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Roland Barthes' SYSTME DE LA MODE

By Theo van Leeuwin

Although almost the whole of Barthes' work is now available in English, Systme de la Mode (The System of Fashion') remains untranslated. Regarded on the Continent as the major work of Barthes' early period, it remains to most English speaking students of his oeuvre a closed book.

Why should this be so? Perhaps the author himself should be blamed, at least in part, for he has, by his own admission, only reluctantly published the book, three years after its completion, and even then surrounded it with qualifications. In his foreword he calls it 'already dated' and la little naive' and asks the reader to take the book as 'a certain history of semiology', as 'the record of an apprenticeship', rather than as the exposition of 'the certainties of a discipline'" (SM, p.7). Later he added that, at the time of writing Systme de la Mode, he was caught up in 'a euphoric dream of scientificity', believed that the methodology of semiotics had been established once and for all, and that one could now proceed to the construction of specific semiotics the semiotics of food, dress, narrative, etc. (1971a, p.99). It was a belief which, by then, he had come to see as anachronistic. The work of Derrida and Lacan had, in the meantime, made its influence felt, and caused the semiotic enterprise to shift its emphases. The sign, in classical semiotics a tool of analysis, had now become problematic, a concept in need of deconstruction; the semiotician had now become a 'semioclast' (cf. Gaillard, 1974).

Not only Barthes himself, also some of his English speaking critics helped to foster an atmosphere of doubt around the validity of Systme de la Mode. Culler criticized the book in no uncertain terms:

...a rather confused, incomplete, and unverifiable account of the vestimentary code which cannot serve even as a specimen of formal analysis... (Culler, 1975, pp.37-38) And Thody argued that the relevance of Barthes' analysis remains confined to Gallic culture: ...what Barthes so aptly calls the rhetoric of fashion is so much more a feature of the French than of the English version of Vogue that any translation even assuming that a suitable dedicated Benedictine monk were available would be incomprehensible to the average English reader... (Thody, 1977, p.108)

As far as Barthes' own doubts are concerned, I respectfully disagree with the master. In my view Systme de la Mode is not only the most complete statement of his earlier semiotics, but also, even if, for the most part, still implicitly, the work that marks the beginning of his second phase. Systme de la Mode, as Van Poecke has pointed out (1978), can be read both as the culmination of the themes which occupied Barthes in Mythologies, in Elements of Semiology, and, for ex-


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ample, in his essays on photography (the theme of the relation between language and reality approached via the Hjelmslevian trio denotation/ connotation/ metalanguage; the emphasis on structure and system) and as the beginning of a new emphasis, an emphasis on what Lacan has called 'the logic of the signified'. The prominent role of the signifier in Systme de la Mode makes the work also part of the new semiotics, the semiotics which Barthes defined as 'the science of the signifier' (1971b, p.614). To refute in detail criticisms such as those of Culler and Thody is not the purpose of this paper. But one remark can be made. Applying Barthes' analysis to contemporary Australian fashion magazines, as I have done throughout this paper, shows quite conclusively that, more than twenty years after Barthes analyzed his corpus (the 1959 and 1960 issues of Elle, Vogue, Jardin des Modes, and l'Echo de la Mode), and despite linguistic and cultural barriers, Barthes' description of the 'language of fashion' remains valid and a source of insight. Indeed, it is striking to find, in Australian Vogue, October 1982, a 'fashion statement' almost identical to one of Barthes' central examples (les imprimes triomphent aux Courses, 'printed fabrics win the day at the Races'):

...The spring racing season is here. Best odds: jacket dressing... (Austr. Vogue, Oct. 1982; p.70)

