Over the past few weeks, Pinterest has been saturated with fashion illustrations that are incomplete. Blank paper lies where we expect colour or pattern, and contours terminate in empty space. There is a tradition of leaving the human form incomplete in figure drawing, so … Continue reading

Dressing the Space Tourist

What would you wear for your first trip to space? The few space tourists who have journeyed outside of Earth’s atmosphere have had their clothing choices constrained by NASA and other government space agencies. Like the astronauts and cosmonauts who … Continue reading

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. 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:

The problem with quantitative size labels

Do clothing sizes make us feel fat?

Whatever our size, clothes labels force us to directly compare us to those that are smaller or larger than ourselves. Size label make us aware of our body flaws, and can make shopping an emotionally painful experience. Perhaps the sizing system needs an overhaul.

fat size label

A hundred years ago, consumers were more likely to get clothes tailor made than buy them off the rack. Many women never knew their dress size, or at least not in a simple term that could be easily compared to the relative sizes of other people. The process also ensured that no one’s body flaws could be exposed by ill-fitting garments. As soon as size labels were introduced, women became painfully aware of how their bodies differed. Moreover, they were able to quantify the difference between their own bodies and the ideal.

Jill Fields suggests that the introduction of standardized sizing in corset manufacture is responsible for the notion of the ideal body type[1]. In previous centuries, corsets had been measured and made for every individual consumer. In the early twentieth century, however, corsets were mass-produced. This required them to be designed to fit a range of different bodies, which in turn led to the need for different body types to be classified. Corsets were sold in different categories, for different body types, labelled as ‘stout’, ‘average’, and ‘slender’. This prompted comparison between consumers, drawing attention to their physical differences. The identification of ‘figure faults’ in customers who did not fit the standard sizes, exacerbated the problem, by publically labelling some women’s bodies as faulty.

Being classified as ‘stout’ would dent anyone’s self-esteem. Contemporary sizing systems attempt to sooth egos with euphemisms like ‘plus size’, but as these terms become widespread they become synonymous with ‘overweight’.

There are labels that equate to ‘fat’. The term ‘extra’ suggests ‘excess’, and as anything labelled with an ‘x’ – XL, XXL, XXXL – strongly suggests abnormality. ‘Extra’ (even when abbreviated to ‘x’) is a term that directly references greater-than-normal volume.

Numerical sizing (10, 12, 14) is as neutral as it can be. It is quantitative rather than qualitative. It does not judge; it simply states the facts. However, over time, we have been led to believe that the ‘perfect 10’ is the ideal, and so that any higher number is imperfect.

One solution may be to develop new sizing systems that are not based on relative sizes, rather on positive connotations that already exist elsewhere. Women who might normally feel ashamed at having to pull a size 16 or 18 off the rack might feel far more comfortable if those clothes were labelled in a way that explored the positive connotations of feminine curves. That size ‘16’ could be replaced with a label that reads ‘burlesque’.

size label burlesque

Similar systems could be developed for men. A broad-chested 42 could be renamed ‘athletic’. A sturdy 46 could be rebranded as ‘warrior’.

Perhaps retailers could name their size labels after role-models or celebrities. According to anthropologists, evolution has programmed us to want to imitate prestigious individuals in whatever way we can[2]. I would certainly rather buy a ‘Marilyn’ than a size 14.

marilyn size label

Designers and retailers are aware that smaller sizing can boost confidence, and increase sales, hence the rise in vanity sizing [3]. While vanity sizing can positively influence self-esteem, it also irritates consumers, making it impossible to predict what size to try when moving from one shop to another. Perhaps a better solution would be to start afresh; to begin with a new size system that doesn’t label people as larger or smaller than the ideal; one that acknowledges that everyone is equally different.

[1] Fields, Jill, ‘Fighting The Corsetless Evil’: Shaping Corsets And Culture, 1900-1930,’ Journal of Social History Vol 33, No. 22 (Winter 1999),
[2] Jamie Tehrani, ‘Four Thought,’ BBC Radio 4, 26 June 2013.
[3] Aydinoğlu, Nilüfer Z., and Krishna,Aradhna, ‘Imagining thin: Why vanity sizing works,’ Journal of Consumer Psychology Vol. 22, Issue 4 (October 2012),  565–572

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.

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).