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Consuming Advertising: The Search For Identity Through Fashion Advertising In Post-Colonial Hong Kong

Anne Peirson-Smith

"Advertisers have spent a fortune perfecting the art of selling us products that we don't need, by appealing to our insecurities. For women these can be many, since this culture often encourages us to be dissatisfied with our bodies from an early age. The fashion

industry requires us to buy what it sells." Caryn Franklin (1999. 1). "Most of the time most adult individuals do not perceive themselves to be in the market for the product being advertised. Even when they are, commercials very often miss-hit or overshoot their target. Commercials regularly miscommunicate because the actual audiences they address are quite different from the hypothesized or

targeted audience "(Keane, 1991 86-87)

"I'm looking for clothes that suit me to a T. I can't find them no matter where I go. Form, material, and color that can express all of my inner life Outfits that affirm that I'm alive here now Elude me though I combine all the images I know Even my parents can't find clothes for me in Japan today."

(Banana Yoshimoto, 1999- 2)


Fashion advertising, despite its ubiquity in our everyday lives in Hong

Kong, has received little serious critical examination in an Asian

context In fact, the broader subject of advertising itself has failed to

attract in-depth analysis in Hong Kong and Asian, notwithstanding the

acres of fashion magazines crowding the shelves of bookshops and

newstands (with over 20 local publications and over 40 international

versions at my last count), the multifarious poster ads on the Mass


Transit Railway (MTR) and numerous fashion feature slots ad fashion

commercials scheduled regularly on HK television channels. The

reason for this neglect, aside from the revelations of Steele (1991)

that academics regard their search for truth to render an interest in

the manipulation of personal appearance inconsequential, one may

speculate that fashion in general is still not considered to be a subject

worthy of study. This may possible be due to the representation of

fashion in the mass media as a high art form, embodied by haute

couture, and powered by the hegemonic whims of an elite group of

designers positioned as fashion deities who dictate the seasonal in-

look for the privileged few (as proof of this view, it is worth noting that

a young Hong Kong fashion designer was roundly criticised by the

fashion media during Hong Kong fashion week in June 1999, of

pandering to the masses though his tasteless urban street styles). Or

perhaps because the fashion press generally appear to be averse to

any in-depth analysis of the socio-cultural impact or importance of the

fashion products that they promote through their articles, advertorials

or advertisements, they unwittingly undermine the significance of the

fashion industry as a cultural force. As McRobbie observes

contemporary UK fashion and style magazines "draw their own


boundaries which exclude any detailed or serious discussion of the

social processes or economic relations which underpin fashion as a

cultural activity. Instead they construct style and fashion as insider

knowledge possessed by young urban taste makers whose

seemingly innate sense of what's going on sets them apart from the

masses." (McRobbie, 1998, p. 154).

Mirroring this viewpoint, the early critical studies of fashion

focused exclusively on elite perspectives of fashion presiding in the

hegemony of the fashion producers and located in the trickle down

effect of fashion influence from the ranks of elite designer to the high

street masses (Simmel, 1904, BJumer, 1969).

Equally, both the advertising and fashion industries have been

criticised from the Frankfurt school onwards for their capitalist,

ideologically manipulative agenda in molding consumer behaviour,

stimulating empty needs and imposing social conformity in terms of

gender, class, ethnicity and age (Adorno, 1991). Clearly, fashion

advertising is located at the heart of the production and consumption

cycle, yet to invest the current fashion/advertising industries with such

omnipotence is misguided.

Hence, this paper examines the relationship between fashion


advertising and its audience as a means of understanding how,

through this transactional communication process, identity is

culturally coded and actively negotiated by the receptive fashion

consumer. The primary focus of this paper will be on what the

audience or reader of the fashion advertising message is doing to the

text and the role it plays in making sense of their lives.

