two views of fashion as Communication

two views of fashion as Communication

 In Britain and the USA, as in many other western capitalist countries at the beginning of the twenty-first century, fashion and clothing present curious and ambiguous profiles. From one side, the profile looks attractive and seductive. Newsagents' shelves groan under the weight of style and fashion magazines, which offer glossy advice, to both men and women, young and old, on what to look like and how to look like it. The High Streets and malls of these countries are filled with more or less confident fashion and clothing franchises, staffed by more or less snooty assistants offering more or less exclusive gear to the more or less discerning consumer. Online versions of companies such as Lands' End provide the chance to construct a virtual 'you'. kitting yourself out with potential purchases (go to 'My Model' at and www.landsetideom). Television shows with tricky graphics, eclectic taste in music and enthusiastic presenters offer make-overs in provincial shopping malls and interviews with glamorous-looking fashion designers. Other television productions, often with 1920s' or 1930s' graphics and music to match, have offered frock design as serialised. if not always terribly high, drama. Between the shows, companies like Gap and Nike advertise their clothes with swinging choreography and pop groups. The world of fashion design made one of its periodic appearances in Hollywood film in 1995 when Prit a Porter, a story of designers, models and consumers. was released. Daily newspapers, conservative and liberal alike, set aside whole pages and employ journalists to offer their opinions concerning the ideal size of female models or to present the latest in latex. And, inevitably, in their turn, some of these models, presenters and journalists become household names, fit to offer their endorsements of other household names in magazine and television advertisements. From the other side, however, the profile looks much less attractive and. although it is still seductive, it is so in quite a different sense. The glamorous stores, television and magazine ads are tarnished by the knowledge that Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, Nike and the rest depend upon exploiting sweated child 

labour in developing countries (Klein 2000: 46. 212, 327, 331). Tommy Hilfiger is so affected by the opprobrium they have attracted as a result of their practices that it will not allow Hilfiger advertisements to appear in academic texts such as this one, in case they are used to disgrace the company even further. From another angle, Sapir has noted that `the term fashion may carry with it a tone of approval or disapproval' (Sapir 1931: 139). In as early a work as the dialogue known as the 'Greater Hippias', for example, which some attribute to Plato, writing around 400 BC, clothes are linked with beauty. However, they are linked with beauty in the context of a fraud that is perpetrated on those seeking the beautiful (Plato `Greater 294a-b in Hamilton and Cairns (eds) 1961: 154-7). And as modern a work as i-D maga-zine, for example, points out that, for some people, `to be fashion conscious or "fashionable" is still deemed to make you "fickle", "dumb", "ephemeral" [and] "fascist"' (i-D magazine 1985/6). The ways in which clothing, fashion and textiles feature in everyday colloquialisms reflect this view, a much less welcoming and trusting view. In many everyday figures of speech, fashion, clothing and textiles are associated with triviality and deceit. These phrases may be thought of as part of some collective unconscious; they are the slips of the tongue that whole cultures make, which give away that culture's actual feelings about a topic. Examples of everyday phrases suggesting the deceptive nature of clothing or dress abound and Valerie Steele (2001: 73) suggests that the notion of 

fashion as deceit stems from eighteenth-century usage. When. for example. one wants to say that someone is dressing in a way that is too young fur them. one says that they are 'mutton dressed 3% lamb'. Whether or not this phrase applies as easily to men as it does to women (and it is unlikely that it is ever applied to men). the idea that the notion of clothing conveys here is that of Clothes here are being used to 'pull the wool over one's eyes'. to fool one. People also speak of someone being a 'wolf in sheep's clothing'. Indeed, this phrase was the only copy in a series of ads for wool in the early 1980s (compare Imrie 1986. for example). Again, the idea is that a person land here it is unlikely that the phrase is ever applied to a woman). who is one kind of person uses clothes to appear as another. less threatening, kind of person. The idea which dress is used to convey here. again. is deception. The well.known children's story concerning the Emperor's new clothes. in which the Emperor is himself fooled by two conmen, and in which ht in turn loots most of the population, clearly works on the basis of clothes being bound tip with the idea of deceit. Slang gives other senses: to dress a hat is to commit a robbery, for example. To dress fur the part is to be hypocritical in theatre slang. Oscar Wilde's claim, that only a fool would not judge by appearances. gains its satirical force by countering the popular wisdom that one should not judge a person by their clothes. Popular wisdom being will aware, only presumably, of just how beguiling &likes can be. There are probably other phrases which. like these, associate fashion or clothing with deception. but these give the flavour. It seems that there arc fewer phrases that associate fashion or dress with the trivial (although there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that modern western culture does just that and Angela McRohbic (1998: 15) writes of the 'trivialised status' still enjoyed by fashion in the late 1990s). Sapin for example. points out that 'a moralist may decry a certain type of behaviour as a mere fashion' (Saint. 1931: 139). Fashion is used here to give the sense of something that is not very significant. a 'mere' thing. Similarly. people will speak of someone as a 'fashion victim'. meaning. partly at least, that they spend too much time or money on fashion. The implication is that they will follow the fashion unquestioningly when. in reality. there are other, much more important things to be attended to. The idea of someone being a slave to fashion also shares in this sense that fashion is not the sort of thing that should be overvalued. that it is not particularly important. Anecdotal evidence of fashion and dress not being taken as seriously as it could or should be is not hard to find. One need only ask fashion or textiles students what their peers taking other subjects at college and, occasionally. their families, think of them pursuing such a earner to tInifiI111 the popularity of this prejudice, especially if those reels are male. It is a common prejudice that fashion and textiles students will be only too happy to shorten a pair of trousers or run Oa scot'. for example. because that is what they do. that is what their subjects are about. The idea that fashion and textiles are not 

