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Essay: Exploring Power Struggles and Biopower Through Dress and Fashion in the Twentieth Century

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The last few decades of the twentieth century saw an increasing obsession in the presentation and ornamentation of the human body in the search for beauty, decoration and stylistic glamour. People became growingly preoccupied with their bodies and new books promoted their own perspectives on the body. Foucault drew attention to the non biological view of the body, that is to the complex relationship between the body and power, and what he came to call “biopower”, and “body history” has  become the “historiographical dish of the day”. Foucault maintained that power did not solely derive from political and social institutions, but that body has also been disciplined, such as with timetables or with practices around dress, that make the body more amenable to productivity and social order. Dress and fashion is linked to how we describe and define ourselves and how others see this; for this reason it has been called a “second skin”. The semiology Barthes argued that historical and sociological research cannot truly investigate dress, but by examining the history of dress it shows how dress has been used to subjugate and repress. This was the case with the Maasai in 1960s Tanzania where they were forced to abandon their traditional mode of dress. Changes in dress can also be linked to people crafting a new social identity, such as in pre-revolutionary Russia, or the emancipation of women who were forced to wear restricting garments which prolonged their objectification. This paper attempts to show that this was the case as

Giving up a way of dressing or a particular item of clothing, can both be associated with the emancipation and Preadating Foucault, Mauss uses the phrase “techniques of the body” by which he means “ways in which from society to society men know how to use their bodies”. Mauss explains that some procedures we think are normal and inherent, for instance lying down when sleeping with maybe a pillow and a cover, is in fact no more normal than sleeping in other positions- the Masai can sleep standing up. This is due to each society having its own habits, which we imitate from other individuals, and when we imitate actions this contains both a biological and psychological element. Thus, these ‘techniques of the body” are socially determined and vary from society to society.

Similarly, Butler proposes, rightly so, that sex is immutable, while gender is changeable. This is due to gender being a kind of performance, and so is something that we do, rather than what is. Sex and gender then are two separate entities. People perform their gender, so a woman might adhere to the socially constructed norm and this performance is repeated. An example of this may be,  a woman not approaching a man in a bar because she is socially conditioned to believe that women should not approach men first. Gender is a discourse then; fluid and being reestablished. In contrast, sex are the biological traits that are assigned to men and women, so when Butler uses the phrase, ‘bodies that matter”, she means that what really matters about the body is its intelligibility.

Warnier offers a critique of Mauss’ theory, as Mauss does not engage with techniques that include the use of material objects. Mauss writes that he does not understand a how a woman walks in high heeled shoes, but for Warnier this is because the shoes are integrated with her motricity, so she is a woman-with-high heels. Warnier also maintains that it is extremely rare that “techniques of the body” do not include a material object, but presently studies of the body are divorced from the studies of material culture, giving the example of separate journals dedicated to the body and to material culture. This does seem strange as when an individual walks into town, we expect them to be wearing clothes and shoes, and the type of clothes or shoes they have on will affect their “techniques of the body”. For instance, it is very different experience walking down a cobbled street wearing trainers or heels. Foucault too did not fully explore how material culture, like clothes and fashions, reach and act upon individuals. Warnier contends that too often when material culture is considered, it is analysed on what it means for the individual, than what it does to the individual.

Analysis of fashion and dress shows that it is linked to ‘biopower”. Thorstein Veblen, an American economist and sociologist in the late nineteenth century, was one of the first to analyse the impact of dress and contended that it is is the best indication of social standing to spectators at first glance. This is because people from all social classes will all spend money on dress for the sake of a respectable appearance, as the “sense of shabbiness” is intensely felt if it does not meet the socially accepted standards. Clothing expresses, produces and maintains the social hierarchy, both between the classes as well as between men and women. An unequal power balance is shown as while men’s dress is functional, and the functionality means he can work, a woman is the ‘ornament’ of the household. For the aristocracy wealth is signalled by the clothing showing conspicuous consumption, that is consumption of goods in a greater quantity or higher quality than practically necessary so that it draws attention to the person. For the aristocracy it was also necessary for the clothing to show conspicuous leisure and conspicuous waste, which means that clothing must also be up to date so as to show wastefulness, while also intrinsically more attractive than the styles that preceded it, so that it is novel to the consumer .

