Dignity Undressed: Forced Removals of Clothing in an Age of Surveillance

Wearing dress that we feel corresponds to our age, gender identities, beliefs, and social standing is central to our sense of personal dignity. Yet when we travel, we are often undressed. Some of our clothing is physically removed to ensure the visibility and legibility of our bodies and x-ray or scanning technologies can see through our protective layers. In the current social and political climate, being forced to take off items of clothing, such as footwear, coats, and scarves at airports, is a banal, everyday experience. Most travelers calmly submit and suffer the further indignities of body scanners and pat-downs that “see” and “feel” beneath our clothes in silence. These strip-searches are a contemporary manifestation of Foucauldian concepts of the panoptic gaze and a tangible manifestation of power structures.

This paper traces the historical trajectory and implications of forcing people to remove their clothing. The powerless or criminalized body has long been stripped for economic and symbolic reasons. From impoverished young girls in Victorian England who removed and stole the clothes of even smaller children and resold them in a crime known as “child-stripping,” to prisoners divested of their street clothes and dressed in highly visible uniforms, this process embodies power literally laid bare. The final segment of the paper focuses on two case studies that interrogate the power dynamics of dress and dignity at border crossings, a subject that is all too topical today. The first is a fashion editorial by Steven Meisel set in an airport security checkpoint entitled “State of Emergency” (Vogue Italia 2006), and the second an art piece by Sharif Waked entitled “Chic Point: Fashion for Israeli Checkpoints” that includes a fashion show inspired by the sartorial inspection of men crossing the Israeli/Palestinian border.