‘Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On’

Encountering Clothes, Imagining Selves



Cultural Studies Review
volume 22 number 1 March 2016
pp. 78–94
© Rosie Findlay 2016

ISSN 1837-8692

Cultural Studies Review 2016. © 2016 Rosie Findlay. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Unported (CC BY 4.0) License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), allowing third parties to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and to remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially, provided the original work is properly cited and states its license.

Citation: Cultural Studies Review (CSR) 2016, 22, 4913, http://dx.doi.org/10.5130/csr.v22i1.4913


Recently in Athens, while living the last days of a dying relationship, Ida Hattemer-Higgins took to walking. On her perambulations, she came upon a large, decrepit store, its entrance clogged with unlicensed brand name clothing and touristy t-shirts. This unpromising exterior belied what she found inside: a ‘grand old sartorial shop, a merchant’s palace filled with ancient deadstock [and] tailored pret-a-porter’ buried under years of dust.1 She describes seeing clothing scattered across the floor as if it had been ‘hastily abandoned before an advancing army’, and the ‘clean and shiny’ new clothes mixed in with the old, which, to her eyes, ‘appeared dignified … diseased and dirty’.2 These never-worn old clothes became a source of fascination for the author, and she returned to the shop each day to browse among them: ‘jackets, trousers, wool-and-felt hats, broadcloth shirts and ties still in their rotting white boxes … fine cuts and colours, hung on long racks, their hues softer along the ridges of shoulders, and crests of lapels, blanched by the light and dust’.3

As I read this description, the clothes-hunter in me itched to discover the location of the shop, filled with its forgotten Yves Saint Laurent and its ‘short dove-gray swing coats, with massive cuffs and collars stiff enough to stand up around the ears’.4 The mystery of it, its incongruously mismatched stock and the alligator-faced proprietor with her cigarette ashing onto the clothing on the floor—I wanted to see it for myself, and take some of those clothes, with their bone buttons and brocade linings, and fold them into my own life.

An invitation to dream: such is the gift of good writing, and, as I’ll discuss here, such can be the promise of clothing, namely when particular garments resonate with us, seeming to offer the possibility of metamorphosis in their wearing. Hattemer-Higgins suggests such a possibility in her essay: she describes carefully rinsing the grime off the clothes she bought in the shop and, having hung them out to dry, standing on the rooftop of her apartment, looking over Athens and thinking about times past, when people would have worn the kinds of clothes drying behind her. She writes of thinking of a past world: ‘Tegel Airport when it was still young—of what it would have done to redeem a person’s humiliation to walk across the tarmac and up the stairs of a commercial airplane while wearing, say, this dress.’5 It is not the look of the dress the author calls us to attend to here, but its transformative quality, its offer of the possibility of redemption from the humiliation that she describes feeling during that unhappy period. In creating a space for the inhabitation of an alternative mode of being, the dress is imbued with the power to speak into the wearer, communicating messages from cloth to skin. The dress, then, suggests a capacity to redeem Hattemer-Higgins’s sense of herself by replacing her shame with something else, with a different, elegant interface with the world. For Hattemer-Higgins, the bygone era of manners and momentary fascinations is not only represented by garments, such as the sea-glass-green linen dress she is considering here, but is called up around and within her in the act of wearing them.

Moments such as this illustrate what political scientist Iris Marion Young deems the open-ended potential of clothes, offering pleasure in the fantasies they allow us to conjure up, a pleasure found partly in ‘imagining ourselves in these possible stories, entering unreality’.6 It also demonstrates the power of imagination as theorist of aesthetics, Antony Savile, argues ‘to construct a second nature out of the material made available by actual nature’.7 Our imagination meets such materials—clothes that represent, that promise—and weaves around them, evoking not just an image-world but a belief that in them, a different kind of subject will be drawn out in a visceral and experiential way. Being imbricated in dreams, then, such clothes—and in their wearing, our embodied selves—become, to appropriate Shakespeare’s Prospero, the stuff that dreams are made on.8 As such, the imaginative act engaged in upon encountering clothes is not limited to that initial consumptive moment, but also carries over in their wearing.


