I have written in several previous posts about clothes as objects, and the meanings that they acquire when they are seen without bodies inside them. Clothes without bodies can be perceived as being unfulfilled, as if they are not living … Continue reading
This is brief, informal, and slightly off-topic expansion of the opinions I expressed on Woman’s Hour this morning. I was invited to respond to the nudity in Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ video, in light of comments made in a previous broadcast, which suggested that the video was exploitative.
The Blurred Lines video (see below) is available in censored and uncensored versions, one in which women are featured topless, and another in which they are partially clothed. The censored version is being screened on TV and YouTube, while the other must be sought out on sites like Vevo and Daily Motion, which have fewer restrictions.
Nudity has long been associated with exploitation. Historically, it was imposed on slaves because of its connotations of savagery, and although those connotations have diminished, there have also been associations with sexual exploitation that remain today. The debate surrounding Robin Thicke’s video seems to suggest that there are still a large number of people who assume that any women who is naked is being exploited.
Organisations like Object and UK Feminista rally against “the sexualisation of women”. Though this is a noble aim, its supporters too readily conclude that all nude images in pop culture are sexually motivated and/or exploitative.
I felt the need to join this discussion to stress that the relationship between nudity and sexualisation is not inherent or universal. Sexualisation and nudity are not equivalent. Indeed, Roland Barthes proposes that a glimpse of flesh is far more erotic than a fully nude body. A small area of bare skin where garments gape, or as a woman undresses, can be far more sexually charged than total nudity.
This progress towards nudity, and apparently illicit glimpses of flesh through clothed bodies, can make some videos far more sexually charged than Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. There are numerous videos which present cavorting dancers, fully clothed, that appear far more sexually exploitative. The issue is behavior, not nudity.
To imply that depictions of nude women are exploitative, purely because they are unclothed, vastly over-simplifies the issue and is potentially dangerous for impressionable audiences. If we declare that nakedness connotes exploitation, we risk encouraging shame among women who are naked in any context. To be appreciated naked by a partner, or even a wider audience, ought to be confidence-boosting. Instead, those moments will be filled with anxiety.
This discussion inevitably involves mention of the kind of body that is represented in the media: slim, young, and beautiful. Many feel that these ‘ideal’ bodies contribute to self-esteem issues among audiences with more ‘natural’ figures. Though it is true that the women in Blurred Lines are beautiful and modelesque, that does not make them unnatural. Slim bodies, just like larger bodies, are part of the natural spectrum of shape and size. We should not seek to exclude these slim bodies any more than we should exclude fat bodies.
Though less common, the depiction of fat or imperfect bodies can be even more controversial. These images have to face accusations of being “grotesque” . Nude images of Gossip singer-songwriter Beth Ditto (see below) are not often labeled as sexually exploitative, but are often presented as gross spectacle.
If it is currently impossible to view fat bodies in the same terms as thin, perhaps diversity is one way to encourage a change in perception. In other fields, such as fine art, all bodies are represented equally. The nude mothers of photographer Jade Beall, the distorted flesh of Jenny Saville’s paintings, and Marc Quinn’s sculpture of Alison Lapper, are all praised for celebrating the female nude. In music videos, however, where we expect a slim and attractive star like Rihanna to appear naked in a bath, we would never expect someone as curvaceous as Adelle to strip off for the camera. The problem is not that Rihanna is naked, rather that Adelle isn’t.
Three problems arise from this discussion: firstly, there is the assumption that all nude images are sexually motivated; secondly, that they are all exploitative; and thirdly, that these first two only apply to images of women who are slim and beautiful. We need to remind audiences that it is okay to celebrate sex, and that those celebrations should be inclusive. We should make clearer distinctions between sexualisation and nudity, without implying that sexuality should be taboo.
 Object: Women not Sex objects, http://www.object.org.uk/files/OBJECT%20FAQ.pdf
 Mashrabiyya, ‘In Vogue: Women, Beauty, the Grotesque, and the Other‘
Our love/hate relationship with hair is dependent on whether it is still attached.
