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Is Ethical Fieldwork Possible?

Catherine Lucas: February 2010

 

Introduction

To approach this question, we must focus on certain common dilemmas faced by researchers in the field. For the purposes of this essay, I will investigate the following: how can field researchers obtain information morally when in difficult or dangerous situations? and, what can we do when personal safety or the continuation of our research, is in jeopardy?

I refer to two ethnographies from different times, situations and subjects, both facing the same problems of ethics concerning the use of covert research, questions of power balance, and protection of both the informants and the researcher themselves. These two ethnographies are Tearoom Trade (Laud Humphreys: 1970), and Mumbai Slums and the Search for ‘A Heart’ (Atreyee Sen: 2004)

In order to examine the ethics of the former study in hindsight of the field, I will be analysing the comments made by Punch in 1986, who explored in depth how to identity and overcome problems in fieldwork. His insights, I believe, lend useful understanding to the dilemma faced by Humphreys during his research, and consequently have a bearing on how I will approach and analyse Sen’s ethical issues in Mumbai.

Deception and lies:

The moral predicament of ‘Tearoom Trade’ (Laud Humphreys: 1970)

Through his research tactics Humphreys reinforces an image already prevalent in some circles that social scientists are sly tricksters who are not to be trusted…involving deception and manipulation… (Donald Warwick, in Bulmer: 1982:58)

Tearoom Trade (1970) covered covert research conducted by Humphreys in the late 1960s under the guise of being a homosexual man interested in engaging in casual sex in public toilets. He infiltrated a group using an alias and established himself as their ‘watch-queen’ – the man who would watch for police. During this time he took covert notes using a hidden recorder and was meticulous in his details, which included the license plates of the men involved. He later altered his appearance and used the information to conduct a ‘health survey’ on the men he had tracked from his findings. Although his research was an aid to understanding sexual practices, his methods left a lot to be desired and faced harsh criticisms.

Warwick’s comments lead us to wonder whether Humphrey’s methods of covert research led anthropologists and sociologists following after him to suffer from the legacy of so-called ‘deceit’ he left behind. Punch, in his 1986 examination of ethical fieldwork, questions whether some research subjects ought to be off limits altogether, which is another query raised by the content of Humphreys’ findings on homosexuality. His work was slammed by some critics not only for its methods of undeniably devious covert observation, but also for the immoral sexual nature of its content. Punch refers to Humphreys’ work as “well-known, if not now notorious,” (1986:31) so it is clear that his work has gained some notoriety amongst fellow anthropologists in a manner both humorous and as a subject of controversy. However, in 1980 Galliher notes that a strict ethics system for researchers may serve to protect certain subjects from being exposed, and that this could lead to harm rather than prevent it (cited by Wax, see references).

Covert research could be conducted by an academic in the interest of exposing the nefarious practices; but, even then, for some social scientists, certain areas are simply taboo because association with them is morally repugnant. (Punch: 1986:31)

It is clear here that Punch is referring to Humphreys’ research, however he does go on to admit that what some researchers may consider immoral subjects to explore, others may simply view as new challenges. This is one of the primary issues when determining whether a subject should even be considered morally acceptable to investigate: Humphreys, for example, may have seen no reason not to research ‘cottaging’ (secret meetings for casual homosexual sex in public toilets), indeed today we might not see it as such a shocking subject in comparison to the 1970s.

From this angle, then, perhaps we should consider the merits, if there are any, of covert research in this context, before dismissing it out of hand. Being such a secretive and taboo subject at the time, I do not believe that Humphreys would have encountered many men, particularly those apparently happily married, who would have accepted being interviewed on their casual homosexual encounters. Posing as the ‘watch-queen’ (guard) of the public toilet these encounters took place in may seem underhanded, elusive and immoral; however I do not think Humphreys would have collected such detailed data without securing this position.

The first area of true contention, starts I believe, with the use of a ‘health survey’ by Humphreys to collect further details on his subjects. To find the homes of these subjects, he also used the car plate numbers of men he had observed at the public toilets whilst working as ‘watch-queen,’ and recorded. This I feel is a gross violation of the trust the men bestowed on the ‘watch-queen,’ and damages the ethicality of his study more greatly than any of his former actions.

The problems encountered by Humphreys over the question of how to enter the field to carry out the research at all, is a problem Punch describes as a ‘situational dilemma.’ Referring to Humphreys’ work on Tearoom Trade in particular, however, Punch is quite contemptuous of the conscious use of covert and what he views as immoral methods. His main problem is also the recording of car number plates in order to track the men being observed. The idea of the group under observation being ‘relatively powerless’ (1986:34) highlights the issue of a wildly unbalanced power-play situation. Humphreys’ methods were not only covert, but also relied on not being discovered by the group in question, leaving them powerless to object to or approve the situation. Punch is inflexible in his insistence that some form of ‘informed consent’ should be adhered to, even if the true knowledge of the research is made clear to only one person.

Examining ethics in violent field settings:

‘Mumbai Slums and the Search for ‘A Heart’’ (Atreyee Sen: 2004)

While living and working with these women, I found myself a helpless, often frightened bystander to various forms of factional ‘war.’ Would, should, could I prevent this overt use of violence and threats? …The eerie spectre of ethics continued to haunt my work… (Sen: 2004:1)

Sen’s fieldwork was carried out in the slums of Mumbai and focused on the violent women’s movements that were rallying alongside the Hindu nationalists there, against the men they believed were making working conditions extremely oppressive and dangerous for women and children. Sen’s fieldwork took her close to the dangers of rape and physical harm, which she also witnessed amongst others. Her ethical dilemma became whether it was moral to simply sit on the sidelines, observing the violence being done to her newfound peers, or whether it was ethically unsound from an anthropological viewpoint to make any interjections.

She cites her aim as an anthropologist was to ‘make sense’ of her surroundings and “learn why young and old women in Mumbai slums became Hindu nationalists and engaged in collective, communal violence and urban conflict.” This violence was often in gang form against men in the community and also against other women who opposed their actions. Kondo’s 1990 description of how the fieldwork setting gradually becomes a familiar place you attach your familial emotions to, helps Sen to describe how attached she became to the women she was both researching and living alongside; how attached she became to the people around her: “…the ‘setting’ eventually becomes populated with people you grow to know, sometimes to love…” (Kondo 1990:7) This attachment to the ‘subjects’ of her field research made Sen increasingly unable to remain within the more stringent rules of ethics.

