The Language of Fashion PDF by Roland Barthes


The Language of Fashion
by Roland Barthes

The Language of Fashion


Preface ix
Part One Clothing History 1
1 History and Sociology of Clothing: Some
Methodological Observations 3
2 Language and Clothing 20
3 Towards a Sociology of Dress 31
Part Two Systems and Structures 35
4 ‘Blue is in Fashion This Year’: A Note on
Research into Signifying Units in Fashion
Clothing 37
5 From Gemstones to Jewellery 54
6 Dandyism and Fashion 60
7 [An Early Preface to] The Fashion System 65
8 Fashion, a Strategy of Desire: Round-table
Discussion with Roland Barthes, Jean
Duvignaud and Henri Lefebvre 80
9 Fashion and the Social Sciences 85
10 On The Fashion System 92
Part Three Fashion Debates and
Interpretations 97
11 The Contest between Chanel and Courrèges.
Refereed by a Philosopher 99
12 A Case of Cultural Criticism 104
13 Showing How Rhetoric Works 108
Clothes, Fashion and System in the Writings of
Roland Barthes: ‘Something Out of Nothing’ by
Andy Stafford 113
Editor’s Note and Acknowledgements 159
Bibliography 161
Glossary of Names 165
Index 171

The principal aim of this book is to bring together in one publication those writings on clothes and fashion by Roland Barthes which have yet to be translated into English. If Barthes is known for The Fashion System (1967, English translation 1985), his seminal if complex treatise on fashion systems and on how fashion is ‘written’, it is perhaps less known that he wrote also on hippies, on jewellery, and extensively on methodological problems within clothes history. It was this gap in both Barthes scholarship and in Fashion Studies that encouraged Michael Carter to ask me to translate and edit these writings. We have decided, however, not to include in this volume two of Barthes’s writings on theatrical costume; we considered that his important piece on the excesses and iniquities of certain types of theatre-costume design exists already in English translation, in a slightly abridged version in Barthes’s Critical Essays (1972 [1964]), and that, although the original version (appearing in Théâtre Populaire in 1955) has witty commentaries on photographs of certain costume disasters, we did not want to confuse the volume with considerations on the theatre. The same applies to Barthes’s other (brief) essay on theatre costume, a 1955 review of Hélène Parmelin’s livre d’artiste covering five twentieth-century costume designers in France. Other pieces on fashion, other than The Fashion System itself, are indeed available in English and are therefore not included here—mainly interviews given by Barthes around the time of the publication of The Fashion System—which can be found in The Grain of the Voice. Interviews 1962–1980 (trans. Linda Coverdale, New York: Hill and Wang, 1985, 43–67).

The idea of this book, initiated by Michael Carter, was to concentrate on the key writings on clothing that predate The Fashion System, in which Barthes tries to establish how and why people have dressed the way they do across the centuries, then to look at how Barthes moved away from clothes history towards fashion theory, and finally to set out where his analysis in The Fashion System went in the period immediately following. I say clothes and fashion, as this reflects a clear division in Barthes’s work. For, somewhere between 1959 and 1964, a decision was made to concentrate more on contemporary (written) fashion rather than on clothes (and their history). The division of this anthology into three parts—Clothing History, Systems and Structures, Fashion Debates and Interpretations—reflects these shifting concerns in Barthes’s research and theoretical reflections.

The pieces presented in this book appeared originally in a variety of publications in France—academic, journalistic and industry-related—of which the social history journal Annales is the most preponderant. From Marie Claire to a Catholic auxiliary nurses’ publication, from Critique to Communications, Barthes’s writings on clothing and fashion are clearly interdisciplinary enough to appear in a wide range of different places. They all also chart the shifts, about-turns, ruptures and spirals of Barthes’s thought across the fast-paced intellectual culture of 1960s France. In twelve years, from 1957 to 1969, he goes from bemoaning the lack of decent histories of clothing to denouncing hippy ethnic fashion as a reactionary form of revolt, from using semiology to understand clothing to seeing the rhetoric of fashion as an impoverished and ultimately shallow producer of cultural forms, from considering the origins and functions of gemstones to watching a ‘joust’ between the rival fashion houses of Coco Chanel and André Courrèges.

This anthology has been divided into three chronological sections in order to take account of these different phases in Barthes’s thought on clothing and fashion. The first part, Clothing History, shows Barthes in search of a solution to the thorny problem of accounting for clothing forms across history. ‘History and Sociology of Clothing’, published in the influential journal Annales in 1957, is a historical overview of hitherto existing studies on the history of clothing which discusses the weaknesses in classical, romantic, folkloric, ‘archaeological’, Marxist and psychological accounts of clothing forms.1 Barthes discusses in detail the impasse of History and Structure, Change and Order, within the newly emerging discipline of Cultural Studies, bemoaning the restrictive nature of the triumvirate dominating clothing explanations at the time, namely those of protection, modesty and ornamentation. This methodological overview is also an early statement of Barthes’s intention to use Saussure’s semiology, Annales-inspired historical sociology and the newfangled science of structuralist linguistics, in an attempt to establish a viable history and sociology of clothing form. ‘Language and Clothing’, a book review for Critique appearing in 1959, then represents an important development in this work on clothing form in history, as Barthes slowly moves away from the ambitious programme of his earlier ‘History and Sociology of Clothing’ and towards the language of clothes. It contains the first hints of his interest in a sociology of contemporary fashion styles, following the realization that a history of clothing forms would require a major team of researchers, something not about to happen in late 1950s France despite the growth in sociology and the expansion of social research in this period. So Barthes sets out a clear definition of how structural linguistics and phonological analysis could be used as the basis of a sociological approach to clothing.

‘Towards a Sociology of Dress’, another book review, published this time in Annales in 1960 just as Barthes took up his research post at the VIth section of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (EPHE) in Paris, is a comparison of the psychological works on clothing by Franz Kiener and John Carl Flügel, in which Barthes prefers the latter for its structured and fruitful insights. The former is criticized for its preference for an anthological description of the diversity of clothing forms, at the expense of a consideration of the relative signifying values informing each item. Barthes thus argues, in good structuralist fashion, for a ‘functional’ rather than a ‘substantial’ description and for a structural rather than an anthological approach, in which a syntactic and not a lexical study of clothes is preferred.

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