Last week, I had my hair cut. While I was in the chair, I overheard the two trainees squabbling over whose turn it was to sweep the floor. It seems they felt that this job was beneath them. These women are so fond of hair that they have devoted their careers to handling it, and yet when hair is lying on the floor, detached from the head, it becomes so repulsive that they avoid it at all costs.
Hair is “both revered and reviled”. In some contexts we adore it. It is fondled, envied and worshiped. In others, it provokes a feeling of revulsion. “We find it a source of shame or a case of filth… discarding it with disgust as it collects in the bottom of our sinks or bathroom drains”. As soon as hair is removed from the body, it is classified alongside other bodily waste. It is classified alongside blood, urine or nail clippings, and is considered similarly unhygienic.
This perception that hair can be unhygienic extends to hair that is still attached to our bodies. Whenever it is unkempt, or sprouting from the wrong body part, it can make us feel uneasy. A hairy body seems to imply regression to a savage, animalistic state – like the Wild Man who lives in the forest . In contrast, shaved or tamed hair implies intellectual advancement and civilization.
If hair trimming are considered human waste, comparable to nail clippings, it is curious that they recover their desirability when woven into wigs. Wigs and extensions made of human hair are significantly more expensive than synthetic alternatives. In some cases, a full head of someone else’s hair can be more desirable than your own. So it seems that recovered hair is cleansed of the distasteful connotations. Once it has been filtered through the creative process of wig-making, detached hair seems to regain its status as a thing of beauty.
If it is reclassified, hair is a valuable commodity. Scarcity of hair donors (particularly natural blondes) keeps the price elevated. Hair buyers flock to the poorer regions of Russia and the Ukraine to pay cash-in-hand to women who are willing to shave their heads. In the West too, women have been known to sell their hair to wigmakers in times of economic hardship. With a recent boom in the popularity of extensions, thieves have been incentivized to steal hair from salons.
Hair detached post-mortem can have symbolic value. Braids feature in commemorative jewelry and other memento mori of the Victorian era. If there is a connection with celebrity, the hair of the dead is a historical curiosity. A single hair from John Dillinger’s death mask was sold at auction last year. Similar auctions have featured locks from George Washington and Horatio Nelson 
In all of these cases, the value of hair is directly affected by context. Every object “passes through different cultural contexts which may modify or even transform what it means”. As with many other objects, recontextualisation of hair can diminish or increase its value, and alter our perceptions. Just as Duchamp was able elevate a urinal to the status of art by placing it in a gallery, waste hair that is gathered up from the hairdresser’s floor can be reclassified as a beauty product.
 Doan, Sean-Patrick, ‘After Shave: the Historical, Cultural, and Social Implications of the Shaved Body,’ (2011), 2.
 Park, Gloria Toyun, ‘Shave,’ Frontiers, Vol. 17, No. 2 (1996), 101.
 Dickason, cited in Doan, 6.
 Kramer, Andrew, ‘For Russia’s Poor, Blond Hair Is Snippet of Gold,’ The New York Times [online], (November 21, 2010).
 Williams, Timothy, ’Costly Hairstyle Is a Beauty Trend That Draws Thieves’ Notice,’ The New York Times [online], May 16, 2011.
 Khan, Eve, ‘Historical Hair Locks Selling at Auctions,’ The New York Times [online], (December 13 2012).
 Rose, Gillian, Visual Methodologies, 2nd ed., (London: Sage, 2007), 223.
On a deserted beach in New Zealand, I encountered a pair of shoes abandoned in the sand. The shoes were neatly arranged, as if left temporally by a swimmer who expected to collect them on his return, and yet there was no-one else in sight (neither on the beach, nor in the sea).
Abandoned clothes on beaches have connotations of suicide – real and fake. Labour minister John Stonehouse faked his death in 1974 by leaving a pile of clothes on Miami Beach. In the British TV series The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin, Reggie fakes suicide by leaving his clothes and personal effects on Brighton Beach. This scene of “psudocide” has been recreated so many times that “the British refer to it as doing a Reggie Perrin”.
