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Fashion Photography as Semiotics: Barthes and the Limitations of Classification




Fashion Photography as Semiotics: Barthes and the Limitations of Classification

The Counterfeit Body: Fashion Photography and the Deceptions
of Femininity, Sexuality, Authenticity and Self in the 1950s, 60s and 70s
Fashion Photography as Semiotics: Barthes and the Limitations of Classification
Tina Butler, mongabay.com
May 9, 2005

Semiotics, the system of signs asserting meaning by way of language and image, proves to be enormously relevant and valuable when looking at fashion photography as a means of communication. Fashion photography speaks both the reality and illusion of garments and of bodies, and in deconstructing how these elements are organized and presented, a new language and system emerges from the photographic work. Roland Barthes places fashion photography within a semiological framework, applying semiotic structure and rationale to the genre as a system of communication for symbols and signs present within any given image. As fashion photography is positioned within this theoretical schema of meanings, Barthes attempts to contextualize photographs with elements of this framework. Ultimately, his actions in reconfiguring and positioning the genre end in failure, at his own admission, however the process of his analysis is revealing and insightful nonetheless.

Fashion speaks a distinct language, whether in the form of a photograph, an individual’s personal dress or a passing trend. This language, in turn, emblematizes the essence of its social context.

Retrospectively, fashion photography constitutes a historical document that offers us evidence of the practices and ideals of a given period. However, fashion photography is not merely a passive reflection of a period; it serves as a vehicle for circulating new patterns of consumption tied to evolving notions of the self (Radner 128).

Further, the images of the form speak the essence of the time. As scholars such as Walter Benjamin, Mary Douglas and Barthes have noted and reinforced, fashion operates as a language, functioning on numerous levels and fashion photography is the medium through which this language is spoken because of its tremendous capacity for mass reproduction and dissemination. Clothing, like any commodity form, is a mode of communication. Douglas notes in her text, The World of Goods, “man needs goods for communicating with others and for making sense of what is going on around him. The two needs are but one, for communication can only be formed in a structured system of meanings” (95). For fashion, clothes speak the identity of the wearer and images of such individuals prompt or provoke discourses about culture and society on the greatest scale.

In Caroline Evans’s essay “Yesterday’s Emblems & Tomorrow’s Commodities: The Return in Fashion Imagery Today,” the author references many of the ideas and themes present in Barthes’s work. In describing the contemporary position and the form it takes in an economic framework, Evans uses semiotic terminology to construct her argument, asserting that the garment now circulates in a contemporary economy as part of a network of signs, where the actual garment is a sign itself.

From its existence primarily as an object, the fashion commodity has evolved into a mutant form with the capacity to insert itself into a wider network of signs, operating simultaneously in many registers. Whereas it used to exist as, for example, a dress, which preceded its single representation in the form of an advertisement or fashion photo, it is now frequently disembodied and deterritorialized. As such, it can proliferate in many more forms, within a larger network of relations. (96)

Garments, through the lens of fashion photography, have come to mean more than just their function. Operating within this network of symbolic language and meaning, fashion photography has come to speak a more profound and diverse reality. Fashion’s inherent dynamism and pervasiveness highlights its continued relevance beyond a purely aesthetic and decorative function.

Supporting this statement of fashion’s greater purpose and role in culture, Finkelstein notes how Barthes retains a metaphor of the semiotic system, however Barthes recognizes the fluidity and ambiguities inherent in the structure of fashionable appearance that force its codes to remain open-ended (25). Davis also references this more transient quality of the medium, writing,

For other things being equal and regardless of the ‘message’ a new fashion sends, merely to be ‘in fashion’ is to be one up on those who are not as yet. From this perspective, assumed by Barthes, all fashion, irrespective of the symbolic content that animates one or another manifestation of it, gravitates toward ‘designification’ or the destruction of meaning. That it is to say, because it feeds on itself (on its ability to induce others to follow the fashion ‘regardless’) it soon neutralizes or sterilizes whatever significance its signifiers had before becoming objects of fashion. (72)

Fashion’s almost parasitic behavior maintains its problematic position and character of contradiction. Barnard notes that Barthes wrote, “Fashion is both too serious and too frivolous at the same time” (94). Exploring the fashion system in his seminal text by the same name, Barthes embarks on an in-depth semiotic analysis of the codes, subtexts and languages of dress and the self and attempts to reconcile the schism within the form, in terms of its opposing and divergent qualities. He gives fashion a stature, naming it “the dream of identity” (254) and dedicates much time to the nature of fashion in culture and the meanings it communicates. Baudrillard later concurs in the characterization that fashion is elemental of the ‘dream world,’ constituting in part, “a dimension of reality constructed from images” (Finkelstein 81).