perhaps as serious or as important as other subjects is often not one that junior education ministers of government do much to combat. Timothy I:agar. for example, who was Minister of Slate for Education and Science in October 1990. suggested on Radio Four's Today programme that 'able chil-dren' should study proper subjects like Classics or a second language in the National Curriculum. while 'less able children' should study design (Clough 1990: 3). While the adoption of small.minded prejudice as Conservative government policy may surprise no one, the contrast between these two sides or profiles of fashion probably will. From one side, fashion and clothing represent objects that arc desirable and sexy and practices that are both glamorous and respectable From the other side. they represent deceitful. exploitative trivia to he pursued only by the intellectually challenged. This seems to he a dear case of double standards: creative production. art if you like. is given both positive and negative valuations ahem is another double standard. operating 'within' this one. which determines that men's involvement in fashion and clothing is valued differently from, and valued above. that of women. This will be discussed in more detail in chapter live and see Buckley 1986: 4 5). llowever. one ought not to be surprised by the curious and ambivalent pos-ition allotted to fashion and dress by this culture. There are various °solar). ations offered for the phenomenon. some of which will be examined in more detail in the following chapter. Williams points out. for example. that this dichotomous response to creativity or cultural production has a long history and may be found in both 'high theory and low prejudice' (Williams 1961: 351. The creativity of artists and designers has long been both admired and despised by societies Wilson suggests that this 'cultural ambivalence' is the result of what she calls the 'Natant 1:011SLIMCIlS111. of fashion and clothing 'shocking' the culture that we live in. while simultaneously expressing the 'heart' of that culture, saying something essential or True about it (Wilson 1990: 209). The ambivalence of this culture's response to fashion and dress dots not arise by chance and the effects of such ambivalence cannot simply be dis. missed as irrelevant or accidental. They cannot be dismissed because, system-atically and thoroughly, these issues and their implications work their way through even the definition of the word 'fashion' as well as its relations to other words like 'style' and 'clothing'. In order to examine how these issues affect the meanings of words like these, chapter one will begin by studying the etymology of the word fashion. This introduction has tried to introduce some of the concerns of the test of the book by considering the cultural status enjoyed by fashion and clothing in contemporary western society: They are seen to have an ambivalent status. at once both positive and negative. In chapter one. that status will be related to the similarly ambivakni status of creative or cultural production in general. and it will be seen to be further complicated by a relation to gender. This 

ambivalence will be shown to cut across many of the other words which are used as synonyms or near synonyms for fashion and dress So, while etymol. ogy will be used to shed a little light on the mailer. it will be argued that the context in which these words appear must always be taken into consideration when deciding whether a garment is being understood or used as an item of fashion or clothing. The ideas of fashion and anti•fashion will be used in chapter one to try to illuminate the problems involved in rigidly defining these terms The following chapters will take up and develop these ideas and themes Chapter two will continue to consider fashion and clothing as cultural phe-nomena: it will explain various conceptions of culture and attempt to decide which is most appropriate for the study of these topics While the French phrase haute couture might translate loosely as high quality fashion design. does that mean it is Kr-Madly high culture? Does it make any sense to speak of fashion as a cultural phenomenon if 'culture' is taken to mean a process leading to a final. perfect. point? Are fashion and clothing more properly Thought of as popular or mass culture? Is fashion art, or kit, as most colleges have It. design? This chapter will also establish fashion and clothing as corn• munication. It will explain various conceptions or communication and try to decide which one best fits the workings of fashion and dress. The idea that our clothes say something about us has become a commonplace. but what sort of communication is it and what 30113 of 'somethings' does fashion say? It is clearly not spoken or written communication (even when our clothes have slogans and labels on them). but does it make any sense to speak of misunderstanding someone's lathes or of wondering what they mean by wearing those particular clothes? Chapter two will finally introduce the idea that it is not an innocent or a neutral form of communication: it will argue that power and ideology arc involved, Chapter three will develop the idea of fashion and clothing as communica-tion. Having considered the argument that the primary, or material, functions of clothing are protection from the elements and modesty the chapter will then look at the cultural or communicative functions of clothing. However. given that members of different cultures assume different ways of protecting themselves from the elements, might it not be the case that even these material functions have communicative aspects? Similarly. it might be that. as mem-bers of different cultures have different standards of modesty. these stand• ands might also be communicative. A concern with the display or otherwise of the body does not preclude that display. and that body, being thoroughly meaningful and available to semiological analysis. I laving established that fashion and clothing are oornmunicative phenom. ens and having explained some of the things that they communicate. chapter four will begin to explain bow meanings are generated and communicated. low are we to explain that a Tattersall check shirt. for example, is smarter or more formal than a T-shirt but not as >marl or rorrnal as a plain white shirt? 

