CFP: Costume and Culture blog

Costume & Culture ( is extending its remit to include the work or other scholars and commentators. I invite contributions that explore clothes, costumes and wardrobes from interdisciplinary perspectives. These submissions can take the form of short summaries of ongoing research (500-1000 words), outlines of research that is published in more detail elsewhere, or extracts from larger texts. It is intended as a shapshot of ongoing research in this field. Key themes for exploration include (but are not limited to):

  • The relationship between clothes and the body
  • Technological developments in clothing and fashion
  • Masks and disguises
  • Transvestism and gender construction
  • Dressing up, masquerade and cosplay
  • Costume for film, TV and stage performance
  • Fan fashion and cultural capital
  • Clothes sharing
  • Wardrobes, changing rooms and domestic dressing spaces

Contributions should be no more than 1000 words, and should include at least 2 images. Numbered references are preferable, and all images must be captioned. Include a short biography of 3-5 sentences. Contributions should be emailed to

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

NASA z-2 spacesuit

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 … Continue reading

Kirk’s Ripped Shirt : Undressing the male body in Sci-Fi and Fantasy

Late twentieth century media, the sexual liberation of women, led to the rise of the female spectator. This resulted in a conflict of values: men were not traditionally supposed to be viewed as sexual objects, and yet women wanted to desire them sexually. Hence, Star Trek sought to enhance Kirk’s sex appeal, and to encourage female spectatorship, without overtly presenting Kirk as sexually-motivated.

Captain Kirk's ripped shirt

Captain Kirk and his various ripped shirts. Semi-nudity is imposed on Kirk during acts of violence.

At the time that Star Trek’s original series first aired (1966-1969), there was not much discussion about the meaning of male nudity, nor the female spectator. It is only in more recent decades that theorists such as Laura Mulvey have begun to explore the difference between the meaning of male and female nudity, and the gendered gaze, and how things were shifting as a result of the move towards sexual equality.

There were several key problems facing Star Trek screenwriters who want to give audiences a glimpse of male flesh. Perhaps the most pertinent of these was that the 1960s, and hence the fictional future as depicted in the Star Trek original series, was patriarchal. Peter Lehman argues that  “avoiding the sexual representation of the male body… works to support patriarchy” [1]. Male characters, particularly Kirk (as leader), had to remain authoritative and masculine.  As Laura Mulvey observed, “the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification” [2]. A man who voluntarily disrobes with the intention of displaying himself as the subject of sexual desire can be viewed as vain. Vanity is historically viewed as a feminine trait, and thus the male striptease can compromise masculinity.

Additionally, the naked male body can be viewed as “threatening” to the female audience, since voluntary exhibitionism is closely linked to sexual aggression[3]. It is noteworthy that Kirk was often shown as sexually reluctant – the victim of sexual desire rather than the perpetrator.

James T. Kirk could not, therefore, be seen to exhibit his body intentionally. Rather, nudity had to be imposed upon him. It could be incidental, accidental, or justified for practical (and manly) reasons, but never purposeful.

Kirk wrestles

Even when Kirk has voluntarily removed his shirt, it is often to engage in masculine acts of violence and displays of physical strength.

Kirk’s semi-nudity was made more acceptable by being shown as the consequence of masculine aggression. A violent tussle with enemy foe could be the cause of a ripped shirt, and hence an exposed nipple. Kirk’s toughness could be reinforced by a splatter of blood or sweat on the exposed skin. In hand-to-hand combat, Kirk could progress towards nudity without appearing to voluntarily expose himself to the audience. He satisfied the sexual urges of some audience members, without compromising the masculine values that mattered to the remaining viewers.

Kirk was thus positioned as the heroic nude, or the athletic nude, comparable to the characters depicted in cultural artefacts of Ancient Greece (and, of course, their thinly veiled homoeroticism). His sculptural semi-nudity connotes heroism, strength, and agility.

Pierre Brule, in his observations of Ancient Greek athletic nudes, noted that “nudity was the distinctive mark of being both male and Greek, since neither Barbarians nor women exercised naked” [4]. Parallels can be drawn between Ancient Greek’s approach to Barbarians, and Star Fleet’s approach to uncivilised alien societies. In this context, Kirk’s semi-nudity is a sign not only of his masculinity, but also his humanity. His bare chest, with smooth pink skin, is evidence of his status as human, in contrast to the assorted blues and greens of his alien combatants.

