John Carl Flügel

John Carl Flügel (1874-1955) was an English academic psychologist, a prominent member of the British Psychoanalytical Society, and a leading figure in the movement for liberal social reform between the two world wars (1918-1939). A member of the Men’s Dress Reform Party, in 1930 he published The Psychology of Clothes, the first Freudian-inspired analysis of dress and fashion. In this work he advances the idea that clothing is a “compromise-formation” that mediates between the desire of children to exhibit their naked bodies and the later social prohibition that the body be covered for the sake of modesty. For Flügel the story of clothing is the story of the relative strength of these two forces.

Freud, Flügel, and Politics

Flügel makes little use of Freud’s ideas of clothing as either fetish objects or as sexual symbols in dreams. Central to his analysis of clothing is the sociopolitical interpretation he gives to Freud’s model of the human psyche. Freud argues for a three-part division of the mind into id, superego, and ego. The id is the dimension of primitive instinct and the ultimate propelling force of the organism. The superego is an equally primitive inhibitory mechanism that operates as a crude controller of the desires of the id. The ego has the difficult task of establishing a compromise between the demands of the id, the superego, and the outside world so that the individual can exist as a functioning entity. Flügel assigns a general political value to each of these dimensions of the mind. He relates his program of reform to lessening of the power of an overbearing superego, which he regards as the driving force of authoritarian conservatism. As he comments, “The troubles that we experience in adjusting ourselves to civilized social life seem to be due, not merely, as earlier moralists had supposed, to the strength of our a-social instincts [the id], but also, in no inconsiderable degree to the power of the primitive moral factors embodied in the superego” (Flügel 1934, p. 296).

Clothing, for Flügel, comes into being so as to reconcile the demands that these opposing forces place upon the human body and psyche. Dress, therefore, is a prime area of dispute between political liberals and conservatives over what sort, and how much, clothing is appropriate in civilized society.

The Psychology of Clothes

Flüge’s theory of clothing attempts to answer two questions. First, why do human beings wear clothes at all? Second, why do the ways in which human beings dress vary so greatly?

The conventional answer given by European thinkers to the first question proposed the existence of three “fundamental motives” out of which clothing was thought to have arisen—bodily protection, modesty, and decoration. Flügel concentrates on the motives of modesty and decoration. Using a version of Freud’s model of how the child becomes a socialized adult, he argues that we are born in a condition of narcissistic self-love. The consequence is a “tendency to admire one’s own body and display it to others, so that others can share in the admiration. It finds natural expression in the showing off of the naked body and in the demonstration of its powers, and can be observed in many children” (Flügel 1930, p. 86).

This state of idyllic infantile nudity ceases with the arrival of the somatic prohibitions associated with the forces of modesty. The infant relinquishes its pleasurable self-absorption. The body is covered, and shame is triggered when too much of it is inappropriately revealed. However, neither of these tendencies is ever able fully to cancel out the other. As Flügel observes:

The exhibitionistic instinct originally relates to the naked body, but in the course of individual development it inevitably (in civilised races) becomes displaced, to a greater or lesser extent onto clothes. Clothes are, however, exquisitely ambivalent, in as much as they both cover the body and thus subserve the inhibiting tendencies that we call “modesty,” and at the same time afford a new and highly efficient means of gratifying exhibitionism on a new level. (Flügel 1932, p. 120)

Clothes simultaneously both hide and draw attention to the body.

Variations of Dress

Flügel realizes that while all humans are dressed, the manner in which this is achieved varies greatly with time and place. His explanation of this is the following:

to understand the motives that lead to different kinds of clothing, to changes in our clothing and to the changes in our whole attitude towards clothes, we shall have to be constantly on the look out for changes in the manifestations of these two fundamental conflicting tendencies, the one proudly to exhibit the body, the other modestly to hide it. (Flügel 1928)

The most striking of these dress variations, certainly to Flügel and his contemporaries, are those between men and women. Indeed, contemporary European clothing presented Flügel with an added complication, in that it seemed to run against the “normal” situation encountered in nature as well as the evidence of “primitive peoples.” There the man “is more ornamental than the female” and almost always the most “adventurous and decorative” in his appearance. In explaining this anomaly, Flügel argues that a profound reorganization of masculinity took place during the political and economic revolutions of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The tendency to modesty increased at the expense of “male sartorial decorativeness,” and the result was a set of simplified garments, less colorful and with a greater degree of uniformity than had existed in previous historical epochs. Flügel named this dramatic shift “The Great Masculine Renunciation” (Flügel 1930, p. 11ff). Against this, he greatly approved of the development taken by European female dress. Beginning with the extremely modest clothing styles of the Middle Ages, female dress had gradually reformed itself. Flügel claimed that female clothing now exhibited a more rational integration of the antagonistic forces operating on dress than was the case in male dress. Indeed, it was his respect for what he saw as the positive mental benefits provided by contemporary forms of female dress that lead him to advocate the reform of men’s clothing.

The Nude Future

Near the end of his book The Psychology of Clothes, Flügel speculates about a future in which clothing could become obsolete. He argues that, the three main reasons for wearing clothes—bodily protection, modesty, and adornment— will all be surpassed as humans evolve a more “developed” and “rational” way of life. The need for protection will diminish as the control of the environment—for example, by the heating engineer—increases (Flügel 1930, p. 235). The urge to cover our bodies out of a sense of modesty will evaporate once we understand how irrational our fears of nakedness are. Finally, decorative modification and alteration of our bodies would cease as we become reconciled more and more to the natural human form (Flügel 1930, p. 235). As a species we will achieve a “complete reconciliation with the body [which] would mean that the aesthetic variations, emendations, and aggrandizements of the body… produced by clothes would no longer felt [to be] necessary” (Flügel 1930, p. 235). Clothing would just fade away.


Burman, B. “Better and Brighter Clothes: The Men’s Dress Reform Party, 1929-1940.” Journal of Design History 8, no. 4 (1995): 275-290. A fascinating account of the men’s dress reform movement, in which Flügel was an important participant.

Carter, Mchael. “J. C. Flügel and the Nude Future.” In Fashion Classics from Carlyle to Barthes. Oxford and New York: Berg, 2003. An examination of Flügel’s ideas on clothing, particularly as they pertain to his liberal social beliefs.

Flügel, John C. Unpublished transcript of a talk given by Flügel on BBC Radio, 26 June 1928.

____. The Psychology of Clothes. London: Hogarth Press, 1930.

____. An Introduction to Psycho-Analysis. London: Victor Gollancz, 1932.

____. “A Psychology for Progressives—How Can They Become Effective?” In Manifesto: Being the Book of the Federation of Progressive Societies and Individuals. Edited by C. E. M. Joad. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1934.

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