Communicating Fashion: Clothing, Culture and Media
By Myles Ethan Lascity
List of Figures vii
1 Communicating Fashion 1
2 Clothing as Intra- and Interpersonal Communication 25
3 Clothing Dynamics in Groups and Cultures 47
4 Fashion: Systems, Meaning, and Time 73
5 Clothing, News, and Tastemaking 97
6 Clothing on Film and Television 119
7 Ads, Brands, and Retail Considerations 147
8 Digital Communication, Social Media, and Mediatization 171
9 Fashion, Clothing and/as Art 195
On the surface this is a relatively simple concept, one that many of us take for granted. Th e clothing we decide to put on our body and how and where we decide to wear it informs our actions and—rightly or wrongly—will be interpreted by other people. Th e “messages” people take from our clothing and our personal appearance may not be the same as we intend to send, but the garments and how people visually see us informs how they interact with us.
Researchers and fashion theorists have oft en argued over this point and whether clothing can be considered a form of communication if we can’t communicate clear messages through it. Th is argument will be better addressed within Chapter 1, but communication is always complicated, and even when we think communication is clear-cut, such as through simple language, it is still dependent upon significant cultural and interpersonal contexts for messages to be properly understood. Nowhere is this more obvious than through social media where messages are frequently stripped of their context and circulate with new or modified contexts attached. Without getting too into the weeds of various arguments here, many others have focused on how clothing communicates (Is it a structured language? Is it a “quasi code”?) or if it communicates at all (since the input and output are generally different).
However, these are not the starting places of this book.
Instead, this book starts from the statement above: clothing communicates.
Whether we would admit to this publicly or not, we use clothing as a way to make sense of each other. It is steeped in all sorts of unsavory ideas— racism, sexism and classism, among them—but this does not change the fact that we all do it. In fact, one could argue that interpreting clothing is part of human nature.
As such, while this book is indebted to the work of Malcolm Barnard’s Fashion as Communication , which makes a compelling case to see clothing and fashion as a form of communication, the perspective presented in this book is more akin to Elizabeth Wilson’s understanding in “Magic Fashion,” where she writes, “… garments, like other objects, can take on imagined and/or subjectively experienced properties that go far beyond the flaunting of wealth or refined taste. It is because we live in a society dominated by capital and consumption that we commandeer material goods for the symbolic expression of values remote from materialism.” 1
While Wilson is making the case that clothing is magic because we assign subjective meanings to it—through superstition and the like—“magic” can be understood in a more practical way. Th e meaning attributed to clothing and personal appearance can never be fully or clearly articulated; simply put, there are too many mitigating factors for a structured understanding of how and what clothing communicates. And, since clothing and its meaning is subjective, each of us encounter idiosyncratic understandings due to a variety of factors and life experiences we likely can’t fully understand ourselves. In that sense, the way clothing communicates to us will always be “magic” in that it will never be fully understood. That said, we do make sense of the world through a mixture of personal experiences and various forms of media that we consume—the “mediated construction of reality” in the words of Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp. 2 Taking this fact to its logical conclusion then, we can assume we understand clothing in much the same way: through our experiences with it and the media that tells us about it. As such, this book starts from a simple paradox: Clothing communicates and we communicate about clothing. It is at this intersection where we develop and sustain meanings for specific material items as well as larger trends and appearances.
While research on clothing and fashion studies has grown substantially over the past three decades, 3 these topics have been less represented within American communication and media studies. Instead, fields like anthropology, sociology, home economics (and later design), business, merchandising and even American studies have filled this void within the US academy. I suspect this is largely because American communication studies starts from one of two angles—interpersonal interactions (communication studies) or the mass media (media studies)—and clothing and fashion doesn’t neatly fit into either. Clothing frames our interpersonal interactions, but does so with the support of the fashion system vis- à -vis the mass media.
As such, this book seeks to overcome these divisions as an introductory text for the study of fashion communication . Th e structure of this book may look somewhat familiar to those who have taught (or taken) introductory courses in communication and media studies. Th e first three chapters follow the general structure of a communication studies text. Chapter 1 explores the models of the communication (and defines some fashion terminology), before looking at clothing in individual and interpersonal communication, and group communication in Chapters 2 and 3, respectively. Chapter 4 introduces conceptualizations of the fashion system and how material objects are provided with a cultural meaning. Th is chapter acts as a bridge to the rest of the book which connects media forms and theory to fashion and clothing. The remaining chapters each tackle a medium (print, film and television, the internet) and the cultural institutions which help create the fashion system (advertising and the art world). Along the way, this book explains how theories like agenda- setting, framing and other media theories affect the fashion system.
Communication and media scholars have not considered fashion- related communication with the same seriousness given to political, business or environmental communication. Th is seems especially pronounced within the US, where even books on nonverbal communication only give a passing glance to clothing. Internationally, this omission seems to be in the process of being rectified thanks to the efforts of Nadzeya Kalbaska, Teresa S á daba and Lorenzo Cantoni, who have recently organized a special issue of the journal Studies in Communication Sciences on “Fashion Communication” 4 and, along with Francesca Cominelli, began a dedicated conference series on “Digital Fashion Communication”; both of which I feel lucky to have contributed to. Still, as other subdisciplines of communication have had decades of attention, it will undoubtedly take years of work for fashion communication to be given the attention it rightly deserves. Th is book hopes to be one brick on the road to that end.