Some of the initial difficulties encountered in conducting her research, arose simply because the ethical manner of keeping all persons informed if they were being observed or recorded made her a target of suspicion. She was accused of being a ‘Bengali researcher rat’ by some of the movement’s leaders, as her data collecting began to arouse distrust in those around her. Given the delicate and dangerous situation of this fieldwork, therefore, we may forgive Sen for adopting what she refers to as “‘covert urban research.’ [Which] …gave rise to several paradoxes and grave ethical dilemmas.” (2004:3) She pretended to be an upper class Hindu woman in order to gain access to people she might otherwise have been unable to interview, and also used this role to protect herself personally.

However, when discussing the ideas raised by the ‘Sena’ women of the movement, she was careful never to offer any of her own opinions, which would not only have hindered her research but may have introduced a moral dilemma for the women being interviewed. Sen’s methods may seem unethical in part due to the by definition immoral practice of covert research, but on the other hand, her choice to do so was motivated not only for her own safety, but to protect others and to keep her findings as untarnished by her own status in the field as possible.

I made every effort to be fair to the Sena women and their circumstances. However in doing so I represented just one side of the on-going arguments concerning justice, revenge, forgiveness and freedom, and my work does not discuss the victims of the Bombay riots or their impotence while watching the Sena women wreak havoc and display their power. (Sen: 2004:4)

Sen readily admits the one-sided nature of her research findings, which was, I assume, a product of keeping herself seemingly ‘on the side’ of the Sena women, rather than putting herself in the middle of the conflict. I cannot see a problem with this, as the fact that she acknowledges this setback is useful enough an explanation. Her experience shows that although the field researcher must present as balanced findings as possible, they may be unable to do so in a situation that puts their own life at risk. For Sen, to fraternise with the other side of the conflict could also harm her allowance to collect information.

Threats on her life were also made, should she misuse the information she had gathered for any other use than that she relayed to the Sena women. She was “tailed by a Sena ‘detective’ for days before [she] …was allowed to live in the slums,” and this highlighted the power struggle between anthropologist and informer: Sen possessed information that gave her power over the Sena women, yet they also possessed the threatened power of violence against her and the ability to cut her off from further information. She constantly felt the push-pull of her work and her own quality of life during the fieldwork period, noting that she “…did not keep that [emotional] distance from the Sena women and whilst this made my ethnography richer it made my life poorer. A researcher who lived partially in fear of her subjects.” (2004:4)

Sen was also unable to conquer her own personal emotional reactions to certain events around her, where violence occurred that she had to witness, or where she watched children being taught to act violently. In the latter case she intervened, which on reading her account I believe she found relieving: “…just for a while, I felt I had suspended notions of cultural relativism and objective ethnography and climbed down from the role of ‘the non-interventionist anthropologist.’” (2004:5)

This admission of freedom in intervening against a violent action shows Sen not as an anthropologist but as a human being first. Unfortunately, there are many arguments we could explore as to the ethicality of this intervention, not least of all that had this action had a unfavourable outcome, it could have not only hindered or halted the research Sen was involved with, but also might have had a more fatal outcome for the researcher herself.

Although Sen did intervene on the actions of her subjects in this one circumstance, her notes suggest that she generally attempted to remain a placid observer to all
situations, even where violence occurred. She is not insensible to the fact that silence is often taken as alliance with a cause, a fact that she addresses at the close of her paper:

Through their construction of me as a friend, a sympathiser and an agent of the bhari duniya, the wider world, did they also construct an image of the duniya that would support their aggression? (2004:6)

The power balance throughout Sen’s fieldwork remained more securely in favour of the Sena women than the anthropologist studying them. Would it have harmed Sen personally to take affront with what was happening in the Mumbai slums? We can only truly focus, after the event, on the information gathered. This information, although somewhat one-sided in content, nonetheless represents a strong insight into the inner-workings of a dangerous political movement, and in this case we might more readily bend the rules of ethics. In addressing whether ethical fieldwork was possible in the case, I cannot say that it was unethical, as Sen clearly acts in a manner she believes safest to both herself and her subjects, whilst diligently attempting to expand her access to greater in-depth research.

Conclusion

Punch notes that in some cases of fieldwork it may be “situationally inappropriate to repeat continually that purpose [of the research] and to identify oneself.” (1986:37) By this he means that the researcher may be unable to constantly introduce themselves as an anthropologist, and should use the rule to do so as a guideline that may be varied under difficult circumstances.

In Sen’s case, it would have been dangerous to continually announce herself as a researcher, although she did ensure that those she interviewed were aware that she was making a study of them. If we look at Humphreys, on the other hand, he makes no attempt to suggest that he is conducting research, and in fact consciously hides this by adopting disguises.

Despite his dubious methods it cannot be denied that Humphreys’ research gave us a far greater understanding of human sexual activities outside of ‘normative’ practices. At the time of Tearoom Trade’s publication, the AIDs epidemic was about to hit, and until that time barely any attention had been given to ‘cottaging’ or the idea that married men might perform homosexual activities in secret. The main issue to contention must be whether or not his records ensured to sufficient degree the confidentiality of his subjects, for as Punch stresses: “What is trivial to us may be of vital concern to the researched.” (1896:48)

Words: 2,432.

Essay produced for Goldsmiths College, London. 2010.

 

 

Bibliography/References

Hunt, Jennifer. C. (1989) Psychoanalytic Aspects of Fieldwork. Sage University Paper.

Laud Humphreys (1970) Tearoom Trade. UK: London. Gerald Duckworth & Co.

MaCall and Simmons (eds.), (1969) Issues in Participant Observation. USA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Punch, Maurice. (1986) The Politics and Ethics of Fieldwork. Sage University Press pp.29-48

Sen, Atreyee (2004) ‘Mumbai slums and the search for ‘a heart’: Ethics, ethnography and dilemmas of studying urban violence,’ in: Anthropology Matters Journal 2004, Vol 6. (http://www.anthropologymatters.com)

Wax, Murray. L. ‘Some issues and sources on ethics in anthropology,’ from: Cassell, J. and Jacobs, S.E. Handbook on Ethical Issues in Anthropology. (http://www.aaanet.org/committees/ethics/toc.htm)

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I know I’ve been neglecting this blog.