In the nineteenth century, women were redefined as innocent and weak, and physical delicateness and fragility were to be admired, meaning that the more physically incapable a woman looked, the higher the presumed status. Fashions were made to emphasis a woman’s fragility, which explains the wearing of a corset or a pair of heels as they rendered the woman unfit to work, an ‘ornament’, by lowering the woman’s physical ability: it showed that the woman is able to consume but consume without producing. In doing so it can be argued that it prolonged the objectification and oppression of women. The wearing of heels, hats, or even a man holding a ceremonial sword, were all linked to power as it made the figure more imposing by extending the reach of the body. In the 1890s it was also fashionable to wear a tight, high collar that elevated the chin, which both helped conceal a double chin that was often common for voluptuous late Victorian women, as well as tilt the chin at an angle that indicated pride, and making it difficult to look down at people of a lower class. Contrastingly, women in the Pre-Raphaelite circle tended to promote the alternative of a looser waistline, so called ‘healthy’ artistic dress, to subvert and question women’s position in society. These unconventional fashion trends started to become associated with women’s rights as the looser clothing allowed for a freer lifestyle and more agency for the women. It has been argued that it was WWI that liberated women from conspicuous consumption in fashion as they now had to wear clothing suitable to work in. Thus, the emancipation of women was tied to more physically liberating clothing that allowed the wearer to work with greater ease.

Lippert posits that dress and fashion play a communicative part within society in regard to status. Rulers of societies used limitations on dress to preserve their desired social order, just as the mass media may be controlled to achieve political ends. This is illustrated in sixteenth and seventeenth century England, were the crown regulated the consumption of clothing so that Englishmen would be content “with the sort of clothing which agrees to their sex and condition, not striving to exceed and equal that of a higher rank”. This stemmed from the fact that the new elites, like the increasingly wealthy merchant class, were dressing higher than their rank which caused confusion as it endangered the social order and the established aristocracy’s cultural precedence. Contemporaries at that time argued that clothes are ‘like the sign over the door, which tell a man what kind of shop and mind there is within”. Effeminacy then, was defined as dressing higher than your social rank, while masculinity was defined as dressing appropriately for your station. High status warranted the use of expensive fabrics, and this was a sign of bravery, but expensive fabrics did not create high status, in fact this was just a display of vanity. To combat this problem, the crown issued the 1532-33 Sumptuary Law which imposed strict regulations on what each rank could wear, so no one other than the king, queen  and the king’s mother could wear silk of purple or cloth of gold. The monarch was to set a sartorial example for the nation, not for people to emulate their dress, but for people to dress appropriately for their station. The corporeal turn increases our knowledge and understanding of how methods of control and domination were exerted upon the body for political ends.  It is not surprising that lower down members of society, such as merchants, sought to emulate the crown as according to Kant fashion is a mode of imitation and it is natural to imitate a “more important person”. The crown censuring how people dress is a form of subjugation and has a profound effect on people’s actions and gestures. This is because clothing is linked to social identity, but in the long term these censures proved hard to enforce as trade and technology meant that different types of materials became more available to the masses. In the short term however, imposing regulations on what people could wear played an stability of their rule, as well as the governing of the nation due to it creating reverence, deference and awe for the crown and court.

Similarly, the invention of the three piece suit was a result of a cultural crisis that shook England’s social, political, economic and moral fabric in the seventeenth century. Religious critics condemned the court’s luxury fashion and called for a show of modesty; economic critics criticised the consumption of effeminate imports, such as silk, and promoted the use of English wool; and political critics saw conformity to fashion trends as opposing traditional liberties. The three piece suit was designed to tackle political instability by creating a new aesthetic for the nobility that promoted values such as modesty and thrifting. This was because sartorial instability was equated with political instability. Charles II adopted the three piece suit so that he could reassert his political legitimacy, while also deflecting criticisms that he was an effeminate fop. The use of English wool for the suits, was associated with masculinity and “good husbandry”, and the clean, simple lines was seen as embodying republican virtues. Previously, luxury fabrics had symbolised power, now it was modesty. Charles II maintained that this style would not altar, but once political stability was regained, the crown and court went back to its effeminate and luxurious ways. The return to lavish fashions, meant that the court was once again associated with vice, debauchery and sexual intrigue. The court justified this by arguing that conspicuous consumption was an “innocent delight”, but in under twenty years it this “innocent delight” that disgraced the court. Changes in modes of dress can be seen as representative of a changing political scene, as now the crown and court managed their sartorial image by appealing to republican sensibilities. It is interesting that the use of English wool and muted colours carried connotations of masculinity, due to its functionality, whereas effeminate and foreign styles were soon equated with corrupt morality, lacking masculine authority, triviality and impoliteness. A shortcoming of Kutcha is that he does not fully use personal testimony, which might have led to a greater understanding on how the sartorial change affect perceptions of self image. Further, although his history of the three piece suit reveals how political and economic controversies were along gendered lines, his study could have been improved if he considered how debates around effeminacy and masculinity were also linked to debates around youth and maturity.

