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  • Writer's pictureMarsaili Mainz

Who Am I Today? The Embodiment of Dress in Everyday Lives.

Barbara Kruger's Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am, 1987)


My research aims to explore fashion as a feminist issue, as a response to overconsumption and climate justice. For this essay, I will explore the embodiment of dress, self and the meaning of clothing in everyday life from a sociocultural perspective. The theory that 'society is founded on cloth' (Thomas Carlyle, 1795-1881; Giuseppe, 2014) and the meaning of clothing make society possible (O'Connor, 2022).

The social ontological approach will be in the study of being and what kind of world is to be investigated within the nature of existence and the social structures of reality (Crotty, 1998). For example, in referencing Susan Sontag's (1997) ontological position is to question and challenge interpretation with the belief that photography is an extension of the arm to 'capture reality'. Additionally, Cindy Sherman's images are intentionally created to be open to interpretation.

The epistemology will be interpretative, investigating multiple realities and experiences of differing female perceptions. The design method will be explorative, creating digital stories using 'speak back' methods with desires, morals and values captured through encouraging a strong 'photo voice' (Mitchell, 2017) to explore the participant's perceptions of self, concerning the embodiment of dress. The aim is to gather information about the participant's worldviews. The enquiry will provide a framework for descriptive processing, with results categorised with critical descriptions and perceptions identified and analysed using an ethnographic approach.

This essay will investigate the philosophical paradigm that best suits the research objectives, beginning with a systematic literature review, identifying cited philosophers within the discipline of constructivism. Including theoretical frameworks around the embodiment of dress, self and the gendered body's relationship to time and space. The meaning of clothing and appearance using photography as a visual language. Finishing with an evaluation of the two identified philosophical worldviews.

Literature Review

The literature review began by focusing on search terms around fashion as a feminist issue in response to overconsumption and climate justice (Horton, 2018; Horton et al., 2022). This theoretical framework became the launch pad for exploring ideas of feminisation and consumption and feminisation of responsibility (Horton, 2018). Alongside, further search terms concerning the embodiment of dress (Entwistle, 2000; Woodward, 2007; Horton., et al., 2022 and Young, 2005) and the meaning of clothing (O'Connor, 2022) while conceptualising fashion in everyday life (Buckley and Clark, 2012). Paradigms began to emerge in feminism and modernism, alongside mass culture, gender, and class within the social structures of fashion (Woodward, 2007; Prothero et al., 2022; O'Connor, 2022; Karlsson and Ramasar, 2020; Young, 2005). However, it was in discovering Erin O'Connor's (2022) PhD thesis, Uniformly Speaking," How rhetoric and Clothing Addresses Materiality and Work, alongside Justine Shaw's (2017) thesis, 'The Perfect Hostess he Called her': Reading Phenomenology in modernist literature, when this explorative approach started to take shape, inclusive, to remain mindful for clues of philosophical paradigms during the text analysis. Word clues, such as experiential, lived experience, embodiment, hermeneutics, interpretation, and perception, emerged consistently throughout the literature. Additionally, feminist phenomenology, the perception of phenomenology, materialist phenomenology, and the embodiment of dress and self, glittered through the extant literature. An even deeper analysis of visual language led to artists and authors such as Virginia Woolf, Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger.

The philosophers frequently mentioned were Merleau-Ponty alongside Iris Marion Young, Heidegger, Husserl, Derrida, Simone de Beauvoir, Pierre Bourdieu, and Foucault. However, it was, Merleau-Ponty's often cited as the exemplar of the phenomenology of perception and embodiment. According to Csordas, 1993 Merleau-Ponty moved away from the notion that the body is an object. Instead, is intertwined with everyday perceptions and practices. Therefore, the "paradigm of embodiment" draws on the work of Merleau-Ponty, connecting phenomenology and the study of dress as a sociocultural practice. (Entwistle, 2000). On the one hand, he is critiqued for not considering the body as gendered, especially in everyday life, where gender plays a significant role in male, and female lived experiences (Entwistle, 2000).

On the other hand, feminist philosophers Iris Marion Young and Simone de Beauvoir pick up from Merleau-Ponty's work. Iris Marion Young's 1980 essay "Throwing Like a Girl" uses a feminist phenomenological framework to describe female comportment and gendered embodiment (Salamon, 2017).

Additionally, Simone de Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, 1949, writes that "the body is not a thing, it is a situation"; and "one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman" (Butler, 1986; p.46, Borde and Malovany-Chevallier, pp.283). Beauvoir compares the differing attitude of young boys and girls from as young as three, how boys are described as "little men" Nevertheless, young girls are made aware of being women with a "feminine" destiny imposed on them by society (Borde and Malovany-Chevallier, pp. 294–295. &, pp. 285–286).

Time, space and the gendered body

The theories of the gendered body are equally interlinked with ideas of time and space. For Merleau-Ponty, time and space are vital to the phenomenology of lived experience, with the notion of subjectivity as the self-located within the body, meaning self and body are a part of time and space (Johnson, 1994). The body's movement, in relation to time and space, is essential in theorising the perception of the world and forming relationships with others and objects lived and experienced. (Entwistle,2000). Therefore, experience and perception of self are temporal and spatial, where the body and the mind's eye are in constant motion rather than being 'an object of the world'. Thus, the body is subjective in framing our point of view on the world.

Furthermore, gender plays a significant role in an awareness of the gendered self within the motion of time and space, particularly within the public realm and the expectations of female dress codes alongside the 'male gaze' and its connotations. As described by Bourdieu, spaces of work are experienced differently by women and men, which affects how the body is dressed and presented. (Entwistle 1997, 2000b).

