The idiom ‘clothes make the (wo)man’ has long spoken for how we judge each other and the kinds of identities we attempt to project through the way we dress. The other, subtler message it conveys, however, is that we are never truly ourselves when we are dressed, that we don layers that say something of who we are – or how we’d like to be seen – without actually revealing a ‘true self’.
Joanne Entwistle discusses the ways in which we are not merely dressed by the material fabric of our clothes, but always also with the cultural conventions that go into the wearing of them and often, the clothes themselves. Recognizing the inextricable relationship between bodies, dress and culture, she argues that the dressed body must be central to how we think about notions of the self (1). I’ve been interested in seeing how significantly clothes figure in the way women in particular relate, conceive and talk about their bodies and body image; and further, how this contributes to their understanding and creation of an ‘authentic’ self. I started with the premise put forward by the online video series The What’s Underneath Project that this ‘true self’ is ‘what’s underneath’, portrayed quite literally here: interview participants talk about various aspects of their lives – work, family, relationships, trauma and of course, bodies – as they remove items of their clothing down to their underwear. However, I was intrigued to discover later, through my focus groups and interviews with women, the contrasting idea that donning clothing is often central to how they construct their identities and position themselves in their immediate social contexts. Clothing then, functions not just as a means of protection or discretion; it also explicitly projects facets of our selves, which in turn are directed by overarching cultural and social constructions.
The What’s Underneath Project is part of a larger movement, mostly online, which seeks to ‘bare’ the self and ‘celebrate’ it in its most stripped down state, the central notion being that subjects are able to be most themselves when undressed. In their introductory video, What’s Underneath co-founders Elisa Goodkind and Lily Mandelbaum contend that subjects’ “identities [extend] way beyond their clothes” and promote the idea that, “your style is more than what you wear. Your style is your story…. [W]e began asking people to take their clothes off. With each layer of clothing removed, a new truth came to the surface.” (My emphasis)
Here, the significance that clothing may have for an individual is overridden by their story. There is the implied assumption that clothing is somehow artifice, hindering a person’s truth from ‘coming to the surface’. Viewers see subjects physically removing items of clothing as they talk. Often, these acts of taking off a skirt or removing a blouse accompany a particularly emotional and revealing moment in the interview: we thus see ‘truths’ being revealed as more and more of the (naked) body is too.
The subjects themselves speak of feeling vulnerable and confess deep-seated insecurities about their bodies: Actress Caitlin Stasey refers to a time when she would go swimming in the ocean fully clothed because, “I’m not buying a bikini, I’m not fucking doing that to myself”. The fact that she now strips down to her underwear for the interview then suggests that she is now not only more at ease with ‘doing this to herself’ but also with revealing this formerly concealed self. In model Charli Howard’s interview, the catharsis of getting naked is even more apparent: The interview mostly addresses her struggles with beauty ideals in the modeling industry but it is the last few seconds of the video that strikes me most: we hear her being asked how she feels now, to which she says: “I feel like I’m just being myself now and that’s all you can be”. The implicit message in this framing is that she has removed all pretention – the literal physical barriers of her clothing, and the emotional and mental facades veiling her true ‘self’, which is ‘all you can be’.
The repeated motif of interview subjects removing everything except their underwear – including letting their hair down and removing makeup – responds to a specific postmodern anxiety around appearance and authenticity that Elizabeth Wilson discusses in Adorned in Dreams. This postmodern self is always a fragmented one, seeking perfection and beauty in what Baudrillard calls a ‘system of objects’ – what we might regard as clothes here – that ultimately never gratifies: there is always something else, different, newer, better upon which we project our desires and identify. Dress becomes, as Wilson articulates, the “frontier between the self and the not-self”, a site of this tension experienced by the postmodern individual as she uses clothes to project these continually changing, fragmented and often artificial facets of the self. The undressed, naked body of the What’s Underneath interviews then, attempts to remove these barriers, to reveal a presumably unified, stable whole self beneath the clothes that is unadorned and unaffected by this transient, unfulfilling ‘system of objects’. Stripped bare, there is now someone who is “just being [themselves].”
I contrast this discourse with the interviews and focus groups I have conducted with women, as part of my research on social constructions of body image and beauty ideals (2). In these interviews, I talk with women about struggles they have had to confront with their own bodies, and how they try to fulfill or resist conventional beauty ideals. Having personally considered the body in its totality, rather than it being distinct from its dressed aspect, I was surprised to see how frequently clothes were mentioned by participants as a central practice for them to negotiate their subjective stances in the spaces they occupied (3). The variation in why and how women don (different types of) clothing is itself extensive, sometimes even seemingly contradictory, as they actively negotiate specific situational contexts, and moments within relationships through the materiality of dress.
Several predominant themes came through the interviews, which offered alternative ways to see that clothes don’t necessarily mask a ‘self’ but is a way to present significant, if shifting, subjectivities constituting the self. For example, women repeatedly spoke of the importance of physical comfort in their clothes, suggesting that if they are at ease in what they are wearing, they are better able to “now focus on the work or people [they] are dealing with” and therefore perform and act in their best capacity, or be their best selves.
When women say that they prioritize comfort or convenience over fashion, they are also making a statement about their values. Participant Kim talked about choosing clothes that were comfortable and convenient because, “If you want to care so much about beauty and how you look, what to dress […] then a lot of time are (sic) spent in doing research and studying and understanding, where you can do something else that’s a lot more interesting to you” (4). In choosing comfort so that she can do other “more interesting” things, Kim projects a notion of the self that is also a moral one – one that is ostensibly not concerned with adorning herself and which, in prioritizing other activities over what Liz Frost refers to as “doing looks”, upholds an industrious Protestant work ethic and dismisses beauty practices as somehow frivolous.
Women frequently reference the pleasures they derive from dressing (up) and regard their clothes as a medium to convey specific aspects their selves within very particular circumstances. It is helpful to consider here Victoria Robinson’s writings on the transformative potential that shoes hold for women. By demonstrating ways in which women use and relate to footwear, Robinson offers us useful ways for thinking about how women engage in beauty practices to negotiate the changing contexts of surrounding social situations and relationships, and thereby express and develop their own (changing) subjectivities. In my own research, a participant, Maya, contrasts the staid wardrobe she assumes at her corporate job with the freedom of “bringing out the kid in you … expressiveness” in the music festivals she attends. Like the participants of Robinson’s study, Maya expresses clothing choices that appear at first to be highly contradictory, a “split personality between my corporate day-to-day world and my festival self”. However, they are both experienced as ‘true’ and she assumes these respective subjectivities in turn according to where she is, what she is doing, and whom she is relating to within these contexts.
From these few examples, I hope to begin to show why we cannot make a simple distinction between a dressed body being inauthentic and naked one being more ‘truthful’. Instead, I draw on Entwistle’s description of dress as both “an intimate aspect of the experience and presentation of the self, and is so closely linked to the identity that these three – dress, the body and the self – are not perceived separately but simultaneously, as a totality.”
I argue that we therefore need to look beyond merely the stuff of clothing. After all, although the What’s Underneath subjects are nearly naked, Entwistle reminds us that the bare body is still always ‘dressed’ by cultural conventions, which in turn allude to a particular kind of subjectivity – one of naturalness and an essential core, in this case. Rather than seeking authenticity (and questions of morality) through clothing – or the shedding of – I propose that it may be more helpful to study the narratives (Holstein & Gubrium) around the practices of dressing and a woman’s relationship to her clothes. In other words, we hear her story – as What’s Underneath tries to elicit in every interview – and how she narrates these subjectivities into being, through discussion of her body and clothes, and the particular ways she ‘uses’ these clothes to navigate specific social contexts and changing, temporal moments throughout her life course. The idea of the ‘real self’ then is not so much in what is presented as some illusive unified whole, but as the various constituent subjectivities that are revealed in the telling of those narratives.
(1) I have chosen to specifically examine the material experiences of women and the narratives they produce around their bodies. Although there is recent research documenting the rising body anxieties confronted by men, I hold that women’s bodies are still placed under far harsher and more frequent scrutiny than men’s; and that women’s own relationship to their bodies – including the (beauty) practices they enact upon these bodies and embodied beauty practices they engage in – coincides with multiple complex and overlapping oppressive social and political structures to which men are not nearly as frequently subjected.
(2) To date, I have conducted eight interviews and 11 focus groups, with a total of 38 women aged 18-50 in London, York, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.
(3) Though I do suspect that this surprise probably says more about my own body image and how I relate to my own body.
(4) Spoken by participant Lara (not her real name; all participants have been assigned pseudonyms).
Baudrillard, Jean (1988) ‘The System of Objects’, in Mark Poster (ed.) Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Cambridge: Polity Press. pp.10-28.
Frost, Liz (1999) “Doing Looks’: Women, Appearance and Mental Health’, in Women’s Bodies: Discipline and Transgression, Jane Arthurs and Jean Grimshaw (eds), London: Cassell. pp.117-136.
Holstein, James A., and Jaber F. Gubrium (2000) The Self We Live By: Narrative Identity in a Postmodern World. New York: Oxford University Press.
Robinson, Victoria (2015) “Reconceptualising the Mundane and the Extraordinary: A Lens through Which to Explore Transformation within Women’s Everyday Footwear Practices”, Sociology 49 (5): 903-918.
Jamie Khoo is a second year PhD student at the Centre for Women’s Studies at the University of York where she is researching contemporary constructions of feminine beauty and body image. After completing her Masters in English Literature, also at the University of York, she worked for a decade as a writer in Kuala Lumpur contributing to publications such as the Malaysian editions of Time Out and Harpers Bazaar; her last writing engagement before starting her PhD was as features writer and then associate web editor for Elle Malaysia magazine. She has also written for various online blogs and her own website, a beauty full mind.
Image Credit: The What’s Underneath Project