The Fabric of Society: an Investigation of the Emotional and Sensory Experience of Wearing Denim Clothing

by Fiona Jane Candy
University of Central Lancashire

Sociological Research Online, Volume 10, Issue 1,

Received: 28 Jul 2004     Accepted: 1 Mar 2005    Published: 31 Mar 2005


This article aims to open up the realms of sensory experience and affect in connection with the wearing of clothing. By creating a visual focus on denim, an 'ordinary' everyday style of generic urban dress, my intention is to present a new approach to the study of clothing in general. This approach is concerned with the study of the clothed body and the experiences of wearers, rather than as fashion, which tends to take up only the onlooker's viewpoint. This article intends to establish the need for such an approach, to stimulate the reader's sensibilities in relevant ways and to report on path finding experiments that indicate ways forward for future work.

Keywords: Affect, Body, Denim, Design, Dress, Emotion, Experience, Movement, Self, Sensory, Social, Style


1.1 I am a fashion and textiles designer. My commercial experience has been gained designing for the mass market and for my own label. Lately however, my interest has shifted towards the wider topic of identity, and in particular to the ways that people express emotion and sociality through their clothing. I am interested in dress and its impact on personal appearance but also in how it affects feelings and self-expression through interaction with the body. I hope to better understand clothing's influence on the way we feel alive.

1.2 This paper aims to open up the realms of sensory experience and affect in connection with the wearing of clothing. I intend to show that contrary to widely held views created by the twentieth century's construct of fashion and their re-enforcement by established approaches in semiotics and in Western ontology, that this is a complex, interdisciplinary, field of engagement for research.

1.3 My work as a designer has brought a sharp interest in action research and in tools and empirical methods that encompass the visual as normal practice. During 2002 I became aware of the remarkable ubiquity of denim wearing in the UK and that this could provide a strong and definable focus where relevant research methods could be trialled. I aim in this paper to demonstrate the relevance of visual methods as a viable means of exploring clothing's affecting relationship with the body. I will deal with methods of documentary and record like photography and video, but also interpretive methods of representation like drawing, which each have the potential to illustrate and convey our clothing as lived garments. Any exploration of relationships between the body, clothing and sociality will necessarily encounter tensions between objectivity and subjectivity. But in such a context visual imagery provides objective sources of representation that can nonetheless remain open to individual interpretation and I hope to show how visual approaches can permit, or even encourage others to contribute.

1.4 Key themes in this paper relate directly to design practice but also to other forums of social observation and analysis. I want to consider the following interrelated questions. In what ways does dressing in and wearing clothing style affect experience of the body and how it can be used? How does a mass clothing style like denim, influence emotion and identity? What reasons beyond those of 'fashion' can account for denim's extraordinary longevity? Consideration of these questions will necessitate some deliberation on the various theoretical interpretations of fashion clothing, and I will attempt to convey this from the viewpoint of my own evolution of research context.

1.5 However, by creating a visual focus on denim, an 'ordinary' everyday style of generic urban dress, my intention is to present a new approach to the study of clothing in general. This paper intends to establish the need for such an approach, to stimulate the reader's sensibilities in relevant ways and to report on initial path finding experiments that indicate ways forward for future work. I propose that if contextualised beyond 'fashion' (or where fashion is only one aspect of its study), clothing and dress offers a site from which to gain empathy for the lives of others, through a vital engagement with the emotionally charged experiences that are derived through our minds and our bodies.

150 Years of Wearing Denim

2.1 In 1860, Levi Strauss & Co added 9 oz 'serge de Nimes' to its production. The fabric, which was intended for the manufacture of waist high overalls, later became known as 'denim' and has since emerged as the most influential fabric and clothing style of the 20th century. At first worn as functional protection, then as a nostalgic national symbol, taken up as a sign of rebellion and later as an icon of a modern lifestyle, its history spans that of the Euro-American industrialisation and globalisation periods. The 20th century's many fashion cults found subtly different ways to incorporate it into their means of expression, and today it is worn throughout the world by men, women and children. Denim clothing was originally developed to be tough and durable for heavy physical work and yet incredibly, its intrinsic appearance remains almost unchanged 150 years later. It is the nature of 'work' and the workings of society that have changed so radically in this time.

2.2 During 2002 - 2004, denim wearing in UK cities reached new extremes of ubiquity: worn by the fashionable and the unfashionable, right across social and cultural boundaries. In spite of anxious forecasts in the late 1990's that the global denim industry was in serious trouble, UK sales of jeans topped 62 million pairs in 2003 and made an estimated 1,137m at retail [1]. Yet paradoxically, denim's popular image continues to be of individuality and of personal qualities. I felt that the combination of the very 'ordinariness' of this style of clothing, combined with its cultural complexity brought a special and timely opportunity for research.

2.3 My broad interest in denim lies in its affecting qualities as everyday mass clothing i.e. in both the cloth and its use as jeans clothing style, as I believe the two are difficult to separate. But it is the distinctive materiality of denim trousers, the erstwhile waist overalls, now called blue jeans, that is of central consequence to this paper. As I have already indicated I intend to differentiate my interest from that of 'fashion', particularly in terms of academic discipline as it is possible that the high fashion connotations of denim have meant that it has not been the subject of live cultural investigation until now.

