Traditional fashion labels have their boutiques in this street. There are not many shoppers walking around because most potential clients are either driven over by their chauffeurs or come by taxi. A famous hairdresser in this street employs an attendant who parks the cars for his clients. It is the peak of the retail pyramid, but even high fashion boutiques need as much traffic as the shopping streets. This is why some traditional couture houses changed their location to such streets. It will be interesting to see if boutiques for the upper strata dramatise their seasonal sale equally well. Since the people who shop in these boutiques are the leaders in fashion, why should they buy clothes that are no longer in fashion? The first conspicuous show window belongs to one of the traditional Parisian fashion boutiques:
<• The storefront is split into three parts. The middle one is the entrance with a double door with a tall show window on either side. The two show windows are totally covered with a white nontransparent film and even the doors are completely covered with white film so that there is absolutely no view into the store. The white covering has been pulled away slightly at the height of the door handles, but all we can see is a plank. The appearance of this high-end fashion boutique is even more radical than the seasonal sale decorations found on the middle-class shopping street.
242 Foucault (1995:111).
But when we came closer, we found the explanation for this on one of the show windows. The boutique had moved, and what we had seen was the abandoned show window. Curiously enough, the dead shop was dressed in quite the same way as the alive ones on the Avenue des Champs Elysée, where totally covering the show window was a frequently used decoration technique for dramatising the seasonal sale. Passage rites also employ symbols of death in the transition phase to represent the transition from one state to the other. Initiates in tribal societies are put to death symbolically and have to stay in this state for some time. Covering the show windows completely clearly indicates that the store is abandoned, dead, during the year and it also protects the empty shop from the eyes of the passers-by. The shop is thus separated from life. Were someone to die on the street, the corpse would also be covered immediately. It seems to be a deep-seated intuitive gesture, which also means separating it from the rest. Like the veil of the widow, the show window's covering also separates us from the death and emptiness of the former boutique. We walk down the street and pass by the next couture house:
<• Behind a black, painted cast iron fence with golden spearheads we see the show window, which is cut precisely into the façade of an old, traditional Parisian house. The rectangular show window is almost totally covered by a white film, which is pasted directly onto the pane of the show window. Only a small gap has been left between the slender, stainless steel frame. Then, cut out right in the middle of the cover is the word "soldes". It is impossible to look into the store. Only the warm light from its interior escapes through the gap between the frame around the covering and through the cut out letters.
The window dressers here have used the same cheap material for the still alive shop that they had used for the abandoned shop. The diffuse symbol of covering the show window entirely is the same here: the intuitive image of the hidden face or façade conjures up associations with someone who is dead or has been separated in a symbolic manner. In the context of the fashion boutique, this means abandonment, or dramatising the seasonal sale. When a shop is closing down, it wants to get rid of its stock as well. So, we are in fact very close to the death of the shop, also in a realistic sense of the term. Having tested
Death of the theory of the execution of the winter collection against the dramatisation rites of punishment, we also discovered visual aspects of the death of the shop itself during the sale. Both these concepts are linked with death caused by someone else. Do fashion retailers execute the winter collection, or do they dramatise the death of their own shops? Does all this symbolic activity only serve to show the customers that they can save money if they shop during the sales, or is a deeper symbolic purpose concealed behind the covered show windows? We continue our walk and come to a small couture boutique on the same side of the street:
<• On the left side of the storefront is a double door with a slender wooden frame. On its right is a nearly square show window going all the way down to the pavement. The entire glass surface is covered with an opaque, red film. From a distance, some cut-out forms in the middle of the show window can be identified as a capital "E", the first letter in the name of the couture house.243 There must be a lot of light inside the store, but not much of it escapes through the opaque, red film. We can discern three mannequins in the show window. The mannequins are abstracted white figures in black dresses. Neither of them is looking onto the street. The one in the middle is facing the store, so we can only see it from behind. Each of the other two is looking to the left or to the right, which is quite an unusual positioning. The white dummies are decorated with black ribbons. One of them has a ribbon around its head, the second one around the wrist, and the one on the left has a long black ribbon around its neck. All of them are so long that a length of ribbon lies unrolled on the floor. The dummies seem as if they were frozen in dance poses. One is holding its hand in a horizontal position, while the other's hand is raised. One roll of ribbon is left on the floor. One small transparent sign on the floor says "soldes" and "a I'interieur" in smaller letters. We would have not seen the little sign had we not explicitly looked for it. Impossible to see it from afar, it is difficult to find it when in front of the show window.
