Dictionaries and dress

A current project by fashion researcher Femke de Vries has identified some interesting limitations to dictionary definitions of garments, in her native Dutch language. De Vries’ Dictionary Dressings identifies dictionary definitions of garments that are open to misinterpretation. The Dutch dictionary, Van Dale, … Continue reading

Obama’s jacket and personal territory

Obama's feet on the resolute desk

Browsing through the White House’s photography archives provides a fascinating insight into President Barack Obama’s use of clothes, both on and off his body. In particular, images depicting Obama in the Oval office show the president in his home territory, … Continue reading

Joseph Ford’s clothing landscapes

Photographer Joseph Ford has recently published a series of photographs which juxtapose clothes and aerial landscape photographs. The images explore visual similarities between the two subjects, aligning the images so that contours appear to continue from one image to the other.


These images make exploit visual similarity between natural and artificial contours, but perhaps more importantly, they highlight man’s desire to find familiar signs or patterns in a scene. These images would be less remarkable if they appeared alone, and it is only by identifying an unexpected relationship with another image that each photograph becomes interesting. This is a structuralist understanding of everything, that defines subjects according to relationships.

http://www.josephford.net As in my previous post, these images appreciate clothes as objects. Clothes are commonly understood only in relation to the body, but here they are presented as flat or draped forms. The flexibility of garments is key, showing that although they are intended to adhere to the contours of the human body, they may just as easily be manipulated to mirror features of a landscape.



See more of these images on Joseph Ford’s website: www.josephford.net

Abandoned Clothes

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 shoes on a beach in Northland, New Zealand.

Abandoned shoes on a beach in Northland, New Zealand.

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”[1].

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”[2].

A pile of abandoned shoes at Dauchau is a reminder of the many lives lost in Nazi concentration camps.

A pile of abandoned shoes at Dauchau is a reminder of the many lives lost in Nazi concentration camps.

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.

Shoe tossing is a creative collaboration between individuals. This kind of littering has been transformed into a signifying and/or artistic act. Image: Jon Sullivan.

Shoe tossing is a creative collaboration between individuals. This kind of littering has been transformed into a signifying and/or creative act. Image: Jon Sullivan.

Matthew Smith observes that tossed shoe can sometimes “signify the physical boundaries of gang territory”[3]. 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.

There is an unwritten code of conduct for coats abandoned on chairs. A coat left on an empty seat send a clear message: "this seat is taken".

There is an unwritten code of conduct for coats abandoned on chairs. A coat left on an empty seat send a clear message: “this seat is taken”.

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[4]. 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?

abandoned coat

[1] BBC [online], ‘Pseudocide: Doing a Reggie Perrin’ (14 February 2000),
[2] Bille, Mikkel, Hastrup, Frida, and Sorensen, Tim Flohr, An Anthropology of Absence, (London: Springer, 2010), 12-13.
[3] Smith, Matthew Ryan, ‘The Mysterious Phenomenon of shoe tossing and shoe posting,’ The Silo (2 April, 2013).

The Great Gatsby: Clothes so beautiful they can never be worn

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.

Costumes for The Great Gatsby were designed by Miuccia Prada and Catherine Martin. 1920s 'bling' plays a key part in Luhrmann's visual spectacle.

Costumes for The Great Gatsby were designed by Miuccia Prada and Catherine Martin. 1920s ‘bling’ plays a key part in establishing the tone of Luhrmann’s visual spectacle.

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?

gatsby dress 1


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 [1]. 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.

4626274_f260 Woman-modeling-Paul-Poiret-evening-dress

1920s party dresses by Paul Poiret and others. With their delicate beading, these are too fragile to be worn as vintage clothing, and instead have value as collectors items.

With their delicate beading, 1920s dresses by designers including Paul Poiret, are too fragile to be worn as vintage clothing. Instead they have value as collectors items.

In a previous post, I rallied against the notion that the dress “cannot be understood without reference to the body” [2]. 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”[3].  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 [4]. 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 [5]. 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.