The fashions may have changed, but the system of fashion has remained remarkably constant, and Barthes' analysis is still a valid tool to bring this out. Critics of his analysis would have done well to try it out for themselves, which, as with all linguistic analysis, can always be done by anyone who has access to the language under consideration, and in the case of the 'language of fashion' such access is not difficult to come by. What follows is a summary of Systme de la Mode detailed enough, I hope, to make it possible to analyze the 'language of fashion 1 after Barthes' method, and to test Barthes' description against current fashion magazines. It originated in 1978 as a course studyguide for third year mass communication students at Macquarie University, and has since been revised a number of times. METHODOLOGY The verbal code and the vestimentary code: evolution versus change As speakers of English we are both 'producers' and 'consumers' of that language. With our vocal apparatus we produce messages, with our ears we consume them. In a sense this is also the case with the vestimentary code, the language of dress': we dress in a certain way and so send a message to others; we perceive how others are dressed and so receive a message from them. But there is one difference: we do not actually produce the signs ourselves. We use pre-fabricated signs and even when we make them ourselves we tend to follow a prescribed pattern. As a result, the vestimentary code does not change in the same way as language proper. Natural languages evolve, and their evolution cannot, ultimately, be con-


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trolled. They cannot be changed by unilateral decision on the part of a small group of language designers'. Such 'language designers' as poets, copywriters, government departments, may eventually come to Influence language, but the decision is not theirs. They cannot decide to take a word out of circulation, for example, and replace it with another, different word. The decision is with the amorphous mass of English speakers, and change is usually slow. The vestimentary code, on the other hand, does not evolve. It changes. It changes every year by unilateral decision on the part of a small group of fashion experts: designers, manufacturers, editors of fashion magazines the 'fashion group', as Barthes says. And it changes not only in form, but also in meaning. An item which last year was 'casual' may this year be 'dressy' (or out of fashion altogether). An item which last year was 'romantic' may this year be 'mature' (cf. SM, p.219). For Barthes, who, throughout Systme de la Mode, is very much preoccupied with the methodological purity of his study in terms of Saussurian linguistics, this not only constitutes the arbitrariness of the fashion sign (an equivalence between signifier and signified imposed by decree) but also endows the vestimentary code with a pure synchrony (during a given year the language of fashion' remains stable, so that the analyst can safely ignore diachronic considerations).

The real garment and the written garment: fashion magazines

The annual change of the vestimentary code means that we have to relearn this code from year to year, and, says Barthes, in this relearning process fashion magazines have an important role to play, a 'didactic' role, a role of 'initiation' (SM, p.24).

Fashion magazines can fulfil this role because of the way in which they combine image and text. Barthes, here as in Elements of Semiology, does not believe that images can, ultimately, communicate independent of language. At some stage words are needed to explain the meaning of a purely pictorial message. Afterwards one may understand other, similar images without the aid of words provided they are indeed sufficiently similar. But since neither the form nor the meaning of dress is very stable in our culture, we have a continuous need for words to understand the vestimentary message, and it is, to quite some extent, the fashion magazine which caters for this need. This does not mean that we can consider the texts in fashion magazines without taking the pictorial content into account: the fashion magazine always presents us both with the 'iconic garment' and the 'written garment', and that the two must be read in conjunction is evident from the text itself, encoded in the text by means of what Barthes calls 'shifters' cohesive devices such as the, this, above, below, left, right. The text, however, is central, the ultimate determiner of meaning. It 'immobilizes perception', imposes on the reading of the image a fixity of meaning which the image, by itself, cannot achieve: 20 Aust. J. Cultural Studies I: May 83

...an image unavoidably comprises several levels of perception, and the reader of the image has a certain amount of freedom in choosing at which level to stop(..) hence the sense of an image is never certain. The text suppresses this freedom, but also removes this uncertainty; it translates and imposes a choice, orders the reader to stop his perception of this dress here (...). directs our gaze to the fabric a dress is made of, or the belt or accessories with which it is worn. Thus the text has a function of authority... (SM, p.24)

