Explore all our research themes:

How, and in what ways, can people keep things private in public?

This theme explores the politics of privacy in public.

Citizens have always been watched (and watched others), and they are under even more surveillance, as a result of pervasive digital technologies. This theme explores how inventors over time have questioned the idea of transparency as being central to being a “good citizen” by proposing a myriad to help people protect their privacy in public.

This theme explores who is able to, who needs to and who is forced to keep things concealed or hidden in their clothing.

Citizens have always been watched (and watched others), and they are under even more surveillance, as a result of pervasive digital technologies. This is the norm in the archive – many clothing inventions reveal how citizens are under surveillance from birth to death. Rarely questioned, surveillance is normalised in a citizen’s life in terms of safety, care, health and aspiration. People are disciplined from an early age into watching themselves and each other and clothing inventions are co-opted into the biopolitics of surveillance.

Yet being human involves keeping some things private and personal à secret. And privacy is a central part of citizenship. It is a fundamental human right, encoded in the European Human Rights Act. It is critical to the construction of identity, dignity, belonging and trust. However, citizenship has always involved a transaction – giving up information in exchange for rights and entitlements. For example, applying for citizenship rights involves submitting years of personal data with little digital assurance of its use, misuse or distribution. It is hard if not impossible to resist this. Here, being transparent is seen as being central to being a “good citizen”.  Transparency and visibility become logic for the construction of legitimate citizenship, which comes with associated rights and privileges.

While much research explores clothing for what it reveals – what it tells us and others about us – clothing is also very informative when asked to reveal what it conceals.

• How do citizens claim personal and private spaces in public contexts?

• How and in what ways can clothes keep secrets?

• Can the desire for concealment, privacy and secrecy be understood as acts of resistance against the lack of rights, constant surveillance and tyranny of transparency?

While much research explores clothing for what it reveals, clothing can also conceal.

This theme excavates alternate expressions of citizenship outside this ever-watchful gaze in clothing form. Studying the history of secret clothing inventions reveals who is able to, who needs to and who is forced to keep things concealed or hidden. It enables us to map how changing discourses of safety, risks and threat move across time, different bodies and societies.

We’re exploring secrets at the intersections of surveillance studies, women’s history and clothing and queer literature. There are a range of bodies, identities and practices that operate on the fringes of the normative visual “known”, “transparent” and “good” citizen (Browne 2015; Dubrofsky & Magnet 2015; Kornstein 2019). Exploring secrets, via a history of clothing inventions, opens up new ways of looking at other kinds of citizens. We get to look beyond ‘normal’ bodies for how non-normative, ignored, overlooked or systematically erased subjects carve out ways of being in public space.

Brown (2015) for instance explores digital tech surveillance in relation to race and public space – they flip the problem of being ignored and overlooked and write about how one might take advantage of not being design for:

“When particular surveillance technologies, in their development and design, leave out some subjects and communities for optimum usage, this leaves open the possibility of reproducing existing inequalities… In other words, could there be some potential in going about unknown or unremarkable, and perhaps unbothered, where CCTV camera-enabled  devices, facial recognition, and other computer vision technologies are in use?” (2015, 162–63)

Kornstein explores drag in relation to surveillance. They write about how “drag offers both a culturally specific framework for conceptualizing queer and trans responses to surveillance and a potential toolkit for avoiding, thwarting, or mitigating digital observation” (2019, 681).And Burman and Denbo (2007) write about the socio-political insights that can emerge in the study of mundane and ordinary clothing items; “The things we carry with us on a daily basis reveal a lot about the pace and complexity of our lives”.

Examples of SECRET citizens

In this theme we are exploring: LOTS of pockets – 150 years of pockets provide a plethora of data for understanding how people and particularly women and marginalised people have claimed privacy and public. Examples include safety secret pockets, travel pockets, nursing pockets, hat pockets, corset, skirt and bloomer pockets and many more. In addition to exploring inventios that emerge under “secret” + “wearing apparel” searches, we are also interested in secret secret inventions. We have to look below the surface for the lesser-known, hidden and concealed devices that have historically helped wearers protect their privacy, aided their transgressions, become their accomplices in navigating hostile contexts. These amazing inventions showcase original ways wearers have creatively carved out privacy in public and how clothes can definitely keep secrets.


Browne, S. 2015. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, Duke University Press

Burman, B & Denbo, S. 2007. Pockets of History: The Secret Life of an Everyday Object, Museum of Costume, Bath (np)

Kornstein, Harris. 2019. Under Her Eye: Digital Drag as Obfuscation and Counter-surveillance, Surveillance & Society 17 (5): 681-698.