Barthes seems at odds with his study of the language of fashion and quickly becomes entangled in his deconstruction. Barnard writes of Barthes’s attempt,

Anyone who has been tempted to look into The Fashion System will be aware that it is not the easiest reading. Moreover, it must be admitted at the outset that the work has been almost universally written off, even by Barthes himself, as a semiological disaster. (92)

The text remains largely impenetrable and convoluted and offers proof of fashion’s complexity. Even Barthes, engaging in an in-depth analysis of fashion as a semiotic system, struggles with the inherent contradictions of the form. This difficulty highlights the non-simplistic quality of the form, and refutes the previous dismissals of scholars against it. The one thing that is made clear is that fashion possesses the capacity to communicate, speak a specific language. What remains unclear is what exactly is said or meant by it. Barthes, and later, the postmodern theorist, Jean Baudrillard, seem to be alternately “bemused and outraged by fashion’s alleged displacement in the modern era of ‘the real’ (Davis 195).

In his examination, Barthes focuses on the written fashion text rather than the real garment or its pictorial representation. He maintains, “written clothing is unencumbered by any parasitic function and entails no vague temporality” (Entwistle 68). This mode of fashion is the most accessible to him and yet, still he fails. Barthes writes specifically of fashion photography in The Fashion System,

Increasingly, the magazine substitutes a garment-in-action for the inert presentation of the signifier…Actually, and this is what is strangest about Fashion Photography, it is the woman who is “in-action,” not the garment; by a curious, entirely unreal distortion, the woman is caught at the climax of a movement, but the garment she wears remains motionless. (302)

This stasis, this state bereft of movement, feeling and reality has transferred to the present conditions of fashion photography. Like the garments in these images, modern creativity seems to be frozen in time. The only movement that exists occurs in current photographers’ increasingly desperate stabs at presenting something new, however this manifests as its opposite. Fashion photography today resembles either cartoons or recycled and feeble clichés of prior photographic styles, modes, and conventions.


Fashion photography, with its far-reaching historical scope, possesses and incorporates elements of both modernity and postmodernity. Linking fashion’s simultaneously modern and postmodern elements seems to be a somewhat contradictory act, yet Jameson reconciles this gap created from relating different periods, suggesting, “modernist styles…become postmodern codes” (Barnard 163). Barnard continues, “What modernity recognized as characterized styles, postmodernity sees an endless parade of difference, [and] ‘irrational eclecticism'” (Ibid.). Theorists Frederic Jameson and Jean Baudrillard offer two of the most directed and in-depth examinations of the genre and fashion more generally with postmodernist representations with theorists’ adaptation and application of their ideas.

Fashion’s innate contradictions render it the most perfect and imperfect element in the postmodern schema. Fashion is about expressing individuality and perpetuating conformity, timelessness and obsolescence, form and function. Like the medium itself, discourse pertaining specifically to fashion is conflicted and often contradictory. Finkelstein suggests that the contradictions specific to fashion photography are the reasons the form warrants study.

When [Jameson] characterizes the modern sensibility as archetypally schizoid because of its powers to compress and to make sense of contradictory images and distorted temporal frames, he could be describing the contemporary fashion habitué. The contradictions expressed through fashion seem to parallel the disturbances, disjunctions and conflicts found in the everyday world. Jameson’s modern individual harbors an anarchic, fragmented and protean self, which makes the pursuit of fashion seem a reasonable and potentially satisfying impulse. (3,4)

Jameson’s viewpoint and analysis of the genre as interpreted by the author gives its study a kind of merit and credence. Fashion’s contradictions are reconciled, at least in theory, by their relationship and similarities to the fractured and sense of dispersal within the postmodern self and existence.

As postmodern entities, fashion and fashion photography have license to oppose themselves. Returning to the topic of opposition, Finkelstein further emphasizes fashion’s contradictory elements and synchs them with culture, writing,

Fashion is often considered one of those social forces which keeps us ever attentive to the present in one of the worst possible ways, that is, as a source of novelty, distraction and self-absorption. Fashion, and this is in relation to material terms, such as clothing as well as ideas and practices—seems to be about individuality, about standing out in the crowd. It seems to be about change, the constant unraveling of the new and the display of the inventive. But often its effect is the reverse: it maintains the status quo and encourages conformity and uniformity. On closer examination, fashion is about turbulence and creating a sense of movement without pointing in any direction. (4,5)