Detail of vintage beading. When the dress is laid out for display like this, it is possible to examine and appreciate the craftsmanship. The beauty of the surface decoration makes 1920s dresses appealing collectors items, even for those who never intend to wear them.

Detail of vintage beading. When the dress is laid out for display like this, it is possible to examine and appreciate the craftsmanship. The beauty of the surface decoration makes 1920s dresses appealing collectors items, even for those who never intend to wear them.

[* 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.]

[1] ‘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
[2] 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.
[3] Bancroft, Alison, Fashion and Psychoanalysis, London: I.B. Tauris, 2012, p. 2.
[4] http://www.theluxechronicles.com/the_luxe_chronicles/2008/02/post-2.html
[5] 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)

See also:
‘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

Freedom as a Fried Egg

My interest in Costume & Culture arose as an extension of my research at the University of Hertfordshire, where I have been a contextual studies lecturer since 2004. A key source of interest for me is that studies in fashion frequently draw upon issues of identity. Identity is fluid, and dressing is a matter of identity construction. Clothing is the means by which we create and express our sense of self. The wearing of clothes provides us with an opportunity to transform ourselves: to appear smarter, thinner, cuter, richer, more mysterious.

While many clothes announce our identity, others replace it with one that is false or incomplete [1]. This separation of costume and self is a theme that runs throughout this blog. As my previous posts have shown, clothing can be viewed as a mask and a fiction. It conceals the reality of the body beneath.

Catherine Davies proposes that costume can provide a ‘shield from one’s own morality’. It becomes a vital tool in deindividuation by ‘removing personal identification’, and consequently also removes ‘personal responsibility’ [2]. In the notorious masquerade balls of the eighteenth century, the mask enabled escape from moral integrity [3]. For children in Halloween costume, it absolves them of responsibility for their mischief.

There are costumes that move beyond deindividuation to dehumanization, removing not only personal identity but also its most basic components – those that make us human. These are costumes modelled on inanimate objects, which strip the wearer of any aspect of ‘humanness’. Dressed as inanimate objects, couples in white interlock in imitation of a plug and socket; teenage friends wrapped in rainbow colours line up like a row of Crayola crayons; Katy Perry presents herself onstage as a fried egg.


We can also find references to inanimate objects in surrealist fashion. However, there is an important distinction to be made between garments that feature objects as ornamentation, and those that fully adopt an inanimate identity. Alexander McQueen’s skull-print scarf did not present the wearer as a skeleton. Agatha Ruiz de la Prada comes closer to objectifying her catwalk models. Her F/W 2009 collection featured a garment in the shape of a durian.

Agatha Ruiz de la Prada F/W 2009 Durian

In these costumes, wearers are dehumanised; apparently stripped of elements of human identity. Inanimate objects have no self-awareness or self-expression. This is perhaps what makes such costumes liberating. Humanity carries with it huge risks and responsibilities. If we have personality, we are at risk of being disliked. If we have free will, we risk making the wrong choices. By temporarily escaping our human identity we also escape the burden of responsibility that being human entails. While we are in costume, we are unaccountable for our actions. Dressed as an egg, Kerry Perry can be as silly as she likes. She is free to defy expectations.

[1] Miller, Kimerlya, Jasper, Cynthia R, and Hill, Donald R. ‘Costume and the Perception of Identity and Role,’ Perceptual and Motor Skills Vol.72, Issue 3 (1991), pp. 807-813, 808.
[2] Davies, Christie (2001), ‘Stigma, uncertain identity and skill in disguise,’ in Tseëlon, Efrat (ed.) ‪Masquerade and Identities‬: ‪Essays on Gender, Sexuality, and Marginality‬, London: Routledge, p. 31‬‬‬‬
[3] Castle, Terry, Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction (London: Methuen, 1986), p. 2.

Katy Perry in egg costume: http://fashionisstupid.com/2010/08/22/katy-perry-as-fried-egg-the-hams-in-her-nether-regions/
Agatha Ruiz de la Prada, Durian dress: http://www.zimbio.com/pictures/trkLicgY14M/Agatha+Ruiz+De+La+Prada+Milan+Fashion+Week/04o7aspvlTz

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/