Docile Bodies

Prison Uniforms and the Dress of Subservience

A Chain Gang in South Carolina, c. 1929 - 1931. Doris Umann. Courtesy of the International Center of Photography.
A Chain Gang in South Carolina, c. 1929 – 1931. Doris Umann. Courtesy of the International Center of Photography.


Society Red was the first man on the yard that morning. He sidled out of the south cellblock, turning up the collar of his faded denim jacket as he squinted resentfully at the cold gray sky.1

This is how Malcolm Braly starts his novel On The Yard: with the convict Society Red turning up his denim collar to protect himself from the cold. These denim uniforms, or alternatively, the black and white striped pyjamas are most probably what most of us think of when we think of prison uniforms: rows of men or women in identical uniforms, emphasis being on the identicalness. The philosopher Michel Foucault has argued that our contemporary culture is one of supervision, a system that permeates institutions such as universities, hospitals and work places to name just a few. This system of supervision is perhaps most noticeable within our prison system, a structure designed to make convicts feel shame and remorse. With this in mind, the upturned collar is habitually overlooked. We often assume that prison is an environment so infused with control and discipline that the inmates have no choice but to bow to the authorities. This is of course not the case. Prison life is full of upturned collars and resentful squints, as well as a myriad of other ways to subvert the rules, however slightly.

Sociologist Emile Durkheim proposes that understanding the one who deviates from the norm one can learn to understand the norm itself. In other words, understanding the institutions that deal with the deviant becomes a way to understand all social institutions, and, consequently, society itself. Whereas early modern society dealt with its delinquents through public displays of punishment and shame, whether through pain, humiliation or indignity, today we have developed a system of punishment where, on the whole, the spectacle is reduced to the trial, and the punishment itself is served with the criminal behind bars, removed from ‘civil society.’ Prison life is largely a life of invisibleness. Due to factors such as the secrecy that all members of the prison service are sworn to upkeep, little of what goes on behind prison walls ever seeps out to the public. Instead we have to rely on special reports from the media or on accounts from the people who have either worked in the environment or been incarcerated. This has meant that we have had to rely largely on literature, prisoner’s memoirs, or on journalistic accounts, to try to untangle the relationship between the prisoner and his uniform. Because of this we must bear in mind that these accounts are largely subjective impressions rather than factual information. Perhaps this is to be expected. The difficulty in finding the relevant information could be seen as part of the invisibility of our prison system, making the lack of evidence concerning prison clothing part of this issue of invisibility. The inmates ‘invisible dress’ forms part of the attitude currently assumed in our modern culture, whereby the conditions within the prison walls are an issue only for those that come into direct contact with it. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, there is truth to be found in the Durkheimian view that the issue of prison dress can tell us a great deal about prison culture in general, and, by extension, about society itself.


Uniforms – A Brief Theoretical Introduction

Before moving into the area of prison uniform and prison dress, it is important to look briefly at the issue of uniforms in general. If following the interpretation given by Foucault in Discipline and Punish, uniforms can be read as a tool in the shaping of minds and bodies, whether it is to uphold an authoritarian stance as seen in police or military uniforms, or to adopt a submissive attitude, as when wearing asylum attire or prison uniforms. Each uniform has some sort of bearing on its wearer; with the putting on of the uniform, the body is transformed, and a persona is adopted. This is not to say, however, that the wearer inevitably takes to the persona imposed on his body without first putting up a struggle. Subversion and individual interpretation are common among uniform wearers, something that most people who have ever come in contact with a school uniform will have noticed. Nevertheless, the Foucault school claims that conformity and the suppression of the individual’s personality, as well as order, hierarchy and status are all inescapable by-products of the adoption of the uniform. Uniforms tell us about power; the adoption or suppression of power, and about the control exercised by the uniformed self on our social as well as our internal persona. However, as well as being about control and discipline, uniforms are also about pride. Pride as what you feel when being a part of something larger than yourself, pride because you have earned the right to wear a certain type of uniform. This type of pride is normally associated with authoritative types of uniforms, such as soldiers’ or police uniforms, although even convicts – society’s lowest order of uniform wearers – arguably often wear their uniforms as a badge of honour.