Unless you have been living under rock in the Arctic Circle,
you will have, if not followed, then at least heard the story of the recent
London Riots, which spread quickly across the city and even strayed over into
areas of Manchester and Medway.

Not so long ago, David Cameron launched his ‘hug a hoodie’
campaign, the idea being to target underprivileged kids, or ‘youths’ as MPs and
media like to term them, and show them that government policies had their ‘best
interests’ at heart, and were committed to providing them with a brighter
future post-recession.

Today, Mr Cameron along with many others in government and
let’s be honest, across the media too, have begun to wonder whether the ‘hoodie’
itself has a large part to play in taking the blame for facilitating the recent
unrest. It should be noted that not all of the violence, looting and general
thuggery committed during the Riots should be cast solely at the door of ‘youths,’
and children, as there were many adult offenders, from disenchanted
school-teachers to kids of bankers. However, the majority of offenders were
wearing the ubiquitous garment in question.

I’ve just been watching tonight’s One Show (watch it now on
BBC i-player if you fancy seeing what I’m referring to), where they asked
whether the hoodie (the garment that is) should be banned. A surprising number
of the random members of the public they questioned seemed to think it might be
a good idea – though I am wary of editing here – and a quick role playing test
where one of their middle-aged crew members tried to see whether passers-by
would talk to him with or without one on. No one wanted to talk to him hooded
up.

The hooded sweatshirt has to be seen as separate from the Hoodie.
The Hoodie is what has become a personification of a thug who commits so-called
‘mindless’ violence, possibly in a gang, and has no time for authority, maybe
because they think that the system they are being told to support has let them
down. And they wear a hooded sweatshirt to help obscure their identity while
carrying out these acts. The hooded sweatshirt itself can’t do all these
things. It’s just a garment, albeit one that has picked up as a symbol for
societal threat.

However, that’s not to say that we don’t understand the power
that the wearing of a hooded sweatshirt affords us in certain situations. If
you see someone walking down the street in sunshine with their hood up, let’s
be honest it looks a bit odd. But after dark, the impact of wearing a
face-obscuring garment like this brings on a whole other issue. Body studies
have continually stressed the importance of human interactions, if not through
the whole face then certainly the eyes and mouth. In the UK where we are
predominantly not wearing veils and other covering clothes for the majority of
areas in the country, being confronted with a person whose identity is obscured
is an unsettling experience.

I own a hooded sweatshirt, and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t.
Even my mother who is 54 has one.
Usually I don’t wear the hood up, but I am well aware of its power. I
used to walk to my university in the middle of the night to do my printing
(excellent when you’ve just finished and want to skip the morning queues). I
had a massive, baggy hooded sweater I would wear walking down there alone at
night. It was big enough to comfortably mask my laptop, often concealed
underneath, and my face. Taking a glance at me as I walked past, you would be
hard-pressed to identify whether I was male or female, whether I was a threat –
actually, anything at all. There was a conscious aim to be anonymous, yet with
a lingering threat of potential violence. Of course, I did not intend to attack
anyone, but I sought to deter anyone who might have attacked me if I had
sauntered down there as an obvious young girl on my own.

I think the conclusion we might draw from that experience is
that unfortunate as it is, we still expect violent behaviour to stem from men
rather than women, particularly if acting alone and not protected by a gang.

I am at a loss really as to how to end this post of
Hoodie-musings, but I think it’s fair to say that it is prohibitive to give
this item of popular clothing undue ‘power’ to make us uncomfortable.

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I realise, of course, that this blog has been severely neglected of late, and this is down to two primary reasons:

1. I spilled sugary tea all over my laptop and haven’t been able to do so much as turn it on for nearly 3 months now. Finally, at the end of this week I should be the proud owner of a new HP – thanks to the parents for help!

2. Basic lack of material.

…. Actually no, that 2nd is probably the worst excuse ever from an anthropology student, so let’s backtrack: There are some critiques of recent fashion/fragrance advertising at my sister blog ‘Catherine Lucas Design’ (filed under Art Reviews), which may be of interest not only for those engaged in fashion theory and/or advertising techniques, but also sociology.

Once I am securely back online and not borrowing IT access from parents/friends/uni/work, I also hope to revive this blog and get the debates going again. I also plan to change the site header as soon as I have access to Photoshop again; withdrawal from my beloved Adobe Creative Suite brings its own special forms of pain.

Over but not out.

The Anthromodeologist.

 

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Recently I was asked to reccommend some academic texts for the study of fashion alongside a cultural studies/anthropological theme. You can find the answer on the ‘about’ comments page, however I thought it might also be useful to paste it in here as a post too.

The following books are listed alphabetically by author, because that’s not only fair, but also it would be impossible for me to advise anyone on what books could be of most use to them. It depends entirely on the information you’re looking for, and the aims of your theoretical research. However, I do have a large personal library of academic texts surrounding anthropology and gender in particular, as well as fashion theory, and these have inevitably become interlinked with feminist texts, media and PR critical analysis, and various other intermingling topics, particularly psychoanalytical of late.

If you’re thinking about looking at the subject of fashion and culture, however, these texts might be a good starting point – I know they were for me:

Barthes, Roland (2004), The Language of Fashion. Berg Publications
Barthes is concerned with semiotics – i.e. the idea that everything can be taken as a sign or symbol for something else. I personally used this book to help me research Dandyism, of which this book has a short chapter, examining not only the techniques of this dressing style, but also its social ethos and political symbolism. The book is not very long, so I see it (perhaps mistakenly) as an additional add-on to Barthes earlier work, ‘The Fashion System,’ which is also excellent.

Crane, Diana (2000), Fashion and it’s Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing. University of Chicago Press.
This book examines clothing not only as a mode of self expression, but as a mode of non-verbal reaction against social norms. It examines views on class and gender in particular, with a keen focus on outward expression of sexual orientation. I found the chapter “Fashion Images and the Struggle for Women’s Identity’ particularly impressive whilst researching for an essay on advertising in women’s fashion, and the notion of ‘building’ and embodying identities. However, the book also touches on political elements such as global markets, class and control, and also, unlike many books about fashion, devotes an entire section to a very interesting exploration of masculine identities as impressed through dress.

