Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Fashion as Language

by Lisa Blom



The author: Dr Malcolm Barnard

Senior lecturer in the History and Theory of Art and Design at the University of Derby. His other publications include Art, Design and visual culture: An introduction (1998) and Approaches to Understanding Visual Culture(2001) and Fashion Theory: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 2008. Lecturer in Visual Culture who studied philosophy and some of the philosophical bits of sociology at the University of York; then studied the work of Derrida and other French philosophers for a Ph.D. at the University of Warwick. Malcolm Barnard is looking at fashion as a way of communicating, to do that he looks into social structures and review previous author’s theories.


"Etymologies and definitions of fashion and clothing"
The main purpose of this article is to bring out these words: adornment, clothing, fashion, dress, costume, style and decoration, similarities and dissimilarities and to show how and why they are near synonyms.

The sweater on the left is a simple form. To the right, the sweaters worn by Bill Cosby on his television show during the 1980's represent a particular style of sweater.

The key question that the author is addressing is that fashion and clothing were seen to have an ambivalent status in the twentieth-century western society, at once positive and negative.

The most important information in this article comes from the very good examples from real situations as the example with a Queen Elisabeth II dress compared to the Dior tulip dress. Looking at distinctions made by earlier authors on the subject like John Flugel(1930) and Georg Simmel (1904).

Above Cecil Beaton's photo of Queen Elizabeth at her coronation 1953 & Twiggy 1967 (they are the same age!). Dress is a comment on time, looking to the value of the old or new in that a Queen wears an old fashioned gown of tradition while a yuppie may wear new fashion to imply youth, forward thinking and new money.


The main inferences in this article are to do with the use of etymology and how fashion and clothes are perceived with the uncertainty and prejudices in women, men and artist and designers. The decoding and understanding of words and their origin is useful for understanding that they have slightly different meaning in different contexts.


The key concepts we need to understand with this article are by knowing the origins it helps us to understand why they work as they do or why their meaning might change. To clarify the different meaning of word and applying that to the complexity of studying fashion.


The language of Jean Charles de Castlebajac


If we take this line of reasoning seriously, the implications are that we understand the language and arguments that are to follow in the rest of the book and be aware of the words use and the fact that many of the words mentioned above can be used both as nouns and verbs. If we fail to take this line of reasoning seriously the implications are that the decoding of words is unnecessary and that hold on to old beliefs and assumptions about fashion and clothing. The text investigates the meaning of fashion and clothes, trying to sort out a system and communicate it by writing. This is an analytical approach that tries to reason from different theory on the matter of understanding fashion clothing and meaning.

"Fashion clothing and meaning"
The main purpose of this article is to consider fashion and clothes in term of meaning.

The key question that the author is addressing is to find the meaning of fashion and clothes, why there is a lack of suitable material concerning the semiology of fashion and clothing.

The most important information lies within trying to find good definitions in previous works by Saussure (1974) , Marx and Engels (1968), Fiske (1990) and Barthes (1983) and adapting them to his own theories.

Saussure & Barthes
Semiology-“Science that studies the life of signs within society” (Saussure 1974)


Both Saussure left & Barthes right were interested in Semiotics = the language of signs. For Barthes, fashion was a non-verbal communication of clothing. That non-verbal communication lacks the clarity we imagine with something like telepathy. Fashion communication is subjective. What the wearer values may not be what the receiver values. There are however some commonly accepted signs. When signs are consistently communicated and build shared understanding they transit from variable fashion codes to stable clothing codes such as the business suit.

The main inferences in this article are to explain the problems when trying to find meaning in clothes and fashion and the use of Semiology to account two types of meaning, signifier/denotation (more factual) and signified/connotation (more ideological) and then how these can be differenced by syntagmatic and paradigmatic differences (difference between things that may come after one another and the difference between things that may replace one another).


Together when you combine a signifier (the uniform) and the signified (power) you have a sign which is clearly communicated in the simple picture of the military below.


The sign is the meaning but meaning changes subtly with style and context. When the military jacket is worn by a civilian, it still communicates power but in a new way.


Paradigmatic difference is when things replace one another, such as buttons or elements that change the impression of a thing, as below with sequins on the military jacket.

The key concepts we need to understand with this article is that the meanings are constructed from signifiers already existing, over which the individual has no control. Using clothes to communicate meaning is difficult from a global point of view where the signs may be understood differently due to individual and or cultural differences.

If we take this line of reasoning seriously, the implications are that people who really try to make a statement by dressing a certain way might be surprised or disappointed that the statement will not be as obvious to the spectators, when communicating with clothes one should consider varied interpretations.

The main points of view presented in this article are that the meaning of clothes can be divided into different levels of meaning, denotation and connotation . He also suggests that clothes are in a play with ideologies which are related to hegemonies, or the existing power structure.


Fashion magazines are continually negotiating the codes of fashion by creating new associations and combinations. The editorial below from UK Vogue 2009, "Cast & Crew" shows the consistent clothing codes of power on men as a backdrop to the changing fashion codes on women.




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