2.4 In order to investigate the particularity of this mass clothing style it is useful to look at the wider panorama of dress and society. The next section aims to examine how the meanings of fashion clothing have been interpreted in popular and academic discourse to date and the ways these have influenced our collective understanding of dress and also my own views and sensibilities.

Fashion and Reality


3.1 An important component of my shift of research discipline has been a growing awareness that fashion has been constructed and recorded in a certain narrow light by theorists and historians. On the whole, their work has concentrated on the creators and arbiters of fashion and their moments in time, on the so called 'trickle down system', rather than on wearers and the ways that people use (or don't use) the fashion commodities offered in the market place. Entwistle has argued that the everyday experience of people's daily dress should be recognised in academic studies of fashion and that connections need to be made between production and consumption (Entwistle, 2000). Breward criticises the biased attention by history on the "autocratic" role of the designer in "dictating" trends, as it is clear that the life of a garment does not end at the moment of purchase (Breward, 2003). He articulates his concern that only relatively few have paid serious attention to consumers' everyday clothing practices but concedes that 'this is a field of research pitted with methodological difficulties' (Breward, 2003). I assume he is referring to the essentially ephemeral nature of fashion that makes it hard to study effectively in the field. However in response to this concern over the difficulties of method, I suggest that it has been the self-fulfilling, pre-emptive way that the fashion system has developed that has precluded any recognition that such methodology might even be necessary. It has been the temporality of knowledge that has commanded respect in the scholarly construction and deconstruction of the fashion system, not fashion's ephemeral material qualities or their effects on users.

Fashion Ideas

3.2 Students of fashion practice are introduced to the ancestry and craft of the garment artisan through the potent symbolism of the mannequin, the tailor's dummy. It is both the icon and the tool of their trade, their means to convert imagination into reality. This useful but mute, inanimate, headless, torso now 'speaks' volumes to me of the way that fashion designers learn to think. With hindsight, as a fashion designer and tutor myself, I thought of garment design much more as a means of making 'hollow sculptures' to be seen in, than in the way I begin to see it from my newly found perspective. I am not critical of the human sculpture approach per se, it has created many beautiful garments, but I am aware of how little is yet formally understood within the synergist disciplines of fashion practice and theory of the phenomenology of silhouette, fit, or volume of cloth for instance. There are some exceptions and many design practitioners have worked towards making clothing easier to wear and to care for, but unlike other areas of contemporary industrial design, fashion designers rarely ask people about how they want to use and wear designed garments: how they want to feel or look. On the whole, success is assumed by sales and by correlation with fashion's canon. But clothing plays a vital role in the ways that individuals relate to the world and to each other and this implies that designers have responsibilities beyond personal creativity and making commerce and should now consider the possibilities of methods that can enrich their approach. The potential impetus of new methods may be particularly rewarding for designers at a time when the twentieth century's fashion paradigm appears to have reached the end of its cycle of cycles, having relied for too long simply on reinventions of the past.

Fashion and Ontology

3.3 Enforcing the tendency to exclude the individual feelings of users from fashion analysis have been the ways in which the meanings of clothing are fundamentally linked to wider understandings of the relationship between the outer surface and theories of personhood. The Western ontology venerates depth and divides the intangible self located deep within, from the relatively inconsequential, contrived and transient outer surface. As a result, discourse relating to fashion and clothing has been generally seen as superficial and unimportant, where clothing is valued only as material objects situated at the margins of the body. This is particularly evident in the popular press in the UK, where journalists seek out the most extreme outfits for their front page 'what ever next' exclamations that will reaffirm the superficiality of fashion. Unfortunately perhaps, catwalk designers often implement rather dubious although tongue in cheek strategies to out do each other and get the coverage. No wonder many people are bemused by any possibility of their own relationship with some of the more adventurous happenings on catwalks.

3.4 But we cannot assume that the Western philosophy of depth and self will apply within other societies, or for that matter that it is unchanging in our own. Miller tells us that Trinidadians for instance, see things very differently. His ethnography has shown that what many Trinidadians regard as real, the real person, is considered to be on the surface (Miller, 1999). In Trinidad people believe that it is the outside of the person that offers the most reliable opportunity to honestly appraise them, to find out about other people's values. In contrast the inside, held deep within, is hidden from public scrutiny and so seen to be potentially false, a site of lies and self deception. Miller guides us to understand that for Trinidadians, clothing is the very best way to find out who and what a person is about and this is the case both for others viewing the wearer 'and even for oneself, since it is through dressing that one confronts who one is, and reveals how certain self-representations and pretensions are really delusions' (Miller, in press).

3.5 Western society seems rather mixed up about this. Within formal discourse adornment of the body's surface has been considered shallow and yet fashion is now firmly established as a mass rather than an elite practice and considered to be a fundamental aspect of modernity.

Fashion and Semiotics

3.6 Fashionable clothing has been widely explained as a culturally communicative phenomenon by many authors, and it is now generally understood that we each make daily decisions regarding the social status and role of people we meet, based on what they are wearing. Many 20th century commentators e.g. Simmel (1971), Veblen (1970), and particularly Barthes (1983), adopted a predominantly semiotic or textual approach by interpreting fashion as a symbolic activity relating to the outward display of social and taste distinctions. These influential modernist observers saw it as a symbolic game; a constant cycle of change where styles are taken up and abandoned as soon as they no longer clearly express the social identity of the wearer.