De Beauvoir, Simone (1949, republished 1997) The Second Sex. Vintage Classics.
Good lord, where to start on this book? It’s vast, for one thing. My own tattered but faithful copy looks like a hedgehog on acid, it has so many coloured tab markers in it! Helpfully segregated into two ‘books’, and these into various parts with their own chapters, De Beauvoir’s book is one of the most important books (in my very humble opinion) to study when looking at not only Gender studies, but also the social construction of ‘woman’ from infancy, through childhood, to adulthood, with the section on motherhood particularly interesting as it examines the idea that a mother is not a natural transitional identity, but must be in some ways socially formed. Anyway, I can’t go on about this because we would be here for many days!

Moore, Henrietta L (1988), Feminism and Anthropology. Polity Press.
It is very difficult to discuss Fashion, in an Anthropological sense, without looking at Feminism. I have a love/hate relationship with the subject, however it is important to understand certain movements of feminism (the so-called ‘waves’ are very different from each other and should influence the way we view movements in fashion and embodied identity differently). Moore’s book looks to the main social issues surrounding and impacting feminism, such as changing family structures, the viewing of and status of women in the workplace, and what ‘women’s work’ is or has evolved as, and perhaps most importantly, examines feminist critques in anthropology itself. The book has come under a lot of criticism, not all of it complimentary, but this by no means makes it less useful reading.

…Those are my ‘big four,’ if you will, for the specific area of focus on fashion and anthropology, however the following are equally important and very often influence my reading:

Butler, Judith, (1999) Gender Trouble. (Routledge)
Cole, Shaun (2000) Don We Now Our Gay Apparel: Gay men’s dress in the twentieth century. (Berg)
Vinken, Barbara (2005) Fashion Zeitgeist: Trends and Cycles in the Fashion System. (Berg)
Wolf, Naomi (1991) The Beauty Myth: How images of beauty are used against women. (Vintage)

Various other theorists of interest:
Sophie Woodward (women and everyday dressing)*; Emma Tarlo (muslim and faith dressing and it social and political signifiers)*; Hannah Arendt (theories of loneliness); Valerie Steele (fashion theorist and historian); Joanne Entwistle (the dressed body); Donna Haraway (theories of cyborg and techonology in the social sphere); Ariel Levy (feminism); Germaine Greer (feminism); Frances Pine (women’s work and family roles in rural Poland)*, etc etc etc!

Also, if you have access to JStor or AnthroSource, these are invaluable search engines for academic articles and readings, as well as academic book reviews. Most universites have access to these and they are brilliant. I like to download and save interesting readings, even if I just think they might be of use at some point though not necessarily for what I’m researching at the time.

I hope all of this is useful to anyone looking into this subject area! If you have your own reccommendations, please leave comments for other people to be informed – and to inform me too!

(*okay, I’m biased, these three have been tutors of mine…)

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(Catherine Lucas, May 2006)

The Impact of Fashion Photography on Consumer Choices and Embodiment of Identity.

The manner in which we, as consumers, choose to dress, depends heavily on the psychological effects imposed upon us by images projected daily on us. These images may come in advertising, or photographic media, and even in film and music videos but generally none influence us so potently as images of fashion photography, which generate so many conflicting ideas of what it is socially acceptable to look like in terms of physical attributes, and which garments we should be wearing.

“Lakoff and Scherr… claim that fashion photographs generate enormous dissatisfaction among women because they create unrealistic expectations that most women are unable to meet.”[1]

The gangly, unblemished, fresh yet slightly androgynous form of Kate Moss[2] posing awkwardly in the Calvin Klein Obsession adverts is not an image easily forgotten by those who have seen it. The photographs are iconic, an emblem of the brand, incorporated into its heritage, and stands out as one to inspire a generation of waif-wannabes. Websites not only guarding against the dangers of anorexia nervosa, the condition in which people feel that they must starve themselves to lose weight, no matter how thin they become, but also websites promoting so-called ‘thinspiration’[3], in which those promoting anorexia and associated images as an ideal of beauty, use the image of Kate Moss in these adverts as either a deterrent or an incitement to desirable appearance. This is an extreme reaction to a fashion photograph and proves the incredible lasting impact (for good or bad) of some prominent or ‘iconic’ images.

 

According to Diana Crane (professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania) the goal of fashion “is to project images that are intended to attribute meanings to items of clothing.” Fashion photography serves to create an idealised ‘character’, a connection between the model and the clothing, which influences self-perception and social standing. For example, in the magazine advertisements for the ‘Dior Addict’[4] fragrance, the model’s image is distorted, and her pose purposely wanton and sweaty, glamorising the idea of a drug-induced ‘trip’. However, as Crane puts it, “fashion photographers have synchronised their themes and images with those that circulate in youth cultures and…the media…”[5] Fashion photographers have observed an already present, underlying glamorisation of drug culture in youth society and the general media, and have used it to their own advantage. By generating a high-impact advertisement that will be seen in all the key fashion and lifestyle magazines, the photograph is promoting not only the product, but also an elusive and (allegedly) exciting area of society. Those influenced by the advert might not only buy the fragrance, but also adopt elements of the clothing and lifestyle into their own identity.

Dior 'Addict' Magazine Advertising

It is not only advertising which may use fashion photography in influencing not only what we wear, but also out ideals of celebrity culture and social standing. Elizabeth Hurley became the centre of great media attention in 1994, when she accompanied Hugh Grant to the premiere of ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ wearing a stunning Versace evening gown secured at the sides with gold safety pins.[6] The image of this then largely unknown actress, and the stunning dress she was wearing, instantly dominated the media headlines. The images of this dress have achieved iconic status, a place in fashion history in their own right. Women craved the elegant yet sexually provocative styling affected by these photographs.