Hallstead-Dabrove explains that in Buenos Aires (1862-1880), male writers started using vocabulary that linked fashion consumption to the nation’s moral decay, comparing it to diseases such as ‘gangrene’, ‘cancer’ and ‘mania’. Linking fashion consumption to diseases that devour the body from inside out, like cancer, or outside in, like gangrene, can be interpreted as a metaphor for the moral corruption of the national body. Using articles from fashion magazines, creative nonfiction, literary weeklys, Hallstead-Dabrove charts how concerns over the increased production of consumer goods, like clothing, to lower class women was obscuring the divisions between the gente decente and the gente de pueblo. After the fall of Rosas women of all classes started to expand into the public sphere, which was helped by the newly built department stores that allowed women to socialise outside the perimeters of the home. This challenged the purity of domestic life as it placed women outside the control of their husband, while also exposing women to the ‘contagion’ of darker skinned immigrants. Fashion writers compared fashion consumption to prostitution as both placed women at the risk of contamination, the real contamination of venereal diseases, or the metaphorical contamination from fashion consumption. Both were also linked to concerns over public exhibition as while  a prostitute displays her goods, the department stores displays the latest trends, and perhaps more importantly, was that both were perceived to be linked to uncontrollable desire or sexuality. It was this desire and the intermingling of races that caused concerns over health problems and diseases. Comparing Buenos Aires and the nation as a whole to a diseased and corrupted body that is in need of medical attention was not altogether untrue as the city had suffered from cholera and yellow fever epidemics, but by extending the use to fashion magazines these diseases penetrated the realm of a bourgois home. Fashion writers even discussed the role of clothing in maintaining proper hygiene for women, and advised against certain fabrics or fashions as they saw them detrimental to women’s health. However, it is also evident that it represented an attempt to police and discipline how a woman showed her body and acted in public.

Ruane charts how Peter the Great sought to modernise Russia, rather than typically looking at changes in political and economic systems, she examines how Peter ushered in a genuine cultural revolution by making European fashions the dress code of business and politics. Peter believed that Western culture and technology to be superior, and to show support the Muscovy abandoned their loose fitting Russian attire, for the fitted fashions of the West, seeing themselves as progressives fighting against superstition, backwardness and ignorance. With this, or perhaps helped by this, there was greater freedom of social interactions between men and women, so now they danced, gossiped and played cards together. During the 1930s two groups had emerged, the Westernizers and the Slavophiles, who signalled their political outlook by their mode of dress. While the Westernizers continued to adopt Western clothing, and thought that modernising should benefit all classes, the Slavophiles, dressed in traditional ethnic dress, argued that Russia needed to realise its own identity and emphasised qualities that made Russia a unique and distinct nation. By the 1850s-60s, dress had become part of political protest, with the Nihilists choosing simple clothes, as they now associated the elaborate government uniforms with political, moral and economic corruption. Elite women also adopted the simpler and more functional dress to demand the opportunities, rights and responsibilities as men. The process of diffusion and emulation soon trickled down to the newly emancipated peasantry that gave up their previous identity of a serf with the help of cheap, mass produced copies of French fashion, so turning themselves into a citizen. This shocked the government as the peasants had symbolised the backward, but romanticised preservers of Russian ethnicity. In 1803 it was apparent that the cultural shift had gone full circle when Nicholas II staged a ball, wearing Tsar Aleksei’s robes, while members of the court wore Muscovite dress. However, it was nothing more than a costume ball as they could no longer wear Russian ethnic dress and make it look authentic. This was preserved for the peasants, but even the peasants wore ready to wear clothing. The ball was in accord with Nicholas’ belief that autocracy was the only way to govern Russia, but by now the populace were no longer willing to accept this, and had fashioned a new image for themselves as citizens rather than subjects. The clothed body then, was the site of a complex redefining of Russian identity due to the influx of Western and mass produced clothing that enabled people to construct a new identity for themselves. Cheap, mass produced clothing also showed the extent at which technology impacted people’s lives as before it would have been impossible for the peasants to purchase copies of French fashion. Thus, from Peter the Great’s cultural reforms, the nation was unstitched and remade but in way that Peter would almost certainly have failed to recognise. The new Western fashions then, impacted and reflected the changing social, political and economic dynamics of pre-revolutionary Russia, meaning that when Nicholas sought to reintroduce past politics it looked like a ‘costume’.