We ask ourselves whether the black ribbons are accessories for the black dresses, or decoration elements. On first
243 We have changed the letter in order to conceal the store's identity glance, the ribbons do not look neat, and the fact that they are lying on the floor could well mean that they are not part of the winter collection. We begin to wonder what symbolic meaning the black ribbons have in this particular dramatisation of the seasonal sale window. In certain religious ceremonies ribbons are used to make the sacred nature of the victims during sacrificial rites visible.244 We have already pointed out that the dichotomy of ugliness and beauty is equally capable of creating a sphere of religiousness of this kind. Here, the dramatisation does not use ugliness as a means to signify the religious character, but the decorative aspect of the ribbon. Ribbons are used for separating spaces, persons or animals from the everyday. In our case, the mannequins are decorated with precisely this symbolic sign. The scene seems to be set for symbolic use, also because the dresses have no price tags and the show window has transformed from a space for advertising into a symbolic space. Although the range of the mannequins' movements is limited, the unnatural position of their arms creates postures that are rather unusual and in a way even grotesque. The classic text by Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss on the nature of the sacrifice could be of help in analysing this symbolic dramatisation.245 Hubert and Mauss were the first to introduce the term "sacrifier" in this context:
"We give the name 'sacrifier' to the subject to whom the benefits of sacrifice thus accrue, or who undergoes its effect. This subject is sometimes an individual, sometimes a collectivity - a family, a clan, a tribe, a nation, a secret society."246
The question of benefit can only be answered symbolically. Rituals are symbolic actions, and the clearance of stock or buying things at a lower price during the sales are rational actions on first glance. But even inanimate objects can be befitting subjects of a sacrifice:
"There are, however, cases where the effects of the sacrificial consecration are exerted not directly on the sacrifier himself, but on certain things which appertain more or less directly to his person. In the sacrifice that takes place at the building of a
244 Hubert/Mauss (1981:29)
245 Hubert/Mauss (1981).
Death of house, it is the house that is affected by it, and the quality that it acquires by this means can survive longer than its owner for the time being. In other cases, it is the sacrifier's field, the river he has to cross, the oath he takes, the treaty he makes, etc. We shall call those kind of things for whose sake the sacrifice takes place objects of sacrifice."247
By this token, the cornfield can also be an object of sacrifice, and there are a lot of sacrificial rites toward this purpose in all cultures and through all times. Spring was a favoured season to perform them because Nature had to be awakened to guarantee a successful harvest. The more important the sacrifice, the more important must be the victim. Thus, the sacrifice of the god developed into one of the most perfected forms of the sacrificial system.248 The sacrifice of Dionysus belongs to this category. But how can we relate Nature, the corn god and the cornfield to culture, to the production of fashion, to the seasonal collections and to the followers of the new trend, who, according to Barthes, are in a similar mental state as the followers of the Dionysian cult? How can we build this bridge to the past? Going by Barthes' claim, we must firstly assume that the arrival of the spring collection can be related to an ancient experience of ritual sacrifice. We will now follow the analysis proposed by Hubert and Mauss and try to find out who plays the role of the victim, and who the role of the sacrifier. In the Dionysian rite, the sacrifier is Nature, particularly the cornfield. The spiritual life of the fields is externalised by Dionysus' bull and his goat. The death of the god and his resurrection is magically linked to the life of the cornfield. The death and the resurrection of the god, acted out in the ritual in order to awaken Nature for sacrifice, have a vitalising power. The treatment of the victim is an important aspect in the construction of sacrificial rituals. It is necessary to relinquish the links to the profane world so that the death of the victim is not a crime, but a sacrifice. There are numerous rituals for relinquishing links to the profane world. Victims used to be dressed up, painted, made drunk, adorned with a crown or bedecked with ribbons.249 In agrarian sacrifices, the victim is a symbol of the fields and their products.250 In the case of the Dionysian rite, the links that
247 Hubert/Mauss (1981:10)
250 Hubert/Mauss (1981:69)
bind the corn to the fields must be weakened. This is done by the transition into an animal, like the bull or a goat of Dionysus, who represents the fields. We will attempt a leap from the life of the cornfields into the life of fashion. The lifetime of a collection is half-a-year. Every half-year a collection symbolically dies so that it can be replaced by the subsequent one. The winter collection is followed by the spring collection. When we apply the logic of the sacrificial system to fashion, then the winter collection has to be sacrificed in order to give new life and power to the spring collection. Thus, the victim is the collection, which is followed by the new one. We have pointed out that the victim has to be sublimated into a sacred state. We will assume that in our case this is done by blocking the view with the opaque red film and by decorating the black dresses with ribbons. We define this decoration as a sacred stage, the next step being the sacrifice of the victim. In the case of the bull or the goat, this involves rites of slaughter. In the solemn moment, the knife cuts into the carotid of the animal making the consecration final and irrevocable. In consumer culture, slashing the carotid can be compared to the slashing of price. The prices related to goods are the lifeblood of commodities. When we cut the prices, the blood runs out, and the fashion collection loses its value and dies. After the bull was sacrificed, the participants of the rite would eat its meat. This can be compared to the consumption of the sacrificed winter collection during the sales period. What follows thereafter is the resurrection of the victim that, in our case, is the spring collection. The seasonal sale window is the altar at which fashion is sacrificed twice a year, the sacrifier being the fashion system. The power of the new collection is symbolically generated by the sacrifice of the previous one. It is ultimately Dionysus' resurrection that brings new life to the cornfield. This finds its equivalent in the life of the new seasonal collection, which, in turn, is renewed by the sacrifice of the previous collection. We are standing here in front of a Parisian couture house, which is performing a sacrificial rite from the past. We will now leave this show window and the theory of Mauss and Hubert behind us and visit a livelier shopping street.
