8 February 2015

The Jeans Experience: A Sensory Approach

A short-lived experiment, these jeans made me feel like I was walking on stilts.

Autumn/Winter 2015
Now these trousers are more like it!

Movement precedes perception. When movement ceases (the person dies), perception of external reality also ceases. But we would be overloaded with sensation if the brain could not filter and prioritize the signals it receives from the body. This process occurs in the primary somatosensory cortex and its gatekeeper the thalamus. There is a continuous loop between the thalamus and the cortex where we can measure alpha wave rhythms (usually pulsating at some ten times per second), which gives us a visual indication of the editing and amplifying of these sensory signals.

We are constantly bombarded with sensations through movement, but perception is automatically focused by the mind to stop overload. Imagine being constantly aware of every article of clothing rubbing against your skin every second of every day, let alone the touch of the air, or each strand of hair stroking against you. If you could not edit these out, it would slowly drive you mad, and so we see that on a small scale and a large scale we edit out sensation after sensation without even realizing. Imagine putting on a hat – you are aware of the feel of it for the first few hours, but eventually you get used to it.

The body can adapt to any number of modifications, internal or external, to the point that you stop noticing it, whether it be wearing glasses each and every day or a bodily joint that no longer moves like it used to. If we lose sensation, which is to say perception, of any part of the body, all we need to do is increase the motility of that part. In moving my hand I become aware of it. This may sound obvious, but what I want to emphasize is that perception relies on movement. To consider a static body is to only ever understand its structure, because structure is formed of frozen function. To truly understand the body we need to look at it in movement. Similarly to truly understand dress we need to study dress in movement. I often feel that the beauty of a garment lies in the folds because that is where the movement is stored.

It is through the movement of our bodies that we relate to and experience the world, and it is through our bodies that others relate to us. Every movement occurs on two levels – the somatic and the psychic – at the same time. When you get angry it is not the mind that gets angry and the fist that clenches independently. Rather it is a joint action, because the mind and body act in unity. But the motility of the body is rarely entirely free and exposed – we spend the overwhelming part of our lives clothed. After all, the social body is the clothed body. Imagine yourself curled up at home reading a book on a rainy day. Chances are that you did not imagine yourself naked (but hey, power to you if you did). Indeed so powerful is the assumption that the body needs to be clothed to be socially acceptable that we have the standard dream of turning up to a presentation or a class naked, with all the anxiety that goes with it.

The clothes we choose to wear change the way we feel on both a psychic and somatic level. I believe this relationship has yet to be fully explored and understood, but it is vital we do so. For me the most obvious and easy place to start thinking about this is on a directly personal level. By focusing on myself I become both the observer and the observed. Thus I am neither purely mind-focused nor purely body-focused, but focused on the very mind-body interface itself. Focus on this interface actually forms the essence of mindfulness meditation, a practice I have been engaged with for over a year now, and the research into which is very exciting (neuroplasticity is damn cool). Dress fits into this practice neatly because in focusing on perception and movement we are actually able to focus on the mind-body-dress interface. Interestingly enough the dress component is already built into the practice of mindfulness as bodily sensation is often referenced in terms of the body's relation to dress (e.g. “How does the left knee feel right now? How does it feel to have your trousers touching your left knee right now?”).

I have previously written about my Archive Project (click here), part of which includes writing down short sensory descriptions of wearing individual garments. To be specific I have been writing down how the garments feel in motion, because as we have already determined, movement precedes perception. It is my belief that sensory experience has a direct correlation to psychic experience. If we can better understand the sensory experience of a garment, we can better understand what happens on a psychic level (ideally with quantifiable data in the form of recorded alpha wave rhythms and cortical readings, so if anybody would care to hook me up with access to magnetoencephalography, it would be greatly appreciated...no harm in asking right?).

Mind-body psychotherapy maintains that the body structure and movement of the individual form part of the physical expression of psychological issues. But it is not only neurosis that is played out in muscular holding patterns and tensions – we all know that there is more to communication than the words we speak, everything from gesture to posture 'says' something (of course to varying degrees of comprehension and open to various levels of interpretation). However, to quote Freud, even though he abandoned his attempt to understand neurosis on a somatic level, “the ego is ultimately derived from bodily sensations, chiefly from those springing from the surface of the body”. It is at this surface level that dress directly acts, so I find it fascinating to consider the mind-body-dress interface instead of just the mind-body.

Take the example of a man in a new suit. He feels uncomfortable, he feels tightly bound, he feels like he can not move naturally. His stomach may contract, his neck feels constricted, his shoulders may feel tight. We know that on a basic psychic level that biological expansion is perceived as pleasure, whilst contraction is perceived as unpleasure (a gasp, a tight stomach, etc.). He feels constricted in that new suit, and this is entirely evident to all those who see him move. But as he becomes more comfortable in the feeling of the suit and feels he can move more comfortably, that unpleasure no longer shows (the thalamus regulates the sensory information accordingly the more he wears the suit). This is something we have all seen, you can spot someone who is uncomfortable in their clothing a mile away. Now consider the fact that this discomfort is external. On a mind-body level there are also internal factors that contribute to equally evident visual cues in the motility of a person – chronically tense shoulders are one of the more readily apparent examples.

I thought I would start the ball rolling on sensory experience by looking at a specific garment. Many of you will no doubt remember that I bought a pair of slim jeans last year after a few years of not having worn jeans (click here). It proved to be a short-lived experience primarily because of the fact that although wearing the jeans filled me with nostalgia, that was exactly where the experience stopped – there was no 'present' feeling attached to them. In fact to be exact I would say that there was a definite lack of feeling attached to them. My mind quite literally filtered out the sensation in my legs to the point that I felt disconnected from them entirely, a process I only actually became aware of through my meditation. I was surprised at first, but the more I wore them and the more I focused in on that mind-body-dress interface the easier it became to understand why this could possibly be the case.