The Formation of the Prison Uniform

The prison uniform was brought into general use in the very late eighteenth century,2 around the same time as Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, an architectural structure allowing the prisoners to be under continuous surveillance, was being developed. It could be argued that these two bastions of discipline and constant visibility were a logical extension of one another, both reflecting the mood of patriarchal control so common in penal theory of the time. Nevertheless, it was to be another century until England’s many prisons saw the introduction of boiler suits emblazoned with broad arrows. America, on the other hand, introduced their notorious black and white striped uniforms somewhat earlier, in the beginning of the nineteenth century. Enforcing discipline was a major factor in the introduction of convict’s uniforms, but to shame and degrade, a sort of logical continuation of the publicly worn white shame shift dress used in the early modern period as well as the branding employed in the early eighteenth century, was an equally important factor, as was the ability to easily spot the prisoners, should they attempt to escape.3 England abolished the use of arrowed uniforms in the 1920s and in America prison stripes were formally eradicated in the early twentieth century, although, as a documentary from 20054 has showed, the black and white striped suits are still being used in some counties for prisoners on remand, with ‘Sheriff’s Inmate Unsentenced’ added in red to the front and back.

Prison literature and theory often focuses on the oppressiveness of the system, the callous discipline enforced on the prisoner, the strict rules which often seem arbitrary in their focus and the often patronising attitude of the authorities.5 Yet this is not the whole truth. Just as On The Yard’s Society Red through his defiantly upturned collar and resentful squints at the world conveys an attitude, not of suppression but of rebellion, and just as Gary Gilmore in Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song talks about the difference between being a prisoner and a mere convict, so there are always ways for the prisoner to show his contempt for the system that oppresses him. These ways can, among other things, be found in how a prisoner wears his uniform. It can be read in his posture, in subtle alterations to his uniform, in the expression on his face. Thus, the uniform can be worn also with pride; pride to be a prisoner, not a convict.


Case Study: The Dirty Protests, Northern Ireland, 1976

The Dirty Protests in Northern Ireland is a very direct example of a way in which appearance and care of self can be used as a tool of subversion and to express loyalty to a political cause and mark the – according to the protesters – distinction between a prisoner and a convict.

In 1976 the British government arrived at the decision to classify prisoners held in Northern Ireland for terrorist activities, not as political prisoners, but as ‘common criminals.’ This decision was to cause one of the most notorious prison protests in the history of the British prison system. When this decision was taken, prisoners charged with ‘scheduled offences under the Emergency Powers Act’6 had, since 1972, been allowed certain privileges traditionally granted to political prisoners. They did not have to wear uniforms, nor did they have to work. They also received privileges in the form of more parcels and visits than ‘ordinary’ prisoners. However, four years later the ‘total loss of disciplinary control by the prison authorities7 led to a withdrawal of all these privileges. Although women could by this time wear their own clothes, albeit with some restrictions,8 the male prisoners had to give up their own clothes upon arrival at the prison, in order to be dressed in prison uniforms. One male prisoner, Kieran Nugent, sentenced a mere two weeks after the cachet of political prisoner had been taken away from the republican and loyalist prisoners, refused to obey the rules.

He refused to put on a prison uniform. Asked what size clothes he took, he said, ‘I’m not wearing your gear.’ He was pushed into a cell and his own clothes were removed. A blanket was thrown in and this act, he stated, started the protest.9

Dirty Protesters in their Maze Cell, BBC, Friday January 9, 1998.
Dirty Protesters in their Maze Cell, BBC, Friday January 9, 1998.