RUE DU FAUBOURG SAINT HONORÉ
All the big names in fashion have their shops on this street. It is narrow, the shops are considerably smaller than the ones in the big shopping streets, and it has no mega stores. Some big brands have opened several smaller branches here so that they can present their entire collection. We find our first striking example of a seasonal sale decoration in the shop of a fashion designer, who not only presents his own collection but also designs for a big fashion brand. Because the shop is on a street corner, its window decoration can be seen through enormous show windows both from the shopping street as well as from the side street.
<• A major section of the shop is dedicated to the seasonal sale decoration. Its triangular space has one big show window facing the main street and one facing the side street. Inside the shop, colourful garments on a structure made of chromed tubing form the third border. Everything is white beyond this border of colour. The chrome tubes extend into the sacred white space because garments are also presented in this area during the rest of the year. We count six mannequins, one dog and five electric fans within the sacred stretch of space. The dog, totally chrome-plated, with a white crown of feathers is seated on a white upholstered chair, with head turned up to the sky. The upholstered chair faces the corner of the shop. Chromed fans mounted at varying heights on tripods surround the dog. The six mannequins, who also have chrome skins and a white feather crown, are all dressed in white lingerie and have a transparent white shawl wrapped around their shoulders. The shawls, each approximately six meters long, move in the wind generated by the fans and invisible wires hold their ends, making it appear as if trainbearers were holding them. The scene looks dynamic. One of the women dressed in white is kneeling before the dog, while the others seem to follow the procession led by the dog sitting on the white throne with its head raised.
We get the same feeling as when accidentally drawn into a procession in a foreign culture. It is clear to us that we are witnessing a symbolic action, but we are not sure at first about what is being dramatised. We are reminded of the ballet Le Sacre du printemps, which was premiered in 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, a theatrical performance of a sacrificial ritual. Images of Russian rituals served Vaslav Nijinsky as the basis for his choreography set to the music of Igor Stravinsky. As the story goes, a young girl is selected by a ritual process and then sacrificed. She has to dance until she dies. Nicholas Roerich, who used early ethnographic material for the scenery and the dresses, also designed the stage.251 We do not know whether the window dresser of this show window is well-versed in ethnography. We remember a scene in the ballet in which young women are dancing and the one who falls down is chosen as victim. Has the mannequin next to the dog perhaps fallen down and then become the victim of the sacrificial rite? Nietzsche referred to the Dionysus cult in his Birth of Tragedy, but the text can also be read in order to understand the new constellation of science and art at the beginning of modernity:
"In the constellation of art and science, in the context of ritual as a cultural pattern - both as discourse and scene - a concept that seems important to me for locating the choreography of Le Sacre du printemps becomes discernible. Not the ritual is the concern of the respective reconstruction - scientific or artistic - but rather the ritualising processes, or the 'representations of the ritual'. It is when the performative representations of a pattern of relations between body, space and time are organised in rituals, as Catherine Bell defines them, that the 'representations of the ritual' are designed and communicated, both in ethnographic descriptions as well as in the fictions of art."252
The stage designer Roerich was both scientist and artist. He not only studied ethnology and archaeology, but also painted and designed sets.253 What we see in the show window of the couture shop is not a reconstruction of a ritual but an artistic
251 See Brandstetter (2001) for an in-depth analysis of the ballet from the viewpoint of ritual studies
252 Brandstetter (2001:135)*.
253 The parallel artistic and scientific research in the Russian avant-garde is an interesting phenomenon. While scientists built machines for analysing the visual capacities of architects and painters, the artists used the machines in order to analyse their artwork.