Historically, writing concerned with the communicative qualities of dress has concentrated on the ways that clothes impart messages of a wearer’s taste, class, and identity (or indeed, identities) towards those that apprehend them.9 Although rich in their analysis of clothing’s capacity for social and semiotic communication, such studies tended to overlook the ways that clothing speaks in to the embodied self of the wearer. Yet this has been of burgeoning theoretical interest within the field in recent years, as cultural studies theorists have considered the enmeshed interrelationship between clothing and the embodied self, and have sought to articulate the ways that dress mediates one’s everyday being in the world.10 As Nicki Gregson and Louise Crewe have argued, clothing is ‘not just about fashion and adornment, body shape, disguise and aesthetics, or even functionality, but is an extension of our own corporeality. It becomes us’.11 This observation—that clothing becomes us—reveals the very process that concerns me here—that is, the ways that a sense of self in relationship to the world is, in part, constituted in the encounter between cloth and sense perception.

There are a number of ways that perception, imagination, desire and materiality intertwine in the moment of encountering clothes, in imagining a future self who will wear them, and then experiencing that self as manifest in their wearing. Susan Kaiser intimates such a process when she writes that ‘materials, as well as images, flow in the spaces “in between” … we begin to imagine who we can become through the goods that we buy’.12 Yet what this looks like in practice and how these images are realised from the inside out as we wear clothes we believe can elicit a transformation—and believe even in a diffuse, instinctive way—bears further elaboration. What does it feel like to ‘create everyday “truths” … or meanings as we work through our ideas about who we are becoming, in the moment’?13 In what ways do the material and the immaterial intertwine and co-create our being in the world in the everyday act of getting dressed?

Getting dressed is such a familiar and habitual process that the dynamic negotiation it can involve (if the person selecting the clothes has a choice in what they put on or the manner in which they wear) can be easily overlooked. So too can the ways that the experience of being dressed is intimate, sensory and perceptual, how our understanding of who we are in relation to the world can shift according to what we have drawn on over our skin. As such, how clothing operates on, in and through the embodied self bears further unpacking. This article will unfold and explore the ways in which wearing can be an imaginative act. I argue that the selection and wearing of clothes mediates one’s being in the world not only by overlaying the form of the body, but also proprioceptively, by affecting one’s sense of who one is as clothed. Of central concern here is the manner in which clothing suggests and reshapes our embodied self by influencing and reconfiguring our experience of ourselves. This shift takes place in our sensory apprehension of clothing, be it touching the sleeve and envisaging who I would be if I were to be the owner and wearer of this coat, or in the experience of wearing, and finding that today I am invisible, today I am ‘business professional’, today I am unutterably cool because of the ‘me’ that is materialised in the world by that which I wear.

This thinking has been influenced by two distinct but similar ways of conceiving of the relationship between imagination and the material world. The first is concerned with the imaginative act of dreaming around clothes, taking up the pre-Enlightenment concept of imagination as a creative way of comprehending material objects; the second follows after Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s figuring of the ‘open-ended continuum’ between the imaginary and the real.14 I will unpack and explore both these philosophical positions through examining a series of stories about clothes and being clothed, drawing from Ida Hattemer-Higgins’s aforementioned essay as well as a series of my own experiences as a woman in clothes. In this approach, I follow the lead of Sandra Weber and Claudia Mitchell, who justified their method of theorising identity and embodiment through discussing actual garments by arguing that clothing ‘as objects of material culture, can act both as entry points for personal (and private) autobiography in relation to questions of identity, as well as entry points for understanding the social components of identity’.15 Experiences that are particular in their detail to Hattemer-Higgins or me are not exclusive in their affective nature or happenstance, as evidenced by the cultural mythology that circulates around the transformative power of dress.

My approach also creates a space to consider the dynamic affective and embodied processes ineluctably woven with dress. If ‘one of the great voids of dress history has been its failure to examine emotional responses to clothing and appearance’, this article may go some way to address this void, acting as a provocation or a starting point to unpick the close weave of what it is to encounter clothes and, in response to them, to imagine and experience new selves.16


According to John D. Lyons, the word ‘imagination’ as we understand it in the contemporary era—that is, as intellectual capacity or generator of fanciful visions— ‘did not exist before the 18th century’.17 It was during the Enlightenment that Romantic thinkers developed the concept of the ‘creative imagination’, investing ‘imagination’ with notions of creativity, foresight and the production of ideas.18 Yet before this time imagination was conceived of as a way to think about material objects, being that which connects sense perception to cognitive understanding of that which is being encountered. This line of thinking, taken up and elaborated differently through the writing of Descartes, Montaigne and Pascal, among others, was influenced by the Aristotelian pragmatic understanding of imagination as an integral aspect to most thought processes, folded into memory and perception. Being understood as the mediator between body and reason, it is the imagination that was understood to render material things distinguishable and comprehensible in their sensory fullness. For example, Lyons illustrates the furnishing quality of imagination by contrasting the memory of having eaten a pie to remembering its taste and the experience of eating it.19 In this tradition, to encounter a material thing is to gather data about it; but it is the imagination that renders it intelligible.