Other prisoners joined in the protest – what has become known as the Blanket Protests or the Dirty Protests – thereby sending a very clear message to the authorities that they were not prepared to have ‘the dress recognition symbols of other tribes and their gods…paraded on [their] back[s].’10 Or, as Louise Purbrick puts it in her essay on the Maze:11 ‘To refuse to put on prison clothing was to refuse to enter the prison system; it was a rejection by prisoners of the understanding that its rules applied to them.’12 The wearing of nothing but blankets,13 and the subsequent refusal to wash themselves or to clean their cells, as well as the later hunger strikes were meant to give a clear message to the British government that although these prisoners were subjected to systematic surveillance and control by the authorities, they still retained the ultimate control over their bodies and minds. When the women and men in the Maze and Armagh prisons refused to follow orders regarding the care of the self, they implicitly told the authorities that when they were denied control over their bodies, their bodies became out of control. This is something that is particularly worthy of note when it comes to the female participants in the Dirty Protests. Although the women were not naked, but instead kept their jeans and loose-fitting tops which they refused to change or wash, the act of ‘letting themselves go’ becomes specifically pertinent when one considers the importance that has always been placed on a woman’s looks. For a woman to cease caring for her appearance in such an extreme way as the women in Armagh did during the Dirty Protests carries additional significance when compared to their male counterparts. This was something that the Armagh women were well aware of:

The more asexual we became with our loose-fitting jeans and streaks of dirt running down our faces, the more feminine [the screws] became, with their elaborate coiffures, their waists nipped in tightly, great whiffs of perfume choking our nostrils every time we left the cells.14 

Women, arguably more so than men, are taught to keep their bodies controlled. Women are taught the importance of ‘looking your best,’ of ‘maximising your potential,’ meaning that a refusal to adhere to these unwritten codes of conduct is doubly significant. The Armagh women’s choice to cease to control their bodies, to instead flaunt their out-of-control bodies, becomes an important contribution to the notion of self-governance, as proposed by Foucault. To know yourself is to be able to control yourself, to be ‘your own master.’ In The Care of the Self Foucault writes; ‘The final goal of all the practises of self still belongs to an ethics of control.’15 Although Foucault writes about Greek and Roman customs, it is possible to draw parallels between these ancient cultures and our own modern one. The appropriate ‘care of the self’ requires self-regulation, or self-governance, meaning an attitude considered acceptable by society, towards the relationship of one’s own body in interaction with society at large. These codes of conduct are so well-known in modern society that we very rarely need to be reminded of them, instead we have internalised the rules. Without needing to be told so, we know that we need to wash regularly, cut our hair and nails, and generally conduct our bodies in a manner that will not be deemed offensive by our fellow citizens. These internalised codes of conduct are particularly apt for the female population – women, even more so than men, know the value of not smelling of body odour, of keeping their hair and nails tidy, of keeping their bodies in check. When the women in Armagh prison made a conscious choice to eschew these rules, they turned the rule of care of the self on its head. Although they could be seen as breaking the norm on an immediate level, they can also be understood to have acted beyond the immediate perception of the notion of self-governance. As these women were not mentally impaired, but instead fully aware of what they were doing, as well as the effect that their actions would have on their onlookers, they could be seen as, in fact, still operating within the realm of self-governance. By deliberately displaying their bodies as out of control, the women did, in actual fact, remain in control. It was by showing the authorities that it was they, the prisoners, that had the ultimate control over their bodies, and their care, that made the Dirty Protests so successful in terms of restoring to the prisoners their rights as political captives. Although political circumstances changed considerably in the five years that followed the start of the Dirty Protests in 1976, and despite the fact that the evidence examined above is sympathetic to the prisoners, rather than the authorities, the fact remains that after five years of protests and hunger strikes prisoners were once more allowed to wear their own clothes. This suggests that it is due to the fact that we all operate within the same bounds of self-governance, that attempts of transgression, such as 1976s Dirty Protests, can communicate so effectively.