In addition the text 'adds knowledge' to the reading of an image. It can, for example, provide information which the image, by itself, cannot provide, describe aspects of the garment hidden from view in the picture, name and classify what is shown in the image, decide on our behalf, for example, whether a new and slightly different garment should be called a top or a blouse. And it can introduce into the description the abstract terms (stiffness, whiteness, transparency) which enable the garment to enter into functional oppositions. The text finally adds 'emphasis', isolates from the picture certain features at the expense of others, in order to affirm their value for the signification of the costume as a whole ('note the black leather belt'). Barthes is aware that by choosing to deal with fashion magazine texts, he has chosen for the 'written garment', rather than the 'real garment'. A study of the 'real garment' would, according to Barthes, amount to a kind of 'phonetics of dress', that is, to a study of the production of the clothes rather than the way in which they mean the 'real garment' does not mean anything, and the only language which could be applicable to it is the language of work. In fact Barthes goes so far as to say that the actual topic of his book is, not the language, but the literature of dress: ... if the garment of fashion seems a rather odd object for such an intensive study, one should realize that we are dealing here with the relation that holds also between the world and literature, for isn't literature the institution which converts the real into language, just as does our written garment? Isn't written fashion a literature?... (SM, p.22) Fashion statements

Fashion magazines contain 'fashion statements'. Their boundaries do not necessarily coincide with the boundaries of sentences, and their structure should not, according to Barthes, be described in terms of the grammar of English, but in terms of the 'grammar' of the vestimentary code, in terms of a 'pseudo syntax , for it is this pseudo syntax, rather than the grammar of the language of which it makes use, which articulates the vestimentary meaning (SM, p.57). The fashion statements, in turn, consist of a fashion description and a fashion meaning, and both of these are explicitly stated, something which, in language, is normally restricted to metalinguistic utterances. Even the link between fashion


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description and fashion meaning is often explicitly stated. The following fashion statement gives both a description of the form of the clothes (fashion description) and an indication of the situation for which the clothes are said to be appropriate (fashion meaning): ...whether you're off to someone else's house or entertaining in your own, this page, Mark and Geoffrey all-in-one suit of cream silk, gathered at the ankle, worn with hand-painted chiffon wrapped apron, matching scarf... (Austr. Vogue, June 1977, p.58. See plate 1) The statement could be paraphrased as: 'this suit (etc.) signifies home entertainment'. Another fashion statement, from the same magazine (p.49) couples a description of fabrics with the notion of 'femininity', and provides a phrase to make the link between description and meaning explicit ('preview a delicious turn towards'): ...these fresh new cottons preview a delicious turn towards very feminine fashion.

A statement which could be paraphrased as: 'cottons signify femininity'.

The four levels of the vestimentary code

Fashion statements are rich in rhetoric. Abundant use is made of alliteration, rhyme, inversions of various kinds. Puns and metaphors occur frequently: ...how else do you make a full skirt, a top rimmed with embroidered icing, than in the crispest cotton?... (Austr. Vogue, June 1977; p.50) Many of the words used, especially the adjectives, are what Barthes calls termes mixtes, at once designative, part of the fashion description, and attributive, part of the rhetoric of fashion, as, perhaps, 'peasant' and 'soft' in this example, again from Australian Vogue (p.50): ... with soft voile peasant blouse...

This rhetorical element in the fashion statement constitutes, according to Barthes, a separate level of meaning, one of four levels:

level 1: the real vestimentary code

On this level, a signifier (a certain item of clothing, a certain type of fabric, certain feature(s) of a garment) is associated with a signified (an occasion for which the item or type of fabric is appropriate, a 'personality trait') and the union of this signifier and this signified constitutes a level 1 sign.


