Fashion, Freud and Foucault:
Thoughts on the immateriality and embodiment of dress in museums

Jo Tierney


‘The living observer moves, with a sense of mounting panic, through the world of the dead…We experience a sense of the uncanny when we gaze at garments that had an intimate relationship with human beings long since gone to their graves…clothes hint at something only half understood, sinister, threatening; the atrophy of the body and the evanescence of life.’[1]


Inside the Exhibtion: Hollywood Costume, V&A Museum, October 2012 to January 2013.

Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950, V&A Museum, May 2012 to January 2013. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


While dress is often studied for its material characteristics and physical make-up, the immaterial qualities are somewhat harder to identify and understand. Items of dress seem to have a life or soul, which can survive independently of a human body. Whether it is clothes strewn around the bedroom or neatly presented in a museum display case, an aura surrounds them. It is a sensation that is very difficult to locate or even describe, yet it is a fundamental characteristic of almost all items of dress and a phenomenon, which is widely recognised. Indeed, ex-astronauts can, and do, pay visits to their past spacesuits at NASA, almost as if these empty shells were a member of the family or an old friend. Yet, why is the connection between ourselves and dress so strong, compared to other objects?

In the opening pages of Adorned in Dreams, Elizabeth Wilson uses the term uncanny to describe the emotional impact of dress objects in the museum setting.[2] The theory of the uncanny was first studied in detail by Ernest Jentsch, yet it is Sigmund Freud’s examination that really defines the concept today. In The Uncanny, Freud argues that a sense of the uncanny is prompted by a fear of something which is at once familiar and unfamiliar.[3] To unpack this further, Freud is arguing that what makes objects particularly uncanny is that they evoke a feeling of intellectual uncertainty. Freud gives as an example, inanimate objects that cannot clearly be perceived to be so by the human eye and mind, such as mannequins, wax models, automaton and humanoid robots. While logically we know that these objects do not move independently, the similarity they have to animate objects, in most cases that is the human body, creates an uncertainty that we struggle to reason with. As a result, although we can reasonably assume that a wax model in a museum will not move of its own accord, its resemblance to a human means there is always an element of doubt. It is no coincidence that such objects have provided the basis for numerous works of horror and science fiction, which all play on the juxtaposition between this familiarity and uncertainty.

While Freud goes on to add to this definition, it is this idea of the familiar and unfamiliar meeting in the same object, which is most relevant to understanding the immateriality and aura around dress. If we consider, for a moment, the connection between humans and dress, it becomes very clear how a strong feeling of the familiar is solicited by items of clothing, whether previously known to us or not. Dress is an important, and for many cultures integral part of daily life, marking the boundary between our public and private selves. Dress, therefore, whether our own or belonging to someone long dead is in essence familiar. Furthermore, for a large number of cultures most day-to-day human interaction only occurs between clothed bodies. As such, clothes have become a signifier of the human body beneath them. Is it the case, therefore, that the sense of familiarity induced by items of dress is not so much for the objects themselves, but rather the ghost of the body that once inhabited them?


Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950, V&A Museum, May 2012 to January 2013.

Inside the Exhibtion: Hollywood Costume, V&A Museum, October 2012 to January 2013. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


The museum dress exhibit, therefore, provides an excellent lens through which to study the immaterially of dress, as it places the items in an unfamiliar environment, where they stand independently of past wearers. Indeed, many curators, historians and critics have argued that it is the very absence of the body, which makes the presentation of dress in museums problematic. Anne Buck, fashion historian and keeper of the collection at the Manchester Costume Gallery, expressed that ‘the beauty of dress, always ephemeral, is so closely connected with the living, moving body which wore it and gave it final expression, that a dress surviving uninhabited, may appear as an elaborate piece of fabric…’[4]

In her essay ‘The Dressed Body’, Joanne Entwistle argues for the importance of considering the body and dress as being interlinked and barely separable as “human bodies are dressed bodies”.[5] This idea that dress and the body are always connected through societal and cultural practice, suggests one reason why our feeling of the uncanny is so strong when we see dress which is no longer lived in. For most the significance of an object of dress is in its lived experience, an experience which would usually be signified by movement of the garment with the body, the smell of the fabric mingled with the smell of the wearer or the residual warmth of human flesh, for example. Thus, many of the essential attributes of dress are lost once an object is placed within a museum environment. The loss of this vital connection between the object and the previous wearer/s, it could be argued, renders a sense of the uncanny as the dress object is at once familiar, in the sense that you know its function, can guess at how it might have lived, but unfamiliar in that the essential core of the object seems to be missing; the heat, smell, movement have all vanished leaving an uncanny object behind. Thus the sense of the uncanny, described so powerfully by Wilson and experienced by many museum visitors, is fed by the lack of embodiment and the intellectual uncertainty created by seeing something, which was once so intimately connected to a human body and human vitality, now appear empty and lifeless.

