Fashion Theory: Clothing and academic study

As a child, I loved clothing. As a teenager, I became obsessed with fashion and its magazines. By the time I left university, my obsession was fading and my disillusionment with women’s magazines in general led me to discover a number of splendid feminist websites, pushing my love of fashion aside. By the time I decided to book a style consultation in 2009, I had begun to realise that fashion and feminism were not mutually exclusive interests, but I still continued to dismiss my interest in clothing as a somewhat superficial indulgence. The things is… it doesn’t have to be.

Since I enrolled on the MA History and Culture of Fashion at London College of Fashion, I’ve learnt so many reasons why fashion “deserves” to be studied and isn’t just frivolous nonsense. Studying garments can tell us a lot about the people who wear them and the culture they live in. Clothing is more than just a way of fitting in and showing that you are aware of the latest trends, it can also be used to signify class, gender, age or occupation. Fashion can be used to express identity and to differentiate subcultures and modern “tribes”. Fashion has now become much more than what is en vogue. As the Wikipedia entry on fashion states:

The more technical term, “costume,” has become so linked in the public eye with the term “fashion” that the more general term “costume” has in popular use mostly been relegated to special senses like fancy dress or masquerade wear, while the term “fashion” means clothing generally, and the study of it.

150 Years of The Tube (Image via

Studying the history of fashion has been frowned upon until relatively recently. High culture was all that was considered worthy of academic study until cultural studies came along in the 1960s and taught us that the everyday and the seemingly mundane were of interest too. It wasn’t until the 1990s, however, that fashion became considered a worthy topic for academic research. This is strange when you realise just how much fashion can tell us about the past, individuals and their cultures. Fashion touches us all – fashionable or not.

Everyone has stories to tell, based on items from their wardrobe. Clothing reminds us of times, places, and the people who we knew who wore similar styles. I showed my parents a couple of my vintage dresses, assuming that only my mother would be interested, but both had memories sparked by the garments. A 1950s full-skirted dress reminded my mum of clothing her older sister used to wear, while the 1970s halterneck maxi-dress reminded my dad of… my mum! They married in 1972 and I could see that just looking at the dress took him back in time to when they first met. In the posters for the 150th anniversary of the Tube, Transport for London have exploited this ‘time capsule’ effect that clothing can have. They show figures in a selection of outfits that perfectly encapsulate an era of London Underground’s history. Everyone can relate to this – not just fashion students, or Vogue readers.

Although fashion is worn by all genders, I currently have a specific interest in its use by and effect on women. Iris Marion Young’s essay “Women Recovering Our Clothes” in On Fashion by Shari Benstock and Suzanne Ferriss (eds) was a particularly interesting read in this regard. She has a beautiful way of explaining how much our clothes mean to us.

Women often have stories to tell about their clothes – and even more about their jewelry – that connect these items they wear to other women who once wore them, and we often bond with one another by sharing these stories. Often we share the clothes themselves. Girls often establish relations of intimacy by exchanging clothes; sisters and roommates raid each other’s closets, sometimes unpermitted; daughters’ feet clomp around in their mother’s shoes. I love my sweater, and in letting you wear it you wear an aspect of me, but I do not possess it, since you can wear it. Or I go into a fit of rage upon discovering that you have gone out in my favourite blouse, for in doing so you have presumed to take my place. As the clothes flow among us, so do our identities; we do not keep hold of ourselves, but share. (p205-206)

My favourite quote is perhaps this one from the end of the essay…

It may not be possible to extricate the liberating and valuable in women’s experience of clothes from the exploitative and oppressive, but there is reason to try. We can speak of the touch and the bonding that move in the shadows, hidden from the light of the phallocentric gaze, and criticise the capitalist imperialist fantasties even as we make up our own. (p209)

There is reason to try. I shall bear that in mind if I start to believe that my research isn’t worth it, or if I start to doubt just how feminist my subject can be if I choose. My first essay for my MA course brought together a number of themes that I write about on this blog – lingerie, sexuality, gender, and a splash of feminism. I’m pretty sure I can keep this up for another two years, as clothing is present in so many aspects of our lives that I suspect it would be impossible to fail to find something of interest.

2 thoughts on “Fashion Theory: Clothing and academic study

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    1. Thank you very much! I don’t have a way to subscribe at the moment, but I’ll definitely look into that now 🙂

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