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.

Augustin identifies origins of the clown costume in pauper dress. 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 [1]. 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.

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.


The Costume and Culture Museum – Call for contributions

I am developing an online museum to accompany the Costume and Culture blog. The collection will explore the relationship between clothes and the body, through historical and contemporary artefacts. The museum will be located here: The Costume & Culture Museum

I invite suggestions and contributions from others. If you are designer who would like your work featured, a researcher who feels that a particular garment would be relevant for the collection, or anyone who has a casual interest in the themes explored by Costume & Culture, you may propose an exhibit by emailing me at or tweet me @Barbara_Brownie

CC museum



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

Subverting Fashion – London, 11 July 2014

Subverting Fashion poster

I will be speaking at the Subverting Fashion conference on the subject of ‘The  Masculinisation of Dressing Up’ on 11 July 2014, at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham, London. Other speakers will include…

Fashioning Fans

Bethan Jones (Aberystwyth University) – Affect, Performance and Sacred Identity in Fannish Tattooing
Helena Louise Dare-Edwards (University of East Anglia) – Styles’ got Style: Harry Styles, Fangirls and Gender
Carla Schriever (University of Oldenburg) – Men in high heels: Performing cross-maleness in fan culture

The Art of the Costume in Film & TV

Llewella Burton (University of East Anglia) – Bond Undressed: Fashioning a Lifestyle in the James Bond Films
Yvonne Augustin (University of Zurich) – Oversized, colourful, extraordinary – the costume of the clown in movies as a subversion of fashion
Dene October (London College of Communication) – Materialising Meaning(s): Fans, Fashion and the Twelfth Doctor

Music, Gender and Fashion

Jung-Whan Marc de Jong (State University of New York) – “These men look like Barbies”: (Re)conceptualizing “Korean masculinity”, “western masculinity”, and “Asianness” in global digital K-pop fandom
Richard Mills (St Mary’s University) – Transformer: David Bowie’s Glam Re-invention, 1969-1972
Jon Hackett (St Mary’s University) – Glam Rock: Gender, Fashion and Pop-Modernism

Style Cultures/Subcultures

Enrica Picarelli (Independent Scholar) & Livia Apa (University of Naples) – La Sape: from literature to the digital screen
Shaun Cole (London College of Fashion) – Looking Queer? Gay men’s negotiations between masculinity and femininity in style and dress in the 21st Century
Barbara Brownie (University of Hertfordshire) – The Masculinisation of Dressing Up

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.

The ‘artification’ of fashion

Posted in response to special request from BA(Hons) Contemporary Applied Arts students, University of Hertfordshire

Debates about the cultural value of fashion fail to convincingly make the case for or against fashion as at artform. While many notable designers, from Zhandra Rhodes to Hussein Chalayan, present themselves as artists, others scoff at the notion. Karl Lagerfeld rallies against designers who position themselves as ‘artists’. Underlying Lagerfeld’s protest is the notion that, if fashion aspires to be art, it positions itself as ‘second-rate’ – aspiring to be something else rather than celebrating its own merits.

The debate often boils down to a question of utility. Art is traditionally distinguished from art because its value is not connected to its function. While utility is ‘an important aspect of the commercial value of fashion. The criterion of nonutility is very important in art’. [1]

Even if we are among those who doubt that fashion is art, we must concede that ‘it is taking the place of art’ [2]. Fashion is increasingly appearing in art galleries. Georgio Armani has had a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Issey Miyake chose to display his garments in ‘installations’ rather than catwalk shows, and the Tate Modern exhibited a collection by Hussein Chalayan. In these locations, fashion is intended to be observed and considered rather than worn.

These designers are engaged in a process of ‘artification’ – that is, employing strategies to erode the boundaries between their own practices and those of fine artists. Fashion designers are very aware that their role may be seen as that of a craftsperson, and therefore less culturally valuable or significant than that of a fine artist. In order to avoid this perception, they distance themselves from other designers and make tactical manoeuvres into the art world.

