantic encounters.

Bond cuffs

Cocktail cuffs, as worn in From Russia With Love (1962), were designed to allow quick removal of the shirt for combat and love scenes.

Bond is just one example of screen characters who dress to undress. Charlie Chaplain’s first performance of a failed trouser button was reportedly an accident that he later incorporated into his show [3]. He began to select trousers with intentionally baggy waistbands so that they would fall to the floor with comedic timing. This kind of slapstick undressing established the idea that costume can be designed to enable smooth and swift undressing on screen. Other examples range from comedic wardrobe malfunctions  (see Barbara Windsor’s performance in Carry On Camping, 1969) to erotic striptease (as in True Lies, see below).

Wardrobe designer Marlene Stewart was tasked with designing a dress for Jamie Lee Curtis’s striptease in True Lies (1994). Curtis’ character, Helen Tasker, is a frustrated housewife, conned by her husband (Arnold Schwarzenegger) into believing that she is working undercover for the CIA. The ruse requires her to plant a bug in a hotel room, after gaining access to the room dressed as a prostitute. Helen performs a two-part striptease: one the corridor in front of a mirror; and the other in the hotel room for her husband.

Having been instructed to dress ‘sexy’ for her undercover mission, Helen (Curtis) dresses in the the most provocative dress in her wardrobe. At the hotel, when she is made aware that she must present herself as a prostitute, she realises that her housewife’s interpretation of ‘sexy’ is inappropriately conservative. In front of a mirror, she rips the sleeves, collar and hem from her dress, so that only the low-cut, skintight body remains. This prelude to the main event is not strictly a striptease. It is not a performance, but rather a preparation. The act of undressing is entirely functional.Aware that she is being watched by no one but herself, Helen’s movements are sharp and awkward. She makes no attempt at erotic performance.

Jamie Lee Curtis as Helen Tasker in True Lies (1994). Helen frustratedly rips away her collar, cuffs and hem, so that her dress may appear more appropriate for her role as a false prostitute.

The second part of Helen’s striptease has an entirely different character. This part of the striptease is performed for the male gaze. She is awkward at first, demonstrating her discomfort in the role, but she soon gets into character and removes her dress with the sensuousness demanded by her as-yet unnamed observer. The dim lighting and close-up shots help to transform Helen’s gestures into an erotic act.

Costume designer, Marlene Stewart, was tasked with creating this dress so that it could be transformed from conservative to risqué after a few simple adjustments. Once Helen has removed the decorative trim, the garment is pared down to a simple little black dress. The design contrasts two different interpretations of the LBD. The first, suitable for a middle-aged housewife, has enough frills to detract attention from the wearer. The second is so minimalist that the viewer is invited to look beyond the dress to the body beneath.

Helen's second striptease has an entirely different character. This time, she is performing for the male gaze.

Helen’s second striptease has an entirely different character. This time, she is performing for the male gaze.

James Bond and Helen Tasker are both costumed with the aim of enabling an act of undressing that is ‘in-character’. Bond must remove his shirt without becoming frustrated with fiddly buttons, maintaining his cool demeanour. Helen must perform two styles of undressing, each of which is associated with a different part of her dress. Neither example would have suited the unfastening solutions employed by strippers (velcro breakaway seams, for example), requiring the costume designers to conceal their intentions behind innovative design.

For more discussion of James Bond’s wardrobe, I highly recommend this excellent online resource: The Suits of James Bond.

[1] Burton, Llewella (2014), ‘Bond Undressed: Fashioning a Lifestyle in the James Bond Films’, paper presented at Subverting Fashion, St. Mary’s University, London, 11 July 2014.
[2] Spaiser, Matt (2010-2012), ‘Cocktail Cuffs’The Suits of James Bond.
[3] Merton, Paul (2009), Silent Comedy, London: Random House, p. 23.


Spider-Man Sews: How the hyper-masculine superhero emerges from the feminine and domestic act of costuming

Superheroes represent a hyper-masculinised stereotype. They are characterised by masculine traits of physical strength and muscular physiques, along with aggressive tendencies (manifested in their physical, combative engagement with villains). An equally important aspect of the superhero genre is the costume. Superheroes dress up, often in costumes of their own design. In this aspect of the superhero identity, there is engagement with traditionally feminine behaviours.