When both America and England made a shift from strict to casual uniforms in the mid-twentieth century, this was largely applauded as a liberal and progressive move, however there are a number of issues that spring out of this change. What the prison authorities saw as a step towards prisoner rehabilitation through encouraging individuality, and the building up of self-esteem, can also be seen as an exercise in social control, however subtle. As we inevitably show our personalities, consciously or unconsciously promoting a certain image of ourselves, through our clothing, it could be argued that the prison authorities, through the promotion of casual uniforms or, as in the case for women in England after 1970, civilian clothing, will more easily be able to know the inmate. Through this more intimate knowledge of the convict, they will inevitably also find it easier to predict their behaviour. Seen in this way, the tolerant and noninterventionist strategy of allowing prisoners to wear casual uniforms or their own clothes becomes a much more sinister way of additional surveillance. However, the use of conventional uniforms also brought with it a whole host of issues that are deeply uncomfortable to any advocate of body self-control. Compelling prisoners to wear uniforms is an element of the ‘degradation rites’ that inmates face as part of entering a prison. As psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Experiment showed in the 1970s, even prison uniforms arbitrarily assigned to non-convicts are likely to act as suppressants of individuality and self-esteem. The Stanford University students that took part in the experiment later recalled how they very quickly began to take on the suppressed character of a prisoner, as a result of these degradation rites – in the case of the Stanford ‘prisoners’ these were identical numbered smocks worn without undergarments, stocking caps worn on head to simulate a shaved head, and a bolted chain worn around every prisoner’s right ankle – that each prisoner has to undergo.16 Zimbardo was well aware that these tactics were necessary in order to get the optimal result of his simulated prison; that ‘power commands that the dress of subservience be worn.’17 When the convict enters the prison he is forced to take on another identity to the one he has on the outside, forced – to recycle an earlier quote – to have ‘the dress recognition symbols of other tribes and their gods…paraded on [his] back.’18

By making prisoners wear uniforms the prison authorities hope to create ‘docile bodies,’ better performing and more well behaved convicts. It is also an aspiration to create new patterns of behaviour, and to instill new customs in the prisoner. The prisoner is always expected to keep his clothes ‘suitable, clean and tidy,’ and any transgression to the upkeep of his uniform will be severely punished. Somewhat simply put, it is believed that through this diktat new codes of conduct will be introduced and that discipline in all areas of life will be enforced as a result. As far as female convicts in uniform are concerned, it seems as if, on the one hand, qualities such as conformity and discipline are encouraged, while on the other hand restraint and self-regulation are equally important. The creation of ‘docile female bodies’ has, debatably, often been more readily acceptable than the creation of the male equivalent, meaning that women are required to resign themselves to a higher level of repression and discipline than men. Women are, arguably, also more commonly equated with the body than men, meaning that issues concerning their bodies can be seen as more problematic. Dress reinforces body consciousness and the self-awareness that women feel in relation to their own bodies, something that is bound to have an effect on women in prison, whether they are in uniform, or in their own clothes. The decree that the female convict’s own clothes must be kept ‘suitable, clean and tidy’ can be seen as a reflection of the idea that a disorderly exterior makes for a disorderly interior, indicating that perhaps there are still certain similarities between convicts in uniform and convicts without. In addition, although women prisoners are no longer required to wear strict uniforms, they are not allowed exactly what they want either. They still face restrictions on clothing deemed ‘too glamorous,’ anything too expensive or luxurious, as well as on anything that could remotely be deemed as a tool, used for hurting yourself or others, or for trying to escape.

Within a prison setting, much as in the outside world, status and authority are displayed through clothing. Prison dress forms part of the mechanisms of the prison spectacle, and the various levels of power, as well as the absence of power of the inmates, is clearly on display in the different forms of uniforms, or non-uniforms, used. The interaction between the convict in a casual uniform (men) or casual civilian clothes (women), the prison officers in their military-like uniforms, and the prison governor in his formal civilian clothing shows an intricate web of power relations demonstrated through dress.


