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Fashion & Semiotics

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ASC101 - Introduction to Sociology A

4. Clothes have always been used for symbolic reasons, but is the symbolism always clear?

Ever since their invention many centuries ago, clothes have been used as a way of communicating. The message communicated relies on a number of factors including the social background of both the communicator and the receiver, and the context in which the message is communicated. Although at times the exact message or symbolism one is trying to portray may not be clear, it is evident that clothing has long been embraced as one of the best ways to project one's desired personal image to those around them.

For many centuries clothing was used namely as a form of symbolising one's ascribed class and social honour. A good example of this was evident in Feudal European times when sumptuary laws were created in order to regulate and specify the clothing that could be worn by certain classes. In 1463 Edward IV went so far as to '[declare] that purple silk was to be the prerogative of the aristocracy' (Finkelstein 1991, pg. 137). As purple dye and silk were both very expensive and sought after this declaration demonstrated quite simply that those who were in possession of such materials should command respect and were of high social standing. Eventually these laws were abolished as, instead of 'confining people to their designated rank, the laws provoked an intense interest in fashion and a desire to transgress the codes, both in the process of prestigious emulation and as an act of rebellion' (Craik, 1994, pg. 205). This abolition allowed groups and individuals to establish their own chosen style or 'marker' in order to indicate their place within society. By allowing such freedom, ascribed social status gave way to that which was achieved. This not only meant that many more people were able to engage in the ever-expanding culture of 'Haute couture' but also that honour was no longer perceived as a birth right but rather as something that could to be obtained. Such a shift in symbolism provided a way for those of not so noble a birth to portray themselves as the latter through a variety of means such as renting or stealing clothes and buying counterfeit copies (a common occurrence in today's society also).

In the late 18th century the Industrial Revolution occurred causing a huge shift in the ways in which clothing was produced and subsequently altering the ways in which clothing was perceived. For decades preceding industrialisation men and women of high social standing, whether it be ascribed and achieved, were seen as honourable individuals who should not have to engage themselves in labour of any sort. The way in which this honour was portrayed to the outside world involved elaborate and restrictive corsetry and bulky skirts for the women and patent shoes, gloves, top hats and suits for the men. Such clothing, especially that worn by women, was completely impractical for engaging in any form of physical labour. As a quote taken from Thorstein Veblen's 'The Theory of the Leisure Class' eloquently states, the general consensus of this era was that '...apparel is always in evidence and affords an indication of our pecuniary standing to all observers at first glance...dress, therefore, in order to serve its purpose effectively should not only be expensive, but it should also make plain to all observers that the wearer is not engaged in any kind of productive labour...' ( With the birth of industrialisation mass production became possible bringing fashion to the masses. Whilst such an innovation allowed for a cycle of innovation and change and provided a vehicle for the lower classes to dabble in reproductions of upper class fashions, there were still differences evident within the products, which ensured distinctions between classes could be made. Such symbolism included obvious differences in fabric and even sometimes, sewing quality. Other symbols that were highly prevalent in the late 18th century included ribbons and the number of buttons a man wore fastened on his coat or shirt. Both of these simple details, although minuscule

were used to signify occupation and respectability within the community.

By the late 20th and early 21st century fragmentation became evident between the social class categories. Much of this shift from production and saving to consumption and spending was due to people's desire for innovation. No longer did people see the need for clothing fashion to originate from the 'top' so therefore it became an avenue for expression for many individuals. One such individual, Alexander McQueen, uses his extraordinary talent to create fashion that has a social conscience and questions the world, people and conventions that surround him. An example of such social criticism was demonstrated in his 'Highland Rape' collection in which 'McQueen sent his models down the catwalk in ripped lace dresses and skirts with what appeared to be tampon strings attached' ( To many this was seen as a crude act of misogyny and defiance of fashion conventions but according to McQueen "Highland Rape was about the "rape" of Scotland by the British", 'a subject that had a personal resonance as his family is of Scottish descent' ( It is evident that modern day clothing still demonstrates much about the wearer although there has been a huge shift from dressing for utility to leisure wear. It is said that this shift is due to the 'restructuring of consumer societies, and an increase in non-work modes of existence' (Craik, Fashioning work and play, pg.217). Whilst it may be noted that there are no longer strict rules as to what an individual may and may not wear, there are still social norms and expectations that govern the way we dress. A great example of such expectations is evident in the youth subculture of today where many distinctive groups exist with their own signature style of dress. Much of what moulds the styles of these groups is evident in their surroundings such as the surf culture on the coast or the trend conscious streets of the metro. When travelling to Torquay one will notice the majority of youths wearing singlets, shorts, skirts and thongs emblazoned with representations of beach life. All this communicates quite effectively not only the prevalence of hot weather but also the towns' surf culture and laid back attitudes. In areas such as inner city Melbourne the culture is of complete contrast to the latter. Style and fashion reign supreme on



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