Comic books depict superheroes designing, acquiring or manufacturing their costumes, in the pivotal transition from civilian to superhero. Although they may have acquired their superpowers previously, it is not at the time of power-acquisition that they become a superhero. The transformation is not complete until they don a new costume, and adopt the super-identity.

Although some superheroes do adopt a ready-made costume, many design and make their costumes themselves. It is in this conception of their superhero identity, via costume, that they achieve their destiny.

Although vital in defining the superhero’s masculinity, this process is characterised by feminine acts. Costuming – the design and creation of costumes – has been viewed as a gendered activity. Sewing in particular has been presented as a feminine pursuit, or domestic chore (Gordon, 2009). So, in order to achieve the hyper-masculinity of the superhero identity, the hero must get in touch with his feminine side.

The unlikely importance of the superhero’s creation of costume is parodied in this video, Spider-Man’s Less Impressive Superpower.

The Spider-Man comics present sewing one’s own costume as a domestic activity; one that is beneath a “big-name” superhero. The panel below depicts Peter accidentally piercing his finger with a sewing needle, protesting that, despite his fame he has “still got to do [his] own sewing”.

I don't know the origin of this panel - I assume it is from an issue of amazing Spider-Man. Please let me know if you are able to identify it!

I don’t know the origin of this panel – I assume it is from an issue of amazing Spider-Man. Please let me know if you are able to identify it!

In Amazing Spider-Man #4 (below), Peter declares “I’m no cotton-pickin’ seamstress!… I wish I could ask aunt May [for help]”. The feminine connotations of costume sewing continue to persist outside of Spider-Man’s fictional world. Interviewed about his role in the movie The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb, 2014), actor Andrew Garfield described Peter Parker’s sewing of the costume as “a kind of feminine thing to do”. Pressed for details by his co-star, he continued, “femininity is about… delicacy, precision… and craftsmanship”. He emphasizes that the result of this feminine act was a “very masculine costume”.

Amazing Spider-Man #4 (September 1963)

Amazing Spider-Man #4 (September 1963)

Earlier incarnations of Spider-Man, as depicted in Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s The Amazing Spider-Man, make reference to the contradiction between the feminine act of sewing, and the masculinity of the superhero. Parker sews his own costume, but protests that the task comes unnaturally to him. In issue #20 (January 1965), he is shown stitching his tattered costume back together, and hyperbolises that “my biggest problem is getting this sewn without stabbing my finger to death”. Later, in issue #27 (August 1965) he describes sewing as “the one thing I hate most in the whole wide world”. It is worth noting that, in contrast, his aunt is depicted sewing in the background, and seems to take to engage in this task much more willingly (see, for example, issue #2).

It is worth noting that this activity takes place within the home. Within the domestic space of his bedroom, Peter Parker engages in the domestic, feminine activity of sewing. Then, when he enters the outside world, he dons the costume, and performs masculinity.

Gordon, Sarah A. (2009) “Make it Yourself”: Home Sewing, Gender, and Culture, 1890-1930, New York: Colombia University Press

Mastectomy Fashion

Time for another picture post. These swimsuits were designed with the intention of celebrating women who have had mastectomies, and provoking questions about nakedness. The designers ponder the extent to which an exposed breast can be considered in the same terms as the exposure of a lack of breast. The project website suggests that the exposed chest after mastectomy is just as controversial as toplessness, but perhaps for different reasons. Those who campaign against toplessness do so because the subject is objectified, however a mastectomy scar communicates very different messages. It reveals much more about the subject – her emotional and physical experiences.

Toplessness and exposed mastectomy scars both make the subject feel exposed, but the latter is much more emotionally revealing. These models stand proudly in their new ‘monokinis’. I propose that this is not pride in their appearance, but pride in the strength that they have shown overcoming their illness. By willingly displaying their scars, they don’t open themselves up to sexual objectification, rather, admiration. However, they also invite the possibility of another kind of objectification: that of the grotesque spectacle. Something to ponder…

mastectomy bikini monokini

‘Katja,’ by M. Otsamo

mastectomy bikini monokini

‘Virve’, by T. Therman

mastectomy bikini monokini

‘Elina,’ by E. Halttunen

mastectomy bikini monokini

‘Milsse,’ by T. Ämmät

mastectomy bikini monokini

‘Kristiina,’ by O. Pyy

Style in Space: The superficiality of the public vote in NASA’s new mission to attract audience-designers

Space is becoming increasingly commercialised. With competition from private investors, NASA are no longer the de facto masters of the universe. NASA have sought public engagement to counteract competition from corporations including Virgin Galactic and SpaceX. Their latest initiative invited audiences to vote on the design of their new generation of spacesuit. This has led to a requirement for NASA’s designs to incorporate elements of contemporary fashion.