Audience analysis has taken positions along a sliding scale, from that

of the omnipotent producer of the text pedaling a dominant ideology

uncritically accepted by the passive audience resulting in a preferred

reading, to the powerful active audience interpreting the polysemic

advertising texts in a range of ways resulting in an oppositional or

negotiated reading. The first view is covered in the work of the

Frankfurt School and Adomo. The second view is embodied in Hall's

encoding/decoding model (1980), building on Parkin's audience

reading positions - dominant, negotiated, oppositional (1971),

empirically applied by Morley in his Nationwide study (1980). At the

end point of this continuum, the audience is represented as having

more freedom to interpret media texts on their own terms yet

operating within the constraints of the text, albeit bound by socio-

economic and discursive positions. This approach is taken by more


recent qualitative audience studies (Buckingham, 1987; Ang, 1985;

Radway, 1984; Morley, 1986; 1992; Fiske, 1989; Lull, 1991). As

Radway observes, "Interpretation and textual meaning, then, are as

dependent on who the reader is, how she understands the process of

reading and on the cultural context in which she operates, as they are

on the text's verbal structure itself." (1995 p336).

The debate concerning the role of the advertising audience

hinges on the nature of power in society, and its role in the

commodification of culture. If power is unequally distributed and

exercised in a hierarchically ordered, capitalistic, class based

manner, then media producers and their texts propagate a dominant

ideology passively accepted by the majority of media audiences with

significant resistance from the minority. Alternatively, if social power

is more diffuse in a Foucaldian sense, then the interplay between text

and audience is less clear cut and subject to other influences outwith

the dominant discourse of class power such as race, ethnicity, age,

gender and context all in varying combinations enabling the audience

to appropriate the text based on their cultural competencies (Bordieu,


Yet, in consuming media texts such as fashion advertisements,


audience members are said to engage in differential readings as

advertising texts are recognised to be polysemic, notably at the

connotative level Eco's notion of aberrant decoding of media

messages suggests that the reader may decode the meaning of the

text in opposition to its intended meaning (Eco,1979) perhaps if a

local audience, for example, misread a globally produced and

distributed advertisement.

However, advertisements as culturally produced texts with

multiple meanings are not open to a completely liberal interpretation

by audience members. The creative producer of the advertisement -

the copywriter and art director are communicating their promotional

message through professional codes of advertising as the encoder

has intentionally constructed the boundaries in which the text will be

decoded (Hall, 1980). The images and words in advertisements are

carefully chosen and anchor the preferred reading in terms of what is

included or excluded. Hence, the more visual presentation of fashion

advertisements as used by Benetton, for example, tend to avoid

verbal anchorage or closing the meaning of the text through minimal

use of verbal copy which leaves the text more open to audience

interpretations, enabling the audience to take what they want from the


experience of reading so that "the viewer who must complete the

meaningful connections" (Golman, 1992:62).

Clearly then, we cannot accurately portray the audience as all

powerful, in the same way that media producers and their texts do not

have absolute ideological control over their readers' minds in

constructing mass mediated realities through the economic and

representational practices of advertising.

Therefore, we must relocate the debate away from pure elitist

assumptions about the influence of fashion advertising and turn the

focus on the consumer by asking what interpretations they place on

the fashion advertisements they see, and how they use these

advertising texts in the tangible habitus of everyday life.

Media and fashion competencies

Fashion and the advertising that facilitates it enables the consumer to

assume roles and to engage in the presentation of self in everyday

life (Goffman, 1969) where life is performative. The media and

particularly advertising promotes life as a spectacle - the street is the

stage and audiences are provided by the fashion media with a range

of identities to choose from, through which they can parade their

sense of self in social settings where they are simultaneously both


viewers and being viewed from the workplace to the shopping mall. In

this way, the fashion media facilitates the search for, and embodiment

of self, in the clothes we buy and wear. Similarly, here is the potential

consumer become producer of their own image, being skilled media

consumers having been exposed to the dual discourses of fashion

and media from an early age. Modern society is a consumer based

one were people are used to gazing at commodities in print based

advertisements and television commercials and on other peoples'

bodies, as things that are produced to be sold and acquired in the


Hence, these skilled fashion consumers understand the fashion

codes and mix and match brand names reminiscent of Hebdige's

bricolage (Hebdige, 1979), blurring high and low fashion to suit their

tastes and to create a personal identity statement.

