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

Tilda Swinton: A tribute in pictures

It’s difficult to express in words how Tilda Swinton embodies style. In her fashion shoots, Swinton presents herself as ethereal, androgynous and with a defiant of “the conventional expectations of feminine emotional expressiveness and legibility”, a property that Jackie Stacey describes as … Continue reading

Mangled Mannequins

Shopfront mannequins are falling to pieces.

There was a time when a mannequin was the sculptural equivalent of fashion model. Like a fashion model, the mannequin was intended to reflect our social, professional and aesthetic aspirations. Although she was permanently frozen in an idealistic tableau – artificial in every sense – she represented a living human being. Seeing her hacked into pieces, with body parts scattered across a shop floor, I am reminded of the scene of a brutal murder.

Mannequins in GAP are dismembered, with body parts spread across the store.

Mannequins in GAP are dismembered, with body parts spread across the store.

At GAP, mannequins appear to have been sliced in two, with legs on one side of the shop and dismembered torsos on the other. More widespread is the practice of simply lopping off the head or legs. Headless mannequins seem to have become the norm.

Some of these mannequins have been reduced to resemble dressmakers’ forms. This reverts to the style of some of the earliest shop mannequins of the 1850s, which were headless dress forms made from wicker or cane[1]. Such mannequins were not designed to express personality or lifestyle; just to display the silhouette of the garment. In such close imitation of a dressmaker’s dummy, the mannequin draws attention to the creation, rather than the wearing, of the clothes. We are reminded of the dressmaking process, and the labour that goes into making the garment.

Some headless and limbless mannequins resemble dressmakers' forms. This reminds us of the labour of the dressmaking process.

Some headless and limbless mannequins resemble dressmakers’ forms. This reminds us of the labour of the dressmaking process.

In the 1870s, heads and limbs were introduced to make the mannequins more representative of the customer. For the next 60 or 70 years, manufacturers went to great lengths to achieve realism, even using real hair and live models [2]. 1920s mannequins began to be seen as expressive rather than simply functional. The addition of interchangeable arms and moving parts in the 1930s allowed them to express with their entire bodies, and they could be seen to be engaged in activities which were a reflection of a lifestyle[3]. Over the following decades, mannequins went through periods of realism and artistic expression, always representing a customer’s body or values. Like models in fashion photography, mannequins began to appear in staged scenes and against styled backdrops. The shop display became an opportunity for retailers to associate a set of ideals and values with the garments on display.

What we see in the highstreet today seems to contradict the established purpose of a mannequin, as well as the rules of marketing. The removal of the head imposes anonymity. These bodies could belong to anyone and everyone. Faceless anonymity is also a tactic employed by Maison Martin Margiela in his catwalk shows. Margiela is infamous in his anonymity. He does not explicitly claim ownership of his designs. At Maison Martin Margiela, clothes are given plain white labels, bearing no name[4]. This anonymity and invisibility is a practice continued throughout the entire branding and distribution process. Margiela stores are not identified with signage. Within the stores, staff wear white lab coats with no identifiable marks, and white sheets cover the furniture in the stores. Anonymity even extends to Margiela’s shows, in which models often walk the runway with covered faces.

Anonymous models for Martin Margiela.

Anonymous models for Martin Margiela.

Generic, anonymous mannequins on the highstreet.

Generic, anonymous mannequins on the highstreet.

Without a face to represent an ideal, models or mannequins become unable to represent the target consumer or his/her aspirations. Instead, they imply a kind of democracy in which the consumer could be anyone. The consumer cannot directly see him or herself reflected in the mannequin, and so the retailer opens itself up to any possible consumer. The headless mannequin tries not to impose an idea of who its target consumer may be.

Even where heads are still used, they have become blank and expressionless. Some are dehumanised: coated with cloth or pattern. They are generic, anonymous – like cloth dolls or androids on a production line.

These two tactics seem to make sense independently of one another. The dressmaker’s form is effective at invoking ideas of dressmaking, and the headless mannequin is effective at broadening a target market to include any possible customer. Problems arise when we see a half-hearted or confused approach to reducing the body. The mannequins in the window of GAP Kids are posed expressively, as if the bodies are having fun, but their heads are missing. It is as if these bodies have been decapitated mid-play. The result is an unsettling compromise between liveliness and lifelessness. They are alive, but without personality or identity.

Mannequins at GAP Kids are headless yet animated - simultaneously lively and lifeless.

Mannequins at GAP Kids are headless yet animated – simultaneously lively and lifeless.

[1] Thesander, Marianne, The Feminine Ideal, London: Reaktion Books, 1997, 75.
[2] Dwyer, Gary, Window Dressing: Idealized women in the age of mannequins and photography, Lulu, 2008, 4
[3] Schneider, Sara K., ‘Body Design, Variable Realisms: The Case of Female Fashion Mannequins’, Design Issues Vol. 13, No. 3 (1997), 7.
[4] Mackenzie, Mairi, …Isms: Understanding Fashion, London: Herbert Press, 2009, 120.

Martin Marigiela:
All other images: author’s own.

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.

Impossible Dresses: Photoshopped visions of fashions that may never exist

We are accustomed to haute couture fashion that is impractical, even improbable; we are also achingly familiar with Photoshopped fashion models who appear impossibly perfect. Where these two worlds collide, there is impossible fashion – garments and shoes that could never exist in reality.