NASA launched a website dedicated to a public vote on their next generation of space attire. The website offered a selection of 3 spacesuits, inspired by themes of biomimicry and trends in wearable technology [1]. These are the latest in NASA’s Z-series of Spacesuits. The previous suit, the Z-1, was named one of Time Magazines best inventions of 2012, thanks to its ground-breaking application of 3D printing in the formation of impact-resistance structures [2]. This design was lauded primarily due to its innovative functionality. The Z-2, incorporates these same technologies and, crucially for voters, it also looks stylish.

In terms of basic structure and functionality, the three designs offered to voters are identical. The designs are only differentiated by superficial aesthetic elements. The Biomimicry suit contains an electroluminescent wire which decorates the suit in low lighting conditions; the Technology suit incorporates a bold chest insignia; and the Trends in Society suit – the most overtly superficial of them all – is “reflective of what every day clothes may look like in the not too distant future”, taking inspiration from sportswear.

NASA Z-2 suit

The ‘Biomimicry’ suit incorporates patterns of electroluminescent wire, inspired by aquatic creatures.

NASA z-2 spacesuit

The ‘Technology’ suit features a chest-insignia

NASA Z-2 spacesuit

The ‘Trends in Society’ suits takes inspiration from sportswear.

The superficiality of these choices invites questions about limits to the audience’s expertize, and the importance of aesthetics in an increasingly commercialised field. NASA have had to negotiate the conflict between the value of audience engagement and the fact that few audience members are qualified to make judgements about the suitability of spacesuits for extra-terrestrial environments. It is reasonable to assume that most voters have no experience of space travel, and are far less qualified than NASA employees to make informed decisions about the functionality of any particular spacesuit. Therefore, in order to offer voters an ostensibly significant level of audience involvement, their influence must be restricted to superficial aesthetic elements. This has forced NASA designers to consider style.

The consequence of this vote is that NASA suits are beginning to incorporate elements of fashion. It has become necessary for the suits to mirror trends in contemporary fashion design, drawing on contemporary trends for vibrant colours and sportswear, combined with visions of the future in recent sci-fi film costumes.

Functional aspects of the suit are, arguably, more essential than aesthetic aspects. However, in the eye of the untrained beholder, it is mostly the stylistic aspects that differentiate one design from another. It is this apparent importance of style, in contrast to the actual importance of functionality, which gives votes the impression of power and control. The historically-held notions about the “nobility of sight” have caused audiences to assume the primacy of visual features. Stylistic decisions may therefore appear more important than they actually are, giving voters the impression that they are contributing significantly to the future of space exploration.

Further questions are raised about why the general public are more qualified to make decisions about fashion than about technology. Why is it that a layperson is trusted to select an element of style but not an element of utility? Style, like all fashion, is essentially frivolous [3]. The suit serves its purpose regardless of its appearance. NASA’s invitation to voters is therefore essentially worthless to astronauts, but vital to the public perception that they are engaging with their audience. In an increasingly commercialised industry, NASA must stay ahead of the game not just in technical innovation but also in terms of public image. They must present themselves alongside reality television and the numerous other commercial ventures that use public votes to direct their decisions.

[1] Holpuch, Amanda, ‘Nasa says new spacesuit one small step towards sending mankind to Mars,’ The Guardian [online], 30 April 2014,
[2] NASA, ‘The NASA Z-2 Suit’, 2014.
[3] Roche, Daniel, and Birrel, Jean, The Culture of Clothing, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 502.

What’s in a Wardrobe?

Collections of clothes are not just for wearing. Our wardrobes are also sites of social activity and records of personal history.

Wardrobes are not just storage spaces. They are sites of social engagement that communicate significant messages about our identities and values. If we define a ‘wardrobe’ not just as a piece of furniture, but a collection of garments that is specific to its owner, we still only achieve a partial understanding its many different functions.

