Dress as therapy: Working with dress on the self in therapeutic settings
London College of Fashion
My thesis constitutes a critical analysis of “dress as therapy”. Hitherto unconnected dress-related therapeutic approaches to the self, rooted in different countries and medical disciplines, are brought together, systematically documented and critically scrutinised for the first time: “Therapy of Fashion” in mental hospitals in the US during the 1960s, and contemporary sensory stimulation treatment for people with eating disorders in Germany, and vêtothérapie (fashion therapy) in France. Approaching “dress therapy” as a cultural phenomenon rather than clinical technique, this thesis analyses the way the relationship between dress and the self is constructed and mobilised in the different dress-related therapeutic settings, and the way dress is employed to work on the self.
Qualitative research methods are used to investigate the settings’ respective structure, content, aims, implementation and theoretical/scientific underpinnings – or lack thereof. Underlying notions of self, both implicit and explicit in these therapeutic practices, are explored and analysed in their relation to discourses on the body, gender, dress and therapy. Cultural and national specificities concerning these discourses and arising dress-related therapeutic approaches are also addressed.
My thesis draws on a Foucauldian analytical framework to explore how the relationship between dress and self is discursively constructed in the respective settings, and how these discourses are formative of particular therapeutic practices. It argues that dress-related therapeutic approaches form part of contemporary technologies of the self, and as such analyses their conditions of possibility, the truth games behind each setting, and considers the knowledge/power relations embedded within them. Moreover, this thesis explores the ‘zero point’ of dress-related forms of therapy: how and when dress began to be considered as a therapeutic means in relation to the self. It thus provides a comprehensive overview of different uses of dress in relation to the self in institutionalised psycho-medical history since the mid-eighteenth century, a ‘history of the present’ of contemporary dress-related therapeutic approaches.
Both the role of dress in psycho-medical treatment as well as its employment in relation to the self in these institutionalised settings remain largely unanalysed. As such, this thesis is the first analytical study of “dress therapy”. It also constitutes a new investigation into the way discourses are formative of therapeutic practices and the underlying claim that dress has the ability to facilitate change in how we perceive our selves and our bodies. Consequently, this thesis contributes to both dress studies and Foucauldian studies by exploring dress as a normalising and disciplining gendered technology of the self in the therapeutic realm, one of the key defining discourses of our time.