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Note that 'real' in this connection should not be confused with 'real' as in the 'real garment' discussed earlier. The 'reality' of the 'real vestimentary code' is in fact a 'pseudo reality', constructed by the system of fashion (SM, p.58).

level 2: the written vestimentary code

On this level, a written sentence (the fashion statement) is superimposed on the level 1 sign, and a new, more complex sign is created, of which the written sentence forms the signifier and the level 1 sign (the 'pseudo reality of fashion') the signified.

level 3: fashion value

The act of writing fashion, of creating level 2 signs, turns the proposition (e.g. cottons femininity) into something fashionable. A new signified ('this is fashionable') is expressed by the written fashion statement. Barthes calls it connotation de la mode, and we translate it here as 'fashion value'.

level 4: the rhetoric of fashion

The phraseology of the fashion statement, the rhetorical form in which it is couched, is the signifier of a final level of signification. In the case of Barthes' example ('printed fabrics win the day at the Races'), the use of the expression 'win the day' provides such a rhetorical element. It not only denotes the link between printed fabrics and the Races (in which capacity it could be replaced by a more neutral

expression, e.g. 'signify') but also connotes the competitive element of fashion, the desire to be number one. In this way fashion does not restrict itself to vestimentary signification proper, but also provides an ideologically coloured representation of the world.

With a typically Barthian 'geology of the sign':


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Fashion descriptions do not give an exhaustive description of the clothes depicted in the accompanying picture. They concentrate ('immobilize the perception') on a small number of significant elements of these clothes. Each fashion description singles out three of these significant elements and each element fulfills a different function in the description. The three functions are: object, support, and variant.

Reading two fashion statements: (a) 'a shirt, with casually open collar' (b) 'a shirt, the collar closed for a dressy effect' we can, as the first step in our analysis, reduce the statements to their barest form, divest them of their rhetoric. Barthes proposes a shorthand notation in which the sign (=) means 'equivalence' and the sign () 'simple combination with': (a ') shirt collar open = casual (b') shirt collar closed = dressy Inspection of this pair of statements, the equivalent of the 'minimal pair' in contrastive linguistics, shows that it is the non-material element (i.e. the way in which the collar is worn) which is crucial for the difference in meaning bet-ween (a) and (b). This element is called the variant: the formal element which, if it is commuted into its opposite, results in a different meaning for the fashion description. Once the variant is identified, the other elements can be isolated: the object is the garment (or type of fabric, or colour) under consideration, the support that part of the object which allows the variation. In examples (a) and (b) the shirt is the object, the collar the support. Barthes again uses a formal notation:

Variations in the structure of the fashion description may occur, but ultimate-ly it can be reduced to these three elements:

(i) Rather than a non-material element, the variation may be the addition of a material element. In that case variant and support are combined, to indicate that the presence/absence of the support forms the variant:

(ii) It may also be that the support is not explicitly mentioned, so that object and support combine:


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Several chapters of Systme de la Mode are devoted to a systematic inventory and discussion of the variants which Barthes found in his corpus of fashion statements. They include shapes (bent/straight; round/square, etc.), variants of fabric (heavy/light; flexible/stiff; transparent/non-transparent, etc.), variants of 'fit' (ample/tight, etc.), variants of 'continuity' (i.e. the degree to which the garment is open or can be opened), variants of position (left/right; front/back, etc.). The variants are almost always stated in terms of binary oppositions, although more than two terms occur, for example, in some of the variants of measure (e.g. x centimeters above the ground, anatomical indications: 'above the knees', 'below the waist', etc.). Barthes also compiled an (alphabetical) list of the categories which occurred as objects and/or supports in his corpus. This list is even longer and includes 60 headings, among which: means of fastening, fabric, colour, and parts of garments, e.g. sleeve, tail. Under these headings the subtypes are enumerated. Subtypes of the category means of fastening, for example, include zippers, buttons, buckles, drawstrings, hooks, etc. etc.