The self management of personal style and clothing

In the reflexive project of the self (Giddens 1991), self identity is

actively created and negotiated in terms of personal narratives and is

reflexively matched up against daily experiences and the anticipated

approbation of others - the potential audience witnessing the

personal performance or spectacle - in the park, the street, the office


or the classroom. Context is critical here as consumers strive to wear

the appropriate clothes for the specific occasion giving rise to the

growth of image consultants who promise to maximise our personal

potential and impact through managing our appearance in terms of

the right colours and right cut of cloth or hair.

Advertisements and fashions magazines are promoting an

idealised self, providing females with something to identity with as

well as a blueprint for self management and a manual on how to most

effectively present the project of self. The appropriation of a

particular style of dressing are bound up with the type of person you

are and what you are trying to say about yourself

(Craik, 1994),

which begs the question whether existing through the eyes of others

is a form of passivity and subordination. Are we really seeing an

empowerment of the consumer to choose their own style and

construct their own image, or is the bombardment of endless

idealised advertising images to which the consumer is subjected

confusing having a tendency to blur reality and hyper-reality, whilst

also being a calculated marketing ploy in the capitalist pursuit of an

increase in sales?


Research Questions

Are consumers slaves to fashion or discriminating, sophisticated

users of the fashion media and its products as props to enhance their

everyday performances? Does fashion advertising and its portrayal of

an idealised female form create impossible dreams, or rather does

the consumer critically read the text and therein derive a sense of

freedom and fulfilment? Does advertising work by engaging with the

idealised self-images and unspoken desires of the consumer? To

answer these questions it is necessary to turn to the real consumer

as subject.


This study takes an empirical approach to determine what use

audiences made of advertising texts and how they related to the

identities represented within them. Focus groups were used as an

efficient and effective way of eliciting a response. Significantly, this is

also the preferred research method employed by the advertising

industry in pre- and post testing consumer responses to the content

of advertisements. Semi-structured questions were used to explore

key themes whilst also ensuring consistency for analytical purposes.

Hence, the discussion initially covered such questions as:


How would you define the word fashion

Is fashion an important part of your life?

What do you think about fashion advertising?

Where do you most often see and pay attention to print based

fashion advertisements?

Have you ever bought an article of clothing as a consequence of

seeing a fashion advertisement or an advertising campaign?

These general questions acted as a warm up for the session, and

also established a conceptual understanding of the terms and issues

under discussion. In the second half of the focus group session, the

discussion centered on specific advertising texts provided as a

means of eliciting responses to the representational strategies and

tactics being used in the advertisements to address the prospect i.e.

the images and language used.

The groups were shown six fashion advertising texts for

discussion purposes, namely Benetton, Giordano, Vivienne Tarn,

G2000, Calvin Klein and Chanel. These advertising texts chosen

were selected on the basis of their topicality, in other words they were

currently being used in advertising campaigns and featured in the

MTR, fashion magazines, and were prominently displayed in the


shopping centre, Festival Walk, through which the students access

the university. The advertising texts chosen were image dominant

and the minimal text was in English. All the discussions were

conducted in English, although my research assistant translated any

words or phrases that were specifically Cantonese.

The fashion advertisements used were all print based because

it was believed to be easier for the respondents to read the text and

're-visit' it during their collective discussions.

Benetton campaign

The Benetton campaign that ran in Hong Kong from January-June

1999 was chosen particularly because of it's use of Asian models.

According to Benetton's publicity material, Oliveri Toscani, the

company's art director and his team went to Tokyo and noted that

young people were highly fashion conscious and liked to frequent

parks and public spaces to parade the latest fashions. Hence,

Toscani and team selected one of the most popular parks and took a

selection of clothes from Benetton's latest collection and asked a

groups of young people to select items of clothing and to wear it in

their own style. The results were photographed and became the basis

fir the advertising campaign composing a catalogue, print posters in


the company's retail outlets, fashion magazines, MTR posters ands

outdoor billboards. The ad campaign was also accompanied by

Banana Yoshimoto's poem Kosheshi Dolls, which adopts the voice of

disenchanted Asian youth.

