Humans are a strange bunch. Ready to colonize other planets but afraid to look at each other’s nipples. We have been naked for more of our species existence than we have been clothed. But in all fairness, donning furs, hides, and cloth furnished us with superpowers – equipped to weather typhoons or fight the fearsome frosts of the tundra. Our outfits, our ensembles, our indispensable amour accelerated our propensity to conquer and render the uninhabitable, habitable. We would not be human if we didn’t push the limits of our frontiers. But do as humans do, the pendulum briskly swung from function to avarice.
Milton calls our clothes “these troublesome disguises” 1. We have imbued garments with a contrived semiotic code advertising our station in life. We over-consume, over-spend and over-complicate.
But in overcomplicating fashion has it lost all utilitarian function? And how does this affect fashion that’s required to be functional?
“In athletics and performance applications, skin-tight garments, or ‘skin suits’, provide protection from injury and scraping while dancing, gymnastics, swimming, cycling, skating, skiing, and running by enhancing muscle support and reducing muscle vibration, lessening wind and friction drag, and it also serves as protection from cuts, stings and abrasion, and as effective protection from UV rays of the sun. These also include other related athletic clothing”. 2
It’s almost like the less we wear the better we perform.
Huzzah! The secrets to unlocking physical potential has been revealed. Lost in the fashion labyrinth we couldn’t locate this simple truth. Elaborate wardrobes be dammed. I’m exclusively donning my birthday
suit from now. Every athlete and porn star will support me in this! Wait, porn!!! I cannot be associated with something so scandalous.
Let’s rewind back to the garden of Eden where Adam and Eve basked in naked glory. “Some might say nudity represents innocence, an unvarnished simplicity, beauty distilled to its pure form. (Botticelli’s Birth of Venus comes to mind here)” 3. But one sinful bite from the apple ‘wizened’ Adam and Eve up to their shameful nudity. Their legacy is for us to squirrel away our beautiful fleshy bits under denim, cotton and embarrassment.
In western culture, at least, our upbringing teaches is that it is unacceptable to be nude in public. Then there’s the fetishization of exposed body parts and the hysterical furur that erupts if a part is exposed. Like when Janet Jackson’s nipple devastated the US national psyche. But consider how weird it is that we’ve so completely conditioned ourselves to be averse to what we really look like. That we cover and hide ourselves from each other and even make it illegal to act otherwise. An absurd custom as there is nothing secret about our physique – we are frequently exposed to bodies without clothes. Sure, some people have larger breasts, or penises, or testicles or labia or whatever but those are just variations on the theme.
At the start of my cycling journey, I felt malice and disgust each time I donned my essential cycling kit and looked in the mirror. Being barely naked or wearing tight and revealing clothes (bordering nudity) was a crutch towards accelerating my fitness. I was too worried about what I looked like wrapped in my lycra condom exposing every (culturally programmed) flaw.
My bibs should make my ride more comfortable. Why do I feel so
uncomfortable wearing them then?
My most natural and powerful asset was constrained, not by the lycra condom, but by convoluted stigma.
In the I R I S workshop it was no surprise to learn that I was not alone, but I was surprised by how deep the well of insecurities ran. The participants were plagued by old culprits like fat rolls and cellulite but also more nuanced qualms like complexion, tan lines and sensory irritation.
Our bodies are our most important tool when working out, but we are too shy to let them shine! This creates a huge barrier of entry for people into the sport. Our constructed symbolic value has obfuscated the utility of our clothes but also our bodies.
When society tells you you are ugly its hard to even start.
Fears aside, at the I R I S workshop heads fervently nodded in consensus as we admitted there is a romantic appeal to training in the buff. The conundrum is that what we wear distracts from our performance, but we need to wear something to prevent from damage (we love/hate activewear). At the same time, ill-fitted sportswear brings irritation and chaffing whereas well-fitted sportswear protects against the same irritation and chaffing. This can also be observed in the data collected from the workshop, finding the right fit is a massive issue.