The chapter will look at various potential sources of meaning (the designer. the wearer,. spectator, for rumple), and it will examine two types or levels of meaning, denotation and connotation. Chapter four will then argue that it is the socially agreed, and coded. differences between garments. colours. tex-tures and no on that generate meanings. Who says that the combination 'blue and green should ne'cr be seen', for exampk?Ilow is it that men wearing light grey suits with brown shoes inspire such a mixture of pity and contempt? The nature or these differences and the combinations they enter into will be explained as the sources of meaning. The nature of the social agreement, the workings of power and ideology will be examined in more detail here in order to bike into account the workings of hegemony. the ways in which dominant groups in society maintain their dominance. The parts played by fashion and clothing in establishing and maintaining, or reproducing, social status will be developed in chapter five. The ways in which fashionable dress has been used to construct and establish class and gender identities and the ways in which those identities have been reproduced will be examined. Clearly. different classes and genders have different posi-tions within society: they have differing amounts of power and they are of higher or lower status Fashion and clothing are profoundly political as they arc among the means by which those inequalities have been maintained and reproduced from one generation to the next. The ways in which Veblen sees class superiority being constructed, signalled and ensured by means of tom speuous consumption a nil waste of dress for example, will be described here. And, beginning from Berger's account of the situation in which men act while women appear. the ways in which women are reduced to appearances. signs of their husband's wealth, will also be described. To suggest that fashion and clothing are the only ways in which class and gender identities arc constructed and reproduced is obviously to grossly over-simplify matters It is simply not the case that dominant groups, be they class. gender or any other kind of group, arc only dominant or arc only maintain-ing their positions of dominance by virtue of the things they wear. These groups are always in opposition to other. subordinated. groups they meet resistances and fashion and clothing arc preeminently among the ways in which subordinate groups maycontest and challenge prevailing identities and positions What people wear is political in the sense that what people wear is a means of contesting and challenging class and gender identities Chapter six will look at a number of examples of fashion being used to contest identities. For example. Punk may be seen as an attempt to oppose and challenge a dominant. middle-class view, or ideology. of beauty in women and value in jewellery. The chapter will also look at claims that working-class women in the 1950s appropriated middle-class fashions for themselves. And it will con-sider the ways in which women have attempted to counter or refuse what has been called 'the male gum'. ritalknginggender identities by means of fashion and clothing. 

Chapter five considers the reproductive aspects of fashion. the ways in which what people wear constructs and maintains their identities. Chapter six considers the rewhItionaTy, or challenging, aspects of fashion, the ways is which what people wear can contest those identities. Chapter seven will attempt to present the postmodern aspects of fashion and clothing. in which it can be argued that reproductive and revolutionary elements to-exist at the mine time. This chapter will first provide a working definition of modernism and modernity and it will explain the position of fashion within these terms It will then use the work of Jameson and Baudrillanl to construct a basic account of postmodernism and postmodernity and explain the position of fashion in their terms Derrida's notion of intertextuality will be used to argue that fashion and clothing are 'undecidable. their meanings and values las reproductive or revolutionary, for exampled being produced and destroyed at the same time. The intertextual constitution of the meanings and values associated with the stiletto heel will be used to illustrate how an item of fashion may be both enslaving las reproductive) and liberating tits revolutionary) at the same time. Finally chapter eight will reconsider the curious and ambiguous profiks presented by fashion and clothing and attempt to provide another explan-ation of them using the perspective of undeeidability developed in chapter seven. It will also amen the consequences of the postmodern analyses of chapter seven for the notions of fashion and communication.