Film 299 Post

F299: Research Update #7

Below are my notes for Fashion and the Fleshy Body: Dress as Embodied Practice by Joanne Entwistle.

  • “There is an obvious and prominent fact about human beings,” notes Turner (1985: 1) at the start of The Body and Society, “they have bodies and they are bodies.” 
  • human bodies are dressed bodies. 
  • Dress is a basic fact of social life and this, according to anthropologists, is true of all human cultures that we know about: all cultures “dress” the body in some way, be it through clothing, tattooing, cosmetics or other forms of body painting 
  • Conventions of dress transform flesh into something recognizable and meaningful to a culture and are also the means by which bodies are made “decent,” appropriate and acceptable within specific contexts. 
  • Bodies that do not conform, bodies that flout the conventions of their culture and go without the appropriate clothes are subversive of the most basic social codes, and risk exclusion, scorn or ridicule.  
  • So fundamental is dress to the social presentation of the body and the social order that it governs even our ways of seeing the naked body. 
  • the nude is never naked, but “clothed” by contemporary conventions of dress 
  • dress cannot be understood without reference to the body and while the body has always and everywhere to be dressed 
  • I sketch out a theoretical framework that takes as its starting-point the idea that dress is an embodied practice, a situated bodily practice that is embedded within the social world and fundamental to microsocial order 
  • Dress as both a social and a personal experience is a discursive and practical phenomenon. 

Addressing the Literature

  • If nakedness is unruly and disruptive, this would seem to indicate that dress is a fundamental aspect of microsocial order. When we dress we do so to make our bodies acceptable to a social situation.  
  • According to Bell (1976), wearing the right clothes is so very important that even people not interested in their appearance will dress well enough to avoid social censure.  
  • Either the body is thought to be self- evidently dressed (and therefore beyond discussion) or the clothes are assumed to stand up on their own, possibly even speaking for themselves without the aid of the body. 
  • Our experience of the costume museum, along with our sadness when confronted with the clothes of dead relatives, points to the ways in which we “normally” experience dress as alive and “fleshy”: once removed from the body, dress lacks fullness and seems strange, almost alien, and all the more poignant to us if we can remember the person who once breathed life into the fabric.  
  • The body and dress operate dialectically: dress works on the body, imbuing it with social meaning, while the body is a dynamic field that gives life and fullness to dress 

Situating the dressed body in the social world

  • Dress lies at the margins of the body and marks the boundary between self and other, individual and society. 
    • This boundary is intimate and personal, since our dress forms the visible envelope of the self and, as Davis puts it, comes “to serve as a kind of visual metaphor for identity”; it is also social, since our dress is structured by social forces and subject to social and moral pressures. 
  • there are “two bodies”: the physical body and the social body. 
  • “the body is capable of furnishing a natural system of symbols” (1973: 12)
    • This means that the body is a highly restricted medium of expression, since it is heavily mediated by culture and expresses the social pressure brought to bear on it. 
    • Ex. the social situation determines the degree to which the body can laugh: the looser the social constraints, the more free the body is to laugh out loud
    • In this way, the body and its functions and boundaries symbolically articulate the concerns of the particular group in which it is found.  
  • Shaggy hair, once a symbol of rebellion, can be found among those professionals who are in a position to critique society, in particular, academics and artists. Smooth hair, however, is likely to be found among those who conform, such as lawyers and bankers. 
    • The degree to which the dressed body can express itself can therefore be symbolic of this location: for example, the more formal and conservative the occupation, the more constraints set around the body and thus on dress. 
  • They argue that the female body and its ways of being and adorning are the product of particular discourses of the body that are inherently gendered. 
  • Fashion has been linked to the operations of power, initially marking out class divisions, but more recently playing a crucial role in policing the boundaries of sexual difference 
  • Particular discourses of dress such as “smart” or “professional” dress, and particular strategies of dress such as the imposition of uniforms and dress codes at work, are utilized by corporations to exercise control over the bodies of the workers within. 
  • However, it would seem that by investing importance in the body, dress opens up the potential for women to use this for their own purposes and experience pleasures that are perhaps the “reverse” of dominant ones. 
  • If bodies are produced and manipulated by power, then this would seem to contradict Foucault’s concern to see power as force relations that are never simply oppressive. 
    • Such an account might lead to the discussion of fashion and dress as merely constraining social forces and thus neglect the way individuals can be active in their selective choices from fashion discourse in their everyday experience of dress. 
  • Further problems arise from Foucault’s rather ambivalent notion of the body: on the one hand, his bio-politics would appear to construct the body as a concrete, material entity, manipulated by institutions and practices; on the other hand, his focus on discourse seems to produce a notion of the body that has no materiality outside the representation. 
  • However, if the body has its own physical reality outside or beyond discourse, how can we theorize this experience? How can one begin to understand the experience of choosing and wearing clothes that forms so significant a part of our experience of our body/self? 
    • Csordas (1993, 1996) details the way forward for what he calls a “paradigm of embodiment,” which he poses as an alternative to the “paradigm of the body” 
    • This methodological shift “requires that the body be understood as the existential ground of culture—not an object that is ‘good to think with’ but as a subject that is ‘necessary to be’” (1993: 135). 
    • The body, in phenomenological terms, is the environment of the self, and therefore something acted upon as part of the experience of selfhood.
    • Culture is grounded in the human body
    • “sociology of the body” is concerned with “what is done to the body,” while “carnal sociology” examines “what the body does” 