Death of representation of a ritual. Ritual is represented through rituali-sation; in our case, however, it is in the liminal representation of the mannequins that the ritual process is shown as a frozen image. We previously pointed out that, according to van Gennep, the seasonal sale can be interpreted as a rite of passage. The liminal state of the shop that sells garments at a lower price is indicated only by diffuse symbols, no word is written here. The retailer as agent of ritual mastery has applied an artistic method for executing the seasonal sale. The myth related to the fashion system claims that a new collection is born twice a year in the fashion capitals. According to Barthes, a myth is merely a declaration and everything can become a myth. Only formal borders exist, but there are none where meaning is concerned.254 Barthes' analysis of everyday myths helped us to throw light on the disturbing fact that the mannequins are wearing lingerie even though the shop does not sell lingerie:
"Striptease - at least Parisian striptease - is based on a contradiction: Woman is desexualized at the very moment when she is stripped naked. We may therefore say that we are dealing in a sense with a spectacle based on fear, or rather on the pretence of fear, as if eroticism here went no further than a sort of delicious terror, whose ritual signs have only to be announced to evoke at once the idea of sex and its conjugation."255
Voyeurism as a form of consumerism can also be ascertained in the case of the show window. This is why on viewing this seasonal sale window for a second time we are confronted with the delicious fear of another type of ritual: the Parisian striptease. Obscenity is yet another of the Dionysian categories alongside the naked body. According to Turner, it is an intuitive sign of ritual, especially in the second phase of the rites of passage. In high culture, dramatisation does not directly deploy the sign of nakedness, but only an indication of it so that the voyeur has to envisage the desexualised ritual body. Myths are in a constant state of flux. Claude Lévi-Strauss describes this readjustment of rituals to new social realities in tribal societies.256 According to him, myths are altered in order to create a difference to the neighbouring tribe. We, too, adjust our myths
254 Barthes (2000:109)
255 Barthes: (2000:84)
from time to time in our contemporary consumer culture, but only for commercial reasons. Nietzsche describes the central function of the myth within a culture as follows:
"But without myth every culture forfeits its healthy, natural creative force: only a horizon defined by myths completes the unity of a whole cultural movement. Only myth can rescue all forces of imagination and of the Apollonian dream from their aimless roamings."257
The myth of fashion based on its renewal twice a year is one such myth that appears on the horizon of our consumer culture. The ritual of the seasonal sale and its symbolic dramatisation in the seasonal sale window makes the belief in this myth stable. But as Lévi-Strauss noted, this myth can change. And this changing myth could lead to a change in the related ritual as well.258 A show window on the other side of the street shows another way of dramatising the ritual, but using Dionysian aesthetics:
<• The storefront of the boutique is quite small. In the middle is an entrance, and small show windows on either side of it. This boutique belongs to one of the most renowned Parisian fashion houses. This couture house is famous for its colourful, playful and rich garments. But the two black, headless velvet mannequins are dressed with paper. The dress is sleeveless and down to the floor. The following message is written on it in black handwritten letters: "SOLDES 40% SUR TOUT LE MAGASIN".
Pierre Bourdieu described lifestyle as a systematic product of "habitus".259 Habitus is a system of internalised patterns capable of producing all the typical thoughts, perceptions and actions of a culture - but only these.260 Bourdieu describes in his Distinction the different ways in which people create their lifestyles, for example, by using music to show their status.261 In this sense, decorating shops is also a way of addressing different lifestyles and creating distinction. Contrary to our conviction that expensive boutiques dramatise the seasonal sale more
257 Nietzsche (2000:122).
258 See Lévi-Strauss (1977:232) for the relationship between ritual and myth
259 Bourdieu (2005:172-73).
260 Bourdieu (1974:143).
261 Bourdieu (2005).
Death of artistically, we have now discovered an example that would also apply to consumers of the lower strata of society. The brand name is the only symbol of distinction left in the show window during the sales. Here, the sacrificial dress is simply made of cheap paper. The liminal phase of inversion is also very intense, because during the rest of the year the garments are its very opposite. The difference becomes stark when the new collection arrives. The winter collection is now represented by the paper dress, the sacrificial dress. Once the winter collection is sacrificed, the new collection can resurrect from its ashes and from the visual poverty of the seasonal sale window. Barthes pointed out that speaking about outdated fashion is a taboo in magazines. Perhaps the show window follows a kind of unwritten "negative rite" which says that the old garments have to be concealed, or replaced by representations like the paper dress in our case.262 In a discussion with Jean Baudrillard, Jean Nouvel spoke about how architecture, and especially design, works in a sphere of "aesthetic of sacrifice".263 What Nouvel addressed here is the "sacrifice of the visual", whereby all that remains is the interaction with the dematerialised commodity.264 According to him, this aesthetics of visual sacrifice are interesting in relation to rituals as well. It is the symbolic use, the gesture, which creates the result, regardless whether the dress is made of gold or paper. The ritual action makes it possible for design to work within the sphere of visual sacrifice. A shop for children's clothes shows on a smaller scale what we saw earlier:
<• There are two child mannequin torsos in the show window. Both of them are dressed in white, sleeveless cotton dresses with the word "SOLDES" in big red characters written vertically on them. There is no backdrop, so we can see the baskets inside the shop with the goods on sale. Behind the window are teddy bears, and at the rear of the shop are the reduced garments.
