Fashion and Signification

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The deconstruction of image or product as text lies at the heart of any totalizing definition of a cultural studies methodology. In direct opposition to traditional art and design history and literary criticism methods, cultural studies offers a way of studying objects as systems rather than as the simple product of authorship. Borrowed from European structuralism, most specifically the work of linguist Ferdinand de Saussure,11 the theory of language "looms as the most essential of cultural studies concepts, either in its own right, or through being appropriated as a model for understanding other cultural systems" (Turner 1996). The structures of language, deployed through speech or text, have been shown to reveal those mechanisms through which individuals make sense of the world: "Culture, as the site where that sense or meaning is generated and experienced, becomes a determining, productive field through which social realities are constructed, experienced and interpreted" (Turner 1996). In the most basic of terms, the science of semiology pioneered by Saussure and later Roland Barthes12 offered a more refined mechanism for applying the structural model of language across the wider range of cultural signifying systems, allowing the scholar to examine the social specificity of representations and their meaning across different cultural practices: gesture, literature, drama, conversation, photography, film, television and, of course, dress. Central to this method is the idea of the sign, an anchoring unit of communication within a language system, which might be a word, an image, a sound, an item of clothing, that placed in juxtaposition with other items produces a particular meaning. That meaning is further communicated by the process of signification, the division of the sign into its constituent parts: the signifier (its physical form) and what is signified (the mental concept or associations that arise). Any meaning generated by the sign emerges from the subconscious or automatic relationship of these parts, which is usually arbitrary and culturally relative rather than fixed. It is a meaning that shifts through time and context, so that the ways in which such a shift or relationship might occur are of central importance

11. Saussure, Ferdinand de, A Course in General Linguistics, London: Peter Owen, 1960.

12. Barthes, Roland, Mythologies, London: Paladin, 1973.

to cultural studies, because, as Turner (1996) notes "it is through such phenomena that it becomes possible to track cultural change", and also cultural value and cultural associations. Barthes famously attributed the term "myth making" to this production of social knowledge and meaning through the manipulation of the sign, and its cultural and political power is difficult to over estimate.

Fashion historians have of course been utilizing this power for a long time. Every time the clothing in a portrait is "read" (for its literary associations, the symbolic power of its various textiles and elements of decoration, the value entailed in its material and production that might together offer evidence of status, nationality, age, sexuality or date) representation is being decoded as text, associative meanings combed out and cultural systems established. But the process has rarely been perceived in a self-reflective or critical light. Culture is often taken as an historical given rather than a constructed system in which the portrait or the dress plays its constitutive part. Elizabeth Wilson must take the credit in her highly influential work on the cultural meaning and history of fashion for questioning and opening up the field.13 In her aim to ally fashionable dressing with other popular or mass leisure pursuits she has taken the graphic and literary reproduction of dress into a system of mass communication and consumption, hinting at the possibility that more traditional dress history has been toiling unnecessarily in its efforts to use fashion journalism, historical advertising and other popular documentary forms as evidence for actual fashion change or cultural conditions. In her account of the role of clothing in the formation of normative understandings of status and gender, and its capabilities in terms of dissent and deviance from those roles, Wilson has liberated the fashion plate and magazine column from the narrower, linear readings of established dress history:

Since the late nineteenth century, word and image have increasingly propagated style. Images of desire are constantly in circulation; increasingly it has been the image as well as the artefact that the individual has purchased. Fashion is a magical system, and what we see as we leaf through glossy magazines is "the look". Like advertising, women's magazines have moved from the didactic to the hallucinatory. Originally their purpose was informational, but what we see today in both popular journalism and advertising is the mirage of a way of being, and what we engage in is no longer only the relatively simple process of direct imitation, but the less conscious one of identification.

The conception of fashion as a magical system, which might benefit from textual or linguistic scrutiny, is an area also well tested in the field of film

13. Wilson, Elizabeth, Adorned in Dreams, London: Virago, 1987.

theory and history. The dress historian can draw useful methodological parallels from the way in which authors such as Jane Gaines,14 Pam Cook15 and Christine Gledhill16 take examples of cinema and describe the manner in which filmic images interact with women's perceptions of themselves in terms of fashion, sexuality, maternal and marital duty and work. Gaines makes the connections with cultural studies' linguistic and political concerns explicit:

There is a significant link between the notion of woman displayed by her dress and woman displayed by other representational systems. In addition, one might say that contemporary feminists have understood woman's inscription in the codes of contemporary representation because they themselves know too well what it is to be fitted up for representation. We are trained into clothes, and early become practised in presentational postures, learning, in the age of mechanical reproduction, to carry the mirror's eye within the mind, as though one might at any moment be photographed. And this is a sense a woman in western culture has learned, not only from feeling the constant surveillance of her public self, but also from studying the publicity images of other women, on screen, certainly, but also in the pages of fashion magazines.

Recent dress history, predicated on a cultural studies understanding of the power of the sign, together with film theory, revels in the ambiguity of fashion and its shifting signifiers, which moves the discipline away from earlier reductive or moralistic approaches. From Thorstein Veblen17 through Quentin Bell18 to James Laver,19 historians and commentators from all political persuasions had perhaps taken too many liberties over their ownership of a received understanding of female psychology and supposed predisposition towards luxury, whilst second-wave feminism simply equated fashion with patriarchal oppression. A similarly puritanical strain in early cultural studies echoed a mistrust of fashionable or popular consumption. Such a condemnation of fashion and fashion history implied a dismissal of the women and men who enjoyed its possibilities, and ignored what Gaines has termed "the strength of the allure, the richness of the fantasy, and the quality of the compensation", which their consumption of image and object allowed.