In transposing the data of sense into the comprehension of material things, imagination allows us to apprehend and understand the world. Yet it is also imagination that weaves together present information with prior experience:

imagination (in humans, at least) is not limited to the immediate, present stimulus. Imagination receives, arranges, retrieves, classifies, and combines the sense data, and if we did not have imagination, we would not know the color blue when we close our eyes.20

The creative capacity of this thought process, then, does not imply abstraction from the world, but does allow for the conjuring, the association and connections that can arise from the stimulation of the senses. Lyons accounts for this possibility in writing of the in-between quality of imagination, describing ‘its presence within a gap of some kind, between what is and what we perceive and conceive’.21 What this gap seems to allow room for is interpretation, connotation, and the kinds of creative thinking around material things that can arise when we consider clothing.

It is precisely this gap into which I stepped yesterday morning while getting dressed. What was offered—a high-waisted red-and-navy checked cotton pencil skirt and a long-sleeved caramel jumper of merino wool laid out next to each other on my bed—became simultaneously an imagined becoming of myself as I dressed in them. In registering the colours and patterns, assessing their effect as two garments matched into one outfit, and remembering their fit (close to my form, particularly the skirt, the waistline of which is always insistently present) from prior wears, I was immersed in a feel for the early 1960s, of sweater sets, professional women neatly attired and working in a typing pool. By this I mean I recognised a fleeting and overlapping series of cultural connections that were not generated from the materiality of the garments but was suggested—to me, at least—by them.

To unpack this brief density: the plaid check of the skirt was a popular print in the 1960s, and when worn with the fitted jumper, suggested to me an aesthetic often associated with middle-class, bookish young women in the mid twentieth century. This connotation is emphasised by way the skirt would articulate my waist, reminding me of the hourglass silhouette, the ultimate fashionable feminine body type in the West during that era until superseded by the boyish girlishness of the ‘Twiggy’ ideal that emerged in the mid 1960s. Overlaid with these cultural knowledges are the connotations I bring to them—of competence at work, of skill at producing, through bodily labour, an ‘appropriate’ and polished appearance—and my desire to embody these qualities when I am at work: the very context for which I was getting dressed. Here we see echoed Gregson and Crewe’s observation that the participants of their own study on second-hand clothing would ‘inhabit and recreate earlier eras through clothes and commodities that they buy, wear, use and display’.22 For me, wearing these clothes called up a vestige of the early 1960s, or at least, my imagining of the early 1960s, unconstrained by any facticity of the era beyond an affective impression and set of loosely connected connotations. This thought process was momentary, experienced as a series of fleeting intuitions, a flashed mental response to the colours and memories of the clothes that resonated with my impulse of how I wanted to feel that day. My initial impulse was not evident as a mental picture, but as a sensation that I was trying to dress towards, to match something felt and intangible with something felt and tangible—that is, my clothes.

This fleeting perceptual response to seeing my clothes and remembering the feel of them on my body illustrates how useful the pre-Enlightenment concept of imagination is to furnish us with a language that accounts for perceptual processes like this. Such thinking emplaces the imagination in the body, connecting it to materiality while also weaving it with thought processes (which are, of course, also always embodied). The simultaneity of this relationship between body, imagination and material object is evident in Hattemer-Higgins’s reflection:

new clothes feel like a hand one reaches forward into the folds of a later time. You touch a piece of fabric, and in doing so you touch a future occasion, a future city, a future life. New clothes are the solid tip of the future.23

Whereas Lyons argues that imagination is a bridge between sensation and reason, here we see clothes acting a bridge between present self and imagined, future self.24 In both instances, material elucidates the immaterial and invokes a union of the two.