In addition to fashion’s supposed frivolity, wasteful impermanence, and fixation on wealth, the fact that it lacks a real fixed and definable point of origin, renders its study even more difficult. In this absence, fashion creates one for itself by borrowing from history. Pastiche and appropriation ironically give the form meaning by removing the original meaning from taking elements out of context. The residual meaning from the appropriated object or circumstance carries over. Fashion creates its own history, one more dedicated to decoration than chronology, blind to context and grounded meaning. A. Rosen cited in Nathalie Khan’s essay, “Catwalk Politics,” supports this notion and highlights yet another one of fashion photography’s caustic contradictions, writing,

Art is all about permanency and fashion is all about the moment. Perhaps the art world’s fascination with fashion is a recognition of fashion’s ability to address everyday influence instead of the obsession with the heroics of creating history. (116)

And yet, fashion is indeed obsessed with grounding itself within a sense of history, while at the same time, the form undermines itself with its non-linear or chronological sampling of past styles. Here, fashion assumes its classic transient characterization. Khan takes a more direct and concrete position on the shortcomings of the influence and inability to secure and establish a profound sense of historicity, writing,


If fashion can do little more than reflect upon that which is current, it simply confirms that any message it purports to forward will remain without meaning. Fashion can therefore only promote a particular set of values if those values reflect current trends. Constituted thus, fashion can reflect, but it cannot renew society. And if the fickle nature of fashion prevents it from creating history, then why should one see its message as being of cultural or social significance?” (Ibid.).

For fashion, history becomes fetish, a mere record to track trends and extract them at necessary intervals. This displacing quality of fashion photography at once justifies and recognizes history and its importance by referencing it, while at the same time, denying it with the removal of certain aesthetics from their contexts and placement in an entirely unrelated mode.

Trends rarely emerge out of necessity or circumstance in the contemporary era. Fashion photography lays claim to history by plundering and refashioning elements of it as ambivalent and uninformed types of decoration for the body. The form creates a sense of nostalgia for styles now present that are completely divorced from their roots. Where fashion lacks an authentic history, it instead has a locating quality of modernity. As a person’s particular dress signals the properties of their own distinct personal taste and identity and as “individuality seems synonymous with modernity,” fashion, individuality and modernity are all inextricably linked (Finkelstein 37). Rebecca Arnold recognizes this compensatory maneuver by fashion to create some kind of foundation for itself, even though ultimately, this is achieved through pastiche and appropriation. She writes in her book, Fashion, Desire and Anxiety: Image and Morality in the 20th Century,

Under the rubric of modernity, the emphasis given to individualism has become constitutive of all social practices. Fashion is implicated in these practices because [pastiche has become] a major motif; designers [are] increasingly looking to the past for inspiration, not just for styles, but also for references to, for example, to Hollywood icons, to provide their collections with instantly recognizable glamour. (107)

The relationship between fashion and film and referentiality is presented here as less than symbiotic. This same practice of gleaning style inspiration from the past has long been present in fashion advertising. Editorial spreads serve as nostalgic stages for recreating famous scenes from classic films or for models to pose as certain notable and prized personas from history.

Fashion feeds on grounded and static images for material, and yet seeks to create a quality of perpetual transformation and reinvention. The industry operates on constant visual instability and alteration, amid essentially rampant derivation. Fashion’s unsteadiness that manifests in fashion photography complements society’s nature of what is at once the spectacle in transition, and at the same time, a traditional framework stuck on repeat. Bruzzi and Gibson address some of fashion’s additional discordant prejudices, writing,

Part of the perceived problem of fashion has been that academics in particular have not always known with what tone to approach and write about it—it’s too trivial to theorize, too serious to ignore…fashion’s fundamental dilemma is that it has inevitably been predicated upon change, obsolescence, adornment and, in the so-called First World, it has been inextricably bound up with the commercial; this has led to the assumption that it is therefore superficial, narcissistic and wasteful. (2)

Fiona Anderson further supports this viewpoint, asserting in her essay, “Museums as Fashion Media,” “Fashion is surely the fastest changing source of new ideas in contemporary visual culture” (372). Adorno asserts, “Fashion enthrones itself as something lasting and thus sacrifices the dignity of fashion, its transience” (121 Davis). All of these elements that speak opposites about the same form contribute to the case for fashion photography being a postmodern embodiment.

Fashion’s innate contradictions render its validation for study more difficult. Gibson, writing in 2000, discusses the difficulties of presenting her case of fashion being an area worthy of academic pursuit, claiming that fashion has only been established as a serious academic discipline and as an important area of theoretical debate in the last decade. The reasons she lists for this case include,

[The] centuries-old belief in the essential frivolity of fashion, reinforced by the puritanism of many on the left, for whom fashion is the most obvious and…objectionable form of commodity fetishism, and the conviction of the majority of second –wave feminists that fashion is an arena in which women…display themselves in order to gratify male desire. (36)

Further supporting the general consensus of previous academics against viewing fashion as a serious element of culture, Noel McLaughlin writes in his essay, “Rock, Fashion and Performativity,” “[There] has been a reticence to consider the significance and pleasures of costume” (264). The general sense of uneasiness and unsteadiness that pervades fashion and fashion photography only serves to further reveal the forms as truly postmodern entities. They are conflicting and messy collages of history and experience. Arnold re-emphasizes the disparate quality of fashion, writing, “Fashion is inherently contradictory, revealing both out desires and anxieties and constantly pushing at the boundaries of acceptability” (xiv.).