And so

When you’re in prison, time stops. You come out with the same problems you go in with — and start all over again with their twelve extra rules of parole in addition. While you’re in there, you just learn to survive and manipulate any extra pleasure you can get. – Jeanette, prisoner at California Institute of Women, 1970s19 

Part of the punishment that the convict faces when entering a prison is being removed from time as we know it in the outside world. The prisoner exists in a time and space that moves parallel to what he would have known on the outside. As such, he is forced to leave his identity, as he comprehends it, at the prison doors. Inside, other rules apply. Men and women who are normally boisterous must learn how to bow to authority. The Prison Rules are a tool in this process, and clothing, whether uniform or non-uniform, are integral to the Prison Rules. Through having to adhere to rules regarding what to wear, how often to wash and the neatness of personal appearance, the inmate is thought to establish a code of behaviour that is meant to teach him or her how to behave as expected by the prison authorities, and consequently, the outside world.

Since the 1950s a gradual change has taken place in prison environments in both America and England, with strict, traditional uniforms being eschewed in favour of more individual interpretations of the uniform, or even civil clothes. The greater tolerance for difference that emerged in the West post-World War II, and the wider acceptance of individuality that this came accompanied by, as well as a general relaxation of protocol with regards to self-presentation and fashion helped make this possible. The change in society at large no doubt affected life also for those removed from society, since life behind bars, although seemingly removed from time, in actual fact exists analogous to the shifting movements in society. The gradual move away from traditional prison uniforms can, in this light, be seen as a result of a greater emphasis being put on individuality, and a gradual alteration of the control mechanisms exerted by society.

The sociologist Nathan Joseph writes that ‘the uniform as a control device is based upon the existence of certain societal contexts. These are especially relevant in the Western society where there emerged the modern bureaucratic structure and its concoitant ethos, the reliance upon a market economy and modern technology, a widespread division of labour, and urban anonymity. Conditions may change within these broad contexts and render the uniform less effective as an instrument of control. Bureaucratic institutions, after they achieve dominance, may become “less total” in response to greater demands for individuality and lessen their control over members.’20

Keeping this in mind, a case could be made of the fact that today, after roughly three hundred years of development as the main institution for punishment of crime, the prison has become sufficiently established as the dominant establishment for instilling discipline and submissiveness in the population, for certain reductions in control to be permitted. The abandonment of striped or arrowed uniforms in favour of uniforms that exist within the realm of fashion change are a part of this lessening of control, and the total abandonment of uniforms for female convicts in England since 1970 are a logical extension of this canon. Nevertheless, control is exerted through rules and regulations regarding personal appearance also for the convicts who are allowed the privilege of their own clothes. The importance in taking care of the prison uniform has been exchanged for the importance of taking care of the appearance of one’s own clothes – keeping them, and yourself, ‘suitable, clean and tidy’ – indicating that the care of self deemed so significant is always imposed on the convict, never a choice. Yet the reading of the prison uniform can never be simplistic. As much as it is about control, it is also about the subversion of control; as much as the inmates are subject to discipline and codes of conduct, they manage to find ways of transgressing these rules. In the Dirty Protests we saw how the Northern Irish prisoners managed to turn the power structures against the powerful, and other, smaller, gestures can be seen in every prison memoir. Thus it could be argued that the changes in prison uniform codes since the 1950s, concluding in English female convicts wearing their own clothes post-1970, was ultimately a change in what was worn, rather than how it was worn. Looking carefully at a group of convicts in uniform we can see endless differences between them, endless displays of self. A uniform is, in fact, never uniform. Indeed, examining uniformed bodies we might even place more attention on the differences between the individuals than we would looking at a group of people all in different clothing, united instead by fashionability. Although the differences in clothing will be more obvious, the individual personalities might get lost more easily in the ambience of similarity that a group which follows the same codes of fashion displays. Looked at this way, perhaps the shift from traditional prison uniforms to casual or non-uniforms can be seen as a return to an environment of sameness where individual difference is downplayed in favour of fitting in with the group. Perhaps in this respect the casual or non-uniform does what the uniform should have done – create uniformity – thus turning the non-uniform into the uniform.