Abandoned clothes attract attention because we know they are not supposed to be there. More precisely, they are not supposed to be alone. Clothes in a public space are meant to be attached to a body. What is notable, therefore, is not the clothes themselves, but the absence of a human form inside them.
The strength of this message comes across in numerous photos of the piles of clothes and shoes that were left behind at Auschwitz and Dachau. The piles of thousands of garments give us a sense of the thousands of victims who once owned them. These empty garments speak of the non-existence of people to wear them. Each pair of shoes represents a life lost.
These clothes take on additional significance because of their worn appearance. The dirt and tears are evidence of the conditions suffered by the wearers before they died. “Not only do these traces evoke the bodies of the people that are now absent, but the wear and tear of abandoned clothes and objects furthermore stir an empathetic flow between the body in the present and the body that is absent”.
In other contexts, abandoned clothes can have send less somber messages. Shoe tossing is a phenomena encountered in many urban environments, in which people tie their shoelaces together and toss them over a power-line or branch. The shoes are abandoned, out of reach, leaving evidence of the individual wearer’s presence in a shared public space. Abandoned shoes on power-lines are a kind of collaborative street art, perhaps equivalent to the palimpsests of graffiti that develop as numerous graffiti artists layer their work on top of each other over many years.
Matthew Smith observes that tossed shoe can sometimes “signify the physical boundaries of gang territory”. Elsewhere too, abandon clothes can be a temporary territorial mark. On cinema seats and restaurant chairs, coats are placeholders. There is an unwritten code, telling us that an empty seat is not really empty if there is a coat draped across it. In this environment, the coat prevents seating disputes. The same territorial behaviour occurs with tourists’ towels on sunbeds beside hotel pools.
Clothes are so regularly abandoned that various businesses have abandoned clothes policies. In most cases, there is a sense that ownership matters: the clothes are assumed to be lost or forgotten rather than discarded as trash. Efforts are made to reunite the clothes and their wearers, like reuniting two halves of a whole.
Though motives for abandoning clothes vary significantly, there is always “personal or cultural meaning” in a garment left behind. An abandoned garment sends a message, not least because we know that the wearer may now be wandering the streets partially naked. Almost always, abandoned clothes will provoke us to ask why. Were these clothes forgotten or left intentionally? If they are left intentionally, what message was intended? What has happened to the unclothed body of the person who left them behind?
 BBC [online], ‘Pseudocide: Doing a Reggie Perrin’ (14 February 2000),
 Bille, Mikkel, Hastrup, Frida, and Sorensen, Tim Flohr, An Anthropology of Absence, (London: Springer, 2010), 12-13.
 Smith, Matthew Ryan, ‘The Mysterious Phenomenon of shoe tossing and shoe posting,’ The Silo (2 April, 2013).
It is interesting to note that Tate Britain has rearranged its collection into chronological order. The aim is to permit a more ‘neutral’ viewing . I admire this decision: curation can so often be biased, and an objective method may be the best way to invite new observations of old masters.
Last year, I visited the Fashion Museum in Bath. I was frustrated by the fact that the dresses were not arranged in chronological order. I saw no explanation of the curator’s intentions; the clothes seemed to be arranged into aesthetic categories (colour, for example). The problem with this is that it is not reflective of one of the fundamentals of fashion. Fashion is progressive – it moves forever forwards.
The fashion cycle may draw on the past, but at its core is chronological progression. Fashion evolves: hems and waists creep up and down, colours fade in and out. It is only possible to trace this evolution if historical collections are displayed chronologically.
I assume that a central reason for displaying historical garments (as opposed to recent fashions) is to demonstrate how clothes have changed over the years. Change, in this case, is the difference between garments created before an after one another. This difference can be most easily recognised and understood if we are aware of where artefacts lie in a temporal sequence.
Many fundamental observations about fashion rely on chronological observation. Fashion is identified as ‘an evolutionary outgrowth and elaboration of the previous fashion'. Fashion styles are distinct from ‘fads’ because they are not independent anomalies; instead they follow an evolutionary cycle.