The research sample

The sample to date comprised forty female City University students

aged 18-26, all of whom were born and raised in Hong Kong and

most of whom in terms of demographics could be classified as

coming from socio-economic categories C1 lower middle class, C2

skilled working class and D working class households, generally living

in public housing estates. The average family size was five per

household, and average family income HK$20,000 per month

(GBP2.000). Most of the students were the first graduates in their

family and as such would expect in their professional life to migrate to

a C1 or B consumer group.

Preliminary Research Findings

The significance of fashion advertising in everyday lives

Most respondents claimed that fashion was an important part of their

lives from a functional perspective providing them with consumer

information and choice as one respondent observed:


"Advertising can stimulate my desire to consume and gives me

the latest information about products. Whilst another

respondent added: "Advertising tells me which things are now

popular and it gives me more choice."

When asked to define their understanding of the term fashion, all

respondents equated it with current clothing trends and often noted

its dynamic qualities which most found to be a stimulating aspect of

their lives as one respondent noted:

"Fashion is this trend that society follows in clothing (and

accessories). It keeps on changing which I find very exciting. I

always rush to get Fashion and Beauty magazine each month

to find out how I should be looking right now."

There was a sense that the respondents were using fashion and

clothing to consciously communicate their own self image or in

deducing personal characteristics from other's appearance, as

another respondent noted;

"For me fashion is a kind of trendy thing - you know, clothes,

hairstyles, accessories. Also fashion is a symbol of a person's

image. By the way they dress you can also tell something about

them such as their personality. It's funny, but my friends tend to


dress like me."

Nevertheless, there was a trend for some respondents to opt out of

the dictates of fashion in the interest of conformity thereby avoiding

fashion as a personal performance, which they considered to be the

preferable, less superficial option, as this comment demonstrates:

"Fashion is a trend, which makes some people feel confident.

They want to build up their image in society. For me, I am not a

fashionable person. I don't like to be too eye catching. I like to

be like other people, other students."

In response to the question, How do you feel when looking at fashion

advertisements? the majority of respondents moved beyond

functional assessments to more emotional engagement in terms of

impacting on feelings in the words of one respondent, "I feel really

happy when looking at clothes in advertising and it makes me want to

rush out and buy these clothes and then I'll be even happier." Whilst

another respondent typified the general reaction to this question by

admitting that fashion advertising symbolised self actualisation , and

was a prime motivator, as she explained in eager tones, "it makes me

feel that life is worth living - it gives me something to aim for, either

with the money from my part-time job or in future as a professional


when I will be able to own the Prada handbag and matching shoes

that I keep seeing in the ads and the shop window."

When asked to evaluate the most important part of the ad in

communicating the message, most respondents agreed that the

image was the attention getter above words which is in line with the

industry trends noted above, as one respondent observed: "Images

are very important. Words, either English or Chinese are quite

important" whilst another added" I think that the most important

aspect is the image. If a photo has a negative image, people won't

buy it, even if the words are excellent" Clearly, words are viewed as a

barrier or as getting in the way of the ad message, which may be a

post-colonial backlash and a symptom of second language

saturation. This also suggests that the respondents, and possibly

young people in general are sophisticated readers of ad messages

and are familiar with the visual codes of fashion advertising which

clearly speak to them, and for them as one respondent explained:

"I enjoy looking at fashion ads, they are so well photographed,

and use great colours and young people that I like. It gives me

fun in everyday life. It stimulates my purchases and provides a

common topic to talk about with my friends, and we talk about


fashion a lot."