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STRUCTURE OF THE SIGNIFIED Fashion meanings: ensemble B

Fashion statements can be divided into two types which Barthes calls ensemble A and ensemble B. For convenience I will introduce them in reverse order. Ensemble B statements have fashion meanings which can be paraphrased as 'in fashion' or 'out of fashion'. For example:

...Jumpsuits still have a very strong hold on the young designers' collections... (Mode, Winter 1977; p.40)

In this type of fashion statement there is no reference to 'the world', no signifie mondaine relating the fashion description to places, activities, occupations, etc. As a result the arbitrary, imperative nature of fashion is here at its most undisguised: the sign of fashion is a 'tyrannical act' (SM, p.220):

...Long overshirt to be worn over jeans in broad hot coloured French stripes... (Mode, Winter 1977; p.31)

It follows that the 'geology of the sign' which applies to ensemble B statements differs from that given above:

Fashion meanings: ensemble A

Ensemble A fashion statements create reference to a world outside fashion. To times for which the clothes are suitable:

Geoff Bade has included in his latest winter collection a whole range of stunning evening wear... (Mode, Winter 1977; 21) To places: ... Restaurant length skirt and tired top in imported English acrylic boucle knit.. (Mode, Winter 1977; p.21)


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To activities, or occupations:

...Be a legal secretary that's well versed in the fashion authority of the 'party of the third part'. Here that important third piece, the vest, works wonders with new tucked pants, soft tie shirt... (Vogue Patterns, Spring 1978; p.4)

To the personality of the wearer:

...Assertive, big city casual looks. Cream jersey dipping low at the back, below, rhinestones, the all-out glitz of silver fox, sheared mink... (Austr. Vogue, Oct. 1982, p.67)

The arbitrariness of the fashion sign is less obvious, less bare in these type A fashion statements: the sign operates here under the cover of functionality. But while there is, in fashion statements like ideal shoes for walking, conformity between the form of the shoes and their purpose, in other fashion statements only a trace of functionality remains. Function becomes an alibi for the signifying power of the system of fashion and the functions themselves become largely fictional and mythical, as in this statement, accompanying a picture set in a lush tropical paradise:

...for exploring the varied and marvellous scenery, printed voile tunic dress, matching scarf wrapped round hips... (Austr. Vogue, June 1977; p.54)

From other fashion statements, finally, function is absent altogether, and the form of the clothes becomes motivated by cultural values, rather than by purpose: ...Ralph Lauren's is the English country gentlewoman look: felt hats, lace shirts, Norfolk jackets, long, pleated skirts...

(Austr. Vogue, Oct. 1982; p.66)

Relation between fashion description and fashion meaning

Fashion meanings cannot be analyzed into different components in such a way that these components relate to the components of the fashion description. For example in ...the garden of one of Pacific Harbour's private villas, fine tulle jacket and skirt, embroidered and piped, with corselette in knitted cotton... (Austr. Vogue, June 1977; p.57)

We cannot assume that 'fine tulled jackets' go with gardens, 'embroidered and piped skirts' with Fiji's Pacific Harbour, and 'corselettes in knitted cotton' with private villas. The fashion meaning is 'holistic'. Barthes nevertheless distinguishes three different relations which can hold between fashion descriptions and fashion meanings:

(i) the 'AUT' relation (exclusive/disjunctive relation) in which the same object/support has one meaning for one variant, another for another variant:


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... Harvey Foster jumpsuits, to be worn over sweaters during the day, and as slinky, strappy styles for after dark... (Mode, Winter 1977; p.74)

(ii) the 'VEL' relation (inclusive/disjunctive relation) in which one fashion description can have two or more meanings:

...sensational, whether you're off to someone else's house or entertaining in your own, this page, Mark and Geoffrey all-in-one suit of cream silk, gathered at the ankle, worn with handpainted chiffon wrapped apron, matching scarf... (Austr. Vogue, June 1977, p.58) (iii) the 'ET' relation (conjunctive relation) jn which two or more elements are combined into one fashion meaning, as 'garden', 'private villa', and 'Pacific Harbour' in the example above.

THE RHETORIC OF FASHION 'Writing' and ideology In the final section of Systme de la Mode, Barthes discusses, in turn, the rhetoric of the fashion description ('garment poetics'), the rhetoric of the fashion meaning ('the world of fashion'), and the rhetoric of the link between the two ('the logic of fashion'). Before doing so he points out that the three rhetorics share one and the same mode of signifying (ecriture, or 'writing'), and one and the same type of signification (the ideology of fashion).

