In his introduction to The Fashion System Barthes asks 'Can clothing signify without recourse to the speech which describes it, comments upon it, and provides it with a system of signifieds and signifiers abundant enough to
23. Finkelstein, J., 'Chic - a Look That's Hard to See', Fashion Theory, vol. 3 issue 3, Oxford: Berg, 1999, pp. 363-85.
24. Palmer, A., 'Book Review: After a Fashion', Fashion Theory, vol. 1, issue 1, Oxford: Berg, 1997, pp. 111-14.
25. Craik, J., The Face of Fashion: Cultural Studies in Fashion, London: Routledge, 1994, p. 5.
26. Barnard, M., Fashion as Communication, London: Routledge, 1996.
27. Wilson, E., Adorned in Dreams: fashion and modernity, London: Virago, 1985, p. 58.
constitute a system of meaning? Man is doomed to articulated language, and no semiological undertaking can ignore this fact'.28 Perhaps so for a semiotician, but as a designer I am inclined to believe that 'real garments', as opposed to the 'image garments' or 'word garments' in which Barthes was interested can evoke responses without the mediation of words, if thoughts are not to be counted as words. On Saturday afternoons when people go shopping, they try something on and buy if it 'appeals' to them in some way, or in other words, has a 'meaning' for them, and as a person who is susceptible to clothes, I am aware that the 'meaning' is partly an emotional one, or one that often eludes articulation.
If I as a designer wish to communicate an idea, I usually, in common with most designers, find it most convenient to produce a sketch or a series of sketches. Sometimes, at MaxMara I am asked to clarify my idea. A technical description of the garment is usually fairly easy, but when I am asked to describe what the garment or collection is for, how it is intended to appeal, words are less useful. We find ourselves describing completely different sets of clothes using different permutations of the same frequently used words. So, one theme might be baptized 'sport-elegante-cita' whilst another might be 'sport-chic' and another 'elegante-giorno'. It would be quite impossible to recreate the clothes simply from the words used to describe them; the words we use act as an aid, but ultimately the meaning resides in the garments themselves, or at this stage the drawings.
Of course, we could be more ambitious in our attempts to describe the clothes. We could pore over our task until we were satisfied that what we had written fully described a particular garment and its intended significance to the customer, but what would be the point? The customer would expect to be able to understand the idea without the aid of our little essay, and although we use words and images to promote them, we ultimately sell clothes, not words. But those with an interest in fashion whose stock-in-trade is the word face a different problem. Writers on fashion understandably wish to rise to the challenge of translating the garment into the word, offers her sympathy to those 'whose brains have been taxed by over-modish and illiterate writing on art/dress, especially in the field of popular culture'.29 Barthes describes how, once it passes into written communication, fashion becomes an 'autonomous cultural object' whose functions are more analogous
28. Barthes, R., The Fashion System, translated from the French by Matthew Ward and Richard Howard, London: Cape, 1985, p. xi.
29. Robiero, A., 'Re-fashioning Art: some visual approaches to the Study of the History of Dress', Fashion Theory, vol. 2, issue 4, Oxford: Berg, 1998, p. 319.
to those found in literature than to those of the vestimentary artefact.30 When fashion is embraced by academic discourse, its meanings are subsumed into an intellectual framework with which they may or may not be congruent.
One designer whose work has been the subject of a great deal of academic analysis is Martin Margiela. He features in no fewer than four articles in Fashion Theory to date, and it is easy to see why: garments designed by Maison Margiela depart radically from, or even overturn, accepted conventions in the design, construction and presentation of fashionable clothes. Alison Gill for example associates Margiela's work with 'deconstruction fashion' and considers the parallels this style has with the 'influential French style of philosophical thought, deconstruction, associated with the writings of Jacques Derrida'.31 The essay is an invigorating intellectual 'workout' but the author is not concerned with clothes, so much as words or ideas triggered by them. Gill states that:
In that deconstruction has been defined very generally as a practice of 'undoing', deconstructionist fashion liberates the garment from functuality, by literally undoing it. Importantly here, through this association dress becomes theoretical, only by exemplifying a theoretical position developed in philosophical thought and brought to fashion in order to transform it. Yet, clothes are not liberated or released from functionality because of deconstruction as casual force coming from somewhere outside fashion, for the liberation of clothes from functionality is something realised as a complex interaction between bodies, clothing and the various settings in which they are worn.32
The text's deliberations lead to various conclusions of a philosophical kind, whose meanings lie in the words that have been used to compose the text. Without questioning the academic significance of such discourses, I would argue that the very wordiness of their arguments eclipses the extraordinary potential of their subjects to convey powerful meanings, without the use of words. Just as Derrida refused to define or translate the word 'deconstruction' on the grounds that to do so would alter or destroy its meaning, Margiela maintains a rigorous muteness about the meaning of his clothes, leaving them to "do the talking" through their use and wear, as Gill concedes in a footnote to her essay which claims to have been gathered around examples 'loosely
30. Barthehs, R., The Fashion System translated from the French by M. Ward and R. Howard, London: Cape, 1985, p. 8.
31. Gill, A., 'Deconstruction Fashion: the Making of Unfinished, Decomposing and Reassembled Clothes' Fashion Theory, vol. 2, issue 1, Oxford: Berg, 1998, pp. 25-49.
compiled' from Margiela's ready to wear collections from 1989.33 There are no illustrations, so it is not possible to relate individual garments to the meanings they are supposed by the author to convey.
I found it interesting that none of the articles in Fashion Theory dealing with or referring to Margiela include information or quotes directly from the designer. Margiela's refusal to 'explain' his clothes has been noted but when I approached Maison Margiela for some information for this chapter, my questions received useful and thoughtful answers, returned by fax and in the third person, which is the company's preferred way of conducting interviews. Maison Margiela revealed to me, first of all, that the company currently sells a total of 111,500 garments per season.34 Since the total circulation of Fashion Theory is around 1,000 copies, we can assume that only a small fraction of those who buy Margiela's clothes do so armed with insight gleaned from theoretical analyses like Gill's; the clothes clearly communicate in a different way.
I also enquired how Maison Margiela thought its customers learned how to understand and interpret its products. I was informed that 'For those for whom this is a priority, the information on the collection tends to transfer to them through the sales teams of the shops as well as the video of the show at each shop.' The sales team is in turn said to be informed by the fashion show, or presentations of the collections at the company's showrooms in Paris, New York, Tokyo and Milan. The company's response emphasizes that there are a number of customers 'who react to the garments in a more emotional way, either to the piece itself or to a certain piece in relation to their existing wardrobe'.35
The great web of erudite discourses that has grown up around fashion may shed light on questions of a philosophical or intellectual nature, but from a practitioner's perspective, it is less able to explain the enormous power and occasional magic of which Margiela is an example.
34. Reply to written enquiry received by fax from M. Patrick Scallon, Director of Communications on behalf of Maison Margiela (February 2000) revealed the approx. number of pieces sold by the company per season to be 7,500 'artisanal production' for women, 31,400 'collection for women', 45,000 'basic garments for women', 25,000 'wardrobe for men' and 2,000 'artisanal production for men'. Artisanal production was described as 'the reworking by hand, at our ateliers in Paris, of vintage or new existing garments, fabrics and accessories'.
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