Femininity and Discipline

In week 11 of the course, we looked at the fundamental tool of fashion: the body. The readings discussed not only how we discipline and make the body suitable for the fashions we pursue, but also how we constrain and almost torture our bodies to fit impossible ideals. We chose to manipulate our bodies because they became an essential tool in building our self and our social identity, which is why we also choose to adorn the body and that adornment falls in the realm of lingerie.

Dress Reform and the Bloomer by Jennifer Ladd Nelson


In the mid-nineteenth century, women were forced to follow a very specific gender ideology that manifested itself most clearly in the clothing they wore. There was a binary definition of gender and women belonged in the domestic sphere where they were not required to be as mobile as men. The clothing that the sexes donned reflected that attitude, especially considering woman’s fashion that included the constricting and burdensome items of the corset and the petticoat. These items made it so women were putting their health and general ability to move at risk for aesthetic reasons that served primarily to please the male palette. These garments identified women with the female role, particularly in regards to domestic life, and because of its fantastical and cumbersome nature, it highlighted differences between what was considered “masculine” and “feminine.” There existed a cult around the idea of true womanhood, which included wearing specific items of clothing that served to define and emphasize the female figure. This set of ideals created a double-edged sword for women of the nineteenth century. If women decided to revolt against this code of femininity they were considered perverted; however, by succumbing to these fashions they also made themselves privy to being thought of as silly and helpless. It is exactly because of these circumstances that feminists rose up and rebelled against this form of dress. What they sought to achieve can be considered a sort of symbolic intervention because through creating the bloomer they wanted to blur gender lines and bring about a new version of femininity. In other words, they wanted females to take agency of their bodies and not feel that they had to conform to these uncomfortable and painstaking fashions.


Nevertheless, despite the much more comfortable and functional aspects of the bloomer, the conversation around it centered on the fashion itself instead of having the message about gender equality be heard. Men felt that the bloomer was obstructing the female body by making it “immodest” and essentially “usurping what was rightfully man’s” (24). Overall, the bloomer was unable to truly rise as a fashion because of the ridicule attached to it and the fact that the upper echelons of society refused to adopt the style.

Foucault’s Docile Bodies


As per class discussion, we defined discipline as rules to follow, obedience, punishment, sacrifice of pleasure, expectations to meet, control/ self-restraint and finally a set of practices and ideals. Foucault utilizes the word discipline by finding it to have both repressive and productive qualities. Discipline is there before you act and tells you which direction to go. Foucault brings to light the productive aspects of discipline most clearly through his example of the solider that can be taught to stand with a certain posture, build a muscular form, follow orders and above all maintain a strict routine. Such discipline makes the body a sort of malleable construct that can be changed, shaped and controlled and this is a constant practice. Foucault argues that discipline is getting people to follow a coded set of standards until it becomes a natural impulse and part of one’s routine. The approach intends to dream up a scenario where people do not feel that they cannot do certain things, but instead select more productive actions.

Foucault, Femininity, and Patriarchal Power by Sandra Lee Bartky

Bartky argues that there are different ideas of what men and women should be and that all of these norms involve discipline. Bartky suggests that women must discipline themselves in order to achieve the “artifice” of femininity, where women have to follow various practices in order to achieve “a body of a certain size and gender configuration” to help identify them as female (95). Bartky outlines three types of disciplinary practices:

1.     Size and configuration of the body

2.     Posture & Movement

3.     Adornment/ treating the body as something to be on display

This sets up the body to be seen as a tool for comparison. The discipline of femininity is largely self-imposed because while it can seem that these practices are a matter of personal choice, the discipline actually precedes the freedom to choose. Women are made to feel that they must aspire to the heights of modern femininity or else they must face the consequences of not falling in line especially in how it bears on their own psyche. In class we discussed the social punishments of failing to adhere to these standards such as no romantic life, feeling a sense of invisibility and most damagingly, the subconscious perception that somehow you are defective. While it may seem that there is some higher order inclining women to feel inferior, “the disciplinary power that inscribes femininity in the female body is everywhere and it is nowhere; the disciplinarian is everyone and yet no one in particular (103). In layman’s terms, we only have ourselves to blame for the pursuance of the ideal female body.