If garments are not displayed in the context of progression, we may only appreciate each garment on its own individual merits, not its position in social, cultural or political history. Each dress becomes a mere curiosity, removed from historical context.
Despite my criticism, the Fashion Museum is well worth a visit.
 ‘Tate Britain Rearranges Collection To Reveal Chronology Of 500 Years Of British Art,’ Huffington Post, 13 May 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/05/13/tate-britain-rearranges-collection_n_3265243.html?utm_hp_ref=uk-culture
 Miller, Christopher M., McIntyre, Shelby H., and Mantrala, Murali K. (1993) ‘Toward Formalizing Fashion Theory’, Journal of Marketing Research 30 (2), (May, 1993), 145.
The release of Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby is bound to spark a revival of 1920s fashion. Beaded flapper dresses haven’t yet been revived on my local high street – there are some Modernist dropped waists and a few fringes, but nothing to compete with the opulence of Luhrman’s film. Nevertheless, there is enough interest in the film’s costume design that the influence is bound to spread.
Curiously, much of this interest seems to come from those who want to admire these dresses from a distance, rather than wear them. Luhrman’s lavish party scenes are spectacular, featuring costumes in the style of Jazz era designers such as Paul Poiret and Elsa Schiaparelli. With their extravagant beading and shimmering colours, they are a visual spectacle. Unfortunately they are also remarkably delicate. The thousands of beads and sequins that adorn these dresses are not at home in a recession-proof wardrobe. We can adore these clothes from afar, and enjoy how they sparkle in the artificial lighting of a film-set, but would we ever really want to wear a tasselled cloche?
Much of the online discussion that celebrates Gatsby style has focused on originals rather than on revival. Vintage clothing dealer Leslie Verrinder has taken the opportunity to advise audiences on purchasing 1920s partywear. Verrinder stresses that a 1920s dress is a wise investment, likely to increase in value if it is undamaged and unrepaired . His advice seems to indicate that fans of the film might consider these costumes as a nest-egg: something to display and preserve; not something to wear.
In a previous post, I rallied against the notion that the dress “cannot be understood without reference to the body” . Numerous texts have argues than a garment “exists only when it is in the process of being worn”. Alison bancroft goes so far as to say that clothes that are not worn have a “sinister otherworldliness”. If this is true, what drives the desire to own an original piece that can never be worn?
There are financial incentives: a Poiret dress can fetch about £2000 at auction . For most investors, however, it is akin to buying a piece of fine art. These dresses are not, and never were, primarily functional items. Despite being created in the era of Modernist fashion, when women were being liberated from the Victorian silhouette, these party dresses are all about ‘bling’*. The superfluous ornamentation is just as effective on a flat surface as a curved body. Indeed, many of these garments would sparkle more brightly in a display case than in a darkened ballroom.
Ornamentation exists only on the surface. Its superficial beauty is what has made it so controversial in design history. It has been variously seen as “a waste of manpower, materials, and capital” and “dishonest” in the way it apparently conceals that true nature of the object beneath . This superficiality – that prioritizes style over substance – makes a garment ideal for collectors’ displays. In a cabinet, one can closely inspect the fine detail of the embroidery in a way that would not be possible in another context. The exquisite detail in these costumes can only be truly appreciated when we present them as art objects, and invite people to take a closer look.
[* Note: In contrast to the contemporaneous designs of Coco Chanel, which prioritized form over ornamentation. Chanel’s designs were functional, not decorative. Poiret and others used a similarly free silhouette to Chanel, but targeted a wealthier audience whose lifestyles demanded more extravagantly decorated clothes.]
 ‘Great Gatsby remake inspires 1920s fashion revival’, The Telegraph [online] , 24 April 2013, http://fashion.telegraph.co.uk/videos/TMG10016727/Great-Gatsby-remake-inspires-1920s-fashion-revival.html
 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.
 Bancroft, Alison, Fashion and Psychoanalysis, London: I.B. Tauris, 2012, p. 2.