As Durkheim proposed, the issue of uniformity and prison dress can tell us a great deal about the way that we wear clothes. Whether in prison or in ‘civil society’; whether in uniform or in civil clothes, our individuality is impossible to suppress. Even within the most imposing conditions we find ways for subversiveness to subsist.


This article was first published in Vestoj ‘On Shame.’

Anja Aronowsky Cronberg is Vestoj’s editor-in-chief and founder.

  1. M Braly, On The Yard, New York Review Books, New York, 1967. 

  2. See C Hibbert, The Roots of Evil: A Social History of Crime and Punishment. Weidenfelt & Nicholson, London, 1963. 

  3. J C Pratt, Punishment and Civilization: Penal Tolerance and Intolerance in Modern Society, Sage, London, 2002, p.76. ‘The distinctive prison stripes were abolished in 1904. […] stripes had come to be looked upon as a badge of shame and were a constant humiliation and irritant to many prisoners.’ Report of the New York State Prison Department, 1904: 22. 

  4. Torture, America’s Brutal Prisons, Channel 4, 2/3-05. 

  5. See, for instance, J C Pratt, Punishment and Civilization, Sage, London, 2002; M D’Arcy, Tell Them Everything, Pluto Press, London, 1981; C Hibbert, The Roots of Evil, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 1963; M Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Penguin Books, London 1991; J Henry, Who Lie in Gaol, Victor Gollancz Ltd, London, 1952; N Mailer, The Executioner’s Song, Vintage Books, London, 1979; U Padel & P Stevenson, Insiders: Women’s Experience of Prison, Virago Press, London 1988; K Richards O’Hare, In Prison, by Kate Richards O’Hare, Sometime Federal Prisoner Number 21669, Alfred A.Knopf, New York 1923. 

  6. To find out more regarding the conflict in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, read L Purbrick’s The Architecture of Containment in D Wylie’s The Maze, Granta Books, London, 2004. 

  7. Lord Gardiner, 1976; see L.Purbrick’s The Architecture of Containment, p. 96 

  8. In order to find out more about the specifics, see M D’Arcy, The Women in Armagh Said To Me To Tell Them Everything and This I Have Tried to Do, Pluto Press, London, 1981. p 44-5. 

  9. L Purbrick’s The Architecture of Containment, p. 104. 

  10. W Keenan, ‘Dress Freedom: The Personal and the Political,’ in Dressed to Impress, Berg, Oxford, 2001, p.187. 

  11. The Maze was the prison where most male republican and loyalist prisoners were held in Northern Ireland. The female equivalent was Armagh prison. 

  12. L Purbrick’s The Architecture of Containment, p. 104. 

  13. It should be noted that whereas the male prisoners in the Maze were naked except for their blankets, the women in Armagh prison retained their clothes – jeans and a loose-fitting top – although they refused to wash or change their clothes. More about the female prisoners’ experience of the Dirty Protests can be read in M D’Arcy’s Tell them Everything. 

  14. M D’Arcy, Tell Them Everything, Pluto Press, London, 1981, p.64

  15. M Foucault, The Care of the Self, the History of Sexuality, vol. 3, Pantheon Books, New York, 1986, p.65. 

  16. To learn more about the Stanford Prison Experiment visit 

  17. W Keenan, ‘Dress Freedom: The Personal and the Political,’ in Dressed to Impress, Berg, Oxford, 2001, p 187. 

  18. Ibid. 

  19. Women in Prison, K Watterson Burkhard, Doubleday & Company Inc., New York, 1973. p. 90. 

  20. N Joseph, Uniforms and Non-uniforms: Communication Through Clothing, Greenwood Press, Westport, 1986, p.74.