Fashion Grammar

Making a Case for Re-reading Barthes


Joseph Kosuth, ‘One and Three Chairs’ 1965.

GIVEN ITS INFANCY IN the world of academia, fashion studies still shows signs of a discipline in the making, measuring and comparing itself against the long tradition of critical thinking in subjects such as art and architecture. With this in mind, we can in fashion theory often find a reliance on certain key figures. One such figure is Roland Barthes, whose name reverberates throughout the field of fashion studies. Considering that Barthes was not only one of the earliest academics to write about fashion, but also one of the first to develop a theory on fashion, the reliance on his work is hardly surprising. But bearing in mind that references to Barthes are seemingly scattered throughout almost every academic article on fashion, I find myself asking; where is the assessment of this author’s own work?

Barthes argues that fashion is a language, and that it therefore has a grammatical structure. ‘Fashion’ is the abstract place in which clothes enter into a passage of transformation collecting the attributes that have come to define our constructed notion of fashion. In his often cited book The Fashion System from 1967, Barthes writes that this transition from clothes into ‘fashion’ takes place with the aid of words and images describing a garment. Barthes’ theory on fashion falls under the heading of ‘semiology’: the study of signs and their communicative functions.

Arguably The Fashion System in its entirety can be summed up, as Barthes does, in its preface: ‘this study actually addresses neither clothing nor language but the “translation”, so to speak, of one into the other, insofar as the former is already a system of signs’.1 The term ‘clothing’ in this sentence is interchangeable, and changeable, and the notion of fashion is the fixed point or terminology to which the physical object is ascribed.

However, it’s the tendency to cut and drop quotes from Barthes without actually engaging with the theory that underlies the text that is my point of concern here. Barthes scholar Andy Stafford picks up on this when he notes that Barthes’ ‘writing on fashion seems to percolate slowly, in fragmentary form, into fashion theory; it is regularly cited, incidentally, here and there; and yet it is not treated as a body of writing’.2 Similarly, Nicole Pellegrin writes in The Berg Companion to Fashion that ‘Barthes also wrote many diverse works on fashion. Often referred to but very little read for themselves’.3

The danger with ‘referring to rather than reading’ Barthes is that the actual arguments made by the late semiologist run the risk of being lost. Since Barthes’ theory of semiology and its referential sign system has a fundamental value for a critical discussion on fashion this is important to keep in mind. When lifted from their original context disembodied quotes are inevitably disassociated from the arguments they were initially meant to support. In other words, an isolated quote such as ‘fashion is to make something out of nothing’4 is now open to interpretation and subsequent re-interpretation, its original meaning evermore diluted the further we stray from its source. Where Barthes’ semiotics of fashion should be a rigorous interpretation of the fashion system, it all too often instead becomes a shortcut for intellectuality and the sort of pretentiousness that fashion scholars are all too often accused of.

Similarly, there is often a lack of an evaluative standpoint where Barthes’ work is concerned. Arguably, the majority of writers who actively use The Fashion System do so without providing support for why they use it to buttress their argument. Instead, any lengthy involvement with The Fashion System tends to take the shape of a summary or a direct application of the work, which in turn seemingly neglects Barthes’ own statement that ‘this venture, it must be admitted, is already dated’ and therefore ‘what is proposed here is already a certain history of semiology; in relation to the new intellectual art now being sketched out’.5

Bearing all this in mind, it was with great satisfaction that I recently read Michael Carter’s article ‘Stuff and Nonsense: The Limits of the Linguistic Model of Clothing’. In the prefaced abstract he aptly observes that ‘ever since the late 1950s and early 1960s when Roland Barthes revolutionised our conceptions of dress, most scholars have worked with an idea of dress as being a system of social communication, one that was structured like a language. Over time this conception of dress has attained such prominence that alternative ways of comprehending costume have been completely absent’.6

All this said, my hope is that fashion academia will open up for a more critical reading of Barthes. For fashion studies to grow into a more established field of academic research, fashion scholars should aspire to be more analytical and innovative in their assessments, not only of new subject matter, but also, and perhaps more importantly, of already established work. After all, for any academic discipline to be taken seriously there needs to be an examination of the subject from within the field itself.

Gabriella Frykhamn is a Swedish academic, writer, translator and graduate of Uppsala University.

  1. Roland Barthes, The Fashion System, trans. Matthew Ward and Richard Howard, 1983, p.x. 

  2. Andy Stafford, The Language of Fashion, ed. Andy Stafford and Michael Carter, 2006, p. 120. 

  3. Nicole Pellegrin, The Berg Companion to Fashion, ed. Valerie Steele, 2010, p.53 

  4. Roland Barthes, The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980, trans. Linda Coverdale, 1985, p.67. 

  5. Roland Barthes, The Fashion System, trans. Matthew Ward and Richard Howard, 1983, p.x. 

  6. Michael Carter, Stuff and Nonsense: The Limits of the Linguistic Model of Clothing in Fashion Theory, 2012, p.343.