To define 'writing', Barthes opposes it to 'style'. Whereas style is individual, writing is the practice of a collective, an 'ethos' in which both methods of writing and thematics are invested with a collective vision. For this reason fashion, however much it aspires to literature and copies the tone of it, never 'achieves' literature, but only 'signifies' it (SM, p.232).

The signified of the rhetoric of fashion is 'latent' and 'nebulous' because its ideological nature must be masked, it must appear natural and unproblematic. What is in fact a symbol (in the Peircean sense) must seem an index which relies for its decoding on knowledge already constituted in the reader; the signification of fashion rhetoric, like all connotative signification, is 'received, but not read' (SM, p.235).

Garment poetics

The phraseology of the fashion descriptions, in contrast to that of the fashion meanings, is relatively poor in rhetoric. Precise, even technical descriptions. If rhetoric enters into them at all, it is a low key

rhetoric, preferring, for example, the termes mixtes in which both denotative and connotative elements are present, terms like 'soft', 'feminine', 'body-hugging1, etc.


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Garment poetics nevertheless contributes a great deal to the ideological signification of the fashion statement. First of all, it dignifies fashion with cultural values a culture, Barthes notes, which is that of the schoolgirl, organized, as it were, in terms of the school curriculum:

(i) nature A fashion statement accompanying a picture of a model in a flowery dress reads: ...American cotton in full flower... (Austr. Vogue, June 1977; p.51) (ii) Geography (the 'exotic') ...the purity of white meets its match in Patmos, where the whitewashed walls of Chora conceal cool rooms of luxury in private villas that have been restored in perfect harmony with traditional village life... (Austr. Vogue, Oct. 1982; p.112) (iii) History ('nostalgia') ...triangular lapels buttoned back, necks spilling lacy jabots or tied high with black silk, Venetian Inqusitiion toques, inset right, Black suits, the skirts slim and wrap-draped... (Austr. Vogue, Oct. 1982; p.66) ...Long trench coats in gabardine and tweed, storm coats full of nostalgia for World War II... (Austr. Vogue, Oct. 1982; p.66) (iv) Art A fashion statement accompanying a picture of a model in an art gallery: ...make this choice ...go for blouson softness and show you know a lot about fashion art... (Vogue Patterns, Spring 1978; p.8)

Secondly, garment poetics connotes what Barthes calls the caritatism of the garment: the at once maternal and infantile desire attached to the garment. It is signified by terms like 'lovely', 'small', 'warm', 'body-hugging1, etc.: ...exquisitely cut, long-jacketed gabardine suits, above, caressing the waist on the way to the hip... (Austr. Vogue, Oct. 1982; p.66)

In this connection Barthes also notes the role of magic and fairy-tale connotations (robe-miracle, robeprincesse): ...it's the new pairing of the very pretty ruffled yoke Pierrot blouse and the ultra soft skirt of unpressed pleats that works this magic... (Vogue Patterns, Spring 1978; p.17)


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Thirdly, the fashion descriptions continually emphasize the importance of the detail which 'can make all the difference', which 'can change all' and which, of course, makes it possible to combine an 'aristocracy of taste with a 'democracy of budget' (SM, p.24): ...All-important now: the hat... (Austr. Vogue, Oct. 1982; p.70)

The logic of fashion

The relation between the fashion description and the fashion meaning is, as we have seen, one of equivalence, a relation which could be expressed by the term 'signify'. But it usually isn't. It usually is expressed rhetorically, for it, too, must be rationalized or naturalized, so that the relation of arbitrary equivalence which is the hallmark of the sign, will be disguised as a different kind of relation, one of transitivity, or one of finality, or one of causality. Instead pf 'accessories signify spring', the fashion writer writes "accessories make spring"; instead of 'short dresses signify fashion this year', she writes 'the dresses are short':