In hand-to-hand combat, there is also a descent into savagery. In times of foreign exploration, explorers who have encountered tribes who wear little or no clothing have often been assumed to be primitive “savages” [5]. Their nakedness was thought to be a reliable indicator that such groups of people were under-developed, having not yet developed the intellectual capacity for morality, and hence for the ideas that nakedness is shameful. Among European and American slave traders, nudity was enforced to keep perceived savages in their place; as a sign of their status as possessions – equivalent to animals such as cattle – rather than humans. In Kirk’s own descent towards savagery, he must abandon the civilised negotiation techniques of Starfleet. As the uniform is ripped, Starfleet’s regulations and values and tossed aside. Kirk becomes a beast that cannot be tamed by the authority and civility of his employers.

Star Trek was by no means pioneering in its use of the ripped shirt. There are numerous films and TV series that depicted men in similar semi-nude states, always imposed by masculine acts of action or violence. Take, for example, The Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961), in which Eddie’s shirt is ripped to shreds in an explosion. Here, though the shirt is torn and Eddi’e chest is fully exposed, his tie remains intact to retain some sense of respectability and civility.

most Dangerous Man Alive Eddie

In The Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961), Eddie’s shirt is shredded in an explosion.

As if his skintight superhero costume wasn't enough to please flesh-hungry audiences, Captain America 2: Death Too Soon (1979) depicts Steve Rogers with a ripped shirt.

As if his skintight superhero costume wasn’t enough to please flesh-hungry audiences, Captain America 2: Death Too Soon (1979) depicts Steve Rogers with a ripped shirt.

Other sci-fi and fantasy tales find similar excuses to expose the bodies of their male heroes. For characters including The Hulk (aka Bruce Banner), or numerous werewolf tales (Buffy’s Oz, Being Human’s George Sands, etc.) the loss of a shirt is a clear indicator of descent into savagery. The civilised human identity transforms into the primal/animal identity, and during this descent vestiges of civility and advancement are destroyed. With these werewolf tales, as with Kirk, the nudity is imposed, not performed. It is a consequence of the violent transformation that characterises the curse. The male body becomes the victim of nudity.


In the US remake of Being Human, werewolf Josh Levison wakes naked, next to the deer that he has slaughtered as a wolf. The bloodstains on his naked body, and the similarity between his state and the dead deer that lies beside him, suggest that he is both perpetrator and victim of violence. While naked, he is both savage and vulnerable.

Nudity gives these characters a particular vulnerability when they transform back into human form. The human alter-ago is often meek: the polar opposite of his beastly counterpart. This is particularly true of Buffy’s Oz, and the Hulk in Joss Whedon’s Avengers Assemble. As Bruce Banner has lost his clothes in his transformation from human to beast, when he reverts to his human form he is left without protection from cold or the prying eyes of curious onlookers. He is forced to hide, or make do with borrowed or stolen coverings. Nudity thus reinforces the vulnerability of man, in contrast to beast.

teenwolf shirt

Promos depict the latest incarnation of ‘Teen Wolf’ with his shirt ripped during transformation.

Though Kirk’s imposed nudity was a fairly regular occurrence, more recent sub-genres of sci-fi and fantasy have exploited it to such an extent that it has become a defining feature. Promotional materials for MTV’s Teen Wolf unashamedly permit voyeurism in their teenage audience, with images depicting a naked torso beneath ripped shirt: an image that has come to signify a recent transition from man to beast, and vice versa.

[1] Lehman, Peter, Running Scared: Masculinity and the Representation of the Male Body, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993, p. 6.
[2] Mulvey, laura, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Screen Vol. 16. Issue 3 (Autumn 1975) p. 12.
[3] Cooper, Emmanuel, Fully Exposed: The Male Nude in Photography, Oxon: Routledge, 1990, p. 8; and Tejirian, Edward Male to Male: Sexual Feeling Across the Boundaries of Identity, New York: Routledge, 2000.
[4] cited in Moss, Rachel E., ‘An Orchard, A Love Letter and Three Bastards: The Formation of Adult male Identity in Fifteenth Century Family’, in What is Masculinity? John H. Arnold, Sean Brady (eds), New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2001, p. 231.
[5] Perniola, Mario, ‘Between Clothing and Nudity’, 1989, as cited in Barcan, Ruth, Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy2009. 

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. 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:

Ambiguous Garments: Are we limiting our wardrobe choices by categorising clothes?

