Culture Costume and Dress

5-7th May 2021 Birmingham UK

Conference Theme

Please note that this year’s conference will be online.

The Dress in Context Research Centre is pleased to announce its third international conference. This year’s theme will be the role of dress and the body in the manifestation of power, whether through fashion, history, literature, or other fields. 

The role that dress plays in power and politics has been a common thread throughout history and across cultures, from the purple togas of Roman emperors to the burkas forced on disenfranchised women by Islamic fundamentalists. Certain aspects of dress are sufficiently well-established signifiers of status that they provide a shorthand to convey power (or the lack thereof) in life, literature, art and performance. Many studies have looked at the relationship between dress and power and politics through the lens of their own specific discipline. This conference will bring into focus the fundamental principles that underpin their distinct understandings. 

Dress can be used to empower the wearer, as, for example, the robes and regalia adopted by a monarch at a coronation. It can also serve to disempower, as was the case of the striped suits forced on prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. Frequently, the same form of dress can achieve both ends: uniforms are worn as symbols of leadership but are also imposed as a method of deindividuation. Similarly, disempowerment can occur both through the imposition and the forbidding of clothing. In many fundamentalist countries, the niqab is forced on women as a means of disenfranchisement; however, during the Algerian unrest of the 1950s, women were forced to remove them (McDougall, 2017), and in this context, the removal had a similar disempowering effect. This dual, contradictory role suggests a relationship of some complexity, though popular analysis frequently yields a more simplistic interpretation. We can see this in the oft cited power-dressing of the 1980s, which has almost become a cliché. Bringing together the perspectives of different disciplines and diverse practice will yield a more rounded and nuanced understanding of the relationship. 

The body also provides a vehicle for the manifestation of power, and it too can operate in both directions. The control of body weight, for example through anorexia, gives the illusion of power; at the other end of the scale, obesity can lead to a sense of powerlessness. Similarly, body modifications, such as tattooing can signal power within groups, but was also a means of disenfranchising concentration camp prisoners. 

By bringing together a range of disciplines and approaches, the conference will provide the opportunity for deeper insight and a qualitatively richer interpretation. Through presentations, posters and discussion, we will explore the many aspects of costume and dress that contribute to the appearance and experience of power, and consider the significance of this for the individual and society.

We invite submissions from any discipline for academic papers or posters that address the conference theme. Topics include, but are not restricted to:

  • Clothing and power in the workplace
  • Sex, dress and power
  • Ceremonial dress 
  • Dress in political women
  • The power of style
  • Powerful women and the use of clothing
  • Uniforms and the manifestation of power
  • Fashion and power
  • Politics of the body

Deadline for submission of abstracts: 19 February 2021