Mar 192012
Fashion as Communication

Figure 1. Fashion as Communication

‘Everybody has to get dressed in the morning and go about the day’s business. What everybody wears to do this has taken different forms in the West for about seven hundred years and that is what fashion is’ (Hollander 1994:11). Cf. Fashion and Clothing

The garments that we choose to wear send out a message to the public. The meaning behind the message, how that message has been created, and what the message ultimately says about ourselves and our culture, are among the many topics discussed in Malcolm Barnard’s Fashion as Communication (second edition).

According to Barnard, articles of clothing have no natural or God-given meaning inherently attached to them (113). The meaning behind the garment cannot be wholly assigned to the designer, the wearer, or even official authorities. Since the meaning of the garments tends to vary over time and across cultures, Barnard argues that fashion and clothing are a direct reflection of the society and culture to which they belong.

The age of feudalism used clothing to make the lines of hierarchical order between the kings and serfs visible (109). Kings and aristocrats wore long robes of rich materials and ornate patterns. Servants and soldiers wore modest, plain robes of a shorter length. The emergence of capitalism saw a shift in the tradition of using fashion and clothing as indicators of one’s wealth and status. As people were no longer confined to their rank in status, they began to display their desire to climb the ranks through their clothing. The idea that the lower classes could imitate the upper classes led to faster changes in fashion and production.

As production and material prices became more affordable, the desire for the upper classes to distinguish themselves and their wealth from the lower classes was played out through fashion and clothing. By 1818, the development of the cotton industry allowed for cheaper cotton to be purchased by working-class women. Cotton prints that were fashionable among the upper class women began to be worn by servants and the lower class. Middle and upper class women responded by favoring plain white dresses instead of printed cottons to differentiate themselves once again (42-43).

One of the most fashionable women’s items at the time, the corset, was used to denote a husband’s wealth. The tight bodices made it hard for women to physically exert themselves or to even breathe comfortably. An idealized hourglass figure was achieved at great physical pains to the women who wore them. Beautifully designed and intricate as they were, they rendered women literally and figuratively useless. The corset turned women into fashionable “ornaments” whose clothes communicated their husband’s financial status (116).

Apart from defining the scale of wealth among the classes, fashion and clothing also communicate peoples’ status and roles in society. The robes of judges and the uniforms of police officers may not be considered fashion, but the clothing does make their positions known to the public (64). Barnard claims that Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation gown is an item of anti-fashion that is “meant to stress continuity, in this case the continuity of the monarchy and the British Empire” (15). While the clothing is not fashionable, the clothing does allude to power and to the legitimacy of the monarchy. Religious and political traditions are marked by clothing as well. A person’s religious affiliation and position within that denomination can be indicated by the clothes that they wear. Even political preference can be known through clothing and other physical cues. For instance, women in the eighteenth century would wear a beauty mark on a specific cheek to show their political preference: Whig on the right, Tory on the left, and both sides for neutrality (66).

While clothing has the ability to stress tradition and authority, fashion can also be used to undermine and rebel against those conventions. Jeans had been primarily worn by miners and cowboys, but during the 1930s and 1940s jeans had permeated the creative and artistic societies (134). In the 1950s, jeans were associated with delinquents and motorcycle gangs, and jeans were worn by activists and hippies in the 1960s. Those who wore jeans did so to express their oppositions to the norms of society. However, the distinction-less style was soon adopted by the mainstream and mass produced. The punk style of the late 1970s and early 1980s also had its rebellious shock value diluted once designers incorporated safety pins, ripped clothes, and extreme hairstyles into their popular lines (138). The system that the punks were revolting against had accepted the fashion as its own thereby diminishing the value of the defiant fashion trend.

Women’s fashion and clothing have been used to break from the social roles previously defined for them. The role of the submissive housewife has transformed into the working-class, independent woman who is aware of her power and sexuality. Dior’s ‘New Look’ is an example of the types of garments that women could bring into the wardrobe, mix with their favorite pieces, and create a blend of the old and new idea of femininity (153). The ‘executive womanhood’ powersuit of the 1980s and 1990s showed women embracing their role as career women (122). While some may argue that the stiletto heel can be viewed enslaving, Barnard points out that the stiletto heel is greatly revered as an object of liberation that celebrates women’s sexuality (174).

Fashion and clothing reflect the context of the time in which they are constructed, and they communicate the moods, values, beliefs, and hopes of the cultural setting. Today, our society produces and creates new fashion and clothing at a rate never seen before. Advances in technology have made it possible for fashion to be brought out to the masses at the same time. Live runway shows and current issues of fashion magazines are accessible to everyone. As the collective begins to adapt to new and dominant styles of clothing and fashion, it will be interesting to see how those clothes reflect the milieu of today’s society.

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