Re-Thinking The Experience And Representation Of Dress

Katerina and Alexis during their introduction

On 6 May 2014, we held a study day at The Courtauld’s Research Forum. This day was a result of a collaboration between the Andrew W Mellon Foundation MA 2013/14: Documenting Fashion: Dress, Film, and Image in Europe and America, 1920-45 and the Fashion Research Network. The theme, Documenting Fashion: Re-Thinking the Experience and Representation of Dress, came out of our collective concern to enrich the ways we think about and discuss dress, rethink universalising narratives, and incorporate the multiple sources that illuminate hitherto unexposed aspects of dressed experience.

To introduce the study day, Katerina Pantelides and Alexis Romano analysed a contemporary news image by Andy Rain that appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 30 April. The photograph, which documented people queuing at a bus-stop during that day’s RMT Tube strike, presented most study day delegates with a familiar, timely picture. As opposed to many strike images of overhead views of commuters in a frenzied swarm, this format allows a full view of queuers’ dressed bodies. Although it is not the most obvious fashion-focused image, it is a valuable document of contemporary, quotidian dress. Moreover, its non high-fashion quality pertained to the study day, over the course of which participants questioned what defines a fashion image or experience.

The image, which illustrates the close-up view of a line of people that recedes into the distance, is cropped to give the impression of the bus queue’s endless extension. Its constituents form a diverse group of people in terms of age, gender, ethnicity and fashionability. Overall, the people in the queue are united through their orderly linear formation and jerky, angular body posture that indicates their resistance. Exceptions to this rule stand out: for example the poised girl in black leather with headphones and her hands in her pockets commands our attention.

Viewers’ observations of the seasonal, utilitarian clothing worn by the subjects shifts to their sensorial reception of the image.  They might feel somewhat stifled by subjects’ layered clothing of coarse materials: denim, faux leather, wool. Viewers’ feeling of closure is intensified by the photo’s close crop, while the image’s overall darkness owes to the dull, neutral colours of the dress worn.

If we compare this photograph with those in fashion editorials, for example, there are some crucial differences. The photograph is centred around a news event, rather than fashion presentation, and the bodies featured are incidental and not chosen in the manner of fashion models. Thus, we are presented with a more inclusive picture of contemporary dress and its wearers. In other ways, boundaries between the two photographic modes are almost permeable, from fashion’s interest in visualisations of the street to the use of similar techniques, such as juxtapositions between order and chaos, mass and detail.

The study day discussed the meaning and serendipity to be found in mundane experiences and images of dress, such as this non-purposeful photograph seemingly captured outside of real time when subjects turn inward. Similarly for Richard Dawkins: “[t]he word ‘mundane’ has come to mean ‘boring’ and ‘dull’, and it really shouldn’t – it should mean the opposite. Because it comes from the latin mundus, meaning ‘the world’. And the world is anything but dull… There’s real poetry in the real world.”


The Enemies of Reason (2007), television broadcast, episode 1, “Slaves to Superstition,” Channel 4, 13 August. Written and presented by Richard Dawkins.