Clowns and Class

I recently attended the Subverting Fashion conference at St. Mary’s University, and saw a brilliant and entertaining range of papers that will inform my posts for the rest of the summer. I will start with Yvonne Augustin’s discussion of clown costume, with particular emphasis … Continue reading

Sochi Winter Olympics in Costume: Figure Skating

Olympic costumes are often tediously predictable. Costumes highlight nationality and athleticism, with skin-tight blues and reds typically dominating the Olympic wardrobe. Nationality is typically reduced to the colours of the flag, with perhaps only token acknowledgement of other aspects of … Continue reading

Burlesque: The Art of Keeping Clothes On

Elsie Diamond

Elsie Diamond (photographed by Ksenia Maqa) performs ‘Dubstep Turandot’ in an extravagant oriental-inspired costume.

“Is not the most erotic portion of the body where the garment gapes?… There are no erogenous zones; it is intermittence which is erotic: the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing… between two edges…; it is this flash itself which seduces, or rather: the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance” – Roland Barthes [1]

In a previous post I mentioned Roland Barthes’ suggestion that an illicit glimpse of flesh can be more enticing than nudity. In fashion and costume, garments have always been notable for what they expose rather than cover (see, for example, the controversy caused by decreasing skirt length in the first half of the twentieth century). In such cases, fabric is notable in its absence, often more than its presence (which is taken for granted).

In the twenty-first century we are so jaded to the sight of near-naked bodies that they seem unremarkable. It is not uncommon to see legs, stomachs and cleavages on show. This contemporary fashion environment has yielded jeggings and super-low necklines that leave little to the imagination. Bare skin on display has become unremarkable, and has lost its power to shock or entice. As a result, Barthes’ words were never more true. The legs on display under a miniskirt are far less enticing than the fleeting glimpse of thigh that appears intermittently through the side-split of a much longer skirt; a cleavage that is barely visible through a layer of organza is more likely to attract the eye than breasts on show in a low-cut top.

Hussein Chalayan's remote control 'airplane' dress (S/S 2000) is constructed of sliding panels which slide to reveal glimpses of skin.

Hussein Chalayan’s remote control ‘airplane’ dress (S/S 2000) is constructed of sliding panels which slide to reveal glimpses of skin.

These values are reflected in high-fashion. Hussein Chalayan’s Remote Control Dress (Spring/Summer 2000) is moulded from fibreglass and resin panels which are controlled remotely, and slide in and out to reveal parts of the body. The dress reveals small areas of skin, providing viewers with a brief glimpse of the body. The glimpse is coy and fleeting, creating a sense that it is forbidden. This is, in Barthes words, “the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance”.

liza DeLite

Eliza DeLite, who recently put a show on hold for costume restoration. Her costumes create such spectacle that they can even detract attention from the dancer’s partial nudity.

The most appropriate context for this debate is the world of burlesque. Burlesque, which is sometimes thought synonymous with stripping, is arguably more about keeping clothes on than taking them off. The costume transforms the act into an opulent spectacle. Dancers are celebrated for having unique and elaborate costumes. They establish the tone and theme of the act, and are essential in defining a dancer’s performance. The costume establishes the identity that the dancer has chosen for a particular act, and the show is choreographed to suit the component parts of a very particular costume. So entwined are the costume and the act, that it would be impossible to perform a burlesque dance in a substitute costume without making modifications to the routine. The costume is so vital that Eliza DeLite recently put her Strip ‘n’ Shimmy act on hold for costume restoration [2]. Every movement is choreographed around a particular garment or accessory. To a great extent, the costume dictates the moves.

In describing her debut, Dita Von Teese contrasts her performance with those of strippers by detailing her costume. She wore “a proper crinoline dress over a tightlaced corset with seamed stockings, garters, and long black opera gloves” and later “left the club a lady – in hat [and] gloves” [3]. In a strip-club, the acts are all about flesh: strippers arrive onstage already scantily clad, and their stripping is only a prelude to nudity. The core of the show is performed either mostly or completely nude. In contrast, burlesque dancers sustain the striptease until the very last moment of the show. The nudity is the finale.