 Twemlow, Alice (2005) ‘The Decriminalisation of Ornament ‘, Eye 58 (Winter 2005) http://www.eyemagazine.com/feature.php?id=126&fid=553 (visited 24/10/2010)
‘11 Fresh, Modern Ways to Channel The Great Gatsby’, http://www.refinery29.com/twenties-style/slideshow?page=5#slide-11
and for those of you who would rather ogle at the Gatsby menswear:
‘Go Behind the Scenes of The Great Gatsby Style with Brooks Brothers’, http://www.gq.com/style/blogs/the-gq-eye/2013/04/exclusive-video-go-behind-the-scenes-of-gatsby-style-with-brooks-brothers.html
Great Gatsby stills: http://screencrush.com/the-great-gatsby-trailer/ and http://www.hitfix.com/galleries/most-luxuriously-opulent-images-from-the-great-gatsby-trailer
Vogue Gatsby photoshoot: http://pinterest.com/pin/185703184607566993/
Vintage 1920s dresses by Poiret and others: http://doloresmonet.hubpages.com/hub/WomensFashionsofthe1920-FlappersandtheJazz-Age and http://angelasancartier.net/art-nouveau-and-art-deco and http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/spivy/spivy5-15-07_detail.asp?picnum=11
Close-up of beading: http://ehive.com/account/3009/object/120074/1920s_beaded_flapper_evening_dress
Perhaps because it is seen as an extension of the frivolities and vanity of fashion, or perhaps because it is associated with children, dressing-up is a niche activity for men. Very few adult men engage in dressing-up, even on sanctioned occasions such as Halloween. However, a new generation of men are becoming more engaged with costume. ‘Costume play’ is seeing an increase in popularity, largely in the virtual world.
In multiplayer online games (RPGs such as World of Warcraft) the dressing and preparation of the avatar is a significant part of the player’s gaming experience. Janine Fron et. al observe that male gamers devote a lot of time and effort into developing their costume, justified by their use of terminology such as ‘gear’ rather than ‘costume’. Such terminology suggests that the avatar’s wardrobe is primarily a matter of function rather than style. Moreover, it is quantifiable. One choice of armour may offer more effective defence than another, enabling players to “treat the costume as a statistic more than a decoration or form of personal expression”.
These gaming experiences “may also serve as an entry-point for men into dress-up, for whom its convergence with technology may dispel some of its more feminine connotations”. If costume can be justified as a functional object, particularly in that is associated with the very masculine act of combat, it can be distanced from feminine acts of vanity, and childish acts of play.
The notion of costume as functional object has also made the practice of dressing-up more acceptable to mainstream cinema audiences. Contemporary audiences find that the lycra unitard of Adam West’s TV Batman lacks masculinity (to the extent that articles point to homosexual overtones). Christopher Nolan took great pains to justify Bruce Wayne’s costume in his more recent cinema incarnation. The Dark Knight (2008) depicts the Batman costume as “pseudo-utilitarian”. Lucius Fox, Batman’s equivalent to Bond’s ‘Q’, is employed in technical development. His role as innovator and curator of Wayne Enterprises’ vast collection of military technologies ensures the feasibility of an endless supply of new gadgets, many of which form part of the costume.
In the real-world too, association with battle gives dressing up a masculine purpose. Battle re-enactment provides men with the freedom to dress-up, combined with the restrictions imposed by authenticity. Such strictly regulated scenarios avoid the free improvisation of childsplay. There are sets of rules governing how the costume may be worn, dictated by the demand for historical accuracy. The act of dressing-up takes on mature and masculine associations with war and rule-making.
 Fron, Janine, Fullerton, Tracy, Ford Morie, Jaquelyn, and Pearce, Celia, Playing Dress-Up: Costumes, roleplay and imagination, paper presented at Philosophy of Computer Games’, University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, 24-27 January 2004, http://egg.lmc.gatech.edu/publications/LudicaDress_Up.pdf (accessed 10 February 2013)
 Daniels, Les, Batman: The Complete History. Chronicle Books, 1999, p. 84.
 Chabon, Michael, ‘Secret Skin: An Essay in Unitard Theory,’ in Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy, New York: Yale University Press, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010, p.18.
 Fron et al., Op. Cit.