Here again the mannequins are wearing their ceremonial dresses. But the ceremonial dresses look used. It seems that the window dressers use them every time the seasonal sale has to be staged. It is not the store's glorious mise-en-scene that invites us to an economic exchange inside it, nor is it a sacralising
262 "Negative rites" do not demand several actions, they in fact forbid them. See Durkheim (1971:299)
263 Engelmann (2004:55).
264 For example, the miniaturisation of electronic products ostentation as described by Baudrillard. It is yet another symbolic giving which is presented in the show window during the sales. Baudrillard says the following about the show window:
"The shop-window - all shop-windows - which are, with advertising, the foci of our urban consumer practices, are also the site par excellence of that "consensus operation", that communication and exchange of values through which an entire society is homogenized by incessant daily acculturation to the silent and spectacular logic of fashion. That specific space which is the shop-window neither inside nor outside, neither private or wholly public, and which is already the street while maintaining, behind the transparency of its glass, the distance, the opaque status of the commodity - is also the site of a specific social relation. [...] Shop-windows thus beat out the rhythm of the social process of value: they are a continual adaptability test for everyone, a test of managed projection and integration."265
This is Baudrillard's claim for the everyday show window that showcases the commodities with their fetish character in a spectacular atmosphere. But this is also true of our seasonal sale window. Social status can be achieved by purchasing the latest trends. The seasonal sale beats out the rhythm in which the collections change and symbolically performs the transformation from one trend into the next. This is done by performing a passage rite, another form of which is shown to us by the next show window:
<• White T-shirts, displayed on white hangers. Attached to bamboo sticks and suspended from the ceiling, they seem to be floating in the air. Blue dotted lines criss-cross each other on the window-pane, and a few percentage signs also float around.
The window does not look sophisticated. It certainly does not meet the usual standard reigning in this stylish shopping street. The T-shirts are not typical winter garments, but are placed in such a way that they become the background for the percentage signs. The random arrangement of signs and clothes along with the slanted dotted lines creates a special atmosphere
265 Baudrillard (2003:166)
Death of in the façade. We may have found the type of places that Michel Foucault called "heterotopias", places where the crisis occurs, namely, in the nowhere. Heterotopias have no fixed geographic position.266 Although the show window belongs to the street, it also belongs to the store. It is private and public at once. The production of signs is for everyone, but the consumption for just a few.
<• A big white paper poster conceals the window of the little fashion boutique. On a smaller page, we can read "Soldes", and a colour code related to the logic of the reduction system is listed below it. A green dot means 30%, a blue dot 40% and a red dot 50% reduction.
Baudrillard's seduction through signs267 is reduced here to a mathematical symbol, a black percentage sign on white paper. Coloured dots represent off sale goods. No indication of the spectacle: mathematical signs and numbers instead of a glorious mise-en-scène. An article published in 1959 in Vogue magazine illustrated the fashion code with traffic signs where the models are presented like cut out figures in an abstract white space.268 Thus, the percentage sign is the symbol of the seasonal sale, a sacrifice of the visual instead of excessive display. Guy Debord reflected on the spectacular nature of the consumer society in the following:
"As the indispensable packaging for things produced as they are now produced, as a general gloss on the rationality of the system, and as the advanced economic sector directly responsible for the manufacture of an ever-growing mass of image-objects, the spectacle is the chief product of present-day society."269
266 Foucault (2004:375).
267 For a profound discussion on Baudrillard's theory of signs, see Reck (1986:237).
268 Maybe this was Roland Barthes' inspiration for his work on the fashion system. The August issue of Vogue was published in the same year in which Barthes did his research on fashion magazines (from June 1958 until June 1959). The article is called "Le code de la mode" and describes in short the characteristics of fashion details. See Charles-Roux (1959:26-33)
269 Debord (2004:16).
Was this article helpful?