Burlesque performance celebrates progression towards nudity, rather than nudity itself. The longer the dancer can sustain the tease, the more erotic the performance will be.  It is in the dancer’s interest to keep the clothes on for as long as possible: to remove the costume a small piece at a time, and at an almost languid pace. The dancer, and the audience, know that once she is naked, the show is over. There is nothing left to discover.

Immodesty Blaise

Immodesty Blaise on stage wearing 3 fur stoles, a fur skirt-cuff, a lace dress, and corset. Each of these items can be removed separately, prolonging the progress towards nudity.

The burlesque costume is designed to slow the progress towards nudity. It contains many more garments and accessories than an everyday wardrobe, and dresses are often composed of several parts that can be detached and removed separately. Costumes can consist of numerous layers, beginning with an overcoat or cape, then a dress of several parts, and even when that is removed there are usually three or four layers of lingerie underneath, each layer of which is progressively smaller and more revealing. The greater the number of pieces, the longer it will take to remove the costume, and hence the more provocative the act will be. As each small part is removed, only minor progress is made towards revealing the body.

Dita Von Teese

Dita Von Teese. In the right pose, costume and context, even just a glimpse of ankles can be erotic.

The eroticism of the striptease may be, in part, nostalgic. Nostalgia is at the core of many burlesque acts. Burlesque celebrates the 1940s pin-up and 1920s Hollywood glamour. The costumes tend to include vintage or historical references, not least with corsets. But more than this, it celebrates a time when bare flesh was not so ubiquitous. In that context, a flash of ankle or a glimpse of shoulder is worthy of celebration.

See the Pinterest gallery which accompanies this article:

[1] Roland Barthes, ‘Where the Garment Gapes’, extract from Pleasure of the Text, 1975, reproduced in ed. Malcolm Barnard, Fashion Theory: A Reader, London: Routledge, 2007, p. 601.
[2] Eliza Delite,!acts/vstc4=article-2
[3] Dita Von Teese, Burlesque and the Art of the Tease, New York: Harper Collins, 2006, p. 20.

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,
[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.
[5] Twemlow, Alice (2005) ‘The Decriminalisation of Ornament ‘, Eye 58 (Winter 2005) (visited 24/10/2010)

See also:
‘11 Fresh, Modern Ways to Channel The Great Gatsby’,
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’,

Great Gatsby stills: and
Vogue Gatsby photoshoot:
Vintage 1920s dresses by Poiret and others: and and
Close-up of beading:

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:
Agatha Ruiz de la Prada, Durian dress:

Bat costumes – How derivative is Batman’s suit?

I do not intend to accuse anyone of plagiarism. However, I do feel that it is necessary to observe the similarities between this Victorian fancy dress costume (c. 1887), and the various versions of Batman’s suit.


This costume, produced more than 50 years before the first appearance of ‘The Batman’, shares much in common with the Victorian costume. The position of the cape, and arguably even the headpiece with protruding ears, are intuitive. It would seem reasonable for any designer to independently interpret the bat as a costume with these features. The chest insignia, however, bears more similarity than coincidence could excuse. Both of these costumes bear a small, reductionist silhouette of a bat displayed on the chest.

When Bob Kane created Batman, it is likely that he would have been inspired in-part by Superman, who had appeared a year earlier. Superman’s costumes shared equivalent elements, including the cape and chest insignia. It therefore seems reasonable to assume that the Batman costume is an amalgamation of drawings of Superman and observations of bats.

Even if Kane’s costume design was directly informed by previously existing fancy-dress costumes, we must consider that Kane operated in pop culture, where ownership is fluid. Originality is about context and meaning, and less about appearance. If a costume was copied, at least it was recontextualised. In Detective comics, it acquired new audiences, and new meaning.