Elizabeth Hurley

Through the huge attention to the paparazzi shots of this ensemble, Hurley’s figure, trim yet curvaceous in the right areas, became the ‘perfect’ body, and one that women believed might actually be attainable, rather than that of Kate Moss. However, one commentator, the author of ‘Is being Thin really that Great?” says of Hurley:

“The patron saint of thin, Elizabeth Hurley, never seems to tire of offering titbits of advice on maintaining her Twiglet proportions. Last week, she ‘revealed’ she is always hungry, hardly eats a thing and will occasionally allow herself to pig right out on six raisins. It’s the ‘six’ that gives her away as a total obsessive.”[7]

According to a report in the Times,

The crazed system across the media that prizes celebrity thinness and leads “style icons” such as Liz Hurley to announce that if she looked as “fat” as Marilyn Monroe she would kill herself, needs to be thoroughly upended. Because Kate Moss is thin she is prized and paid millions to lead “campaigns” across the media, rather than identified as an ill- educated drug addict who managed to miss her only child’s third birthday because she was in a drying-out clinic.”[8]

Clearly, behind the woman [Hurley] idolised by many is just another woman driven by images of ‘perfection’ and fearing degradation in society –one of the severe and prominent dangers of the ‘celebrity culture’. Hurley’s ‘obsessive’ nature may be compared to those of other celebrities who are suffering from or have in the past suffered from publicly scrutinised eating disorders. Anorexic or bulimic celebrities such as Mary-Kate Olsen and Calista Flockheart have obviously had their diet inspiration influenced by fashion photography of models such as Kate Moss and Jodie Kidd[9] on the catwalk –they’re ‘all bones,’ and this is promoted! It is little wonder that these images show up on ‘thinspiration’ sites.

'Thinspiration' Sample Image

Jodie Kidd on the Catwalk

However, it is not only the state of our bodies that are influenced by fashion photography. More affluent consumers, and celebrities in particular, often try to remake the catwalk ensembles, as is particularly commented on in the pages of ‘Vogue’, announcing ‘it’s a look’[10] as stars and women of social standing hanker after the same ‘it’ bag, dress, shoes, etc. The success of the Birkin bag, Chloe Paddington bag and the Fendi Spy bag are prime examples of a ‘trend’ in action. After the bags were shown and photographed on the catwalk, they became the key ‘hot item’ for any serious follower of fashion, with huge waiting lists and even more extravagant price tags.

However, it is not solely the fashion photographer (although notable fashion photographers such as Mario Testino are revered for their talents, the pioneers of a whole fame status of their own) who is responsible for the fashion photography that influences us. Behind the fashion photograph may be photography sitting and art directors, stylists, make up artists, fashion designers, and of course the choice of model is also pivotal to the success of a fashion photograph. The choice of model lends a different effect to the whole photograph, as he or she must be completely compatible with the clothing and set choices. For example, though Kate Moss has achieved global recognition and superior model status, in some cases she would not be as suited to a shot as Lily Cole.[11] For this reason, it is fruitless for a ‘normal’ woman to attempt to completely emulate a look she has seen on the catwalk or in fashion photography: the look will never be quite right, never exactly the same, and if she does not accept this, her paranoia could lead of obsession, examples of which we have already discussed.

Lily Cole in a magazine spread

Kate Moss is a clear example of a model and style icon whose fashion choices clearly influence those who see her photos in terms of how to dress and in some sense, to behave. In a survey carried out by a social experiments researcher, journalist Kate Finnigan said, “You can’t deny that Kate Moss never gets it wrong and Sienna Miller is working it. They have that cheeky, just-picked-this-up-off-the-floor style that so many ordinary British girls have – except they’ve got more money.”[12] Photographed constantly wearing a lot of clothing from high street giant TopShop, Moss’ photographs, whether paparazzi shots or choreographed, have influenced thousands of British women and also tourists into shopping there, also paving the way for the high street phenomenon –suddenly it has become the height of ‘cool’ to mix extremely cheap, throwaway fashions with occasional designer pieces. In the afore-mentioned survey, Finnigan listed TopShop as one of her most frequent stores to buy in, showing a direct correlation between her admiration for Moss’ style and her own buying habits.

 (Note: this piece was originally written before Kate Moss’  Topshop line was launched.)

Throwaway fashion directly influenced by the fast-moving catwalk trends and fashion photography seen in magazines such as Vogue, Tatler, Glamour, etc, has had a huge cultural impact –A vest from Primark, at £2, can now be teamed with the coveted Fendi Spy bay, and the bargain will be flaunted just as much as the luxury purchase, according to ‘steal her style’ articles and the influence of photographs showing supermodels and celebrities doing the same thing. 

Shoppers have become much more savvy, claims Top Shop brand director Jane Shepherdson: “They want to be able to buy the things celebrities are wearing or they want to be able to buy into the trends that they’ve seen from the catwalk as quickly as possible.”

Top Shop’s move towards fast fashion increased sales by 20% last year.”[13]

Looking back on the history of fashion, and its promotion through photographs of ‘the right’ model, Twiggy[14] (born Leslie Hornsby) may be seen as a notable, earlier example.

 

She was named “The Face of ’66” by the Daily Express. In the mid 60’s at 16 years of age, Twiggy became internationally known as the world’s first supermodel, her photographic modelling success epitomising the age.”[15]

The first official ‘superwaif’ supermodel, she not only influenced a whole new wave of ‘skinny’ fashion, but the iconic fashion photography images of her, also promoted the miniskirt, babydoll dress[16], and 60s mod look, now all firm staples of the ever re-emerging Sixties’ fashion trends. 

“Twiggy was the personification of “Swinging” London (or Mod London, if you prefer); she adorned the cover of virtually every magazine except Field and Stream, and was on hand for all the “in” parties and public events always decked out in the trendiest frocks. A 1967 TV special revealed this supermodel to be a giggly, somewhat airheaded cockney kid, but this “everygirl” quality only enhanced her charm.”[17]

There is no doubt that Twiggy ‘changed the face of fashion’ –even almost fifty years on, she remains an icon of British fashion and the Sixties’ image- one whose photographs still serve as an inspiration of style for women today.