...Artful softness gives this separates mood the look of a very important 78 dress,.. (Vogue Patterns, Spring 1978; p.17)

...double-hooded coats, left, pannier jackets, cocoon coats, diamond-cut coats in silk matelasse and a slash of bright taffeta, above, for evening. Surplices tailored for the combat of modern life... (Austr. Vogue, Oct. 1982; p.68)

In type B fashion statements the arbitrariness of fashion is less disguised. But here the fashion imperative is, more often than not, made innocent by playful phrasing and humour, as in this fashion statement, which accompanies a photo in which the model poses as a scriptgirl:

...follow Vogue's fashion script for the look at the top that works best, on or off camera... (Vogue Patterns, Spring 1978; p.7)

At other times the dictate of fashion is stated as a fact of nature, pure and simple, as a fatal and inevitable force: ...the fashion status of the blazer grows and grows... (Vogue Patterns, Spring 1978; p.14)

The world of fashion

Type A fashion statements, by virtue of their rhetorical expression, embody ideological concepts. But, rather than discursively, these concepts are signified by means of scenes, concrete situations, just as happens in literature. They are particularized and naturalized:


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...Arrival at the Peninsula Hotel: long jersey dress with deep slash at the side... (Austr. Vogue, June 1977; p.80)

A dress solely for a particular glamourous arrival in Hong Kong. A mythical and "irrealized" function but also a 'realistic' and naturalized mode of signifying glamour: ...the more mythical the function (because of its luxury of contingency), the more the sign becomes masked; the more irrealized the fashion, the more apparently empirical the sign (...) fashion writing thus returns to the postulate of a realist style, according to which an accumulation of small and precise details confirms the truth of the thing represented... (SM, p.268)

The metaphor and parataxis are the means by which this particularization is achieved: the metaphor transforms a concept imbued with (already-known) cultural values ('the country') into a situation ('visit to the farm'); parataxis provides the narrative element, the scene. Structure masked as an event. Of course, fashion texts have little temporal structure, little plot. They provide us mainly with characters and situations. But if one puts two and two together, one can construct, from a large body of fashion texts, the imaginary world of fashion. The times of fashion, for example: fashion has its own seasons, in which holidays and spring have a prominent place, because: ...spring is at once a pure and a mythical season, pure because no other meaning is attached to it (summer fashion is also holiday fashion, winter fashion also work fashion), mythical because of the reawakening of nature... (SM, p.253)

The fashion week is, of course, dominated by the distinction between week and weekend, while the fashion day is marked by a change of dress at 9 am, noon, 4 pm, 8 pm, and midnight. Or the places of fashion in which travelling plays a very dominant role: fashion always refers to a 'utopic elsewhere'.

Or activities:

...the rhetoric of fashion acts as a stimulant aiming at protecting the pleasure of activities and at stripping these of their negative aspects. Shopping is no longer impossible, expensive, tiring: it becomes an experience, a pure sensation of pleasure in which a feeling of unlimited spending power goes hand in hand with the promise of beauty, the pleasure of city life, and the joy of a form of hyper-activity indulged in amidst utter emptiness... (SM, p.255) Occupations are rarely mentioned in fashion writing, and if they are, they are selected from a rather small number (direction secretaries, librarians, professions concerned with travelling) and treated as a state of being rather than as an activity. Direction secretaries do not make telephone calls, do not type letters, etc.,


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but typically stand close to the (half open) door of the young director's room. They are not engaged in an activity, but are depicted as women with access to, and a devotion for the young director. A static scene, a daydream. Work, in the world of fashion, is empty and passive. Leisure time, on the other hand, is filled with activity: even doing nothing becomes a project.