Here are some of the many personal, social and economic functions of our wardrobes:


Curated Display

The wardrobe is comparable to museum collections. The owner acts as curator, selecting items for display. This curation involves systems of organisation and classification. Work clothes are kept separate from casual clothes; as are winter and summer wardrobes. This process of methodological organisation makes the wardrobe more than just a storage box. [1]

The collection is curated not only for ourselves but also for guests. Select audiences are invited to view this collection as evidence of the curator’s knowledge and taste. Teenagers in particular engage in social activities surrounding their wardrobes, sharing purchases with friends, or increasingly, web-based audiences.

In some situations, parts of the wardrobe may be on display for a wider audience. The shoes worn by women who suffered foot binding in China were often on display in cabinets their homes. These cabinets were not dissimilar to those in museum exhibitions, demonstrating both the beauty of this exquisitely decorated footwear and the unnaturally small size of the wearers’ feet. [2]

Memory Box

As Saulo Cwerner observes, ‘wardrobes enclose not only clothes, but the personal biographies’ of the owner [3]. The wardrobe is a site of personal archaeology, that grants access to memories of events and significant life changes. Clothing acts as a reminder of past events, and is comparable to keepsakes or souvenirs.

Many of the clothes that we keep in our wardrobes are records of who we once were, or events that we once attended. Jeans that are now too large remind us of weight loss; a jersey stretched from maternity wear reminds us of motherhood; a dress bought for a special event reminds us of whatever occasion or anniversary we were celebrating when we wore it. We keep these clothes as souvenirs of our past.

Disguise Kit

A wardrobe is unique to its owner, containing a collection of clothes that is not replicated anywhere else. It is, therefore, deeply connected to our sense of self. Depending on the size of a collection, it contains many varied possible outfits, each representing a different aspect of our identity.

Identity is ‘enacted through our clothes’, and the way we choose to dress on any particular occasion reflects a different self [4]. In this way, the identities that we present are flexible. A wardrobe stores the means for managing and constructing our various identities. By selecting any combination of garments from a wardrobe, we enhance some aspects of our identities and conceal others. Then, on our next visit, we select another outfit and transform into someone else.


Source of Income

There are an increasing number of opportunities to make money out of collections of clothes. Businesses like Rentez Vous acknowledge that not everyone wants to fork out the full purchase price of a designer garment, but many are happy to pay a percentage of that price to rent a garment for an event. Making about 20% of the purchase value from every loan, a garment can pay for itself within a single season. [5]

Expression of Wealth

Much has been written about fashion as ‘conspicuous consumption’ [6]. An ability to keep up with changing fashion is a sign of disposable income. If a single garment can signify wealth in this way, then a wardrobe provides even more evidence. The size of a collection indicates how much money its owner has to spend, and thereby provides a reasonably reliable indicator of their income.

Moreover, the variety of clothes in the wardrobe may reflect the owner’s lifestyle. A varied wardrobe, with garments ranging from business suits to cocktail gowns signifies a more lavish lifestyle than a wardrobe that is filled with an assortment of jeans and t-shirts. Here, it is not just the kind of clothes that signifies wealth (we all wear jeans and t-shirts), but the diversity. Someone who has occasion to dress in many different styles of garment is likely to be of a higher socioeconomic status than someone who does not.

Litter Bin

There are 1.7 billion unworn items of clothing in UK wardrobes. Our reasons for keeping these clothes vary, but are often a reaction to the guilt that we may feel when we create unnecessary waste. An unwise purchase is shameful evidence of poor shopping skills, and clothes discarded in the bin would be an acknowledgement of that failure, as well as an unnecessary contribution to landfill. Rather than throw unwanted clothes in the bin, we choose to store them indefinitely, in the hope that they may one day prove a worthwhile investment.


[1] Saulo B. Cwerner (2001), ‘Clothes at Rest: Elements for a Sociology of the Wardrobe,’ Fashion Theory 5 (no. 1),  79-92.
[2] O’Keefe, Linda (1996), Shoes, New York: Workman.
[3] Saulo B. Cwerner, Op. Cit.
[4] Strashnaya, Renata (2012),Constructing the Visual Self: Dressing for Occasions,’in Fashion: Exploring Critical Issues, Oxford: Interdisciplinary Press.
[5] ‘The Sharing Economy,’ The Bottom Line, BBC Radio 4, 1 February 2014.
[6] See Thorstein Veblen, Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), for the origins of the notion of conspicuous consumption.