'Twiggy' in the 1960s

The Sixties mod look became a collective identity between the consumers who pursued this trend. Hundreds of women began shopping at Mary Quant[18] and the Biba Emporium[19] based on the looks promoted by Twiggy and the related fashion photography. The success of the miniskirt in particular stands testament to the longevity of these trends and the fashion photographs that inspired them. In 1993, Lutz and Collins acknowledged, “…a magazine photograph is ‘a dynamic site at which many gazes or viewpoints intersect’…”[20] Therefore, consumers many draw on parts of a fashion photograph as inspiration towards what they see as their own individual look and identity. The women who followed the Sixties’ mod look may have done so after looking at photographs of Twiggy in a miniskirt, but at the same time have felt that they were inventing their own personal look, in keeping vaguely with the current trend but not duplicating it directly.

In answering a questionnaire on the subject of the influence of fashion photography on our collective and individual styles,

“Some women suggested that fashion photographs should be viewed as a form of art and fantasy rather than as representations of fashion: “It’s like a dream, because you know that 90 percent, probably 98 percent of the clothes are unattainable.”

However, one woman admitted she was susceptible to trends: “I think if you’re flipping through a magazine and you continually see the same type of outfit on different pages, you might, I might try to alter what I’m wearing. Because you see it’s like a new trend.””[21]

This research shows that although many women realise they may never duplicate the looks they admire in fashion photography, they may still aspire to do so. In other cases, they may be influenced ‘unconsciously’, and might “be inclined to wear a particular combination of clothing, without remembering the source of the idea.”

We may conclude from all this, that fashion photography holds an enormous influence over what ‘we’ (as consumers) wear on a day-to-day basis, whether we make a conscious effort to do so or not. The majority of us probably perceive ourselves as individual dressers, even as pioneers of style in our own social groups, rather than admitting to following a collective identity. The psychological impact of constant media throwing fashion, celebrities, trends and the ever obscure pursuit of ‘cool’ as us every day, may affect our choices far more than we are willing to admit. Yes, perhaps it is ‘obsessive’ that Elizabeth Hurley sees six raisins as a gross battering to her ideal diet, but can any of us honestly say that we have never looked at a picture of her and wished we could take the clothing or even a body part and swap it with our own?

Ultimately, what is truthfully going through out minds is probably this, a quote from a white undergraduate interviewed over the impact of fashion photography, spoken in a sudden burst of honesty:

“I know I’ll never, never be able to look like her, and it really pisses me off.” [22]


[1] “Fashion and it’s Social Agendas” –Diana Crane, 2000. p 205.

[5] “Fashion and it’s Social Agendas” –Diana Crane, 2000. pp 202-203.

[7] http://www.diet-blog.com/archives/2005/01/30/is_being_thin_really_that_great.php

[8] http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2092-2124939,00.html

[12] http://www.antiapathy.org/socialexperiments/index.php?i=32

[13] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/3086669.stm

[15] http://www.twiggylawson.co.uk/biography.html

[17] http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/filmography.html?p_id=72246&mod=bio

[18] See picture reference: http://www.maryquant.co.uk/imgs/page/shops/par_shop.jpg

[20] “Fashion and its Social Agendas’, Diana Crane 2000. pp 209-210.

[21] “Fashion and its Social Agendas.” Diana Crane, 2000. p 214

[22] “Fashion and its Social Agendas.” Diana Crane, 2000. p 215

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(October 2007, Catherine Lucas)

‘Uniforms’, as a subdivision of clothing categories, are continuously and obviously present in our daily lives. School uniforms may be our own personal experience of uniforms, followed by those worn by the public services such as the police, defence services of the military, and even up to and including hospital workers, shop assistants, and the ‘business uniform’ of the suit worn to the office. However, uniforms are present in many less defined areas of our clothing decisions. Using theories of semiotics, we can begin to understand how our conscious (or unconscious) decision to wear black clothing, for example, may link one’s appearance to that of the goth, without comprising a set uniform, but by taking clothing as a signifier of non-verbal messages to extend an idea of a ‘uniform’ of a certain ‘social group’ towards others.

To understand this idea of simulated uniformed dressing, one must first address the idea of semiotics, which cultural theorist Umberto Eco defines as “concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign.”[1] Clothing acts as one of the many social signifiers with which we visually convey information about ourselves to each other. According to the semiologist Roland Barthes, who used theories of semiotics and applied them to fashion, “for any particular object (a dress, a tailored suit, a belt) three different structures exist, one technical, another, iconic, the third, verbal.”[2] In terms of fashion, media and social informers are used to determine the visual language that certain clothing conveys. This links back into the idea of networking social subcultures, as we may give a certain meaning to a specific garment according to the social subculture we come to identity it with.

The same idea can be applied to uniforms, in that a school uniform, for example, is specifically formulated to convey any number of meanings. A school uniform does not, merely tell outsiders which school the wearer attends, but is also designed to give an impression of the school’s educational status as an institution, and also to give an impression of the social ‘sector’ it takes its target students from. For example, a school uniform worn with a blazer and tie may be intended to portray a sense of middle class elevation, and also hold the school up as one which encourages smart dressing and through this angle of presentable appearance, one which inspires good grades and polite social conduct. The origins of the school uniform began in Great Britain, with many older schools still embedded in military roots[3], particularly boys’ schools such as Eton College[4] and Gordon School, and remains a tradition for many schools sharing this background despite becoming co-educational and dropping their fees after ‘modernisation’, such as Sir Roger Manwood’s School. The traditions of many such schools continue to incorporate a cadet force and draw their uniforms from this influence, although for most schools full military regalia are only worn for parades or on ‘founding’ day.  

Our social obsession with identity, our desire to fit with the crowd yet simultaneously assert ourselves simultaneously as individuals, is at the heart of the idea of fashion, as the social signification of the clothes we wear is used to assert different ideologies every day. With some very standardised uniforms such as school uniforms, individuals may often feel that their ability to assert themselves in an individual manner is being quashed, however where we assert ourselves to less regulated uniforms of our preferred social groups, we may feel that we are allowed to express ourselves more freely. According to the theories of Joanne Entwistle concerning the ‘dressed body’,

            “Not only does dress form the key link between individual identity and the body, providing the means, or ‘raw material’ for performing identity, dress is fundamentally an inter-subjective and social phenomenon, an important link between individual identity and social belonging.”[5]

What we wear is chosen whether consciously or not, to reflect our social or intellectual aspirations. Where such cases may arise that we wish to assert ourselves within a particular or preferred social group which is ‘not our own’, this dressing may cause a subversion of our own identity, taking on the characteristics of a ‘costume’ or social disguise. Uniforms, whether consciously constructed in an obvious manner for school or work, or unconsciously in order to signify a social ideal, allow us to construct our own identities; identities which may easily be altered by simply changing our uniform to that of another social arena.