Personality traits are more common than occupations: wild, frivolous, feminine, liberated, sexy, happy, romantic, chic, adventurous, delicate, sophisticated, extravagant... the list is endless. Why does Barthes call them 'personality traits' and not, for example, 'moods'? Because, as he puts it, the psychology of fashion consists of adjectives, but it confuses the subject with the predicate, and turns predicate into subject, much as is also the case in the psychology of the horoscope and of elementary graphology. It is a kind of psychology which lends itself easily to pseudo-scientific classifications (type a: sporty; type b: avant-garde; type c: classic, etc.) (SM, p.257). Often an item of clothing is presented as suitable for every time of the day and the year, every place in the world, every activity: ...these marvellous airy things look beachy when you're at a pool or seaside, become casually tailored or even dressy as the sun goes down... (Woman's Day, 5/4/77; p. 100)

Clothes for all purposes, all times and places: one would think they would only be found among the very poor. But in today's mass culture they have acquired a new signification: the promise of total confidence, of being able to handle every possible kind of situation, all of life, without insecurity, without anxiety. A similar hankering for that lost totality in which one can be everything at once and in which all contradictions are resolved, all differences erased, is behind the many paradoxes we find in fashion meanings: practical, yet sophisticated; classical, yet imaginative; stylish, yet casual; sporty, yet well dressed: ...pintucked jersey dress with off the shoulder styling and jersey dress with satin trim: the look dramatic simplicity... (Mode, Winter 1977; p.17)

And behind the promise of the uniqueness of each individual, the promise of identity:

...it's all you... (Mode, Winter 1977, p.17)

In this way the 'Woman of Fashion' emerges from the pages of the fashion magazine her days, her places, her activities, her personality, her desire:

...this is Woman, as she is signified by the rhetoric of fashion: decidedly feminine, definitely young, with a strong identity, yet also with a contradictory personality. Her name is Daisy or Barbara, and she frequently visits the Countess Mun and Miss Phips who has a ranch in Florida. She is a direction secretary, but her work never prevents her from attending all the parties of


Aust. J. Cultural Studies I: May 83

the day and the year. Every weekend she goes to the country, and she travels continuously, to Capri, to the Canary Islands, to Tahiti...yet every holiday she also manages to have a marvellous time in the South of France. She moves exclusively in progressive, liberated, avant-garde circles, and loves everything, from Pascal to cool jazz... (SM, p.263)

And Barthes continues:

...one recognizes of course in this monster the permanent compromise which characterizes the relation between mass culture and its consumers; the Woman of Fashion is both what the reader of the fashion magazine is and what she aspires to be (...) fashion participates in a very fundamental way in the life of mass culture, because of the way in which it is steeped in rhetoric... (SM, p.263)

The literature of fashion speaks the language of an over-protective mother who wants to shield her daughter from every disappointment, from all contact with evil. Unlike other products of the mass media (films, newspapers, popular novels), the literature of fashion tells of a world of constant euphoria, a world in which nothing dramatic ever happens. It is a radically irresponsible and disloyal world in which every day erases the memory of yesterday, and in which the past is continuously murdered without so much as a trace of guilt.

Theo Van Leeuwin teaches in the School of English and Linguistics, Macquarie University.


Barthes, R. (1967) Systme de la Mode (Paris, Editions du Seuil) (1971a) 'Reponses', in Tel Quel, vol.47, pp.88-107 (1971b) 'Changer I'objet lui-meme', in Esprit, vol.402, pp.613-616. Calvet, L.-J. (1973) Roland Barthes un regard politique sur le signe (Paris, Payot) Culler, J. (1975) Structuralist Poetics (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul) Pages, J.-B. (1979) Comprendre Roland Barthes (Toulouse, Pensee Privat) Gaillard, F. (1974) 'Roland Barthes 'semioclaste'?', in L'Arc, vol.56, pp.17-24. Kristeva, J. (1969) 'Le sens et la mode' in Kristeva Enreiwtiky Recherches pour un Semanaiyse (Paris, Editions de Seuil), pp.60-89. Thody, P. (1977) Roland Barthes - a conservative estimate (London, Macmillan) Van Poecke, L. (1978) De Taal van de Kledij (Louvain, Cecowe)

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