Photography as a visual language

Writer, philosopher, and political activist Susan Sontag describe how a photographic image is an object of perception and interpretivism but also as proof of lived experiences. Nevertheless, the critical feature in this instance is how images invite interpretation as the photograph becomes the object enabling the perception of experience to become objects of reality rather than illusion. Therefore "photographs are experience captured and the ideal arm of consciousness" (Sontag, 1978, p.2).

Concurrently, the photographer and queen of self-portraits, Cindy Sherman's work explores her engagement with our image-obsessed society and the questions she raises about the meaning of appearances—particularly Untitled Unit Stills, 1977-1980 and Society Portraits, 2008.

Sherman's uniqueness is in her fascination with transforming her appearance, with her images deliberately ambiguous to engage the viewer and encourage individual interpretation. In the Untitled Unit Stills 1977-1980 series, Sherman's work has a near-neutral style, 'almost expressionless' in unidentifiable locations whose meaning is open to speculation and interpretation (Balsom, 2019).

Sherman’s, Untitled Film Still #2 1977

Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #14 1978

Shermans' Society Portraits' 2008, dare to open up the conversation on ageism and gender to create even more potent meanings of the embodiment of dress and self. When addressing issues of age, femininity and social status and the challenges of maintaining a look that conforms to social expectations becomes almost desperate looking. The women appear obsessed with sustaining an alternative illusion of sophistication, wealth and poise (Moorhouse, 2019). Society Portraits are an excellent example of Sherman's open-to-interpretation narrative creating illusions of truth and realism dressed up under sociocultural expectations of self-presentation (Gibson, 2018; Entwistle, 2000).

Author Virginia Woolf also paints a subjective experience of the world. Mrs Dalloway (1925) reflects the social pressures on society hostesses. For example, in Mrs Dalloway, Clarissa's mirror reflection fixes her body's surface as she prepares to play the role of the extraordinary hostess (O'Conner, 2022).

Additionally, Gaines and Herzon 1990 describe how we are trained in clothes from an early age, becoming aware of gendered presentational postures. At the same time, one learns to carry the mirror's eye within the mind, as though one might at any moment be photographed (Buckely and Clark, 2012), with the feeling of ‘imagining a thousand eyes on the skin’ (Simpson, 2022, p. 77).

Furthermore, the meaning and experience of clothing also embody the realness of cloth being a second skin. For example, Entwistle, 2000 suggests we do not experience our jeans this way, hinting that the "normal" experience of dress and its relationship to the body is arguably an extension of the body akin to being a second skin.

Findings and Future Research

Future research on the embodiment of the body and age from a female perspective (Entwistle, 2000) would be valuable alongside a more robust understanding of visual language (Karlssona and Ramasar, 2020; Gibson, 2018; Mitchell, 2017; Johnson, 1994; Buckley and Clark, 2012). Interpreting visual language can aid as a vital resource as a 'universal language' (Mitchell, 2017) to better understand the globalisation of cultures and the everydayness of dress codes. (Buckley and Clark, 2012). Particularly within the autonomy of dress and the uniformity based on social structures and the lived experience of space and time within different environments. For example, the uniformity of undergraduate students' dress code (O' Conner 2022). Alternatively, immigrants' motives in buying perceived culturally appropriate clothing as the quickest way to feel they fit into a new society and environment (O' Conner 2022). As Derrida, 1976 suggests, clothing is a form of communication delivering 'maps of meaning' by imagining who we are to ourselves and others. This means dress speaks to us through style as people strive to present an idealisation of self-representation to the world (O'Connor, 2022).

Pragmatism versus Phenomenology

Finally, understanding the philosophical stance depends on the outcome to determine better what philosophical expression fits like a glove. For example, if it were to focus on improving the lives of garment workers with action for social change through the lens of transformative consumer culture, a more pragmatist approach would fit the design method. However, when focusing on the embodiment of dress, self and the meaning of clothing in everyday lives fits within a feminist hermeneutic phenomenological paradigm. Particularly within visual language as a communication system. With the benefit of bringing to light and reflecting upon everyday experiences.

This leads back to why visual participatory research methods fit well with experimenting and interpreting who we are through the embodiment of dress and self. To interpret, describe and analyse "why women wear what they wear "(Woodward, 2007) through the worldview of the phenomenology of perception.


I initially assumed that my research would have a pragmatist bias based on personally identifying with the paradigm worldview regarding my research objectives. Alongside the readings of Mead, Pierce, James and Dewey and Barbara Simpson (2022), Doing Process Research in Organisations: Noticing Differently. Where 'the movement of colour is visual and spatial - one might say its shimmering is atmospheric - before it is linguistic' (Simpson, 2022, p.193).

However, the literature review recognised that although there are similarities, notably experience and flow, the only constant is always in motion. Therefore, it was unavoidable not to conclude that my research objectives fit well within the paradigm of phenomenology, with pragmatism being the second paradigm. As embodiment and phenomenology of perceptions are:

"how we are…our manner of being…the context for which we feel, we

relate, we think, for which we perceive the world and for which we take action."

(Abigail and Walsh, 2022),

Therefore, the potential flexibilities that phenomenology offers within the remit of the embodiment of dress and self, alongside the meaning of clothes, have a solid philosophical underpinning within the paradigm of phenomenology. With a secondary paradigm of pragmatism as part of the design method in a continuously morphing world (Simpson, 2022) while remaining mindful of change and fluidity in understanding human experience with a delicate balance between empathy and logic.


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