The Fashion Polyglott

Apart from the absence of any significant contribution by the practitioner, the most obvious observation on the body of academic discourses relating to fashion is the bewildering variety of its authors' disciplines. Students of fashion, so frequently labelled as shallow and frivolous, are required to be polyglotts, able to inform their understanding from texts using the language and ideas of anthropology, social, cultural, economic and art history,

13. Riseboro, B., The Story of Western Architecture, London: Herbert, 1979.

literature, sociology, psychoanalysis, psychology, semiotics, structuralism, Marxism, feminism and others. Malcolm Barnard insists that 'because fashion and clothing impinge on so many disciplines they must be studied in terms of those disciplines'.14 Few writers recognize this as a problem. Elizabeth Wilson, for example, urges that the 'attempt to view fashion through several different pairs of spectacles simultaneously' is congruent with the postmodernist aesthetic to which fashion, with its 'obsession with surface, novelty and style for style's sale' is particularly well-suited.15 For the student of fashion, the disadvantage with this fragmentary academic configuration is the uncertainty of obtaining the insight he or she seeks from a particular text. James Laver anticipated the problem with his reference to Carlyle's Sartor Resartus and its central character 'Teufelsdrock, Professor of things-in-general', author of the imaginary book 'Die Kleider, ihr Werden und Wirken' ('Clothes, their Origin and Influence'). The book is said to contain various anecdotes which hint tantalizingly at conclusions about the importance of clothing in society, but, Laver writes, 'it is soon clear that such fantasies as a naked House of Lords are no more than a jumping off place for meditations on the nature of man and his place in the universe. The truth is that Carlyle was not interested in clothes as such, indeed he despised them'.16

Students of fashion are accustomed to the sense of frustration deriving from texts which contain the word 'fashion' in their titles, but whose primary interest lies in the pursuit of another field of study. Fashion, Culture and Identity, for example, describes the aim of cultural scientists in looking at fashion as being 'to make sense of a phenomenon that has periodically intrigued them, less for its own sake, unfortunately, than for the light they thought it would shed on certain fundamental features of modern society'.17 The author, Fred Davis, points out, quite correctly that 'each science purports to do some things and not others, and it is pointless to expect it to delve into areas lying outside its established boundaries'.18 There is, of course, no reason why, say, a semiotician like Roland Barthes should wish to explore themes relating specifically to the design, production or diffusion of clothes. The Fashion System restricts itself rigorously to what the author describes as the 'written garment' using the texts accompanying illustrations in fashion

14. Barnard, M., Fashion and Communication, London: Routledge, 1996, p. 20.

15. Wilson, E., Adorned in Dreams: fashion and modernity, London: Virago, 1985, p. 11.

16. Laver, J., Style in Costume, London: Oxford University Press p. 5, 1949.

17. Davis, F., Fashion, Culture and Identity, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994, p. 4.

magazines to derive its influential ideas about communication. Barthes argues that systematic analysis of 'real garments' would necessitate working back to the actions governing their manufacture. Describing the structure of real clothing as 'technological' he correctly concedes that its study lies outside the scope of his theory.19 And yet this is precisely what the student of fashion would like to know about.

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