Virginia Postrel argues that this suggestiveness is the glamour of fashion: it ‘appeal[s] to our desire for transformation by promising a makeover of our lives, or of our selves, as well as our appearance’.25 The transformative possibilities suggested by clothes here extend beyond the ways clothing is often taken to be transformative—that it has power to transform one’s embodied appearance and thus reconfigure one’s social or sexual status (a familiar trope from the ‘makeover movie’ genre)—and suggests the capacity of clothes to also transform one’s sense of self by speaking to one’s embodied self. As such, by believing that a particular garment has the capacity to transform who we are, and in imagining being attired in the garment, we expect to experience ourselves differently when we wear it.

There is another way in which clothing intertwines with imagination—the ways in which imagination, self-perception and embodied experience interweave and co-create a particular, embodied being in the world. Inherent in Hattemer-Higgins’s invocation of ‘a future life’, above, is the implication that the person living it would be a future her, like the imagined passenger at Tegel Airport, divested of the disappointments of the present. The capacity of clothing to be that which we dream around also becomes that which we dream in and through in the moment of wearing, a consideration that leads us to a phenomenological return to the world. It is to this consideration that I now turn, as I explore how this kind of transformation of perception is enacted on and over the skin, as well as through our imagination, as we understand ourselves to be reconfigured by that which we wear.


One of the key fields of experience that French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty interrogated throughout his work was the relationship between what we take to be imaginary and what we take to be real. He wrote against Jean-Paul Sartre’s position that what is imaginary is a ‘negation of the real’, instead demonstrating (particularly in his later works) the ways in which imaginary and real are interwoven in our simultaneous, embodied perception of the world.26 This argument was based on Merleau-Ponty’s understanding that our entire experience and knowledge of the world is predicated on our having an embodied self, as we apprehend the world (and our being in it) through a perceptive capacity that ever interrelates the self and what is external to the self.

Yet Merleau-Ponty interrogates even this divide: what is really external to us, when all that we know of the world passes through us, in a manner of speaking, as we receive and respond to knowledge of it from the interface of our fleshly selves? As he observes, ‘every perception is a communication or a communion, the taking up … by us of an alien intention or inversely the accomplishment beyond our perceptual powers and as a coupling of our body with the things’.27 This earlier work on perception was developed in The Visible and The Invisible, as Merleau-Ponty argues that imagination was as fundamental and co-present in embodied experience as perception, and that the ‘imaginary is already woven into the very texture of the perceptual world’.28 Our being in the world and the world itself, then, are figured by Merleau-Ponty as interwoven, our apprehension of the world always imbricated with other perceptual phenomena. He writes in The Phenomenology of Perception that his field of perception is:

filled with reflections, sudden noises, and fleeting tactile impressions that I am unable to link to the perceived context, and that, nevertheless, I immediately place in the world without ever confusing them with my daydreams. At each instant, I weave dreams around the things, I imagine objects or people whose presence here is not incompatible with the context, and yet they are not confused with the world, they are out in front of the world, on the stage of the imaginary.29

This weave of perceptions and dreams does not divorce Merleau-Ponty’s perception from the material world, but rather is threaded into it: he employs the metaphor of cloth to argue that ‘the real is a tightly woven fabric’, all our perceptions folded into as well as responding to that which we encounter.30 As such, ‘there is no “inner man”, man is in and toward the world, and it is in the world that he knows himself’.31

To experience oneself, then, is to experience oneself as in the world, and as Stella North has elegantly argued, it is to experience oneself as dressed.32 Clothes are, she argues:

part and parcel of our material existence. They are of that world of objects within which we are the bodies we are said to ‘have’, to which they connect and represent us. Body and clothing not only partake of materiality but, being inseparable, partake of it jointly.33

Understanding clothing as inextricable from embodied experience in the world demonstrates how it can be that clothes can reorder who we feel we are in their wearing. When I experience being dressed into a different kind of myself by virtue of wearing something I believe has transformed my being in the world, that very being in the world shifts, as I perceive myself differently. This is a transformation not just enacted by being outfitted in something that visually codes me in a certain way—a semiotic understanding of clothing—but is also enacted in my embodied self as I feel myself to be different. Clothing, then, does not just speak the body, as Joanne Finkelstein argues, but it also speaks to the historical body, shifting the perception of oneself in relation to the changing world.