3.7 Since then others, like Lurie (1992), have proposed clothing as a language with a culturally determined grammar and vocabulary. Lurie's very interesting work is illustrated with style images and 'readings' of what people's clothing 'says' to the onlooker. But there is little attempt to consider the inner experiences of wearers, these are presumed to concur with the external signifiers. Amongst Lurie's renditions of the meanings of clothing (1992), she deciphers garment combinations that are made up of an inner and outer layer as a possible metaphor for inner and outer self and seems at first to be hinting at a more intimate form of meaning. Referring to the clothing style of the business professional she writes: 'the wearing of a white shirt with a dark suit does not mean that you are outwardly serious and inwardly honest and trustworthy, merely that this character type has always been considered desirable in business and the professions.' This is rather confusing. Reference here to the moral values symbolised by the businessman's outfit may imply a connection between a wearer's inner senses and their signifying appearance, but it is not developed in her account. Indeed she seems to simultaneously suggest and deny the possibility. More importantly, there is no mention of the kinesiology of dressing, or of the somatic or haptic sensations of entering, fastening and wearing (in this case) a white shirt: like stretching out each arm in turn, buttoning down from the neck, feeling fresh or clean or a sense of personal renewal. Nor is there reference to the routine of washing and ironing or the associated anxieties that relate to keeping a shirt clean and white while it is being worn. But these experiences are important aspects of the materiality of a white shirt and its affecting interplay with the body, the mind, the tailored suit and the social world beyond.

3.8 Other fashion theorists have found ways to account for the emergence of multiple meanings and ambiguity during the post-modern period. Barnard (1996) draws together the work of several authors in consideration of the 'undecidability' of the meaning of stiletto-heeled shoes as an example. He explains that 'the stiletto is constituted intertextually, in that it is the object of medical, moral, fashionable and industrial or technological discourses.' In other words, that the meaning of an object is produced in terms of its relations to other objects and in terms of its place in various texts or discourses. But yet again it is remarkable that the corporeal sensations or personal emotions of actually wearing stilettos are not discussed. What of the bodily experience stimulated by the redistribution of the stiletto's wearer's weight? Or of the attention to self produced by the personal timpani made by such heels on wood, tarmac, cobblestone or escalator? Barnard does refer to the change of posture created by stilettos, where the chest is thrust higher and the stomach pulled in to create a different female shape, but this effect on the body is acknowledged only from the viewpoint of an observer. There is an all pervading sense in this explanation, as in much writing about fashion that both the garment and the person wearing it can only be discussed from a distance, as though they exist in a book to be 'read' or only to be looked at.

3.9 It has been argued by many artists and designers, that an essentially hermeneutic view that considers our reality as a text that we are constantly in the process of interpreting, has enforced a sense that the meanings evoked by a designed object are located predominantly outside of the self (Aldrich, 2004). We tend to believe that objects are meaningful only by way of reference beyond themselves towards other things. This stimulates a concern that the world of designed objects risks becoming separated from the world of people and that ultimately an understanding of what makes up our existence as a lived reality may become impoverished. By interpreting dress only as overt graphic communication, as outfits that perform a kind of social semaphore, we deny its affecting intimacy and perpetuate a certain way of thinking about the meanings of clothing that is strongly related to semiotics. The governance of semiotics may have encouraged the particular interpretation that has been called 'fashion', and a reading of style where garments have been deemed more significant than dressing in and wearing them. Thus the personalising, inner experiences of wearers have been largely ignored.

3.10 The next section will consider topics beyond those of 'fashion' clothing, that relate to wider issues surrounding the experience of dress, the body and emotion.

Lived Garments

Identity and the Body

4.1 It is possible that the conditions of 'high' or 'late' modernity have produced a trend for the body to become increasingly central to a person's sense of self. Some consider that all aspects of the body have been appropriated in the production of personal and social identity by the culture of late capitalism. Turner describes the 'torturing' of the individual as advertising bombards their every physical sense, and as the media portrays conflicting rights within reproduction and health care, struggles for sexual identity, threats from new epidemic diseases, and the potential of new technologies that allow the alteration of personal physical attributes previously accepted as biological inheritance (Turner, 1994). Ever growing numbers of people in the affluent West are concerned with the health, shape and appearance of their own bodies as expressions of individual identity. Shilling has identified 'body projects' where he says there is a tendency for the body to be seen as an entity that is in the process of becoming; a project which should be worked at and accomplished as part of an individual's self-identity (Shilling, 2003). Projects of health, dieting, bodybuilding, plastic surgery, tattooing and piercing, are just a few examples of how modern individuals are placing increasing emphasis on their bodies. Of course body projects are constantly beset with the quirks of biological inheritance, or of the aging process; our bodies are facilitating but also constraining. So today, many people are thought to be in the process of becoming their bodies, in the sense that they identify positively or negatively with their exterior bodily self, but also that constant awareness of the potentially critical gaze of others generates anxiety about the possibility that their body may let them down if they cease to work at it (Shilling, 2003). Important aspects of social identity are expressed via the body and anxiety is thought to have become a significant feature of the way many people feel about their bodies.