I embrace and won’t deny that athletic clothes, when done right, contributes to performance and comfort, but if you are not a professional athlete in a position to demand a custom-tailored kit, then you are relegated to the racks to squeeze your unique flesh package into a statistically average size. I even learned recently that the protective pad that makes cyclists butts look big (and of course protects our deriere), is one-size-fits-all. They don’t even have different sized pads for different sized body types!
Side note: Not wearing the right uniform has hands wringing. The
uniform controversy brought to light during the 2021 Olympics warrants
further study. Just not in this report.
My personal solution to crafting a 2nd skin to protect one’s unique nooks and crannies would be to be dipped in liquid lycra, but for many that is venturing into the realms of kink and fetish.
Spray on lycra then? That should be flattering in its form-fittingness.
As I navigate the complicated dichotomy, the ecstasy and agony of being a cyclist I also have to navigate the boundaries between being clothed and being naked. In both situations I am left vulnerable and exposed. This response, as it relates to nudity, is easy to grasp but it is not so obvious in clothes. Clothes signify culture, taste, manners and preference. The ideologies of the cloth are a constructed set of beliefs, and this intrinsic value system has championed over the function of clothing.
But sometimes, I feel naked (exposed) in my clothes. It is a reflection of society, not me. How do we bridge the tension between imitation – creating a social identity, and distinction – creating an individual identity? And perhaps identity is not even the right concept to summarize this conundrum.
My skin cells, my sweat and my hair follicles are encoded with my DNA. It’s matter that is produced by me and sent into the world. Clothes are foreign objects that are introduced into my corporeal eco-system. Yet they often, especially in terms of luxury and designer clothes, have more cultural value than a human life.
I think that activewear has the potential to subvert this convoluted arrangement. So much of ourselves seep into the clothes when working out. We need to champion that effort more. Maybe our bodies can even be used to create clothing (see BreiBike: Concept phase).
Perhaps, instead of using loaded language or ideology we can use the body to create a value system. The tools one uses to observe the world influences how you perceive the world. The current system is set up so the design of an object, like clothes, influences the design of human beings. But we need a serious shift where the design of human beings should influence the design of clothes. This runs deeper than just comfortable, performance enhancing activewear that responds to the physical body. In fact, it might be a 2-way street where we influences the clothes as much as it influences us.
I hypothesize that tactics such as sensory substitution can be employed to quell our feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. Lacking the ability to hear, tests with haptic and vibrating devices have proven successful in spatially positioning blind people. What about smart clothing that simultaneously stimulate our senses and emotions (pulsating pressure points to alleviate stress) as much as our bodies, by means of our excretions and vibrations influence it? How can we extract the right value out of our clothes and the clothes from us?
I envision our bodies growing textile!
We have tackled the function of clothes; the issue is not with design but with education. The narrative around bodies, but moreover moving bodies in functional clothes, needs to change. More empowerment and less embarrassment, especially when we bear it all in lycra to hone our craft.
- Milton, John, 1608-1674. ( 2000). Paradise Lost. London; New York: Penguin Books.
- Wikipedia.org. (Updated July 2021). Skin tight garments. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skin-tight_garment.
- Bowers, J., (2012), Why We Don’t Walk Around Naked, Desiring God. Retrieved from https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/why-we-dont-walk-around-naked.
- Nuwer, R., (2021), What if Olympic athletes went back to competing naked?, BB. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20210723-what-if-olympic-athletes-went-back-to-competing-naked.
- Lovgren, S., (2004), Ancient Olympics Mixed Naked Sports, Pagan Partying, National Geographic. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/ancient-greece-olympics-sports.
- Moses, J.D., (2018),This is how ESPN’s annual Body Issue gets made, Pop Photo. Retrieved from https://www.popphoto.com/interview-karen-frank-espn-body-issue/.
- Sohinee, (2021), Naked Games: Remembering the Olympics that starred nude athletes, The Bridge. Retrieved from https://thebridge.in/tokyo-2020/naked-games-remembering-olympics-star-nude-athletes-23117.