Understanding Body Politics in Retail and Fashion

In retail, fashion, or even wearable tech spaces, it’s easy for designers and design researchers
to focus either on the technical innovations of fabrics and clothing, or on the aesthetic and expressive aspects of a garment. Innovation in these spaces largely focuses on the created object and its production, rather than the cultural consumption of the product, or, more importantly, the experience of the wearer and their body.

And when clothing manufacturers do turn the lens onto the body, it is often with a highly technical or functional orientation, rather than an experiential or social one.

In the territory of innovation, understanding both the cultural context and the phenomenological experience of the body are crucial to disrupting and elevating clothing in any retail, fashion, or wearable space. Sociocultural understandings of the body offer valuable insights to support clothing and retail brands in moving beyond functional understandings of materials and finding deeper meanings, relationships, and interactions between people and what they wear.

Beyond Size and Style

Within the disciplines of anthropology, sociology, and material culture, there exists a large body of research and literature around women’s bodies – including the objectification of the body, body politics, phenomenology of the body, and power structures played out through the body. Other studies focus on personal identity, individualism, and agency as expressed through body and dress. Additional semiotic areas of study look at the attribution of symbolic values to material culture by consumers, and
 of consumers’ responses to symbolic values attributed to material culture by their producers.

Having recently worked 
with a major retail company’s innovation team to develop
 a new category for their business, we facilitated conversations with many women about the meaning that clothing has for them and discussed notions of femininity, expression, and identity through clothing.

What became clear is that the motivations behind why women choose to buy or not buy clothing are complex and influenced by many sociocultural factors. Buying for body type and size, style preferences, or functional needs are only part of 
the story.

One Size Fits All – or Else

One of the core issues that deter women from feeling great in their clothing is the normalization of clothing segmentation – or, the notion that we are easily categorized and defined by a finite size and that size should stay constant. The media largely dictates the feeling that, as women, we should aspire to a particular and unchanging body shape, creating an illusion of and aspiration to stasis.

In reality, the body is in an ever-evolving state of flux. Whether 30, 50, or 80, women of all ages go through major transformations in their bodies. Pregnancy, aging, stress, and many other factors continuously create new cycles for our bodies, impacting how we feel.

As designers, it is crucial to understand that body changes are more than physiological alterations that need to be accommodated by clothing, and must instead be viewed as pivotal moments of psychological and emotional transformation that require acute sensitivity by brands.

When women’s bodies naturally evolve over time, so too can their feelings of self-confidence and self-worth. Being labeled as a “mature body” and being directed toward a certain style, shape, or sensibility in clothing can stir feelings of inadequacy. Likewise, not having options that reflect a desired expression of identity can be frustrating when a certain shape or size further encourages shame over an “abnormal” body, or creates the sense of femininity
 being taken away.

“Woman” Enough for You?

The notion of “who owns” a woman’s femininity then becomes an interesting topic of discussion. For many women, clothing is used as a tool to gain control over or alter their sense of femininity. In some conversations we’ve had with women, they purposefully reject certain items of clothing because they don’t feel they are “woman enough” to wear it. In this way, they give up their power to the clothing companies to provide them with their female identity, instead of finding their own sources of femininity.

Another connected influencing factor behind women’s clothing purchase decisions 
is the tension between the feeling of objectification and the desire to feel sexy or feminine. While there is a sense of strength that comes from having presence or standing out, it also risks losing a feeling of safety. In our conversations, many women struggled with wanting to be seen wanting to be seen, but not attracting unwanted male (or female) attention. Finding the right balance between exuding female empowerment and expressions of femininity with an awareness of cultural power dynamics is an ongoing endeavor. This balance then impacts what they choose to purchase, and when and where they choose to wear it.

Implications for Clothing Brands

Fashion and clothes are communicators and mediators between self and society. Women, whether consciously or not, are constantly negotiating levels of appropriateness, and exploring their versions of femininity through their body and the materials they wear.

For clothing brands, it is crucial to look past designs for the physical body and look to the emotional and cultural body instead.

The way that women make decisions and interact with such brands is largely dictated by socially-constructed notions of what it means to be a women – what is appropriate as we age or as our bodies change, what it means to be or look feminine, and how much we can express ourselves without being a target of unwanted attention.

While this provides a surface exploration of insights into the body, further explorations can begin with these key questions: How are women being approached in the shopping experience? Are they seen just for their statistical data – shape, body size, height, and so forth? What efforts are made to understand who a woman is, beyond a generic clothing wearer? How can we design for how a woman wants to feel in her body? And how might we give women the space to explore and own their sense of self and womanhood within these environments?

the author

Courtney Lawrence

Courtney Lawrence is insight manager, Whitespace, at lululemon athletica.