Embodied Knowledge

4.2 Perhaps as a direct result of my practice as a clothing designer and illustrator, I have learned to closely observe but also to feel the physical attitude expressed by the clothed body of another person, by developing a sense of it within my own: a feeling of somatic empathy. Such inner encounters play a significant part in aiding the understanding and representation of another person through the craft of drawing and also in clay or latex model making for animation, for example and rely on embodied forms of perception like kinesthesis (muscle sense) in combination with the visual. The sociologist Bourdieu articulated his theory of habitus as a set of dispositions that the body learns intuitively through social interaction and that it can use given the right social context (Bourdieu, 1993). So the way that a particular group or class may physically carry themselves, provides other people with an understanding of who they are. These 'techniques of the body' observed by both artists and sociologists are products of embodied knowledge, and which Bourdieu has claimed structure class and gender boundaries.

4.3 Researchers have begun to indicate the potential of thinking holistically across disciplines. Lakoff and Johnson claim that the mind, our reasoning and our knowledge are all embodied. Owing much to the work of Merleau-Ponty (e.g. 1981) and by drawing on several sources including linguistics and neuroscience, they challenge Western philosophies that separate mind from body and emotion from reason by proposing that our physical experiences of spatial awareness, bodily movement and the way we use and manipulate objects, provide the fundamental pattern for how we reason about the world. They explain that: 'Our sense of what is real begins with and depends crucially upon our bodies, especially our sensorimotor apparatus, which enables us to perceive, move, and manipulate, and the detailed structure of our brains, which have been shaped by both evolution and experience.' (Lakoff and Johnson,1999). These recent developments in cognitive science suggest that the nature of our bodies and how they move and function, structure the very concepts we can use to think.

4.4 Hybrid empirical approaches to embodiment are also reflected within psychology and anthropology. In discussion of embodiment and the philosophy and psychology of self-consciousness, Bermudez explains that proprioception[2] 'provides a way, perhaps the most primitive way, of registering the boundary between self and non-self.' And that it 'gives us a sense not just of the embodied self as spatially extended and bounded, but also as a potentiality for action' (Bermudez, 1999). Within anthropology, studies of human movement have undergone a paradigmatic shift from an observationist view of 'behaviour' grounded in kinesics and proxemics, to the conception of the action sign and an understanding of body movement as 'dynamically embodied action' (Farnell, 1999). Farnell's field research explores the use of the "handshake" amongst Native Americans and reveals how important aspects of identity are conveyed through qualities of touch and also how these subvert the European experience of this gesture (Farnell, 1995). She shows how observation from a distance and the misuse of a glossed term like "handshake" has concealed distinct action signs and their meanings.

4.5 But there is a curious sense even within this recent work from a range of disciplines that is reviewing self-consciousness, sociality and embodiment, that the bodies being discussed are undressed: naked. This is very peculiar, not to mention scientifically inaccurate. Humans wear clothes: they like to dress up; but because of the long-standing insularity of academic disciplines and the dominance of the prejudiced analytical thought processes that I have described earlier, this is still so often seriously overlooked.

Dress and Emotion

4.6 I have intense childhood memories of the feelings of dressing in my winter school uniform on the first day back after the long summer holidays. Putting the uniform on symbolised school for me, but also made me feel that I was becoming the person who was going back to study and commune again with my peers. Even more than that, I remember that I felt I was somehow transforming with the seasons, becoming primed for winter. The weights, textures, colours and shapes of each garment of my school uniform combined to affect an anticipatory, wintry emotion made up of everything that this forthcoming time might entail for me. Even the ephemeral, sparkly frisson of Christmas would be evoked. I am still affected by the contrasting material qualities of cotton or of wool and of course, the fashion industry gains much of its momentum by appealing to the transient, cyclical emotions that relate season to fibre.

4.7 Sweetman points out how differing materials and styles of garments demand a different 'gait, posture or demeanour'. He observes that: 'soldiers or cabin-attendants, schoolchildren or clubbers, fashion victims or accountants: such groups are linked not only through their shared adoption of particular signifiers but also through their shared experience of the feel of the garments in question and the restrictions and possibilities that their materiality entails' (Sweetman, 2001). A tailored suit, the uniform of the cabin attendant, or a pair of jeans can be seen as outward signals of a style group, classified by gender, occupation or social role, but can also be interpreted as material manifestations of differing ways of inhabiting and experiencing the body. This implies that clothing affects not just symbolic connections between people but also experiential, emotional affiliations that relate to the way in which 'the body is lived, experienced and used' (Sweetman, 2001).

4.8 Woodward's recent ethnography explores the idea that the act of dressing is where clothing is assembled and so the body's surface is significant in that it is 'the site where the self is constituted through both its internal and external relationships' (Woodward, in press). She proposes that in order to understand how anxieties may sometimes be eased, realised or exaggerated by the medium of clothing, we need to examine how its fibres can 'conduct the judgements of others to the inside as they can conduct the intentions of the self to the outside' (Woodward, in press).

4.9 So dressing in different styles can define but also awaken bodies, simultaneously offering and denying opportunities, stimulating comfort but also anxiety. These complex emotions of portent may be held within, be expressed purposefully in self-presentation, or sneak out unintentionally and betray the wearer. Clothing constantly prompts us to engage with the potentiality and restrictions of the body through ongoing appraisal of our own experience and also through evaluation of the clothed bodies of others. My particular focus is our relationship with denim and jeans, what role does this ubiquitous style have in our experience of the affecting domain I have referred to so far in this paper?

