Fashion Theory

Understanding Fashion

There are several definitions to help us further understand the meaning of fashion. These definitions vary among the fields of semantics, technology and aesthetics.

  • Semantics-based definition: fashion is a language of signs, symbols and iconography that non-verbally communicate meanings about individuals and groups; it is a body technique which articulates certain aspects of the language, gestures and disciplines of the clothed body.
  • Technology-based definition: Fashion is textile construction industrially replicated, whose meaning is given by marketing techniques.
  • Aesthetics-based definition: Fashion is the sketch of a designer, influenced by the past and by contemporary cultural influences and an aesthetic and sociological context; it is a continual, largely uninterrupted and even institutionalized succession of stylistic changes in dress, adornment and decorative design.

Basically, the answer to the question, "What is fashion?" is simply this: It depends on who's answering.

If you claim that fashion is a sign vehicle, I could counter by quoting the semantics master Charles Sanders Peirce, who stated,

Nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign.

Signs have no intrinsic meaning, and only become signs when we invest them with meaning. Hello, marketing!

Take, for example, the symbol we use for the heart. β™₯ We learn this symbol very early in life, and there is no shortage of childhood drawings or Valentine's Day cards to demonstrate its strength. However, if you were to view a picture of an actual human heart, it would hardly resemble those two curving lines.

Fashion can also be considered a range of codes. According to F. Davis in Fashion, Culture and Identity, a code in fashion is "a binding ligament in the shared understandings that comprise a sphere of discourse, hence, its associated social arrangements." In other words, a code is something we commonly understand to mean a specific thing, and we can therefore use it to communicate. He continues:

A clothing style is a code as it draws on the conventional and tactile symbols of culture, but... the meanings evoked by the combinations and permutations of the code's key terms (fabric, texture, color, pattern, volume, silhouette and occasion) are forever shifting or in process.

This explains why a woman can wear cowboy boots under a cocktail dress today and be considered bohemian, not a confused cowgirl or schizophrenic debutant.

Davis also explained that social identity is any aspect about the self which individuals can use to communicate with others. This includes dress, food choices, religious practices, vacation destinations... all involve the use of codes.

Clothing as a Code

There are many ways to illuminate this theme. Take, for instance, dress codes for social events. Among them:

  • Black Tie: formal. Men wear tuxedos, women wear cocktail, long dresses or evening seperates
  • White Tie: ultra-formal. Men wear full-dress, with white tie, vest, shirt. Women wear long gowns.
  • Formal: usually means the same as Black Tie
  • Black Tie Optional: means you have the option of full formality, but should stick to the formal side of variations (dark suits, dresses, etc.)

Consider these codes:

  • Victorian: bindings, corset
  • Modern: loose fit, exposed skin
  • Angularity: masculine
  • Curvilinear: feminine
  • Dark Hue: formal, business
  • Light Hue: casual, leisure

There are of course many more... safety pins are punk, lace is prim... you name it!

Code Interpretation & Global Diffusion

In the last 50 years, we have seen the exponential increase in the speed at which the codes the fashion represents are interpreted. In addition, the regional barriers that represented different perspectives in code-interpretation are becoming less and less common.

The reasons for these changes are simple: as our technological advances in communication and transportation evolve, enabling us to communicate with a larger community in a smaller amount of time, influence and physical products can spread faster to more people.

Because an image can now be transmitted around the world in seconds, spreading a common source of influence across the world, and most products can be delivered globally, we no longer wait years for fashions to make their way around a common culture. Today, a fashion trend can reach a global audience of diverse cultures instantly, and carry a common interpretation of meaning.