Diana Crane summarizes the process of artification, and defines it as including one or more of the following:

1.) Use of unconventional materials

We can see the use of unconventional materials in the works of fashion designers such as Pacco Rabanne and Hussein Chalayan. Both of these designers go so far in their use of unconventional materials that they defy expectations and definitions of clothing.  Pacco Rabanne, for example, uses stiff repeatable shapes to construct garments in unconventional ways, and Hussein Chalayan’s dresses incorporate mechanical technologies, so that they may transform. Rabanne further implies that his artefacts are art works by declaring that his garments do not function as clothes: defining them as ‘unwearable’.

It is often the case that unconventional materials render a garment impractical or unwearable. If a garment cannot viably function as clothing then it must surely be defined by some other means. Violese Lunn’s 2004 Paper collection included paper shoes which are so delicate that they would not support the weight of a human body. The flexibility of the paper, combined with the fragility of fine stiletto heels, make it impossible to put weight on these shoes without destroying them. It is therefore impossible to consider these shoes as utilitarian objects. They can only function as aesthetic objects.

Iris van Herpen

2.) Transgression

Transgression from the norms of garment construction are made possible by new technologies, as evidenced in Issey Miyake’s A-POC, and Hussein Chalayan’s transformable dresses. Though defiance of established methods of production is just one of the many kinds of transgression that designers can undertake, it is perhaps the most prominent in recent years.

Rei Kawakubo’s stated intention to ‘design clothes that have never existed’ reflects a desire to violate the conventions of dressmaking. By starting without assumptions, taking nothing for granted, it is possible to develop garments that do not resemble anything seen contemporaneously or historically. Her first internationally received collections, ‘questioned the logic of clothing itself’. [3]

Other designers engage in cultural transgression. The most controversial of them all may be John Galliano, who has challenged taboos with his behaviour as well as his designs. Fashion, writes Lauren Langman ‘has become an important marker that can make a statement of opposition, rebellion and resistance-confrontation dressing aimed to shock’ [4]. at its most extreme, fashion is deviant and grotesque.


3.) Subversion

We can see subversion in, for example, Jean Paul Gaultier’s use of navy and white striped jerseys, seen as stereotypically French. Gaultier has used the striped jersey in many forms, in menswear and womenswear, but perhaps the most subversive use is in homoerotic contexts. Particularly in promotions for his eau de toilette, Le Male, the jersey is worn tight and occasionally semi-opaque, so as to reveal the muscular physique of the model. Such subversion becomes art because it generates meaning which reflects on the outside world. The jersey itself is unremarkable, but its use in these erotic contexts changes the connotations that the jersey may have in other contexts. Essentially, Gaultier has ruined the jersey for more conservative French consumers.


4.) Surrealism

Surrealism has been evident in fashion since the Surrealist movement of the 1920s, with, for example, collaborations between Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali. Surrealism has since crept onto catwalks and even high-street fashion. The designs of Agatha Ruiz De La Prada seem to suffer from identity crises, uncertain about whether they are clothes, food or furniture. Onesies with attached ears and tails disguise wearers as tigers and bunnies,


5.) Pastiche

Pastiche arguably occurs across the fashion industry, as the fashion cycle reintroduces elements periodically. Explicit and intentional pastiche can be seen in the work of Christian Lacroix, who borrows in particular from a range of fixed garments, transferring them to a modish fashion context. The historical, traditional or institutionalised garments that are his inspiration become fashion as they are adapted for new audiences.


[1] Crane, Diana (2008) Fashion and Art: Unravelling a Complex Relationship’ [online]. Paper presented at Moda e Arte, 9 May 2008, Milan, Spain.
[2]  Sudjic, Deyan (2001),‘Is the future of art in their hands?’ The Observer [online], Sunday 14 October.
[3] Evans, Caroline, and Thornton, Minna (1991) ‘Fashion, Representation, Femininity,’ Feminist Review 38, pp. 48-66.
[4] Langman, Lauren (n.d.), ‘Transgression as Identity’ [online].

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.