The Denim Taxonomy

An Ideal Model

Figure 2. Students, University of Central Lancashire, June 2003.

5.1 Any UK high street or public place supplies everyday opportunities to witness the apparently infinite subtleties of ways in which denim is now worn (Figure 1). Jeans styling implies a synthesis of garment and body form, e.g. boot-cut, low rise, kick flare, engineered, twisted, technical, vintage, 501, carpenter, rustic, dirty, rub, skate, blunts, mushrooms, mosha. There are many more definitions and all exist in complex combinations in an organised classification system: a multi-dimensional cultural taxonomy of the body expressed via garment style. Some terms like 'boot cut' or 'low rise', define garment cut i.e. they refer to similarities or differences to the received basic model. Cut relates to the human form, garment construction and also implicitly to the manufacturing process. Terms like 'mosha' and 'skate' refer to cut but also to fit; this is the relationship between style and size, scale or relative proportions of the garment and the wearer's body and can thus serve to state or restate the physical character of an individual's shape. Such terminology also refers to the groups that don certain styles and their music or leisure interests. Other terms like 'dirty' or 'rub', describe a particular treatment to the cloth or finishing effect to the made up garment. 'Carpenter' or '501' define time tested, standard styles made up of integrated combinations of all of these elements.

5.2 The fashion media regularly imparts the folk wisdom of the denim taxonomy; explaining how and why to wear which cut, brand, shade of blue, turn ups or no turn ups, how to visually rectify non conformist body shape, or express the latest nuance of image epitomized by the latest fashionable celebrities. Branded advertising, visual merchandising and in-store point of sale all combine to further structure the denim system.

5.3 The advertising industry has perpetuated jeans as 'singular' or 'original' garments throughout the 20th century and they have become connected in many people's minds with ideal models of the human form. These man-made denim somatotypes are stated and restated through fashion: Gap's sewn in garment labels declare their current jeans as 'long and lean', 'regular', 'straight leg' or 'worker', seeming to define with the authority of the maker of the human body rather than of its mere ephemeral coverings. Artists Cummings and Lewandowska make artworks about singularity and its place in the definition of cultural value, and write that 'it is the creation of the idea of the singular, the "original" in a vast field of almost identical objects, that reflects our own drive to feel individual and special, to be "one of a kind".' They continue: 'paradoxically, the singular object is also a generic thing, an ideal model, assembled from the minute and relative differences in the entire series, collection or set' (Cummings and Lewandowska, 2000).


5.4 As a version of trousers[3], jeans are strongly implicated in stance and demeanour as they clothe the supporting, propelling limbs that connect to our feet and join us to the earth. The classic jeans demeanour is manifested through the hanging or hooking of hands on to and into the pockets, or through the belt loops, creating an apparent sense of ease. Gait is loose and easygoing and there appear to be a number of versions depending on the jeans' cut and which in some cases relate to specific fashion cultures. Stance is wide legged and may employ asymmetric emphasis at the hip, giving off an air of easy readiness. Casual refers to a style of clothing but also to the appearance and manner of its wearer, particularly compared to stricter style codes of the past. The relaxing of dress codes is seen to reflect a progressive lessening of rigid class or gender structuring within society.

5.5 How do wearers feel casual? Is the comfortable, casually assertive style of demeanour associated with denim wearing a semiotic bi-product of fashion, or an expression of the sensory and emotional feelings produced by the physical properties of the clothing itself? Is it possible to gain a greater practical understanding of the ways that this clothing influences contemporary 'techniques of the body'?

Research Methods

6.1 At this stage I would like to refer to research methods and to the ways that they can help find answers to the questions I have asked in this paper. The next section aims to describe methods that have influenced the researchers as well as those that have been directly applied in the context I have outlined.

6.2 In 2002 The Fabric of Society project was established in the Department of Design at University of Central Lancashire, partially funded by AHRB. To date a number of practitioners from a variety of design disciplines have been involved including Fashion, Illustration, Animation and Media Production. Consequently the next section is an account of the work of a multidisciplinary team.

Photographic Record

6.3 'Exactitudes', (Versluis and Uyttenbroek, 2002) uses a photographic format to document some of the many ways that people attempt to distinguish themselves from others by assuming a group identity. This painstaking visual method reveals measured personal expressions in essential detail. The artists' images are particularly compelling if as onlookers we recognise style affiliations that can be confirmed by personal experience, i.e. if our attention is focussed on a social phenomenon that we were almost on the point of acknowledging for ourselves.

6.4 Similarly, photographic documentation (supported by individuals' narratives) has provided depth and detail to an understanding of the possibilities that the denim taxonomy offers. A significant aspect of its cultural triumph seems to lie in its potential to allow infinite nuance and permutations of the 'standard' model and of personalised ways of wearing it. To illustrate and document this, the photographs below (Figure 2) come from the project's archive and show people wearing what is in theory the same clothing: blue denim jeans and jacket.

Figure 2. Examples of everyday denim clothing.

6.5 But each person is wearing them for a different reason and expressing very different emotions and expectations. Figure 2a shows a young woman in her early twenties, having "a day off from fashion" who is dressed casually for attending a university lecture, but she uses the size of the jacket to express her fashionable orientation. Figure 2b a man in his mid fifties who is on his way to work, wears his denim in a way that he admits still reflects the way he first wore it as a teenager in the late 1960's. In figure 2c a young man in his late teens is dressed carefully to project just the right smart image for an imminent interview. In 2d another man in his fifties, has dressed for a meal out with friends, and his dark denim jeans display the crotch rivet and back synch of the very first 501's; his turn ups show the red stripe of a selvedge. From his perspective, this is the "authentic" way to wear it.