There is an ambiguity at work here, in which the distinction between cloth and self is rendered indistinguishable and, by extension, so is the distinction between clothed self and that which is commonly conceived of as external to us—both material and immaterial things that are distinct from our person. In her survey of the literature of body and dress, Susan Kaiser notes the recurring theme of ambivalence in writing on this intersection. Clothing is characterised by Elizabeth Wilson as ‘marking the troubled boundary between the body and the larger social world, ambiguously and uneasily’, whereas Boultwood and Jerrard place ambivalence at the ‘centre of the intersection between the body and style/fashion’.34 Kaiser observes that these ambivalences may circulate around clothing because of its close connection with other anxieties surrounding appearance and bodily labour, as well as global capitalism and the inherent systems of structural and economic inequality it perpetuates.35

Yet another possibility proffered by the liminal ambiguity between cloth and skin is the playful, imaginative and transformative capacities I have explored so far in this article. While the concerns that Kaiser raises seem to account very aptly for the anxiety many people feel about dressing—and perhaps also the suspicion of clothing as a frivolous concern, a vanity—it is her later observation that ‘for some individuals style becomes a critical and creative strategy for negotiating new truths and subjectivities … a vehicle not only for being, but also for becoming’ that resonates here.36

To draw these concepts together, let me tell you about my experience of Patti Smith-ness. To look at us side-by-side, it would be difficult to identify any physical similarities between us other than that we are both able-bodied Caucasian women. Patti Smith is 1.73m tall while I stand at a height of 1.68m; her dark brunette hair has silvered into a long mane now that she is in her late sixties, whereas I am mere weeks from turning 30 with straight (dyed) blonde hair; her early work with Robert Mapplethorpe made her synonymous with a lean, dark-eyed androgyny and, in her memoir Just Kids, she describes being mistaken for a beautiful boy by Allan Ginsberg, who, in the middle of trying to pick her up in New York, realised that she was a woman.37 My figure, by contrast, is perhaps best described as ‘hourglass’ in silhouette, and I have not looked anything approximating ‘boyish’ since I was about twelve years old. And yet, I own a pair of pants that make me feel utterly like Patti Smith whenever I draw them on.

These pants are made of black leather and were designed by Ann Demeulemeester, a Belgian designer for whom Smith is a muse and friend. They fit slim and are cut straight through the leg, cropped just on the ankle, and with a waistband that slings across on the top of my hipbones, sitting on me approximately where Patti Smith’s black pants sit on her hips on the cover of her Horses album. When I bought the pants, I thought ‘finally—in these, I can do androgynous cool, I’ll have some echo of her myth, her poetry’, which, of course, is an excellent example of the glamour of fashion at work.

I cannot recall if I have actually seen photographs of Patti Smith wearing black leather pants, or if I’m just confusing this connotation with the many photographs I’ve seen of her dressed in black and white, and folding in memories of seeing other musicians, like Keith Richards, swagger across the stage in tight leather trousers. Yet when I wear them, I actually do feel myself embodying the qualities I associate with her, because the way they feel on me is overlaid and in communication with my perceptions of Patti Smith. Where the leather circles tight on my hips calls my attention to my bones and recalls to me photos I’ve seen of Patti’s rangy midriff jutting above her own black pants. In being newly aware of my hips, tightly enclosed as they are in a material without much ‘give’, I walk lower, with a slightly stiff strut, my movement originating from that part of my body. The constricting tightness of the fabric down my legs encloses me, leading me to attend to how my legs move, to their line and shape, and feeling so enclosed, makes me aware of the finiteness of my legs, makes me feel that they must be slim, being so narrowed into two black stilts. Thus the materiality of the pants changes my experience of my legs. And all the while, there is a buzzing conviction, which is both real and imaginary, that there is an undisputable coolness to these pants, that I am in a lineage of people who have worn leather pants and what those pants meant when they wore them. They make me feel cool, and in walking differently in them, in understanding myself as cool in them, I feel different—I am different—as myself in the world.