It is, however, possible to push these ideas one step further. In her discussions of embodiment Entwistle engages with Foucault’s ideas on power and particularly the relationship between dress and systems of power. Foucault argues that bodily practice is part of the complex system of power that enables the body to be made deferential and submissive.[6] In this, dress too can be a tool of power, as for instance a work suit can alter the wearer’s behaviour to suit the working environment.[7] Yet Foucault’s reading of power relations and the body does not account for any potential agency on behalf of the wearer. In this sense, the items of dress become empowered and privileged over the body, which becomes static and powerless, much like the museum mannequin. [8]

Is it possible therefore, that what is really presented in many museum displays of dress, is an empty piece of clothing which holds power over the static structure which supports it. Museums have long been a locus for the acting out of power relations, with visible surveillance, the creation of distance between visitors and objects and the ideas of spectacle and voyeurism. Evidently, most visitors are aware that they are being watched by museum security staff but also to a certain extent by fellow visitors, an important element in the creation of self-surveillance. However, it is possible that there is a third presence within the fashion galleries, one equally as entangled in the power relations of the museum and society more generally: the objects of dress themselves. Although museum visitors understand that they are there to observe the objects before them, is it possible that due to the specific nature of dress objects, the way they are presented and the authority imbued in museum artefacts, that a sensation of being observed by them is also created?

While, of course, we understand that a piece of inanimate clothing is not physically able to survey our movements and actions, we are equally aware that a wax-work or automaton is not capable of movement, yet there remains that element of fear, of the unknown, of the uncanny. Moreover, if we return, for a moment, to the notion of power and the lack of a readable trace of embodiment in the presentation of dress in museums, it seems plausible that the feeling of power that the dress holds over its supports could easily be transferred to a new potential wearer. In this sense, the power that is held by dress objects within a museum display in many ways challenges our notion that we hold a certain level of agency over our bodies and the clothes that we wear. While we accept that our dress can physically and psychological alter our bodies and behaviour, we believe, or perhaps hope, that we are capable of controlling that relationship, or in other words that we are the dominant member in the network of power. It is possible then, that when faced with items of dress that appear to challenge these power structures, we experience a feeling of the uncanny, the forms are familiar but our relationship to them is unfamiliar.

While many items of historic dress seem fragile and frail in their materiality, they can evidently retain a very strong influence over our emotions and behaviour, showing how important the immateriality of an object is to understanding its past and present. So next time you visit a dress exhibition, take a moment to consider the complexity of the intangible and immaterial qualities of what stands before you.


[1] Wilson, Elizabeth, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, (London & New York: I. B. Tauris, 1985), p.1.

[2] Wilson, Adorned in Dreams, p.1.

[3] S. Freud, ‘The Uncanny’, in Writings on Art and Literature by W. Hamacher and D. E. Wellbery (eds.), (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), p.193.

[4] A. Buck cited in L. Taylor, The Study of Dress History, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), p.24.

[5]J. Entwistle, ‘The Dressed Body’, in Body Dressing by J. Entwistle and E. Wilson (eds.), (Oxford: Berg, 2001), p.34.

[6] M. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1977), p.154.

[7] Entwistle, ‘The Dressed Body’, p.40.

[8] Entwistle, ‘The Dressed Body’, p.41.


Jo Tierney – 

Jo Tierney completed a BA in History and French at the University of Warwick before joining the modern strand of the History of Design MA. She is currently researching nineteenth-century printed textiles and roller printing technology for her dissertation. Her other research interests include fashion history and theory and the presentation of dress in museums.


© Jo Tierney, 2013. All Rights Reserved.


One thought on “Fashion, Freud and Foucault:
Thoughts on the immateriality and embodiment of dress in museums”

  1. Great presentation of a tricky phenomenon. I would be further interested to know if the distancing of the object, for example by placing it behind glass, alters the perceived degree of uncanniness, and what effect removing the object completely from direct perception, for example by exhibiting as film, would have. Interestingly looking at your first illustration (clear lighting and focus) gave me no sense of uncanny but there is a certain “estrangement” occasioned by the second, darker picture. My first thought on this would be that the more obscure setting allows for, or even perhaps invokes, more of what a psychiatrist would call projection, where we fill in the space based upon our own usually unconscious perceptions and feelings.

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