World of Warcraft armour: http://www.blogcdn.com/wow.joystiq.com/media/2010/09/dungeontwofivethunders.jpg
Batman costume from The Dark Knight Rises: http://clothesonfilm.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/The-Dark-Knight-Rises_Christian-Bale-suit-light-mid_Image-credit-Warner-Bros.-Pictures-001.jpg
Battle re-enactment: http://cache.boston.com/bonzai-fba/Globe_Photo/2008/04/21/1208780080_9801-1.jpg
It is the case with many artefacts that context creates meaning. A urinal in a bathroom is a utilitarian object, but displayed in a gallery and re-titled it ‘the fountain’, it becomes art. Lace is similarly affected by context. Even colour, which can have such fixed meanings in fashion, can be read differently in lace garments. Traditional colour meanings are over-ruled by context. White lace can be virginal in a bridal veil, but trashy in a peep-hole teddy. Lace has surprisingly little inherent meaning, as it varies so much depending on when, where and how it is used. In an Ann Summers lace body, lace is risqué; in Valentino’s S/S 2013 Couture collection, it is demure.
Two properties have given lace its special status. Firstly, its complexity makes it difficult to manufacture. Historically, it was made by hand, using a laborious process that required time and skill. This made such an extravagance that for many centuries it was a privilege of the aristocracy. In the Baroque era, lace was so prized that it was worn in equivalent contexts to gold and jewels. Cuffs and collars of lace were as much signifiers of wealth as bracelets and necklaces. It is this history that Valentino or Ellie Saab have in mind when they send a model down the catwalk draped head-to-toe in fine lace and tulle.
Lace’s second distinct feature is its ability to conceal and reveal simultaneously. Lace is an ‘openwork’ fabric, meaning that it features open spaces. Through these spaces are revealed whatever is underneath: sometimes another layer of fabric; sometimes bare flesh. Lace is able to cover the entire body, while simultaneously revealing everything. This intermediate state between clothedness and nakedness is, argues Mario Perniola, more erotic than nudity. Any garment that suggests the “transit” from dressed to undressed is the clothing equivalent to a striptease . It anticipates nudity, offering an illicit peek at the bounty hidden beneath.
By concealing and revealing in equal parts, lace is much like a glass half-full or half-empty. It down to the user to select his or her interpretation. The designer or the wearer can use lace for modest or immodest purposes. We may consider lace to be erotic in a bra and thong, but an identical lace can appear modest in a funeral veil. Here, the distinction is made between concealing and revealing the body. Lace lingerie covers parts of the body that are normally hidden: its purpose is to reveal. By contrast, a lace veil covers a part of the body that is normally on show: its purpose is to conceal.
 Perniola, Mario (1989) ‘Between Clothing and Nudity’, as cited in Barcan, Ruth (2009) Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy, http://www.scribd.com/doc/13378257/Nudity-a-Cultural-Anatomy-Ruth-Barcan (visited 03/02/2011)
Black dress, Valentino S/S 2013: http://www.fashionologie.com/Valentino-Spring-2013-Runway-25260486?page=0%2C0%2C60#60
White dress, Ellie Saab, S/S 2013: http://www.vogue.co.uk/fashion/spring-summer-2013/couture/elie-saab
Portrait of Anne of Austria (c. 1625): http://passionatescribbles.blogspot.co.uk/2011/08/going-baroque.html
Portrait of Margaret Layton by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (c.1620):http://thepragmaticcostumer.wordpress.com/tag/baroque/
Funeral veil: http://magdaleena.tumblr.com/post/418150243/daphne-guinness-alexander-mcqueens-funeral and http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/black%20veil?before=67
Maison Michel lace headpieces: http://misspennydreadful.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/maison-michel-headpieces-for-next.html
Anne Summers lace teddy: http://www.littlewoods.com/ann-summers-marydoll-plunge-lace-body—black/1111614818.prd
Lise Charmel black lace lingerie ensemble: http://blog.miodestino.com/designer-lingerie/lingerie-review-lise-charmel-soir-de-venise-collection/