Dress as Object: What happens to clothes without a body?

Joanne Entwistle tells us that ‘dress cannot be understood without reference to the body’ [1]. Clothes are designed to dress the body, and their purpose is unfulfilled if they are not worn. Much as I respect Entwistle’s writing, I am inclined to disagree. When we first encounter a garment, it is often hung limply on a hanger or draped over an abstract plinth. If I take a trip to Zara for a new cardigan, I will find it folded on a pile of a display table. This method of display means that I am primarily drawn to a garment not because of how it may fall on my body, but because of the qualities of the fabric.


When we see a garment on a model or mannequin, it is understood at communicating the identity of the wearer. An outfit on a body connotes a certain lifestyle or role. In rigged displays, clothes are removed from the context of being worn. We are forced to see them for their own merits. Fit becomes secondary to texture and colour, and the identity of the wearer is made distinct from the identity of the garment.


Only by separating the identities of the wearer and the garment can we appreciate clothing for its own merits. This is something that has driven Issey Miyake to display his garments in ‘installations’ rather than catwalk shows [2]. Miyake’s primary interest is in the possibilities of textiles. As a student of graphic design, his design education focused on the use of abstract and geometric shapes, and block colour. Miyake has sought to transcend the boundaries of the established fashion industry by locating his work in unexpected contexts. He has, for example, displayed his garments as frozen sculptures in museums, or photographed them as objects[3]. His 1997 Arizona collection was shown suspended on single wires rather than on models ‘to emphasize their sculptural abstraction’ [4]. This shifts the focus away from wearability towards the garment as a fixed shape; a sculptural form and a graphic surface.


Consumers have come to appreciate the significance of Miyake’s work as an object. In 1999, he released a line called A-POC (short for ‘a piece of cloth’). Rather than ready-made garments, this line presents knitted tubes with seams and hems woven into the fabric. ‘Each section of tube contains a mini wardrobe within it. All the consumer has to do is cut out each item, following a set of easy-to-follow instructions’ [5]. A-POC’s particular ingenuity is most visible in its flat state – before the consumer has removed their garment from the tube. It is this flat, incomplete form that has enticed consumers. Many have chosen to leave it uncut, displayed on the walls of their homes as a single piece of art [6].



As shop displays move away from the convention of dressing clothes on mannequins, there will be a shift in the way that we view fashion. In rigged displays, the garment may be appreciated as entirely removed from our experience of wearing it. An increase in concern for surface design – patterns and embellishments – is indicative of this shift. We are beginning to learn to appreciate the qualities of the garment itself, distinct from how it makes our bodies look in the mirror.

[1] Enwtistle, Joanne, and Wissinger, Elizabeth (2006) ‘Keeping Up Appearances: aesthetic labour in the fashion modeling industries of London and New York’, The Sociological Review 54 (4), pp. 774-794.
[2] Mackrell, Alice (2005) Art and Fashion, London: B T Batsford, p. 154.
[3] Breward, Christopher (2003) Fashion, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 92.
[4] Quinn, Bradley (2002) Techno Fashion¸ Oxford: Berg, p. 150.
[5] Blanchard, Tamsin (2001) ‘Electric Frocks’, The Observer [online], Sunday 7 October 2001, http://www.guardian.co.uk/theobserver/2001/oct/07/features.magazine37
[6] Vance, Lin (2001) ‘Issey Miyake’s A-POC: A piece of cloth’, in Graphis [online], May/June 2001, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3992/is_200105/ai_n8936766/

Zara table display: http://sassisamblog.com/2011/04/19/inside-zara-sydney-store-fashion-heaven/
Rigged display: http://www.superhighfashion.com/fashion_stores.htm
Issey Miyake’s Arizona exhibition: http://arttattler.com/designfuturebeauty.html
Issey Miyake’s A-POC, as intended use: http://www.niwdenapolis.com/2008/01/poc-piece-of-clothing-by-issey-miyake.html
Issey Miyake’s A-POC, as wall display: http://www.flickr.com/photos/scarydan/2542427942/

9 thoughts on “Dress as Object: What happens to clothes without a body?

  1. this is a really interesting area!! I used this quote in my dissertation, but i was looking at it from the point of view of museum audiences trying to understand historical clothing, when they weren’t allowed to touch the garments, another great Entwhistle quote is “Dress, the body, and the self, constitute a totality, and when dress and body are pulled apart, as in the costume museum, we grasp only a fragment, a partial snapshot of dress, our understanding limited”. I found that in those instances audiences have to recreate the lack of touch using their minds, which doesn’t always lead to a successful outcome.

  2. Thanks Hannah! It would be interesting to extend this discussion into the context of historical costume displays. In that situation it would be worth investigating the motivations of the audience. I assume that in most museums, the audience are not dressmakers. A dressmaker may be more interested in the stitching, fabric, and detail, whereas a more general audience would be more interested in how the costume was worn, and what it says about historical lifestyles. The photos in books reflect this. For example, some of the ‘period detail’ books that are targeted at dressmakers show clothes flat rather than on human forms. The interests of different audiences might influence the relative importance of the body inside the costume.

    • defiantly! as a costume maker I love looking at seam finishing, and thinking about how period shapes could be recreated. Whereas other people are purely interested in the fabrics, or the underpinnings used to “fill out” the gowns. The Museum of London has a great video installation of people wearing similar garments to those on display, which give a great insight into how clothes move, which obviously the extant garments don’t any more.

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  5. Pingback: Exhibit 5: A-PoC bu Issey Miyake | The Costume & Culture Museum

  6. Pingback: Exhibit 5: A-PoC by Issey Miyake | The Costume & Culture Museum

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