6.6 These pictures allowed us to see for ourselves, some of the many relationships between the materiality of clothing, inner subjective feelings and the objective, outer appearance of the wearer's body. We saw that denim is used to gauge the communal rules of urban time and space. It can very often supply wearers with an acceptable style, although rarely for all social occasions or for all people: perceptions of status, role, age, gender, ethnicity, size, time and place are subtly described by this casual, generic style.


6.7 Artist Rineke Dijkstra uses video and still photography to create clinical yet strangely intimate portraits. In her video installations she has used a documentary style to record young people engaged in clubland dance. Large scale, split screen presentation methods: "arouse comparison and empathy in the viewer and reveal aspects of ephemeral fashion, anxiety and attitude" (Dijkstra, 2002). This very affecting work confirmed the viability of using video as a means to observe and record the role that clothing plays in self-presentation and social performance.

6.8 Another influence on our choice of method was the PONS, or Profile of Non Verbal Sensitivity Test developed in the 1970's (Rosenthal et al, 1979). This used visual as well as audio techniques in a test that aimed to learn more about the ability to understand non-verbal cues transmitted by facial expressions, body movements and tones of voice (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Stills from the PONS Test (Rosenthal et al, 1979)

Visual Interviews

6.9 Taking these applications of moving imagery on board, we began to craft a technique that could capture the physical appearance and movement of different individuals. We undertook a series of interviews that asked people directly about the appeal of their denim garments.

6.10 The test interviews involved a small group of university academics, administrators and students and were recorded on two mini DV cameras (one static, one roaming) and took place against a simple white backdrop. Ten denim-wearers (five male, five female) were asked to describe their clothes and their reasons for wearing them. We asked participants how their clothes felt, how they hoped they appeared to others and also if there were any situations where they felt it would be inappropriate to wear them. Each subject described personal strategies and what they felt was expected of them in terms of dress. They articulated their sense of wearing denim as "comfortable" "easy" or "simple". Some thought it less likely show dirt or damage than other types of clothing and that it requires less practical care and attention. All spoke of it as a good solution to many everyday clothing problems, but also indicated a variety of circumstances where they considered jeans to be less acceptable, for instance at weddings and funerals but also other events/places where a dress code was thought to operate or the expectations of others had to be taken into account. Only one subject considered herself free to ignore the dress codes of all more formal situations.

6.11 An administrator revealed that she felt it inappropriate to her role to wear her jeans to work (although other styles of trouser were acceptable), partly because of perceived pressure from other administrators but also because jeans would not allow her to feel "right" at work. But she considered her denim jacket to be an acceptable alternative. Another, wearing a lightweight dark denim skirt, told us that she didn't want to wear her jeans to work; she wanted to keep them for wearing in her own time. A male academic explained that he felt his jeans made him more approachable to his students, which was important to him as a teacher.

6.12 Subjects all had strong views on how denim may be worn convincingly, tending to be able to better describe how it looks bad than how it looks good: like wearing the waistline too high, or the wrong cut. In several cases the specific pair of jeans being worn was associated with anecdotes e.g. why/when they were bought, where they had been worn, or in one case how an old pair were pleasing their wearer with the constant sense of how much weight she had lost since taking up smoking.[4]

6.13 We learned that the relatively liberal working environment of an art and design faculty, belied a subtle pressure to comply to a denim dress code and that it is used to measure and define not only good bodies, but also different responsibilities and even personal time and space.


6.14 The resulting movies supplemented the spoken narratives with the physical presence and manner of each interviewee. We decided to make a first set of sequences without a soundtrack, in order to create a focus on the body. The videos were edited (Figure 4) to isolate the figure from its surroundings and put into split screen formats in order to focus attention on the subject's stance and gestures. We hoped to create the visual ambience of meeting a person for the first time and of the fleeting, subliminal observations that are made in such circumstances.

Figure 4. Different editing formats, individual (left) and comparative (right).

6.15 Editing techniques facilitated comparison and the capturing of gestures. By speeding up or slowing sequences we could analyse the range of an individual's movement, or their shifting of weight. We were able to gain a sense of the performative qualities of clothing: how and when the subject touched it during the interview, the ways that pockets were used, or other specific attributes were alluded to.

Figure 5. Haptic gestures

6.16 By grabbing stills we could see more closely the haptic components of gesture (Figure 5). During the interviews people touched, slapped, fingered, rubbed their clothing; they rested their hands on hips, in belt loops or plunged them into pockets, pivoted hips and launched gestures from these positions of rest.