The question, Where do you most often see and pay attention to

fashion ads? was designed to explore the preferred viewing contexts

to determine whether this affected the relationship between reader

and text. The respondents were aware of, and seemed to enjoy

reading fashion ads in a variety of contexts - at home reading

magazines, in the shopping mall, as street posters, and in MTR

locations, all of which added to their daily experiences. As one

respondent commented:

"I mostly notice fashion ads in the MTR and on the street in

shops. The MTR is the most convenient place to see them as

we all travel by MTR and the way the ads are presented - they

are all so big and lit up and I am often attracted by them - they

can make me feel happy especially if I am worried about giving

a class presentation or hand in my assignments. And they

really help to pass the time."

In testing for a correlation between the persuasive intent of the

advertiser and the consumer's behavioral response, the question

asking whether respondents had ever bought a fashion item as a

direct consequence of seeing an ad message polarised opinion, as


illustrated by the following comments:

"Yes. I have done that. When I think the clothes worn by models

in the ads are beautiful, I want to look smart and charming like

those fashion models and then I go for it. I went out and bought

a dress from Mexx because I loved the ad and the models were

happy and full of life."

"No because fashion ads are usually 'high class' and the

clothes are too expensive for me."

Hence, economic issues may be a determining factor in the

purchasing habits of the respondents.

Yet both positive and negative responses to this question

revealed a degree of discrimination and a sense that the respondents

had a clear concept of their own identity outside of the influence of

the fashion media as one respondent noted:

"No, I wouldn't be influenced by the ads. I would base my

choices on my own style to buy my clothes and not rely on

fashion ads."

In the second part of the focus group discussion the responses to the

fashion advertising texts shown could be represented in the following

tripartite model, that is to say that they generally responded as:


Acceptors: who were positive in their response to the text and

actively identified with the models in the text and/or the products

being advertised.

Hedgers: who were unsure of the model or the clothes in the text,

possibly because it was beyond their means financially and

appeared to be experimenting with their own identity

Rejecters: who appeared to reject the text as aesthetically or

culturally offensive or because it opposed their current contextual

identity as a student.

The Benetton advert - "Barbie Girl"

Rejecter response

The rejecters were very vociferous in their opposition to this text and

used strong words to underline their views. They appear to be

matching the model against their own personal sense of taste as


"She definitely has a Barbie look! But she is so ugly. The colour

and the accessories is (sic) definitely Barbie. Also, she is too fat

to wear a short dress. And red, white, pink and light blue will

make a person look fatter. But she still chooses these colours.

Also, poor make-up and a strange hair style. She wears too


many earrings. Her accessories she wears like toys which are

not real. The matching is quite poor. I would not buy or wear

any of these clothes ever."

There was patently no sense of identification or connection with the


"I hate this type of model. She thinks that she in very cute, but

the outcome is terrible and very ugly. I can't identify with it."

Also, the response was emotional as respondents usually described

how the text made them feel:

"This is bizarre, it makes me feel bad. I would not like to look

like this."

It appeared that this image was outside of their experience, and thus

was often rejected, possibly because of their upbringing and their

class origins. Hence, the normative, judgmental voice of an older,

possibly parental figure appears to be emerging in the following


"She doesn't look good. She won't get anywhere in the world.

Imagine trying to go to work like that! She puts on too many

accessories. She is shocking and tries to be sexy, but she looks

like she works in a nightclub. I wouldn't be her friend or go out


with someone looking like this."

Hedgers and acceptors categories

The more positive responses here belie a sophisticated knowledge

of, and a high interest in fashion possibly based on the respondents'

wider cultural experiences. These particular respondents were older,

one was a mature student with children, and the other was from an

A/B category family with her own disposable income as follows:


"She seems cute, but I would feel strange wearing it. Hong

Kong as people would stare and I would hate that. I am not like

the model, but I can identify with the accessories like the bag

and the necklace if I was going out"

Acceptor response

"The girl dresses like a doll. She looks quite special. She makes

use of the theme of mix and match, and pink is a good theme. I

think that she is creative to wear leg warmers as a fashion


In contrast, the majority of respondents to the Giordano

advertisement were complimentary, i.e. they responded as

acceptors to this text, identifying with the model, although visually


Western, and generally admired the clothes, as follows:

"I think that this ad is simple and represents their products well.