Dress and Embodiment

  • Merleau-Ponty stresses the simple fact that the mind is situated in the body and comes to know the world through what he called “corporeal or postural schema”: 
    • in other words we grasp external space, relationships between objects and our relationship to them through our position in, and movement through, the world. 
  • Rather than being “an object in the world” the body forms our “point of view on the world”  
    • “Far from being merely an instrument or object in the world our bodies are what give us our expression in the world” (1976: 5). 
    • In other words, our body is not just the place from which we come to experience the world; it is through our bodies that we come to see and be seen in the world. 
  • acknowledge the way in which dress works on the body which in turn works on and mediates the experience of self 
  • Space is grasped, actively seized upon by individuals through their embodied encounter with it. Of course, space is a crucial aspect of our experience of the dressed body, since when we get dressed we do so with implicit understanding of the rules and norms of particular social spaces. 
  • Dress is always located spatially and tempor- ally: when getting dressed one orientates oneself/body to the situation, acting in particular ways upon the surfaces of the body in ways that are likely to fit within the established norms of that situation. 
    • Thus the dressed body is not a passive object, acted upon by social forces, but actively produced through particular, routine and mundane practices. 
    • Moreover, our experience of the body is not as inert object but as the envelope of our being, the site for our articulation of self.  
  • women are more likely to be identified with the body than men, and this may generate different experiences of embodiment. 
    • It could be argued that women are more likely to develop greater body consciousness and greater awareness of them- selves as embodied than men, whose identity is less situated in the body 

Dress and Embodied Subjectivity

  • In Goffman’s work, the body is the property of both the individual and the social world: it is the vehicle of identity, but this identity has to be “managed” in terms of the definitions of the social situation, which impose particular ways of being on the body. 
    • Thus individuals feel a social and moral imperative to perform their identity in particular ways, and this includes learning appropriate ways of dressing. 
  • Not only does dress form the key link between individual identity and the body, providing the means, or “raw material,” for performing identity; dress is fundamentally an inter-subjective and social phenomenon, it is an important link between individual identity and social belonging. 
  • In other words, not only is our dress the visible form of our intentions, but in everyday life dress is the insignia by which we are read and come to read others, however unstable and ambivalent these readings maybe (Campbell 1997). Dress works to “glue” identities in a world where they are uncertain. 
  • Most situations, even the most informal, have a code of dress, and these impose particular ways of being on bodies in such a way as to have a social and moral imperative to them.  
  • Thus, as Bell (1976: 19) puts it, “our clothes are too much a part of us for most of us to be entirely indifferent to their condition: it is as though the fabric were indeed a natural extension of the body, or even of the soul.” 
  • When we talk of someone’s “slip showing” we are, according to Wilson (1985: 8), speaking of something “more than slight sartorial sloppiness”; we are actually alluding to “the exposure of something much more profoundly ambig- uous and disturbing . . . the naked body underneath the clothes.” 
  • On the contrary, identity is managed through dress in rather more mundane and routine ways, because social pressure encourages us to stay within the bounds of what is defined in a situation as “normal” body and “appropriate” dress. 
    • This is not to say that dress has no “creative” or expressive qualities to it, but rather that too much attention and weight has been given to this and too little to the way in which strategies of dress have a strong social and moral dimension to them that serves to constrain the choices people make about what to wear. 
  • This acknowledgment of space can illuminate the situated nature of dress. If, as I have argued, dress forms part of the micro-social order of most social spaces, when we dress we attend to the norms of particular spatial situations: is there a code of dress we have to abide by? who are we likely to meet? what activities are we likely to perform? how visible do we want to be? 
  • Thus spaces impose different ways of being on gendered bodies: women may have to think more carefully about how they appear in public than men, at least in some situations, and the way they experience public spaces such as offices, boardrooms, or quiet streets at night, is likely to be different to the way men experience such spaces. 
  • In this respect, the spaces of the nightclub and the street impose their own structures on the individual and her sense of her body, and she may in turn employ strategies of dress aimed at managing her body in these spaces. 