6.17 In addition to closely examining the sequences ourselves, we showed them to others to seek their interpretations. This included the involvement of the researchers and a further group of participants in a 'video mirror' exercise. These second stage participants were asked to imitate the body movements of the people in the video sequences (shown to them via wall projection) and to discuss their experiences. The 'video mirror' exercise has been piloted in computer interaction research (Campbell, Cederman-Haysom et al, 2003) and it provides a way of experiencing the video of a gesture, action or other design theme by using haptic and motoric perception as well as the senses of vision and hearing that are normally associated with audio video recordings. Mirroring is a different activity from re-enactment. It involves following video footage with one's own body at the same time as the on-screen movement takes place, whereas re-enactment takes place later and when the communicative intent of the action/gesture producer has been interpreted. Through mirroring, a participant could attempt to interpret the recorded movement during their real time experience of copying it with their own body, without a preconceived notion of intent. In this way feelings and a sense of individual performance were conveyed through physical engagement with the movie footage. It also provided a way for us, the researchers, to talk to each other about the dynamically embodied action on screen by using our own bodies. This proved invaluable as there are few well-defined methods available to talk about gesture or body movement.

A Sense of Self

6.18 Of course, the camera made people very self-conscious. The haptic gestures we recorded can be interpreted as expressions of casuality or self-assurance, but equally we realised that these action signs could relate to anxiety and the strategies that are employed to hide it. By constantly touching their clothing and thus by implication themselves, the subjects were also checking their appearance and self-presentation. We saw that resting hands at the hip, in or on pockets provides anchor points for setting the body into poses that may create an appearance of self assurance in reaction to feeling 'front stage' (Goffman, 1971) and the scrutiny of others.

Figure 6. Hands in pockets.

6.19 We recorded similarity and subtle differences in the ways that subjects 'used' pockets and began to consider that in addition to the utility of carrying small personal possessions, they may have other more subliminal uses. Video mirroring helped us to consider how 're-entering' a garment by putting one's hands into its pockets (Figure 6) re-affirms the combination of clothing and body as a single entity. We experienced how pockets provide resting opportunities for the hands and thus help to relax the shoulders and upper body. Proprioceptive information from skin receptors and kinesthesis continually updates the wearer's internalised sense of self-presentation. The availability of pockets, or belt loops prompts haptic gestures and related cadences of stance by offering formalised sensory sites that help keep track of the position of the arms and hands. The extreme sensitivity of the hands and fingers occupies a disproportionate share of cortical space in maps of the body's surface within the human brain (Ramachandran and Blakeslee, 1998). So putting 'the hands away' may liberate available concentration, help reduce anxiety and thus offer some explanation for the relaxing feelings associated with jeans. Having hands in pockets has often been interpreted as a sign to others of slovenliness or of cool disinterest; but it is possible that this action may sometimes be an intuitive concentration technique, or simply a practical way to organise the body in response to the heightened sense of self stimulated by awareness of the scrutiny of others. Garment structure prompts or affords certain behaviour, which in this case characterises the casuality of the jeans' demeanour.

Drawing From Life

Figure 7. Denim wearers - examples from The Body Dictionary (c) Candy 2003

6.20 The Body Dictionary (Candy, 2003) uses drawing to gain further access to onlookers' experiences of clothing. It is made up of diagrammatic drawings produced from photographs taken on the street by the researchers of body shapes created by contemporary styles of dress (Figure 7). The logic for the drawing technique comes from the conventions of fashion illustration, where garment construction is conveyed via an understanding of the body. The collection of figures intends to replicate a sense of everyday social encounter and to stimulate and record people's assessments of others seen on the street or met in public places that evidence a 'society'.

6.21 Each diagram illustrates a familiar style of dress but allows its wearer to remain anonymous. In this way the drawing creates characters, whose identity is revealed only via their clothed body. We found that this ambiguity invited categorisation and that viewers could be encouraged to offer their own forms of interpretation based on social experience. Respondents were able to generate distinct personas for the characters they 'met' in the diagrams. They could put forward classifications such as age, gender, or ethnicity; the brand of clothing being worn, what kind of social occasion they may have dressed for, or respond to questions regarding a range of other social scenarios.

6.22 The photographers did not pose the original subjects, their body attitudes were individual responses to being photographed, and as such reveal somatic aspects of self-presentation. The researchers are particularly interested in this as respondent's assessments of the figures have provided emotional descriptions as well as cultural or socio-economic forms of categorisation e.g. that a character seemed popular, shy, lazy, arrogant, or nice-looking even though faces were obscured. We think that these assessments were derived from a synthesis of the clothing and body attitude of the character and also via association with real individuals.


6.23 In our trials, the research methods detailed in this paper created secondary visual outcomes that allowed viewers to articulate complex descriptions of the personas in the images and we learned a lot about people and their attitudes towards the style of others. Of course, responses are by no means universal: when undertaking visual assessments people reveal their own views and aspects of their own social circumstances. We realised that by talking about others, they were also talking about themselves by drawing on their personal social ideals and aesthetic value systems. Propriety makes people reticent to talk about their own style and because much of their experience is intuitive it is hard to talk about. But in many cases they have a lot to say about the appearance of others and our visual methods gave them implicit 'permission' to do so. In addition, digital recordings gave the researchers unusual opportunities to intensely observe people in their clothing, and to conceive other methods where people, clothing style, body attitude and movement may be examined in combination.


7.1 So why are so many of us continuing to express our modernity by wearing blue denim trousers, a Victorian style of clothing? I would like to put forward the following observations and suggestions in an attempt to identify some of the affecting qualities of denim and jeans that may not yet have been encompassed by the concept of 'fashion'.