As is evident here, my self-perception shifts in relation to that which I am wearing: my sense of being in the world and being myself within that world is in some ways mediated by my clothes and the ways that I understand and imagine around them. There is an echo in my experience here of Young’s argument (after Hollander) that women experience our clothing ‘in the context of the images of clothes from magazines, film, television, that draw us into situations and personalities that we can play at’, an argument that also subtly critiques Merleau-Ponty’s belief that his theory of embodiment could get at ‘pure’ experience that is situated beyond science, ideology and sociocultural constructions such as gender.38 Young’s work advocates for the recognition that embodied experience is affected by our subject position and relationship to structures that delimit our agency. Following her lead, I reflect that the above account of my embodied experience is shaped by ideas of what ‘cool womanhood’ feels like, as transmuted onto my own embodied self through images I have seen—possibly from fashion magazines like Russh that I read as a teenager that idolised cultural figures such as Smith as ‘style icons’—and ideas I have about what those images mean. The very ways that I code and comprehend my sense-perception are informed by my individual position in relationship to the world around me, and also by my gender, the exploration of the creativity and pleasure clothing can afford, traditionally being more encouraged and socially approved as a concern for Western women than men since the nineteenth century.

Young further navigates the gender-specificity of this kind of dressing by writing that there is a freedom, a playfulness inherent in women’s relationship to clothing that is situated outside the male gaze and that largely excludes the lived experience of men. The aesthetic freedom women experience in dressing ‘subverts, unsettles the order of the respectable, functional rationality in a world where that rationality supports domination’.39 As such, for Young, the ‘unreal that wells up through imagination always creates the space for a negation of what is, and thus the possibility of alternatives.’40 To return to my previous example, what is being negated may be as subtle and simple as what I experience to be true of myself: that I look nothing like Patti Smith, a certainty sure to be confirmed by the gaze of other people, if I told them of my perception. Yet I nonetheless feel myself embodying something of what she embodies when I wear leather pants that overlay me (as I figure it) with something she represents to me. This is intimate, embodied knowledge that defies rationality, and yet is not as prominent as Young’s invocation of the unreal as a ‘playful utopia’ suggests.41 I am not playing at anything, nor deliberately fantasising about myself as Smith: I am simply wearing pants, and in drawing them on, I simultaneously draw on the qualities that I believe—albeit believe in a diffuse and carnal way—are inherent in them.

This experience is echoed by a passage by Ilana Abramovitch in Not Just Any Dress, who describes wearing one day a ‘long, form-fitting dress, black rayon with small white sinuous flowers’ and ‘feeling svelte … the long straight skirt … makes me feel elongated even, a rare delight for me at five foot two’.42 I know what she means: I have a long, midnight blue jersey tube skirt so sleek it makes me feel like a straight line all the way from waist to feet, like a knife slicing down. What underlines Abramovitch’s experience and my own is that how we feel in the clothes is not predicated on our appearance in them. I can see my reflection in the mirror while in my leather pants—curvy, blonde, not Patti Smith—and still recognise a quality of Patti Smith about me. That this can occur exemplifies North’s observation that ‘in dressing, we are materialising images internal, vernacular, imagined, textual’, materialisations that may be apparent only to ourselves.43

Here we also see realised Merleau-Ponty’s argument that the real and the dreamlike impress upon one another, described in Morley’s summation:

it is not the imaginary or the perceptual that hold absolute ontological status, but it is the perceptual circuit between the two and the act of faith out of which these two aspects of being arise that allow for the lucidity of the world.44

We see a glimmer of this perceptual faith, too, in the way Ida Hattemer-Higgins talks about the dusty, intricately tailored clothes she found in the store in Athens. What they offered her, as she stood in that dim, liminal space, is the articulation of a new way of being in the world, and a belief that by wearing them, she, too, will be different. Perhaps that future self is as mysterious to her as she would like to be to those who apprehend her, but what she does know is that it is these garments will bring that self closer. Here we see the simultaneous invitation clothes offer, the invitation to dream and the promise of a dream to be realised. As she writes in the conclusion to her essay, ‘destinies rise and destinies fall. Yet I still reach toward the outline of an absence, and dress to go out tonight—interesting to myself and myself alone, deep in a dream’.45


In weaving together a consideration of imagination, sense-perception, embodied being-in-the-world and material things, this work has sought to articulate the deeply ambiguous: that is, the complex and dynamic processes by which our imagination mediates our self-perception as we encounter clothes and dream around them, whether that dreaming be a contemplation of their transformative possibility or a taking up of that possibility over our body. In looking to Lyons’s writing on imagination and material things, I reached for a language to account for the thought processes that clothes inspire, their capacity to propel us into a contemplation of alternative possibilities that only this dress or these shoes could realise. At the same time, Merleau-Ponty’s work creates a space within which we can explain how belief in the transformative qualities of a garment can be experienced in the wearing of it, as in being dressed, we perceive a series of sensations, memories and imaginings that interweave effortlessly in our perception of self as dressed. In their materiality, clothes offer to bring forth, to create around and speak into us, as we too can dress into an outline, a connotation, an idea, and go out, dressed deep in a dream.

