Through the Looking Glass: Examining "The Visible Self"


Each and every day, people throughout the world make decisions about how to clothe themselves. Even those who wear nothing (or next to nothing) are still making choices about how they will appear to others. And the phrase "clothes make the man (or woman)" didn't spring from nowhere, of course.

 Examining "The Visible Self"In many ways, how we present ourselves reveals much more than we might think about our cultures, our generations, our individual selves, and more. Beyond the simple act of wearing clothing, how individuals cleanse themselves, choose adornments, or modify their body also all tell a visual story.

So what does that "visible self" tell the world? Are you thinking about getting a tattoo and wonder what others might think of it? Are you puzzled or disgusted because a family member has one? Why are television shows such asProject RunwayThe SwanDancing with the Stars, and What Not to Wearpopular? Does what you wear make a difference in how you feel or how you are perceived by others?

U of M Regents Professor Emerita Joanne Eicher will pose those questions and more in her LearningLife short course The Visible Self beginning April 21.

The co-author of The Visible Self: Global Perspectives on Dress, Culture, and Society (4th edition, Fairchild Books, 2014) and editor-in-chief of the ten-volume Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion (Oxford University Press, 2010), Eicher brings a lifetime of research on textiles, nonverbal communication, and the anthropology of dress to the discussion.

"We'll consider the complexity of dress and adornment from a multidisciplinary perspective," says Eicher. "We'll take into account anthropology, sociology, economics, fine arts, and the natural sciences, and hopefully be able to tackle questions such as: What does a tattooed, senior citizen from middle America have in common with a woman in Qatar who spends her life shrouded head to toe in a veil? What ideas and principles connect them? How do individuals use dress to protect, satisfy, and communicate? What is my 'Visible Self' telling people--people I know, and people I do not?"

This month's Living a Learning Life features a sneak peek of The Visible Self, with a slideshow of images curated from the course.


With permanent skin modifications, a person can never again become completely undressed. A tattoo dresses the body forever--as seen on the back of this 65-year-old Minnesota woman. Image by Kate Leibfried

Old women from Thailand

In a commercial-scale society, dress can be the place where cross-cultural conflicts are played out. For example, some cultures, such as the Paduang hill tribe in Thailand, employed the practice of modifying women's skeletal structure by progressive application of neck rings in childhood, as shown here. That tradition had begun to die out in Southeast Asia--until Paduang were forced to flee from their farms by war. As refugees, they discovered that they can earn a living as tourist attractions, ensuring their survival, but also drawing criticism from non-Paduang concerned for the girls' welfare. Image by Victor Bloomfield.

Women wearing traditional Ecuadorian dress
In another example, traditional Ecuadorian dress is worn alongside items from a commercial-scale culture. These women are wearing hats from 20th century contact with Europeans as well as hand-woven shawls. Image by Leibfried.

2012 paper cut of a shoe by visual artist Diana Eicher.

Dress is not always wearable. For some, it becomes an artistic subject, as in this 2012 paper cut of a shoe, by visual artist Diana Eicher.

Kalabari dancers
What we wear can also be used to deliberately disguise. Dress created for use in performance arts is sometimes constructed to conceal the true identity of the person wearing it. Among the Kalabari of coastal Nigeria, dancers take on the identities of spiritual beings and their costumes must entirely cover their bodies (even hands and feet) so that their individual human identities remain a secret. Images by Joanne Eicher.