The fashion industry is littered with hybrid clothing: jeggings, jumper-dress, vest-top. Arguably, compound terms such as ‘jeggings’ are essential in marketing new designs. People find unfamiliar things unsettling, and so existing terminology is used to help consumers understand new garments. However, such terminology also has the potential to restrict creativity in fashion design. If we can only conceive of clothes in pre-exiting terms, how can we ever create something entirely new?

The linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf, proposed a theory of linguistic determinism (the ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’), suggesting that “language… rigidifies channels of development”[1]. Our understanding of the world is governed by the language that we use. When language is limited, the objects it describes appear similarly limited, and so lack of terminology often holds back progress.

The problem is evident in the labelling of garments that are not quite one thing or another. Is this a dress or a jumper? It is both – a ‘jumper dress’. We define this new creation – the ‘jumper dress’ – in terms of what has come before, therefore only allowing our imagination to consider it in pre-existing terms. It is not just compound words that are problematic. Any pre-existing term equates new objects to old.

Some of the most interesting garments in my wardrobe cannot be easily defined. I have a kind of knitted wrap top bought from Etsy, which is essentially a scarf for the torso. The garment’s creator uses a string of familiar terms to describe her designs, as she knows that otherwise she would struggle to communicate with potential consumers.

Is it a sweater, a wrap, or a scarf? This garment by Pille Ploomipuu (via Etsy) defies definition in existing terms. Ploomipuu is able to be innovative in her designs because they do not conform to standard terminology.

Is it a sweater, a wrap, or a scarf? This garment by Pille Ploomipuu (via Etsy) defies definition in existing terms. Ploomipuu is able to be innovative in her designs because they do not conform to standard terminology.

A problem that plagued designers in the late twentieth century was the idea that “true invention is a myth”; everything has already been done before. In 1990, Malcolm Garrett declared that “all art is theft – without reference to the past nothing can be created”[2]. It is true that fashion is cyclical, and often borrows from the past, but does this mean that innovation is no longer possible? Perhaps it only seems so because we are using old terminology. If we keep using existing terms, we will fail to identify something entirely new. We will fail to recognise innovation. It is only by introducing new language, to describe new artefacts or practices, that the unique properties of those artefacts and practices can be appreciated and that further development can be encouraged.

One of the most innovative fashion designers of recent years is Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons. Kawakubo is able to be innovative because she ignores existing categories of clothes:

“I decided to start from zero, from nothing, to things that have not been done before” (Rei Kawakubo interviewed in The New York Times, 1982).

Her first internationally received collections “questioned the logic of clothing itself”[3]. This has allowed her to redefine clothing, and to present shapes that do not resemble anything seen contemporaneously or historically. One of Kawakubo’s stated aims is to “design clothes that have never existed”[4]. Many of her garments, therefore, resist established garment classifications.

rei kawakubo

Rei Kawakuo of Commes Des Garcons, various collections (1983-present)

Kawakubo recognised that it is prescriptive to start with a brief that defines the outcome. For the fashion designer, linguistic determinism limits the possible extent of creativity. If employed to design a ‘dress’, a designer can only exercise his/her creativity within the confines of the established definition of ‘dress’ (“a one-piece bodice and skirt” [5]). These features are, by definition, integral to the ‘dress’ garment, and are taken for granted.

Predictable design stems from assumptions. If we have too many assumptions, we will never create anything new. Fashion design can only be truly innovative when designers follow the example of Rei Kawakubo and “start from zero”.

[1] Whorf, Benjamin Lee, ‘The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language,’ in ed. John Carroll, Language, Thought and Reality, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1956), 82.
[2] Garrett, Malcolm, ‘A Dearth of Typography’, Baseline (May 1990) 41.
[3]Evans, Caroline, and Thornton, Minna (1991) ‘Fashion, Representation, Femininity,’ Feminist Review, No. 38 (1991), 61.
[4]MOCAD (Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit), ReFusing Fashion: Rei Kawakubo, (2008).
[5] Miriam-Webster dictionary, ‘Dress’ (noun),

Etsy garment:

Clothing Memories: Clothes and personal archaeology

Posted in Baghdad in 1980, my great uncle was present during a terrorist raid on the British Embassy. Shots were fired through the window, but my uncle escaped unharmed. His wardrobe was not so lucky. One bullet passed through his jacket, leaving a small hole that he later had invisibly mended. He was left with clothes that bore the scars of the event: a bullet hole that would forever remind him of how lucky he was.