In an advertising campaign for her line of footwear, supermodel Gisele Bündchen is depicted wearing a dress made of water. We know that this garment is impossible. We do not have the technology to harness water into the shape of a dress without containing it in some sort of vessel. And yet, here is photographic evidence that it does exist, apparently clothing a woman who we know to be real.

Gisele Bundchen appears to wear a dress made of water in promotion of her line of footwear.

Gisele Bundchen appears to wear a dress made of water in promotion of her line of footwear.

Photoshop exists to create the illusion of reality. Photographic media are regarded as able to provide “accurate transcriptions of reality”[1]. When fashion photography first emerged, advertisers were keen to draw attention to the fact that their adverts featured “actual photographs” with the implication that past advertisements had used illustration to give consumers a misleading picture of a garment’s features[2]. The first aim of this early fashion photography was to present subjects a genuinely as possible.

Recent controversy over retouched beauty photos has shown us that appearance of a photography no longer “corresponds to reality”[3]. Much has been said about the over-use of Photoshop in fashion photography, and the impossible role-models that are created for impressionable consumers. Increasingly, this digital manipulation extends to the garment.

It appears to be common practice to Photoshop the garments depicted in fashion catalogues and on retail websites. Often, the various colour options are digitally overlaid on the final image, rather than photographed directly. A collection of unretouched images from the Victoria’s secret catalogue reveals colour changes and straps removed from bikinis.

These garments are subjected to the same process, but not the same controversy, as models’ bodies and faces. Fabric is tucked and trimmed, smoothed and recolored, using the same Photoshop tools that are applied to a model’s skin and silhouette.

A Smoke Dress that would be impossible to recreate in reality. Is this the ultimate in exclusivity?Image courtesy: Juan Zambrano,

A Smoke Dress that would be impossible to recreate in reality. Is this the ultimate in exclusivity?Image courtesy: Juan Zambrano,

Using CGI, it is possible to create a garment entirely from scratch, as if plucked out of thin air. Concept-Clothes are not limited by the laws of physics or technology. They can take any form, and can be cut from any substance. Some are designed with eventual manufacture in mind (see, for example, Julian Hakes’ Mojito shoes), and others are purely fantastical. Juan Zambrano’s smoke dress (pictured above) combines couture styling with digital wizardry. Zambrano was directly inspired by the exclusivity of couture, and well aware that this image presents viewers with an image of something they can never have.

The impossibility of these computer-generated garments means that no matter how much we desire them, we can never have them. They achieve a new level of exclusivity. Perhaps this is the ultimate in haute couture; fashion so exclusive that no one can have it.

[1] Price, Derrick, ‘Surveyors and Surveyed: Photography out and about,’ in Photography: A Critical Introduction, ed. Wells, Liz, London: Routledge, 2004, 68.
[2] Martin, Richard, ‘Fashion in the age of Advertising,’ Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 29, No. 2 (1995), 242.
[3] Peirce, Charles, Collected Writings, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931, 58.

Fashion Museum Curation and Why Chronology Matters

It is interesting to note that Tate Britain has rearranged its collection into chronological order. The aim is to permit a more ‘neutral’ viewing [1]. I admire this decision: curation can so often be biased, and an objective method may be the best way to invite new observations of old masters.

Last year, I visited the Fashion Museum in Bath. I was frustrated by the fact that the dresses were not arranged in chronological order. I saw no explanation of the curator’s intentions; the clothes seemed to be arranged into aesthetic categories (colour, for example). The problem with this is that it is not reflective of one of the fundamentals of fashion. Fashion is progressive – it moves forever forwards.

The fashion cycle may draw on the past, but at its core is chronological progression. Fashion evolves: hems and waists creep up and down, colours fade in and out. It is only possible to trace this evolution if historical collections are displayed chronologically.

I assume that a central reason for displaying historical garments (as opposed to recent fashions) is to demonstrate how clothes have changed over the years. Change, in this case, is the difference between garments created before an after one another. This difference can be most easily recognised and understood if we are aware of where artefacts lie in a temporal sequence.

Many fundamental observations about fashion rely on chronological observation.  Fashion is identified as ‘an evolutionary outgrowth and elaboration of the previous fashion'[2]. Fashion styles are distinct from ‘fads’ because they are not independent anomalies; instead they follow an evolutionary cycle.

If garments are not displayed in the context of progression, we may only appreciate each garment on its own individual merits, not its position in social, cultural or political history.  Each dress becomes a mere curiosity, removed from historical context.

Fashion museum curation

If fashion museum curators do not arrange garments chronologically, it is difficult to appreciate them as ‘fashion’. ‘Fashion’ is, by definition, temporal. If historical costume is removed from chronological context, it limits our understanding of the significance of garments on display.

Despite my criticism, the Fashion Museum is well worth a visit. 

[1] ‘Tate Britain Rearranges Collection To Reveal Chronology Of 500 Years Of British Art,’ Huffington Post, 13 May 2013,
[2] Miller, Christopher M., McIntyre, Shelby H., and Mantrala, Murali K. (1993) ‘Toward Formalizing Fashion Theory’, Journal of Marketing Research 30 (2), (May, 1993), 145.