7.2 Blue has many perceptual, emotional and symbolic associations in Western culture (too many to have been meaningfully considered in this paper) e.g. woad and the barbarian; the Virgin Mary; the sea and the sky and is associated with morality, work and with relaxation. It is the colour of our planet. Denim blue (derived from the blue and white twill weave and the fallibility of the non-fast indigo dye) is both strongly coloured and yet neutral in the context of a wardrobe of garments; our research has confirmed that it is widely perceived 'to go' with any other colour. But although many garments are blue, no others currently have the widespread cultural significance of blue jeans.

7.3 A combination of strength and vulnerability is seen to constitute much of these garments' aesthetic and emotional appeal. This is enhanced by a cultural belief that the physical properties of the cloth allow it to 'mould' to an individuals' body and to record personal entropy of wear. Although they are impersonal mass-produced artefacts, jeans seem to become more human, personalised over time by their wearer. The FBI has recently gone some way to substantiate this personalisation process through their successful prosecution in the US of a bank robber whose jeans were captured on closed-circuit surveillance video (Hauser, 2004).

7.4 Jeans' combination of cloth and styling centres on the lower half of the body: waist, hips, groin, crotch, buttocks and legs. By holding 'an impression of the body within, yet revealing the body without express intention' (Martin, 1995) they have a strong potential to facilitate somatic empathy and to reveal grey scales of gender, youth and corporeal personality. Their relative homogeny allows, or even encourages each wearer to modify it through the use of accessories or with other subversive practices like embroidery, slashing or fraying, but also to customise it with the idiosyncrasy of their own body (Figure 8). The almost standardised, 'original' format provides an expressive description of the melding of cloth and human form and facilitates the interpretation of an individual body: one's own body, or that of others. Somatic communication and differentiation is much aided by generic, uniform style.

7.5 Jeans' "comfortable" "relaxing" qualities may be a consequence of a familiar and near uniform materiality that can aid their wearers to continue to feel their own body image - even after the mirror's image has faded. This body/mind perception of the clothed self may have particular consequence in contemporary Western society where body awareness has significant influence on social sensibilities and feelings of self-identity.

Figure 8. Personal Uniform. Intimate photographic portraits, (Candy and Murray, 2004)

7.6 Indeed, the remarkable ubiquity of this expressive personal uniform, suggests that paradoxically, collective responses to dress may be in the process of transforming from the customary symbolism of the fashion system, to encompass modes of personal expression and social communication that extend the notion of 'body projects' into the wardrobe. In this view of fashion and dress, it is the clothed body as a somatic entity that communicates identity and cultural currency, not clothing alone.

7.7 In order to enter a pair of jeans we place one foot into the threshold, then the other before drawing the cloth up over our shins, knees and thighs to let the 'waist' band find its latest fit. We may fix tightly with a belt to feel in control or leave it loose to feel younger or thinner, or suck in the belly in desperation as we fasten the stud. Hands may be plunged into pockets, or balanced with elegant precision at their edges while hips pivot in nuanced reaction. As a communal medium of embodied practice, the denim taxonomy characterises a socially validated style of clothing - a material means to cover, adorn and define the body - but also a style of deportment, gesture and physical mannerism: a choreographic pattern for public performance.

7.8 However, Western philosophy, the insularity of academic discourses, the influence of predominantly anecdotal evidence and ensuing theories of dress have all combined to limit our perception of 'fashion' practices. We have tended to see clothing only as outgoing, symbolic communication rather than as a profoundly affecting experiential practice that facilitates a two-way connection with the world.

7.9 But there are real possibilities of developing empirical methods to research this phenomenon that can bridge practice and theory to liberate new concepts for designers and also for social observers in other fields. Proprioception, a body/mind 'sense of self' brings us ways to begin to take into account how choice of clothing may affect not just semiotic appearance or adornment, but the very sensory mechanics and skeletal apparatus of the body. Far from merely signifying identity, the cut and structure of clothing may prompt or even instruct the somatic-self on how to hold itself and how to move in the world.

7.10 It is possible that the medium of dress contributes more fundamentally to societal configuration than has previously been realised. In this paper I have focussed on just one ubiquitous garment style, in order to convey some preliminary practical techniques that indicate the potential of investigating clothing's incontestable relationship with the body. The methods I have described have exceptional relevance as it is through their very visuality that they communicate.

7.11 If we can begin to encompass recent developments within the cognitive and neurosciences, anthropology, sociology, art and design in order to study the clothed body and to investigate lived garments as manifestations of embodied knowledge rather than as mere symbols of 'fashion', then we may discover new ways to understand and to design for human experience.


Arts and Humanities Research Board
Arts Council England, North West
Denim Movies (c) Lynsey Brodigan and Andy Wdowicki (June 2003)
Thanks to John McAleavy, Adam Murray, Jim Thompson and Nick Peake.


1 Mintel, Jeans UK, 2003.

2 Proprioception: 'sense of self'. The neurophysiologic processes by which the human body can vary muscle contraction in immediate response to incoming information regarding spatial change or other external forces e.g. using information about balance from the vestibular system, or from stretch receptors in the skin, muscles, tendons and joints that provide a sense of the body's position.

3 'Orig., a loose-fitting garment of cloth worn by men, covering the loins and legs to the ankles; sometimes said to have been worn over close-fitting breeches or pantaloons; now applied generally to any two-legged outer garment worn by both sexes, and extending from the waist usually to the ankles'. Oxford English Dictionary.

4 A more in depth account of these interviews, will be published shortly.


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