Rosie Findlay is a lecturer in Cultural and Historical Studies at the London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London. Her research interests include the intersections between performance and fashion, fashion media, and embodiment and dress. Her first monograph, Fashioning the Style Blogosphere, will be published in 2016.


I would like to thank Andrew Geeves and my reviewers for the guidance they offered during the development of this work.


1 Ida Hattemer-Higgins, ‘I Stopped By The Store Every Day’, in Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton (eds), Women in Clothes, Particular, London, 2014, p. 346.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., p. 347.

5 Ibid., p. 348.

6 Iris Marion Young, On Female Body Experience: “Throwing Like a Girl” and Other Essays, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005, p. 73.

7 Anthony Savile, ‘Imagination and Aesthetic Value’, The British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 46, no. 3, 2006, p. 250.

8 See William Shakespeare, The Tempest Act IV Scene I.

9 See, for example, J.C. Flugel, The Psychology of Clothes, Hogarth Press, London, 1930; Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1973; Georg Simmel, On Individuality and Social Forms, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1971; Alison Lurie, The Language of Clothes, Heinemann, London, 1981; Joanne Finkelstein, After A Fashion, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1998; Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Routledge, London, 2003.

10 See Joanne Entwistle and Susan Kaiser (eds), Body Dressing, Berg, Oxford and New York, 2001; Nicky Gregson and Louise Crewe, Second-hand Cultures, Berg, Oxford and New York, 2003; Sandra Weber and Claudia Mitchell (eds), Not Just Any Dress: Narratives of Memory, Body and Identity, Peter Lang, New York, 2004; Iris Marion Young, On Female Body Experience, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005; Julia Emberley, ‘Material Fictions’, Fashion Theory, vol. 11, no. 4, 2007; Cheryl Buckley and Hazel Clark, ‘Conceptualizing Fashion in Everyday Lives’, Design Issues, vol. 28, no. 4, 2012; Stella North, ‘Clothing the Space of Flesh: Fashion as Material Narration’, PhD thesis, University of Sydney, 2014; Rosie Findlay, ‘O HAI GUYZ: Between Personal Style Bloggers, their Readers and Modern Fashion’, PhD thesis, University of Sydney, 2014.

11 Gregson and Crewe, p. 171.

12 Kaiser, p. 20.

13 Ibid., p. 32.

14 James Morley, ‘The Texture of the Real: Merleau-Ponty, Imagination and Psychopathology’, in J. Philips and James Morley (eds), Imagination and its Pathologies, MIT Press, Massachusetts, 2003, p. 87.

15 Weber and Mitchell, pp. 4–5.

16 Lou Taylor in Weber and Mitchell, p. 4.

17 John D. Lyons, Before Imagination: Embodied Thought from Montaigne to Rousseau, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2005, p. x.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid., pp. xiii, 3.

20 Ibid., p. 2.

21 Ibid., p. 57.

22 Gregson and Crewe, p. 147.

23 Hattemer-Higgins, p. 345.

24 Lyons, p. 8.

25 Virginia Postrel, The Power of Glamour, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2013, p. 38.

26 Morley, p. 88.

27 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, Routledge, New York, 2014, p. 334.

28 Morley, p. 90.

29 Merleau-Ponty, p. xxiv.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid., p. xxiv.

32 See North.

33 Ibid., p. 10.

34 Elizabeth Wilson, quoted by Susan Kaiser, ‘Minding Appearances: Style, Truth and Subjectivity’, in Joanne Entwistle and Elizabeth Wilson (eds), Body Dressing, Berg, Oxford, 2001, pp. 79–81.

35 Kaiser, p. 81.

36 Ibid., p. 83.

37 See Patti Smith, Just Kids, Bloomsbury, London, 2010.

38 Young, p. 71, see also pp. 3–11.

39 Ibid., p. 74.

40 Ibid.

41 Ibid., p. 73.

42 Ilana Abramovitch in Weber and Mitchell (eds), p. 231.

43 North, p. 113.

44 Morley, pp. 98–9.

45 Hattemer-Higgins, p. 349.


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