Outside of class, we were assigned fashion fieldwork, where we spent 30 minutes in a public space observing practices of “disciplinary femininity.” We then categorized them according to the three distinct disciplinary practices. Some of the findings included seeking out females who looked uncomfortable and restricted by their clothing, such as a girl who was wearing too tight of a skirt paired with too high of heels. On the other hand, some females seemed to be revolting against feminine standards by sporting baggy jeans and non-shape revealing clothing. Furthermore, it was duly noted how females especially in public situations tend to restrict their bodily space and keep to themselves as much as humanly possible, whereas men will overrun their space. The manner in which females are able to constrict their body runs alongside the idea that women unconsciously use the body to signal their subordinate status in the “hierarchy of gender” (103). All in all, when one takes a closer look, it is nearly impossible not to notice the discipline women impart on their own bodies.

Becoming a ‘Woman to the Backbone’: Lingerie Consumption and the Experience of Feminine Identity by Christian Jantzen, Per Ostergaard, and Carla M. Sucena Vieira


In the reading, the authors define a “woman to the backbone” as a woman who “enters this field of contradictions in order to control it and thereby preserves her self-image, but often she does this well-aware of the fact that this image may end up controlling her” (179). This quote suggests that inherent in the structure of lingerie shopping and wearing is an oscillation between seizing control and being controlled. A large part of the image the females envision when donning lingerie is associated with the imagined audience they dream up. In other words, “that the female self-image relies on (conceptions of) the other’s gaze is evident” (192). When we understand it as such, it is obvious that not only are women concerned with how other women view their undergarments, especially considering that there is a level of competence inherent in knowing what underwear to wear for what occasion, they also have a sort of male gaze in mind. The knowledge of understanding what is appropriate in various instances also allots the wearer cultural capital because as “technologies of the self” proclaim, the ways in which we do things are according to a set of formalized rules. There are two kinds of knowledge, the procedural kind that tells one how to go about doing things, and content, which involves knowing what’s out there and what it means. Knowledge is gained primarily through the media because it helps commoditize the experience of buying lingerie. What makes that consumption so valuable is that lingerie “is also a tool used deliberately by a woman to produce sensual experiences for themselves,” and “is also used strategically to give a bodily sensation of being feminine” (195). Such an assertion demonstrates just how special lingerie can be for a woman because following the idea that underwear is a ‘technology,” there is an association between a woman feeling feminine and wearing the “right” lingerie. The concept of lingerie being right or wrong brings into consideration the agency lingerie provides women because it allows them access to a realm of femininity they might not otherwise tap into. It also has a hand in facing social identity, which is how others view you, all the while providing a heightened version of self-identity.


Throughout the ages, females have never been able to escape the narrative of the body. Whether they were being put into restraining corsets and petticoats or revealing their bodies in miniskirts and high heels, it seems that there is no way to breakaway from society’s standards of what it is to be feminine. To make matters worse, women have come to internalize standards of femininity and impose these rules on themselves and others, creating a vicious and reinforcing cycle. Initially women dealt with being confined to the gendered domestic sphere, but starting in the 1980s, when a sort of blurring of gender lines occurred, females were granted access to the workplace and such jobs instructed them to wear masculine suits. Underwear became a tool through which women sought to reclaim their femininity. What makes this a contradictory story is that despite fighting for these jobs and the desire to be released from overarching views of womanliness, there is always something that ties women, and more importantly their docile bodies back into this societal construct. As per the wise words of Bartky, “femininity as spectacle is something in which virtually every woman is required to participate” (101).


By Tara Nahai & Sarah Wilson


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