From the Archives: The Semantics of Creating Fashion

Yesterday, Fiona Duncan at Bullet mentioned Worn Through in her article How to Write About Fashion Well: The Truth About Fashion Criticism.  She also mentioned Roland Barthes:

“Back in 1967, semiologist Roland Barthes made a study of this tautology of magazine copy in The Fashion System. He presented the idea that fashion is a language: garments and poses are vested with meaning that we put on to communicate, that we can read and write.”

It reminded me of the article I wrote in March.  So enjoy this post from the archives!  On Teaching Fashion: The Semantics of Creating Fashion

Before I had considered pursuing fashion, I dreamed of becoming an Italian professor.  Aside from the language sounding so beautiful, I was fascinated by learning vocabulary.  I was particularly taken with how Italian words and concepts varied so greatly from English.  One language may have a precise word for a phrase or group of words that exists in another.  (For example, qualunquismo is a word to describe someone who is apathetic about politics.)  Semantics, the study of meaning and interpretation of meaning, adds another layer of interest.  The meaning of words are solidified in the brain by experiences and memories.  This is what can make communication tricky; word meaning can vary slightly from person to person.

Curiously enough, once I started teaching fashion, semantics reappeared.  I was introduced to the work of Roland Barthes (1915-1980) during my first year teaching.  Barthes was a French philosopher that pioneered the study of semiotics, semantics, and also how these linguistic disciplines are replicated in fashion.  The Fashion System is Barthes attempt to “read” clothing and determine its system of meaning.

Roland Barthes (1915-1980)

 Barthes primary resources were fashion magazines.  Through fashion periodicals, he deduced that the structure of fashion is like a language.  The main components that create the language of fashion are:

1)    the physical garment

2)    the photo of the garment

3)    the written editorial description of the garment

The circulation of fashion as a language relies on the fact that it is constantly changing, and like a spoken language, there can be many translations of the same idea.  Yet the following statement is the most seminal idea of Barthes’ entire book:

“The description of the garment of fashion is therefore a social fact, so that even if the garment remained purely imaginary, it would constitute an incontestable element of mass culture . . . the analysis of written clothing can also effectively pave the way for the invention of real clothing.” (The Fashion System, p.9)

Editorial text can be more inspirational that images! Image courtesy of

From this quotation, I was able to glean together an extremely successful quiz for my fashion design students:

Philosopher Roland Barthes stated that: words inspire more creativity than images because they are open to interpretation. This means the analysis of written clothing (text describing clothing) can also effectively pave the way for the invention of real clothing.

For this quiz, you will interpret the quote below by sketching a garment.  Read the quote thoroughly and consider how you can create a garment to its specifications while allowing your own design philosophy/style to be present.  This can be done in a number of ways: incorporating your design signatures, referencing your folio studies for color/silhouettes/textiles, etc.

For each class, I select a different quote of a real garment.  Great sources are museum websites, fashion editorials, and blogs.  I format the assignment as a quiz so that each student uses their own semantic understanding of the words.  (Collaboration would spoil the results!)  Once each student has completed the quiz, we create a gallery space.  I ask the students to look at the variety of interpretations.  We discuss the advantages and challenges of only working with a written description of a garment.  It is a very clear indication of how word meaning varies from person to person.  Then, I reveal the image of the actual garment.  The discussion usually gravitates how the experience is similar to reading a book and then seeing how it was adapted for film.  Yet we all agree that semantics leaves room for creativity.


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