Sochi Winter Olympics in Costume, Part 1: Figure Skating

Olympic costumes are often tediously predictable. Costumes highlight nationality and athleticism, with skin-tight blues and reds typically dominating the Olympic wardrobe. Nationality is typically reduced to the colours of the flag, with perhaps only token acknowledgement of other aspects of cultural identity.

The Olympics aspire to be a ‘great equalizer; that is, in the sporting arena, each competitor is said to be judged on performance alone rather than on traits such as ethnicity, gender, and class.’ However, as Jackie Hogan observes, the Olympics ‘serve to reinforce these inequalities’ with overt displays of nationalistism, not least in competitors’ costumes. Flaglike costumes reinforce a contradiction between the IOC’s values of ‘peace and equality’ and the fierce patriotism of participants and spectators. [1]

It is perhaps for this reason that costumes for the Sochi Winter Olympics present more subtle displays of national identity than have been seen at previous events. Attempts have been made to tone down the overt presence of flag symbolism. Royal blues and scarlet reds have been darkened to navy and burgundy. Even so, flags and their motifs remain a dominant feature. The colours may have been given a whitewashed appearance, but stars and stripes are still prominent on the sleeves of Jamie Anderson, winner of the gold medal for slopestyle snowboarding, and her British competitor, Jenny Jones, bore slices of the Union Jack.

Jamie Anderson, winner of the gold medal for slopestyle snowboarding, wears stars and stripes on her sleves, but the blue and red of the American flag are subdued.

Jamie Anderson, winner of the gold medal for slopestyle snowboarding, wears stars and stripes on her sleeves, but the blue and red of the American flag are subdued.

One sport is an exception: figure skating. At the team event held this weekend, there was no hint of a flag on the ice rink. Nationality was present in the choice of costume, but unlike in other events, it was expressed via cultural heritage rather than elements appropriated from the flag. Cathy Reed of Japan expressed her nationality with a costume loosely based on a Geisha’s kimono, and in doing so made reference to a long cultural history of performance arts.

Cathy Reed Sochi

Brother and sister duo, Cathy and Chris Reed, representing Japan in the team figure skating. Cathy Reed’s costume reflects cultural heritage, incorporating elements of a Geisha’s kimono.

Guinard & Fabbri made an indirect reference to their home country of Italy, dressed as Romeo and Juliet, but this reference felt incidental. More so than nationality, these costumes provoked connotations of romance and storytelling. They were theatrical costumes, and presented the display as a performance rather than a sport. Costumes like these, which borrow from fiction, draw skating into the realms of fantasy and storytelling, where anything is possible.  They fictionalise the event, presenting the skaters as characters in a play.

Guinard & Fabbri Sochi

Guinard & Fabbri of Italy, costumed as Romeo and Juliet.

The young star of the winning Russian team was Julia Lipnitskaia, who performed to the theme from Spielberg’s holocaust film, Schindler’s List.  Lipnitskaia was costumed in a short red dress, styled to resemble the red coat worn in the film by a Polish holocaust victim. For those familiar with the film, this red costume connotes youth and innocence (Lipnitskaia is 15 years old). It is also a carefully calculated means of ensuring that she stands out from the crowd. Spielberg’s use of a red coat, in a film that was otherwise black and white, makes the events of the holocaust more tangible by focusing on the fate of a single child. The red coat ensures that we will pick the girl out from the crowd (first, in a crowd of passers-by, and later conspicuous in her absence when the coat is seen in a pile of abandoned clothes). Lipnitskaia’s red dress achieved the same. Her performance was the highlight of the event: her diminutive stature, enhanced by the red dress, set her physically and emotionally apart from her competitors.


Julia Lipnitskaia, costumed to resemble the girl in the red coat in Speilberg’s Schindler’s List

What all of these costumes suggest is that figure skating is more about culture than athleticism. It is an art, descended from theatrical and dance performances. Even in this fiercely patriotic competition, cultural heritage is valued over and above the nationality of the athletes.

[1] Jacki Hogan, ‘Staging The Nation: Gendered and Ethnicized Discourses of National Identity in Olympic Opening Ceremonies,’ Journal of Sport and Social Issues Vol. 27, No. 2 (2003), pp. 100-123.