Dress and Habitus

  • As “a system of durable, transposable dispositions” that are produced by the particular conditions of a class grouping, the habitus enables the reproduction of class (and gender) through the active embodiment of individuals who are structured by it, as opposed to the passive inscription of power relations on to the body. 
  • The potential of the habitus as a concept for thinking through embodiment is that it provides a link between the individual and the social: the way we come to live in our bodies is structured by our social position in the world, but these structures are only reproduced through the embodied actions of individuals. Once acquired, the habitus enables the generation of practices that are constantly adaptable to the conditions it meets.
  • In terms of dress, the habitus predisposes individuals to particular ways of dressing: for example, the middle-class notion of ‘quality not quantity’ generally translates into a concern with quality fabrics such as cashmere, leather, silk, which, because of their cost, may mean buying fewer garments. 
    • However while social collectivities, class and gender for example, and social situations structure the codes of dress, these are relatively open to interpretation and are only realized through the embodied practice of dress itself. 
  • Thus dress is the result of a complex negotiation between the individual and the social and, while it is generally predictable, it cannot be known in advance of the game, since the struct- ures and rules of a situation only set the parameters of dress, but cannot entirely determine it. 
  • such an emphasis on free and creative expression glosses over the structural constraints of class, gender, location, and income that set material boundaries for young people, as well as the constraints at work in a variety of situations that serve to set parameters around dress choice. 
  • Dress in everyday life cannot be known in advance of practice by examination of the fashion industry or fashion texts. It is a practical negotiation between the fashion system as a structured system, the social conditions of everyday life, such as class, gender and the like, and in addition the “rules” or norms governing particular social situ- ations. 
    • Choices over dress are always defined within a particular context: the fashion system provides the “raw material” of our choices but these are adapted within the context of the lived experience of the woman, her class, race and ethnicity, age, occupation and so on. 
  • we find that the suit is the standard “masculine” dress; and, while women have adopted suits in recent years, theirs differ in many respects from men’s. Women have more choices in terms of dress, in that they can, in most workplaces, wear skirts or trousers with their jackets; they have wider choice in terms of color than the usual black, gray, or navy of most male suits for the conventional office, and can decorate them more elaborately with jewelry and other accessories 
  • However, in order to understand this field one must take account of the historical modes of being in the workplace, as well as the nature of the habitus of this particular field. 
    • Significantly, women’s adoption of tailored clothes has to do with the orientation of women’s bodies to the context of the male workplace and its habitus. 
    • In this field, sexuality is deemed inappropriate (it is distracting from production), and the suit, which covers all the male body except for the neck and hands, has become the standard style of dress for men. 
  • In other words, rendering “invisible” the male body, the suit hides sexed characteristics, but more importantly, as the standard of dress long estab- lished, “this body is normative within the public sphere, it has come to represent neutrality and disembodiment” 
    • Women’s movement into this sphere, as secretaries and later as pro- fessionals, required them to adopt a similar uniform to designate them as workers and thus as public as opposed to private figures.  
  • While her suit may work to cover her body and reduce its sexual associations (the jacket is the most crucial aspect of female professional dress, covering the most sexualized zone, the breasts, as was noted above), as I have argued (Entwistle 2000b) it can never entirely succeed, since a woman brings to her dress the baggage of sexual meanings that are entrenched within the culturally established definitions of “femininity.” 
  • In other words, men’s bodies are taken for granted or rendered invisible, in contrast to the attention paid to female bodies at work and in other public arenas. Thus, as he argues, men are embodied, but the experience of embodiment is often left out of accounts of masculinity. 
  • However, while the male suit can, at least superficially, efface the male body, it cannot obliterate the female body, which is always “feminine” and by association, “sexual.”  


  • Understanding dress in everyday life requires understanding not just how the body is represented within the fashion system and its discourses on dress, but also how the body is experienced and lived and the role dress plays in the presentation of the body/self. 
  • Dress involves practical actions directed by the body upon the body, which result in ways of being and ways of dressing, such as ways of walking to accommodate high heels, ways of breathing to accommodate a corset, ways of bending in a short skirt, and so on. 
  • A sociological account of dress as an embodied and situated practice needs to acknowledge the ways in which both the experience of the body and the various practices of dress are socially structured. 

Subjects to reflect on:

  • Reflections on the fashion worn by the Filipina protagonists (or antagonist) in PH Cinema
  • The clothed Filipina: a study on the evolution of female fashion in PH Cinema

By alaineee

- Course: MA Media Studies (Film)
- Favorite book/novel: "Without Seeing the Dawn" by Stevan Javellana because it is a very disturbing and realistic depiction of the resilience of a Filipino.
- Favorite film: "Sophie's Choice", because of the marvelous storytelling and exemplary acting from the cast
- Favorite media practitioner: Julie Andrews because, as a child, she sparked my interest in both music and film and she continues to inspire me up to this day.
- Favorite song: "Blessings" by Laura Story because it is about maintaining one's strength and faith amidst difficulties
- Favorite internet site: Twitter (a social media platform where your thoughts, opinions, news, and overall freedom of speech are limited to 280 characters only)
- Hobbies: Singing, Traveling, Doing 3D puzzles

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