Victorian Bat Costume:

Fancy Dress Without Limits

My husband is preparing to attend a fancy dress party. He will be going as Ace Rimmer, an alternate-reality space pilot from the TV series, Red Dwarf. I won’t reveal how much he has spent on the costume except to say that it is more than I would spend on a party dress. He has spent several weeks sourcing the various components of the costume. It’s crowning glory is a genuine military bomber jacket. 
It is not unusual for my husband’s colleagues to go overboard with their fancy dress, but their wardrobes pale in comparison to the attire on parade at Comic-con. Pop-culture fans come together annually in San Diego to share their passions, and to express them in part through costume. Exclusivity is a central theme of the event. Memorabilia manufacturers and publishers make goods exclusively available to attendees; production companies reveal new, previously unseen footage from upcoming films and shows; fans display their custom or limited-edition costumes. An authentic, branded costume is comparable in price to an haute-couture dress. It is not unusual for a costume to set a fan back hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Even in Britain, where we have no equivalent event on the scale of Comic-Con, a replica Judge Dredd costume retails for close to £2000[1]. These excessive price tags quantify a fan’s devotion to their favourite fictional character, and turn fandom in to exclusive club that invites only members who can demonstrate tangible commitment.



The cultural artefacts on display at Comic-Con typically originate from twentieth- and twenty-first century media. Extravagant cosplay, however, has a longer history. Late 19th century masquerade balls and costume parties were notorious for their excess. In the 1880s New York, W. K. Vanderbilt’s annual fancy dress balls were the talk of the town. Her 1,200 guests explored their fantasies of aristocratic heritage in costumes modelled on historical dress of the French court and British monarchy, and were so concerned with authenticity that the balls became a kind of window on history. Every minute detail of the attendees’ costumes was copied from historical portraits. Guests masqueraded as Henry VII, Elizabeth I, and Marie Antoinette, among a parade of other memorable (or notorious) figures from the European past. Mrs. Vanderbilt herself dressed in imitation of a Venetian Princess, as depicted in a painting by Alexander Cabanel [2]. At least twenty of her guests suffered the unfortunate faux-pas of coming as the same character, Louis XVI.


What was most remarkable about these costumes was the extent of authenticity. In many cases the garments and accessories they wore were not merely copies, but genuine historical artefacts. Alva Vanderbilt’s costume was adorned with pearls that had once belonged to Catherine the Great. At her own ball, Cornelia Bradley decorated her dress with jewels worn by Marie Antoinette [3]. Even where the costumes were copies, no expense was spared in recreating garments in their minutest detail.

It is noteworthy that these parties took place in New York, not Paris or London. New York society was populated by people with a very short family history. The guests were people with no genuine claim to aristocratic ancestry. Emilia Müller proposes that their costumes were an attempt to justify their status. The guests sought to erase the negative connotations of a nouveau riche lifestyle, replacing them with a more respectable suggestion of lineage. By emulating European nobility, they aligned themselves with acquired status, rather than achieved status. They sought to “legitimize themselves as the economic ruling class” by “buying history”[3].

3593508085_4518d3e1db Screen shot 2012-12-12 at 23.21.16

These closed worlds of New York society and comic-book fandom take opportunities to reinforce internal social bonds, while emphasizing difference from the outside world. Costumes are indicators that they are members of an exclusive club. By making those costumes rare or expensive, they reduce the possibility of interlopers: those without the money or passion to acquire ‘genuine’ artefacts.

[1] Complete Judge Dredd outfit, for sale at £1995 at Planet Replica,
[2] W. A. Croffut, The Vanderbilts and The Story of Their Fortune, Kessinger, 2003.
[3] Emilia Müller, ‘Fashion & Fancy in New York: The American Monarchs,’ paper presented at Fashion: Exploring Critical Issues, Oxford, September 2011.
See also:

Comic-Con costumes: and
Alva Vanderbilt in costume:
House of Worth costumes: