Fashion Theory between Sociosemiotics and Cultural Studies Patrizia Calefato
The term ‘fashion theory’ refers to an interdisciplinary field that sees fashion as a meaning system within which cultural and aesthetic portrayals of the clothed body are produced.
The use of the term ‘fashion theory’ points to a transverse theoretical approach which, in advance of any professional know-how, constructs favourable conditions and theoretical filters by selecting from among the human and social sciences (including literature, philosophy and art) the fashion system understood as a special dimension of material culture, the history of the body, the theory of sensibility.
Fashion Theory is also the title of an international quarterly edited by Valerie Steele and published by Berg (Oxford) since 1997
Antecedents and fundamentals • Georg Simmel • Thorstein Veblen • Werner Sombart • Walter Benjamin • Linguistic structuralism
Georg Simmel (1858-1918) • Georg Simmel’s 1895 essay on fashion defines it as a system of social cohesion that allows the individual’s membership of a group to be dialectically reconciled with his relative spiritual independence. Fashion, says Simmel, is governed by motives of imitation and distinction, which are transmitted vertically to the community by a particular social circle. They are accompanied by the ‘stimulating, piquant’ charm that fashion conveys through what Simmel describes as the ‘contrast between its broad, all-pervading dissemination and its rapid, fundamental evanescence’ and as the ‘right to be unfaithful to it’
Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) • Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) includes spending on clothing as part of conspicuous consumption by the upper middle classes
Werner Sombart (1863-1941) • Sombart (1913) takes the view that spending (especially by women) on luxuries, of which clothing and cocotteries are a significant part, has been a key feature of capitalism ever since its original accumulation phase.
Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) • Fashion is the “sex appeal of the inorganic”. • Fashion represents the triumph of the commodity form, in which the body has become a cadaver, a fetish. In fashion, in an exemplary manner, the relationships between the living and the inorganic are Marxistically inverted and duplicated: the (female) body displays the charm of a devitalised, estranged nature, and remains as an envelope, an adornment, a cadaveric support for clothing.
Ferdinand de Saussure(1857-1913) • Course of general linguistics • fashion, unlike language, is not a completely arbitrary system, since the obsession with clothing that fashion implies can only move so far beyond the conditions dictated by the human body. • The mechanism of imitation concerns both the phenomenon of fashion and the phonetic changes in language, but its origin, says the Course, remains a mystery in both cases.
Nikolaj Trubeckoj (1890-1938) • There is a homologous relationship between the system of language and the system of clothing, between phonology and study of costumes,
Pëtr Bogatyrëv (1893-1971) • Analysis of the folk costume of Moravian Slovakia, using a functionalist approach that identified a hierarchy of functions in the costume, including practical, aesthetic, magical and ritual functions : • practical • aestetical • magical • ritual
Edward Sapir (1884-1939) • He wrote the ‘fashion’ entry in the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, in which he established the differences between fashion and taste and between fashion and costume, in that the latter is a relatively stable type of social behaviour, whereas the former is subject to constant change.
Roland Barthes (1915-1980),The Fashion System, 1967 • Fashion as a social discourse • Barthes does not deal here with real fashion, but with fashion as described in magazines • The garment is completely converted into language • Even image is merely used in order to be transposed into words
Barthes’ lesson, which thus goes beyond actual semiology, is that fashion only exists through the apparatus, technologies and communication systems that construct its meaning. • The post-modern context makes clear that a whole series of social discourses from film to music, the new media and advertising, are the places where fashion exists as a syncretic, intertextual system, as a reticular reference between the signs of the clothed body and as a constant construction and deconstruction of the subjects that negotiate, interpret or receive its meaning.
Dick Hebdige: Subculture (1979) • style as a form of aesthetic and ethical group membership in mass society with emerging in crowd cultures made up of blocks that include ways of dressing, music, literature, film and daily habits – a pop universe that is expressed in ‘street styles’ ranging from rockers to punks, which Hebdige contrasts with fashion seen as one of the ‘pre-eminent forms of discourse’.
From trickle-down to bubble-up, • ‘Trickle-down’ is turned into ‘bubble-up’, as is clearly shown by the history of two garments that are emblematic of the twentieth century: jeans and the mini-skirt.
Fashion as mass fashion • The place where ‘a complexity of tensions, meanings and values – and not only in relation to clothing’ is manifested. • This complexity is centred on the body and the ways in which it exists in the world, is represented, is masked, disguised and measured, and clashes with stereotypes and mythologies.
The clothed body • is the physico-cultural territory in which the visible, perceivable performance of our outward identity takes place. This composite cultural text-fabric provides opportunities for the manifestation of individual and social traits that draw on such elements as gender, taste, ethnicity, sexuality, sense of belonging to a social group or, conversely, transgression.
Gender identity and clothing • gender identity through fashion plays with the canonic, stereotyped ways of portraying male and female on the one hand, and the challenges to the dominant discourse that are conveyed by the signs of the body on the other.
‘From sidewalk (or street) to catwalk’ • the places of everyday culture are those that determine fashions even before style research has produced the actual artefact as a luxury commodity sign.
Narrativity • Every fashion effectively contains within it a narrative, or story, that explains its uses and determines its rhythms
Spatiality • The street, the catwalk, the whole world become spaces, territories in which objects come to life and bodies interact.
Myth • Fashions take constructions of meaning and figures of imagination which are reproduced in the social sphere and make them emblematically natural and eternal, even if transient.
Sensoriness • Human senses, in their complexity and reciprocity, are at work in the reproduction and communication of fashions • There are stereotypes of feeling, but there are also forms of excessive sensoriness which can use the intrinsic fetishism of fashion, the living power of objects and garments, to invert and humanise their meaning.