‘Operation Dress-Up’ was highly contentious as it sought to make the Tanzanian Maasai wear ‘modern’ clothing, that is Western clothing and abandon their traditional mode of dress which was nothing more than a “dirty sheet or a meagre yard of cloth which exhibits your buttocks”. This was done under the context of ‘development’, and the partisan perception of what constitutes a modern citizen. The campaign was portrayed to be anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist, but because it was based upon distinctly Western notions of what modernity should resemble, it othered the traditional Maasai man. Studying how the Tanzanian government legislated the wearing of Westernised clothing for the Maasai, reveals how the government pursued development and modernity in post-colonial Tanzania. Interestingly, it was the native Tanzanian government that forced the Maasai to wear these modern clothes, like trousers and shorts, but it was done to overcome the colonial past of domination, oppression and paternalism, which in turn legitmised new forms of coercion and paternalism. ‘Operation Dress-Up’ had its roots in the supposedly objective and rational concerns over public health, hygiene and the eradication of poverty, and legitmised their actions against the Maasai on the grounds that their clothing was in opposition to sanitary, hygienic and scientific practices. Thus the government banned the traditional use of red ochre paint and denied “improperly” dressed Maasai access to medical care, transport and bars. The historical ‘turn to the body’ reveals that equating hygienic practices with modernity is a common theme, as it was also evident in colonial India when the British tried to sanitise the Indians, stereotypically perceiving them to be unhygienic, diseased and unhealthy. It also shows that it was based upon Western notions of sanitary and hygiene practices, as when the Maasai smeared their bodies with red ochre it was to avoid lice. Making the Maasai wear Westernised clothing was not an attempt to make them more ‘fashionable’ as such, but in discourse it is relatively common for non-Western clothing to be described as ‘costume’. This is due to non-Western dress being seen as traditional, and therefore backward, static and connected to group identity and membership. When the Maasai shed their traditional clothes they also shed their past, and for the Tanzanian elite this was good, as for them the Maasai symbolised everything they were trying to leave behind- their savage and primitive past. In doing so, it allowed the Tanzanians to participate in a global iconographic system which, ultimately, they could not escape. Changing the image of the Maasai then, carried political implications as it was important that Tanzania was seen as a modern and respectable nation so that they could secure Maasai land rights.

Similarly, in French ruled Africa, they sought to civilise the African population by moving them away from their traditional dress to the more ‘modern’ and ‘cultured’ Western clothing. French writers in the early twentieth century wrote that Africa was “completely isolated from the civilised world…completely ignorant of the evolution of modern life”, while describing how “savage women [were] adorned with gris-gris”. Rovine draws upon, what Barthes has named “written clothing”, that is, clothing names, fashion journalism, advertisements, as well as analysis of clothing to examine the strategies of how French fashion and textile designers repurposed, and sometimes invented African-style clothing for the changing markets. For a long time clothing has been an important means of negotiating points of similarity and difference between cultures. Rovine points out that the terms ‘African’ and ‘Western’ dress more reflects conventions than reality, giving the example of in Herero in Botswana were the ‘traditional’ women’s dress is actually based upon eighteenth century German clothing. Dress then, can be a cultural exchange between Africa and the West, while also acquiring a new social meanings and articulating the new visual language of the adoptive country. Colonial ruled nations adopted, willingly or not, Western clothing, but Western nations also refashioned clothing from their colonies. Investigating the convergence of France’s colonial rule and fashion production shows that the “web of meanings and the exchanges of forms on the Western side of this interaction were as complex, and as impossible to control, as they were in Africa”. In 1920s and 1930s France, French fashion was clearly linked to the colonial endeavour, with one article in the 1931 colonial exposition stating that “an infusion of exoticism is constantly necessary for our old West; our civilisation tries to rejuvenate itself by plunging into a bath of primitive life”. Designers drew upon features of this “primitive” Africa dress; adapting patterns, garment types, textiles and jewelry into their work. Fashion designers continue to reference African work and dress, but it is only recently that African designers have started participating in the international fashion markets. Even when African designers do, some tend to avoid their cultural ancestry until they have become established designers in the fear of being stereotyped. Although Rovine’s discussion is not a body-centred history, it shows how fashion design provides, subtle, yet important, insights into the cultural construction of an ‘othered’ Africa, and how dress was used as a tool for imaging a community and then defining its traditions and identities. A discrepancy exists in the way African textile design and creative expression was absorbed by the French, yet at the same time they sought to distance themselves from these deplorably “primitive” cultures.

To conclude, the turn to the body has revealed how dress is linked to power and has been used to subjugate, emancipate and refashion national identities. Analysing dress is important as the clothed body expresses how people relate to the world by their physical appearance and aesthetic, as dress and particular clothing has acquired complex meanings and social significance. Consumption of clothing can disclose one’s social standing, but due to advances in technology people’s consumption of clothing  has both homogenised and diversified as now nearly all clothes are mass produced, but there is also a greater variety of styles to purchase. Restricting what people wear also restricts people’s expression of themselves, as well as they way they are  treated by others. Historically, concerns over dress and use of fabrics have been linked to moral corruption, which at times has caused a refashioning of dress to typically more somber clothing to express opposition to this.  In this way then the clothed body has been used to define both personal and political identity.

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