Even while looking at fashion through the lens of postmodernism, Baudrillard remains a harsh critic of fashion and its effects on the simultaneous blanching and corrupting of culture and societal mores. Crediting fashion with being wasteful and futile, he writes, as quoted by Entwistle,

[Fashion] fabricates the ‘beautiful’ on the basis of a radical denial of beauty, by reducing beauty to the logical equivalent of ugliness. It can impose the most eccentric, dysfunctional, ridiculous traits as eminently distinctive. This is where it triumphs—imposing and legitimating the irrational according to a logic deeper than that of rationality. (61)

Part of his hostility toward the medium seems to stem from his positioning of fashion as an independent entity; Baudrillard differs from other theorists on the topic of fashion with his removal of fashion from the social sphere. He claims that fashion stands on its own, distinct from social influence, and perpetuates and recycles its own values, standards and styles, while infecting society with its own impure influence.

While many have argued the opposite, that particular fashions indeed reflect values, beliefs, attitudes and aspirations of the social landscape in direct ways, Baudrillard maintains his minority position. According to Finkelstein, he argues that fashion does not mirror its social context, and rather, “[it] speculates on the recurrence of forms on the basis of their death and stockpiling, like signs in an a-temporal reserve. Fashion cobbles together, from one year to the next, what “has been,” exercising an enormous combinatory freedom” (33). Baudrillard’s assertions are a hard sell given the amount and convincing nature of evidence pointing the other way. Finkelstein, for example, wisely declares, “Fashion is a mode of social exchange and, like other social discourses, its function is ultimately to maintain cultural continuity” (66). She may not credit fashion with creativity per se, but Finkelstein does name it as having an active exchange with culture. Returning to Baudrillard, he seems to later contradict himself, compromising his already isolating and insulated viewpoint. He writes,

Fashion represents what can least be explained: actually, the obligation that it presents of a renewal of signs, its continual production of apparently arbitrary meaning, its thrusting of meaning, the logical mystery of its cycle in reality—these all represent the essence of social moment. (Ibid.)

In this statement, Baudrillard links fashion inextricably to society. Weakening his initial debasement of fashion as an area unworthy of scholarly focus is his own lingering focus on the topic. Further still, he emphasizes the importance of the possession of aesthetic objects, in which fashion must be included. Relating fashion’s ultimately commercial and thus economic properties and function, Baudrillard recognizes the conflation of the origin versus the effects of fashion. It is a business enterprise with a visual and decorative manifestation. Seeing a continuity, ‘between the urge to consume and the disappointment of possession…. Baudrillard understands the desire to extract aesthetic satisfactions from everyday life since, without such pleasures, it can be a grinding monotony. (Finkelstein 75). He writes, “objects, and the needs that they imply, exist precisely in order to resolve the anguish of not knowing what one wants” (Ibid. 100). While the very essence of fashion and the practice of keeping with it, seems to defy logic, the necessity of this irrationality is overpowering and ultimately deeper than pure visual fetish of fashion objects. It is about constructing and presenting an idealized identity to society.

Fashion, through fashion photography, speaks a version of a social reality that cannot be denied. There is a dual exchange at work as fashion photography reinvents and reinvigorates the elements and directions of culture. Functioning as a mirror, Khan notes that in late 20th century fashion, the wider social landscape is reflected in the styles and trends of specific periods. Fashion’s relationship with society is undeniable. With this in mind, the question must be posed: is fashion and its medium of representation a ravager or benefactor or culture (Davis 194)? Davis claims fashion’s influence on culture cannot be disputed, but inquires whether or not its impression has been formative or destructive. He asserts, “Typically, fashion is charged with furthering the superficial and spurious while undermining the substantial and genuine. (The role of villain in this baleful plot is usually assigned to the mass media, TV in particular)” (Ibid.). This statement is a clear nod to back to Adorno and his critique of the culture industry and the modes of mass reproduction and distribution.

Fashion, through the lens of photography, has shown remarkable diversity and innovation in the formative years of style and popularity. However in the most recently passed decades, photographic construction and modes have become far too derivative of the previously defined periods to be deemed new, original or provocative. Fashion, thus, has become increasingly irrelevant in all arenas, and postmodern in the worst sense.