Calefato extends on this idea; describing an example of a specific scenario where we may see another outside of the ‘uniform’ we have become accustomed to associating them with:

            “We have all chanced to meet… someone we normally see only at work, hand haven’t recognised them immediately, since they were dressed (or undressed) differently …with a soldier…we are used to seeing [them] in uniform, and so we don’t recognise them in ‘plain clothes’.” (2004)[6]

Our daily uniform becomes synonymous with how we are placed in relation to others in such a strong way through the semiotics of clothing, that to be parted from this ‘identity’ becomes a potentially shocking experience. Many of the subcultures we are identified with can trace their fashion statement roots back to an injection of military uniform styling.

In addition to forming the basis for what we can now recognise as the source of the school uniform and workers’ uniformity of dress, leading to the integration of more recognisable ‘uniforms’, military uniforms remain the most obvious examples of strict uniforms in our society. Although the dress codes of our many subcultures adopt variations on a uniformed identity, elements of military dress are seen throughout many of these arenas and across the fashion spectrum, providing the inspiration in cut, design, silhouette and even self-comportment. This essay will explore elements of military dress and how they have influenced fashion in recent history.

In the 1980s, female office attire centred around the ‘power suit’, and the concept of powerful dressing in the workplace. This apparent ‘pro-masculine’ aspect of female fashions took its inspiration from the power of elevated individuals in the military, seeking to inject women in the workplace with a similar sense of power. Boxy shoulder pads, for instance, emulated a masculine physique and encouraged a ‘powerful’ stature. Similar to the origins of the male office suit, the female ‘power suit’ was derived from these military roots, and echoed the political climate for the 1980s, in the UK in particular, under the leadership of Britain’s first female Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. This was also apparent in popular television soaps of the time such as Dallas, or Dynasty .[7] Although these styles do not appear to look like military uniform copies, the design concepts they drew on heavily borrowed from this area of clothes design. The effect this had on fashion was to give women a newfound sense of power within the workplace and also in their own bodies as powerful symbols of economic and sexual iconography. This reference to the military continued into the early 90s even as the shoulder pads gave way to aviator jackets, which were derived from the uniform of air force pilots.[8] In a hint towards the Navy, blue jeans with crisp white shirts and blue blazers also made an appearance around 1993. A more recent return to the nautical trend was seen in summer 2005 on the British catwalks,[9] featuring a variation of takes on the integration of Naval elements into fashion design, from an almost fetishised femininity at Alexander McQueen, to more sombre attempts from Stella McCartney. 

Elements of fetish dressing in fashion are often associated with the influence of military uniforms, as are the origins of some gay subcultures such as ‘leather men’ in the 1950s. Films such as “The Wild One” (1953) starring Marlon Brando popularised leather jackets, which were “first used by German military personnel in the First World War (Farren 1985) and later by military personnel on both sides in World War II,” and had become adopted by motorcycle gangs and then into areas of gay fashion as a symbol of “a man in combat with all positive social forces”.[10] Leather jackets and in particular ‘aviator’ styles, continue to move in and out of fashion trends, as with other military influences. In a less obviously machismo manner, Dolce and Gabbana periodically incorporate military and nautical themes into their men’s wear collection through braid detailing and added components such as epaulettes to suggest a hint of uniform styling.

As a consequence of these earlier leather subculture adoptions, military influences began to filter down to subversive up and coming designers such as Vivienne Westwood, who designed her infamous ‘seditionaires bondage suit’ in 1976 “inspired by American military fatigue trousers and the motorcyclists Belstaff jacket. It was first worn by Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols in Paris, and caused uproar. The trousers have a zippered seam under the crotch and a detachable black towelling bum flap, like a loincloth, and ‘hobble’ straps.”[11]. It was the clever adaptation of ideas alongside seductive but not overtly reputation-destroying subversive designs such as these that helped propel Westwood into success, and earn her a place in mainstream fashion. The essence of decadent military is a theme Westwood returns to consistently across her collections, such as the collection of parade jackets produced for her Spring/Summer collection of 2005.[12]  

In contrast to the popularity of military uniforms as the basis of sexual statements, they are also used on a political angle to promote peace, with a recent example coming from “Collection Bebe” in March 2007.

“The collection, designed by the astute couture hand of David Cardona, began with inspiration from the state of the world and how everyone is longing for peace… This season, Cardona explored the contrasts of war and peace. He juxtaposed military styles with edgy futuristic looks and used the structure of masculine tailoring to contrast the curves of the feminine form. It was toy soldier meets sexy little doll. Cardona said the collection wasn’t originally meant to be a political statement, but he and British stylist, Paula Bradley, ran with the theme… There were sleek, sharply tailored military officer coats… leather jackets … styled with white officer’s belts and gloves. “If clothing could only inspire peace that would be something amazing,” said Cardona. (March 18 2007, AM)”[13]

Contemporary fashion statements reflect the political state of the world. At the time of publishing, the above quote was written as British and American troops waged war in Iraq, and fashion allows individuals to express their own opinions of these political and social events. The idea of “everyone longing for peace”[14] is manipulated within Cardona’s collection not only as a fashion statement but as a social commentary, purposefully drawing on military influences to illustrate critical opinion on the world as seen by anti-war exponents.

The topic of war is one which will always be associated in some way with military-inspired fashions, and collections may not be as well received at that of Cardona. The below story reported in July 2001 stands testament to the use of militant imagery gone wrong and taken as an ill-favoured political statement by critics and religious groups.