After an event like this, clothes can adopt a new function as evidence in a personal archaeology.  Many of us keep clothes for similar reasons. Clothing is evidence of our personal development. If we were to gather all of the clothes we have ever owned, we could paint a picture of ourselves and how we have become who we are now. The garments would speak about weight loss or gain, changes to our cultural attitudes or wealth. We would also see key moments in our lives marked by the outfits we bought for special occasions. Damage to these clothes may say even more. A rip may be a permanent reminder of an accident; a bloodstain may be evidence of a brawl.

We have garments that remind us of our most formative experiences, good and bad. Many women keep their wedding dresses, even though we will never wear them again. Some people keep school ties or sports uniforms. Mothers may keep a t-shirt worn during pregnancy, as the overstretched seams are a reminder of their motherhood. These old garments are reminders of former lives and lessons learned [1].

Sometimes we buy clothes with the explicit intention of creating memories. Souvenir clothes – the gaudy t-shirt with ‘St. Lucia’ scrawled on the front, or the rainbow-coloured sombrero – will likely never be worn, but preserve the memory of a holiday in the same way as snapshots or other souvenirs.

Whether our memories are good or bad, sentimentality forces us to hang on to these garments. Clothes that are reminders of “past feelings” are “a means of maintaining identity”[2]. A record of past experiences is a record of who we are. They are part of our personal history, and so to discard them would be an erosion of self.

Once we have such a close connection to a possession, it becomes inalienable. It is so symbolically linked to our personal history that, even if we were to sell it, it would still be tied to us. These objects are no longer just clothes; they are artefacts of the lives we have lived.

This bond between the garment, the wearer, and the event, is so strong that museum collections feature clothes with personal histories attached. The V&A collection of bustle pads includes a piece created for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, designed to play music whenever she sat down[3]. This object is remarkable not only in its design, but because of the historical picture it paints. It provides a tangible connection to a Queen and a moment in her life. Victoria’s wedding dress is one of many thousands in the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection – a collection of inalienable dresses that will always be connected to their royal wearers and the events at which they were worn. For audiences, knowledge of the ownership of these dresses creates a sense of intimacy with someone they will never meet.

In museum displays, and in our own sentimental collections, the function of clothes has changed. Their primary purpose is not to clothe the body; it is to tell a story[4]. As storytellers, clothes can speak louder than words. The position of the bullet hole in my great uncle’s jacket illustrates a dramatic moment in his life. Whether we have eventful lives or not, our clothes have tales to tell.


[1] Hertz, Carrie, ‘Costuming Potential: Accommodating unworn clothes,’ Museum Anthropology Review, Vol. 5, Nos 1-2 (2011), 17.
[2] Bye, Elizabeth Bye and McKinney, Ellen, ‘Sizing up the Wardrobe—Why We Keep Clothes That Do Not Fit,’ Fashion Theory, Vol. 11, Issue 4 (2007), 486.
[3] V&A, ‘Corsets and Bustles from 1880-90.
[4] Steele, Valerie, ‘A Museum of Fashion Is More Than a Clothes-Bag,’ Fashion Theory, Vol. 2, Issue 4 (1998), 332.

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,
[6] Vance, Lin (2001) ‘Issey Miyake’s A-POC: A piece of cloth’, in Graphis [online], May/June 2001,

Zara table display:
Rigged display:
Issey Miyake’s Arizona exhibition:
Issey Miyake’s A-POC, as intended use:
Issey Miyake’s A-POC, as wall display:

Context is Everything: The meaning of lace

ellie saab ss2013 elie-saab-fall-winter-2012-2013-couture-long-sleeve-sheath-gown valentino ss2013

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.

baroque4 2006AL4580_jpg_l

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.

ann summers lace1 Lise_Charmel_Soir-de-Venise_Corbeille_black_bra_thong_susMA

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 [1]. 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.

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[1] Perniola, Mario (1989) ‘Between Clothing and Nudity’, as cited in Barcan, Ruth (2009) Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy, (visited 03/02/2011)

Black dress, Valentino S/S 2013:
White dress, Ellie Saab, S/S 2013:
Portrait of Anne of Austria (c. 1625):
Portrait of Margaret Layton by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (c.1620):
Funeral veil: and
Maison Michel lace headpieces:
Anne Summers lace teddy:—black/1111614818.prd
Lise Charmel black lace lingerie ensemble: