Culture, Costume & Dress Conference 2021
The Body Politic: Dress, Identity and Power
6-7 May, 2021
Next year’s theme will be the political nature of both the body and dress, and how the two can be used to bolster or impart power. For individuals, as well as social groups, dress is a fundamental indicator of identity. Dress allows us to present a persona to the world; it is an early cue in our assessment of others; and it has the power to clothe us in identity. Dress can be empowering – think of uniforms, regalia, business suits. It can also disempower, as in the striped suits worn by inmates of concentration camps. The significance of dress is largely related to its closeness to the body, which has its own political ramifications: the objectification of the female body, for example, has implications for women’s performance in tasks. These two aspects of identity, and the relationship between them will be the subject of our next conference.
Thursday 27 August 2020, 13.00 – 17.00
The current pandemic has disrupted many aspects of our lives, not least that of dress. As we adapt to working from home and virtual socialising, casual dress has become the norm, and online shopping has reflected the need for tops rather than bottoms. While personal style has evolved to meet these new conditions, will athleisure be the new dressing up, or will there be a fashion backlash with more emphasis on tailoring and high heels? Lockdown has resulted in a greater awareness of climate issues, including the damage inflicted by the fashion industry. But will calls for greater sustainability cause more suffering to already impoverished workers?
Fashion has always responded to changes in society, and crises like the present one have typically had an impact on the way we dress. As in previous pandemics, the wearing of masks has become widespread, and the irony of their imposition at a time when face coverings have been banned in several countries, highlights the ambivalence traditionally felt towards them. Our present situation may tell us more than how we are responding now, but could perhaps provide an insight into the broader significance of dress in a time of crisis.
For more details, see the Dress in a Time of Crisis event page.
This conference explored the role of dress in fashionable society, whether that is through fashion itself, or as an expression of society in history, literature, and other fields.
Dress in all its manifestations – clothing, jewellery, accessories or body adornment – is necessarily related to fashion, and this relationship is one that culture references. The clothes we choose to wear act as social and cultural signifiers, by which others know us, and one of the most prominent indicators is whether or not they are fashionable. As individuals, we cannot escape fashion: whether we choose to embrace or ignore it, we make a statement about where we stand, and how we wish to be valued.
Membership of fashionable society feeds our psychological need to belong, and can provide the key to power and influence, making it difficult to resist. In literature, fashionable society is often used as a metaphor for superficiality and self-obsessiveness. In his novels, Thackeray attacked the frivolity of fashionable society, yet he was drawn to it and was very much a part of it himself. Its influence is pervasive; it has, for example, shaped the development of cities: parks, pleasure gardens, theatres, have all been prompted by the prevailing nature of social assembly (and fashion has responded by inventing new modes of dress for all of these activities).
Fashionable society, then, embraces a wide range of activities and relates to many subject areas. Through presentations, posters and panel discussions, the conference considered the many aspects of costume and dress, their role in fashionable society, and the significance of this for culture and the social order.
Dress in all its manifestations, whether clothing, jewellery or other accessories, is a fundamental aspect of culture, and one that culture references. This multi-disciplinary, international conference explored the nature of dress as it relates to, responds to, and influences culture.
Clothing reflects the customs and concerns of society, and often reveals its underlying motivation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of fashion, which almost unknowingly expresses the zeitgeist of its time. The perspective of history allows us to discern more clearly the power of dress to shape lives and influence society. Politically, clothing has been used to control certain groups; socially, clothing has provided status to individuals; and psychologically, dress both defines us and contributes to our sense of self.
This significance has been effectively exploited by the arts, particularly the visual arts, where costume is often used to convey particular themes, as for example, the costume adopted in royal portraits. In literature too, dress can provide insights into character and personality; and in the theatre, costume creates a persona for the audience and the actor who inhabits it.
Through presentations, posters, panel discussions and performance, the conference considered the many aspects of costume and dress, exploring their inter-connections and reflecting on their significance. It included an exhibition of costume and other artefacts that articulated the conference themes.