I like this model and would like to go to that shop and buy these

clothes because this suits my image"

"I can identify with this girl. These clothes give me a casual,

simple and comfortable feeling. The designer is good."

"Yes, I can identify with this one. It's good, the model is

refreshing. The clothes are simple, though nice looking."

This response can be explained by the respondents' familiarity with

the brand name, Giordano, being a local Hong Kong store. Also the

clothes are affordable for students and are the types of casual clothes

worn by students internationally. The overwhelming identification with

the Western style model can possibly be explained by Hong Kong's

colonial history and the respondents' familiarity with advertising

predominantly using Western models, although this trend has rapidly

changed since 1997 with the advent of more local models being used

to advertise well known clothing brands and designer labels.

Take Two girls

The respondents in studying the final images of a Western model,

Jodie Kidd, for Calvin Klein and a Japanese model Devon Aoki for


Chanel, tended to prefer the western model above the Japanese one

as the two following respondents illustrate:

Rejecter's response to Japanese Chanel model:

"I don't like this model. She makes me feel bad. The model is

not beautiful she looks wrong. I can't relate to her".

Acceptor's response to Western Klein model:

"This is popular supermodel Kate Moss. This ad has a stylish

image. I like it, but the clothes are too mature for me. But the

model is cool charming and thin. I may wear this one day in a

formal setting."

These responses displayed a reverse sense of cultural identity in

terms of who they are not i.e. not Japanese, despite the fact that

respondents in the focus group discussion had acknowledged the

considerable influence of Japanese designers on popular Hong Kong

street fashion. However, again the sense of culturally appropriating in

a discriminating sense, creating aspects of Japanese fashion and

making it suit their own Hong Kong identity emerges:

"I think that this would be a common style in Japan. It really

reflects where Japanese culture is today. In Japan people can

accept more strange things. In Hong Kong also young people


follow Japanese fashion. Well, maybe not totally copy it, but

take a part of it only,"


From these preliminary findings and analysis it is possible to

conclude tentatively that fashion advertising is a significant part of

young people's lives in Hong Kong which they pay great and serious

attention to and which they apparently derive great pleasure from in

terms of looking at, talking about, and gaining inspiration from the

fashion advertising texts in the context of their daily lives, often

leading them to purchase the fashion items themselves. The

respondents appear to have a clear sense of their own style and

identity, and what they do not want to be, or to look like which

suggests that they are sophisticated consumers of the fashion

industry in general and fashion advertising in particular as evidenced

in their acceptor, hedger and rejecter responses to the advertising

texts shown. Moreover, this suggests that they posses cultural and

media competencies which may result from their class, education and

cultural exposure. To probe these ideas further ethnographic research

studying the young consumers and their responses to fashion

advertising in situ i.e. in the MTR and in the shopping mall will be the


next strand to this research project. Clearly, the colonial legacy has

left its mark, albeit a shallow one, wherein respondents still saw the

Western style model as an ideal-form of beauty over her Asian

counterpart. This may be due to many factors, not least of which

could be the selection and styling of Asian models in a Western

manner by Western art directors in advertising agencies as a form of

cultural hegemony, as the Benetton advertising campaign illustrates.

An analysis of fashion and fashion advertising, whether critical or

complementary, tends almost exclusively to focus on Western

examples, embodying the assumption that fashion is predominantly a

Western commodity. More accurately, the fashion industry, its

production methods and consumption habits and the advertising it

uses as part of its marketing communications efforts are a global

concern with local implications according to individual markets.

Fashion advertising in Hong Kong finds itself located at the juncture

of East and West by promoting both locally sourced and

internationally designed fashion items for a local population, the

majority of whom have never travelled outside of Asia. In contrast,

the fashion professionals in Hong Kong - the designers, stylists,

photographers, editors, journalists, promoters retailers, are generally


subject to more cosmopolitan influences having done business, been

born or educated and trained overseas. Hence, an investigation into

the actual interplay or negotiated relationship between the producers

of fashion advertising as cultural intermediaries and the consumers

as active respondents appears to be a relationship worthy of study in

the future.


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