POP explores citizenship through clothing inventions

In Summer 2016, 15 French coastal towns reportedly banned women from wearing Burkinis, full body swimsuits. International media discussed what women should be allowed to wear on the beach. Last year, news that big UK retailers were selling gender-neutral clothing catalysed fierce debate about the nature, role and rights of non-binary people.

These incidents are not isolated and the debates are not new.

A century ago, Victorian women cyclists who dared to swap their skirts for bloomers catalysed not dissimilar responses and ‘convertible’ clothing, which enable wearers to switch identities and carve out new gender non-conforming personas, has been a reoccurring theme in clothing since the 1890s.

Specifically clothed bodies have long been sites of debate about citizen’s rights related to gender, race, class, religion, public space and more. Less investigated is the fact that many of these artefacts of clothing are patented inventions.

POLITICS of PATENTS explores connections between citizens and clothing. We are interested in understanding how inventors create new forms of clothing, like these examples and many others, that reinforce or resist, subvert and disrupt social and political norms and beliefs, and in the process, bring new expressions of citizenship into being.


– What might clothing inventions reveal about hegemonic norms and beliefs?
– What kinds of citizens are made possible or re-imagined through clothing inventions?
– Can clothing inventions be read as acts of political resistance, contestation or subversion?
– What might a study of clothing inventions reveal about citizenship in the past, today & the future?
We aim to make theoretical and methodological contributions to:


Clothing is a critical socio-technology of everyday life; both mundane and familiar and invested with social and political significance. The political subject is (almost) always dressed (and even when they are not, this too is a potent act).

Our investigation is informed by what STS scholars call translations. We do not take clothing for granted but rather consider it to be a socio-technical device that enables, constrains and organises bodies in different ways. Clothing mediates relationships between the body and society. Much like early STS scholars entered the science lab to ask – How are facts made? (Later and Woolgar 1979), we will enter patent archives to ask: How are citizens made?

This approach promises to open up the ‘blackbox’ of citizenship. STS scholars are sensitive to systems and processes that look convincingly smooth or fixed, so that from the outside they become easy to accept without question (Graham and Thrift 2007). Feminist techno-scientists have long drawn attention to more complicated narratives and lesser-known or marginalised voices hidden below the surface  (Harding 1991; Cockburn and Ormrod 1994; Star 1999; Wajcman 2004).


This project has citizenship at its core –  a critically important topic today. Globalization, increasing emphasis on borders, mass migration and growing political discord in some places has catalyzed a lot of discussion and debate about citizenship – who is and isn’t a citizen, who has the rights to it, who has freedom of movement and who doesn’t and what it all means.

Citizenship is not solely linked to legal status, about borders and where you live or relationship to the nation-state. Citizenship scholars have expanded understandings of citizenship to include a wider variety of ‘acts of citizenship’ (Isin and Nielson 2008; Favell 2010; Zivi 2012: Sheller 2014). These are practices and performances, claimed and negotiated on many scales, including sensory and embodied mundane daily practice.

The project explores citizenship through the politics of clothing patents, and more specifically in terms of how clothing inventors have sought to re-imagine citizenship one garment at a time. We are interested in how clothing can be seen to interrupt, rupture or creatively break from convention and make new political expressions.


In addition to analysing inventions through theme and material artefacts, we will directly engage with patents by reconstructing key garments that emerge as thematically important in WP1 and WP2. This approach takes clothing not as a given, but as an object of research.

We will undertake clothing reconstructions by following inventors’ step-by-step textual and visual instructions in their patents. Rather than relying solely on written accounts, this method transforms patents into three-dimensional arguments by ‘making things to make sense of things’ (Jungnickel 2018). It builds on previous work undertaken in the Bikes & Bloomers research project in which a collection of 1890s patented convertible cycle wear (totalling 27 items) were made, worn and explored textually, materially and experientially.

Practically, this involves treating patents textually and materially encountered as ethnographic fieldsites, and exploring the relationship between translations from text to garment. Wearing and inviting others into the research via the garments and public engagement activities will add further data.

Critically, this is not an attempt at historical re-enactment, rather we are invested in examining these artefacts in live dynamic practice and being attentive to other forms of knowledge beyond that of conventional text based analysis.

Central to this research is the idea that clothing inventions can be explored as 'acts of citizenship' and that clothing patents are rich sources of data that may render visible alternative citizenship possibilities.