We have said that expansion is perceived as pleasure and contraction is perceived as unpleasure. Let me use for example a hug – you would be forgiven for thinking that it is a constrictive process of the arms wrapping the person, but it is actually the opposite, it is a process of the person expanding into the hug. The difference between expansion and stretching is that expansion is a comfortable release because it actually decreases surface tension. You feel supported in a hug rather than constricted (unless it is a particularly bad hug). On a clothing level take the difference between a bias cut dress and a corset. In both instances the individual is aware of the garment in movement, but whilst the bias cut dress feels supportive yet free, the corset is restrictive and tight. The quality of movement is different in both garments, as is the quality of sensation, but it is amplified to a greater extent in the latter until the wearer becomes accustomed to the corset. However to stop sensory overload the mind actually dulls out the feeling of the corset quite quickly, because there is too much tension acting upon body. Tension without release results in anxiety, so the mind filters out the tension to help avoid this process.

What I found I was experiencing with the jeans was something similar to the process of wearing the corset, but obviously at a far more nuanced level. I am now entirely used to wearing looser cut trousers, where sensation is relatively clearly defined in movement, with the space between body and fabric allowing for a natural swing of feeling rather than a constant tightly wrapped interaction. Now I do admittedly wear leggings underneath my trousers in the colder months, but even so, I tend to size up for a comfortably supportive fit rather than a skin tight stretch. Again the difference is that between support and tension, which is actually more noticeable in this instance than one would initially think.

How did the jeans differ from this experience? The slim cut of the jeans and the density of the denim meant that they were fitted and relatively rigid. Instead of feeling entirely supportive (they had a small elastane content, but never quite enough for the fit I felt), there was an element of tension and restriction. It goes without saying that tighter jeans hold the fabric over the leg under tension, hence the higher elastic content of skinnier cuts to quite literally avoid cutting off blood supply and feeling to the leg. Without going to the extreme of cutting off blood supply I experienced some sense of loss of feeling, albeit I only became aware of it when I focused specifically on the quality of leg sensation. The term I always think of when I think of when wearing skinny or slim jeans is that 'it puts a spring in your step'. It is that sensation of fabric under tension, where every movement is accompanied by a stretch and a feeling of snapping back. It feels stretchy, it feels elastic, it almost comes close to the feeling of compression tights worn when running.

What I found was that this feeling, most evident when I crossed my legs or otherwise stretched the denim in ways that increased the surface tension significantly, was something I had not experienced in a long while, thus I became hyper aware of it. It felt familiar, but at the same time it felt new, like the man trying on a suit after years without having worn one. In order to avoid sensory overload my mind seemed to rapidly block off feeling to my legs without me actually realizing it on a readily apparent conscious level. The best way I can describe it is that when wearing the jeans it actually felt like I was walking on stilts. Thinking back it is actually the best way I have to describe my experience of having worn skinny jeans in the past – like I was walking on stilts. Let me emphasize that this was not an immediate thought or something that I was readily aware of, but a feeling I only came to really notice and recognize by focusing specifically in on that mind-body-dress interface during mindful movement and reflection. It was always a background sensation, but one I had to bring to the forefront to examine.

In his book The Language of the Body, the psychotherapist Alexander Lowen equated a lack of grounding, that is to say a strong and secure feeling of attachment through the legs and feet to the ground, to falling anxiety (which he related to the fear of loss of ego control). His argument was that a person who feels unsteady on their feet when standing and, more importantly, during movement will generally feel unsteady and unsure within themselves. The body is connected to the mind, and his belief was that healthy movement and healthy expression went hand in hand. Thinking about this link I find it interesting to consider two things in relation to my wearing of tighter jeans – my tendency to lock my knees more than usual when wearing them and a preference for pairing them with heavier footwear. Although it is easy to overstate the link, I think some basic pattern of compensatory behaviour was evident. Locking the knees helps regain some sense of structure, especially in the case of feeling like you are walking high on stilts, and the heavier footwear quite literally helps anchor you to the ground. To this day I prefer shoes that help me feel more grounded, for want of a better term, which is to say nothing too tight or narrow (the issue of weight is no longer a primary concern, as for instance the Birkenstock clogs I wear are very light).

Needless to say the jeans did not last long in my wardrobe, and although I am interested in trying on more jeans and studying the mind-body-dress interface each provides, I doubt I will be including any in my personal wardrobe in the near future. I realize this post barely manages to skim the surface of several complex issues that I need to understand further, and indeed I am currently researching and considering these matters in greater depth, but I thought it important to at least begin to share some initial thoughts and observations. I have more information related to other trousers, especially with reference to looser cuts and the effect of waistband tension in feeling and movement (wearing trousers belted on the natural waistline vs. hanging off the hips, etc.), as well as other garments in my wardrobe. I plan to systematically explore the framework of my wardrobe from this perspective and use it to further my understanding of why I choose to wear the clothes I wear.

Why not take a minute to stop, check in with yourself, and see how you are feeling right now? Focus in on your breath, then focus in on your body. How do you feel right now? How does the air feel against your skin right now? How do your clothes feel against your skin right now? There is so much we can learn from just stopping and checking in with ourselves from time to time...and of course I try to link that all back to fashion and dress at every opportunity I get!

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