Barbaro Treatment

THE Jewish community in Britain has rallied in condemnation of an Italian designer who made use of a swastika motif in a fashion show in Rome last week. Francesco Barbaro, a 26-year-old from southern Italy, argued that he was attempting to ridicule the slavish nature of fashion by dressing his models in military-style clothes daubed with the controversial Nazi symbol. “I wanted to attack the pretentious side of the fashion world and the fashion victim who is even willing to wear a tragic symbol like the swastika just to keep up with the latest fashions from the designer of the moment,” he told Reuters. But the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which understands that some designers will engage in shock tactics to gain media attention, has slammed his actions claiming that the swastika would always be linked to the Holocaust. “The use of the swastika is not only tasteless and offensive but it may also encourage racist and anti-Semitic behaviour by neo-Nazi groups,” Public Affairs Director Fiona Macaulay said. “The electoral rise of the far right in Britain reflects a Europe-wide increase which all ethnic and minority groups are monitoring with some concern.”[15] 

 
 

The shock tactics employed by Barbaro had a damaging effect on his status as a designer but also influenced contemporary fashion for the following season against utilising potentially subversive uniformed references, keeping areas of the armed forces which are generally characterised in fashion as less disruptive, such as nautical themes which become less threatening through a dominant colour palette of white, red and navy blue, which has a more psychologically calming influence due to our concepts of colour signifiers through which we associate colours such as white with peace and tranquillity.

Nautical themes and feminised Naval uniforms crop up periodically as a trend, generally for Spring/Summer collections, as a more accessible take on uniform trends. The temptation to plunge too far into the kitsch is one which is often fallen into, but at its core, the habitual clean lines and uncomplicated colours long associated with this look continue to ensure its popularity not only on the catwalk but also on the high street. However, there have always been some designers such as Gaultier who play with the ‘hello, sailor’ camp imagery derived from some Naval references, though these are generally met in better humour than Barbaro’s swastika offering.   

If the “imposition of uniforms and dress codes” is intended to “exercise control over the workers within,”[16] (Entwistle) then it is fashion’s purpose to release the worker, and break the mould of obedience. Even if there is a truth in the statement that we dress in a way that “may assuage… fear by stabilizing our individual identity,”[17] (Wilson, 1985) there are no rules to suggest that the fashion industry cannot shake up these identities we have cocooned ourselves in, even if that means a drastic reshaping of our common uniforms. The integration of aspects of military uniforms into our habitual styling allows for a more expressive comment on clothing and its sigification, whilst simultaneously offering the wearer a crutch of uniformity to cling on to.

Although some interpretations incorporating militant references have failed to meet the approval of critics and industry press, fashion’s love affair with the uniform of the armed forces continues to reinvent itself periodically throughout fashion history and continues to enjoy a strong status in recent years. The coded meanings embedded within some interpretations may remain open to further speculation and argued interpretations as their potency maintains its level of insight dependant on the political and social feelings current of the period. However, it is clear that as we look back on the progress of these trends throughout the 20th century and into the present day, the subcultures and social commentaries built around these trends invariably hold particular or significant insights into the continuously changing climate of fashion, pop culture, sexual and political awareness, and the semiotics of clothing as social and cultural signifiers.


[1] Umberto Eco, “A Theory of Semiotics.” Macmillan, London 1976.

[2] Roland Barthes, “Elements of Semiology.” trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith. Jonathan Cape: London 1967.

[3] http://www.archivist.f2s.com/bsu/Bsu.html

[4] http://www.etoncollege.com/default.asp

[5] Joanne Entwistle, essay: ‘The Dressed Body’. From the book: “Body Dressing.” Joanne Entwistle and Elizabeth Wilson. Berg, UK / US. 2001. (Sub-section: ‘Dress and Embodied Subjectivity.’)

[6] Patrizia Calefato: ‘The Clothed Body’. Berg, US / UK. 2004. p.23.

[7] http://www.fashion-era.com/power_dressing.htm

[8] http://www.fashionera.com/the_1990s.htm

[9] see catwalk stills at http://www.vogue.co.uk/Trends/Spring_Summer_2005/Nautical/slideshow.asp?Page=0

[10] Diana Crane, “Fashion and its Social Agendas: Class, Gender and Identity in Clothing.” University of Chicago Press, 2000. p. 182.

[11] http://www.vam.ac.uk/vastatic/microsites/1231_vivienne_westwood/changing_styles_2.html

[12] http://www.telegraph.co.uk

[13] http://www.vogue.co.uk/vogue_daily/story/story.asp?stid=43798 Article by N. Jayne Seward.

[14] Ibid.

[15] 27th July 2001. Journalist unknown. http://www.vogue.co.uk/vogue_daily/story/story.asp?stid=853

[16] Joanne Entwistle, “The Dressed Body”.

[17] Ibid.

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First blog. Pretty much introductory babble.

I’m writing under a pseudonym to post my comments around the site and on other people’s blogs, but you will find some of my own essays and writings here under my name, Catherine Lucas. When I ‘coined’ (read: made up) the word ‘anthromodeology’ it was to prevent my fashion theory influences and my anthropological influences from being separated out in my head. I don’t believe that art and media references should be separated out from anthropology.

I have to admit, I’m more interested in the everyday of culture and society than sensationalist anthropology. I’m not Malinowski; I’m not Margaret Mead: I don’t think you have to go to far off climes, or ‘go native’ in tribes to be called an anthropologist. Some of the most interesting ethnographies I’ve read have been from people doing fieldwork in unexplored sub-cultures of their own countries or societies. It’s what makes Laud Humphreys’ ‘Tearoom Trade’, for example, so compelling (no matter how ethically unsound his work was criticised to be, there’s no doubt it makes for interesting reading).

Some of the posts on here will be my own essays – obviously ones written either for myself, or years ago and pre – MA Social Anthropology. I don’t want to plagiarise myself before my Masters is finished! So anything posted that was written for a university project will have been for something submitted long ago, and therefore most likely fashion-related. So it could be argued that those works are more related to Cultural Studies than Anthropology …but as we all already know, I love academic crossover.

Some of the posts will be random thoughts – no ‘dear diary’ though – I wouldn’t put people through that! But it’s good to have a ponder now and then.

I don’t know whether anyone will read this – you may not even want to! But if we can get the ball rolling, that would be grand.

Also, pleaes visit my sister-blog Catherine Lucas Design, where you can find my creative streak: photography, fashion design and random squiggly bits!

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