14. Gaines, Jane and Charlotte Herzog (eds.), Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body, London: Routledge, 1990.

15. Cook, Pam, Fashioning the Nation, London: BFI, 1996.

16. Gledhill, Christine, Home Is Where the Heart Is, London: BFI, 1987.

17. Veblen, Thorstein, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions, New York: Macmillan, 1899.

18. Bell, Quentin, On Human Finery, London: Hogarth, 1947.

19. Laver, James, A Concise History of Costume, London: Thames and Hudson, 1969.

Though to follow recent cultural theory on the instability of the sign to its illogical limits presents a particular set of problems that both cultural studies and fashion history have had to address. As Gaines states: "the more extreme contention of post modernist theory - the idea that the image has swallowed reality whole - obliterates the problems endemic to comparisons between images and society. If the image now precedes the real, engulfs it and renders it obsolete as a point of comparison, do we any more need to show how representation is ideological?" (Gaines 1990).

The artificiality of fashion texts and representations would certainly seem open to similar interpretation, so how can they in this sense be tied in to any discussion of inequality, power and manipulation, or the simple actions of consumers themselves? Here the poststructuralist approach of Gaines and others and the broader concerns of cultural studies, with the argument that the image of fashion and femininity is a construction, a textual product of its society, relying only on the reality of the moment, allows for a clearing up of any confusion. The constructed image can be held up for further scrutiny, the construction made clear and the seventeenth-century broadside, the nineteenth-century fashion journal or the twentieth-century film revealed as representational systems. In this way fashion and its associated publicity can be shown to rely on current ideologies, and the "obliterated" problems of image and society reinstated for discussion. The arising affinity between fashion and textual analysis has probably constituted cultural studies' major contribution to the discipline of dress history or, more precisely, dress studies.20

I choose the term "dress studies" over "history" because that contribution has remained largely within the field of twentieth-century and contemporary concerns. The incursion of cultural studies methods into historical discussions of dress has remained more circumspect, and where examples of a convergence between dress, history and the focus of cultural studies on theory and discourse exist, the texts lie on interdisciplinary boundaries, largely on the peripheries of social, literary and art history, and are by authors who often find it necessary to stress their distance both from traditional forms of their own disciplines and from dress historians themselves. The relationship between cultural studies and history has never been a straightforward or easy one, but some of the crossovers have produced interesting studies of historical clothing practices. The source of the disparity between historical and cultural approaches lies in the necessity of the latter to frame itself within a broad theoretical structure. The problem of conceptualizing the social relationships that make up popular cultures is that it defeats contained

20. Craik, Jennifer, The Face of Fashion, London: Routledge, 1994.

empirical analyses and therefore led to a split in terms of methodology and theory between structuralists and culturalists at the moment when cultural studies was gaining ground in Britain during the 1960s.

Structuralists viewed culture as their primary object of study, with the forms and structures that produced meaning drawing their attention at the expense of cultural specifics, empirical quantitative evidence and the process of historical change. Culturalists, amongst whom most British social historians of the left placed themselves, resisted this trend as overly deterministic and comprehensive - in a word "ahistorical". For E.P. Thompson in particular, human agency retained a stronger hold than abstract ideology and the work of British culturalists tended to look inwards to English historical experience rather than outwards to European theory.21 The two positions rather falsely represent polar opposites for the sake of illustration and more recent work predicated on a broad cultural studies perspective productively knits ideology and experience together through the notion of "discourse". This is a term, owing much to the work of French theorist Michel Foucault,22 that "refers to socially produced groups of ideas or ways of thinking that can be tracked in individual texts or groups of texts, but that also demand to be located within wider historical and social structures or relations" (Turner 1996). Here the scope for dress history has been wide, as it has for art history and literary criticism, and in my view some of the most exciting examples for a cultural dress history have resulted from this vein. I would offer the work on shopping, department stores and the negotiation of class and gender in the nineteenth century as one manifestation of the approach, incorporating as it does authors as varied as Rosalind Williams,23 Rachel Bowlby,24 Valerie Steele,25 Philippe Perrot,26 Mica Nava27 and Elaine Abelson.28 It is perhaps significant that only two of these would associate themselves with the discipline of dress history, though all have something to contribute to the development of the discipline.

21. Thompson, E.P., The Making of the English Working Class, London: Penguin, 1963.

22. Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Harmondsworth: Peregrine, 1979.

23. Williams, Rosalind, Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late Nineteenth Century France, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

24. Bowlby, Rachel, Just Looking, London: Methuen, 1985.

25. Steele, Valerie, Fashion and Eroticism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

26. Perrot, Philippe, Fashioning the Bourgeoisie, New York: Princeton University Press, 1994.

27. Nava, Mica and Alan O'Shea (eds.), Modern Times: Reflections on a Century of English Modernity, London: Routledge, 1996.

28. Abelson, Elaine, When Ladies Go A Thieving, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

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