Fashion as a Dialogic System A Seminar Paper

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Fashion as a Dialogic System A Seminar Paper Yuwa Vosper Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge Copyright 2016 Ehimwenma O Vosper-Woghiren

Author Note This paper was prepared for CMST 7946: Theory and Performance of Narrative Discourse, taught by Professor Suchy, Ph.D.




Fashion as a Dialogic System A Seminar Paper Introduction This paper explores the concepts of fashion as a dialogic system, which focuses on the viewer response and requires interaction. The emphasis is on presenting an exploratory analysis of Russian scholar Mikhail Bakhtin’s understanding of the dialogic applying his concepts to French scholar Roland Barthes semiological analysis of the fashion system. Dialogic will be defined as, “[implying] an emphasis on interaction and contexts, on language being used in situational and socio-cultural contexts, in interaction with others and with our physical and social surroundings”(Linell, 2005, p. 157). Within the fashion system, there are many voices that ‘speak’ and critique forming a heteroglossia. Fashion professionals have their own distinct way of understanding and evaluating what is fashion. All voices ‘speak’ in some function whether through garment design, written word, or through observed behavior. Fashion forms among people in a social context. The process begins with the fashion designer as speaker, the fashion gatekeepers as addressee, and ending with the consumer as superaddressee. The fashion system becomes dialogic when the fashion designers produce garments, or clothes. However, the garments are not automatically declared fashion. They must be legitimized. Fashion gatekeepers must validate garments as fashion1; therefore, these professionals must actively understand the garments and begin to 1

Loschek ( 2009) did not define fashion solely based on the characteristic of constant change, “…but rather

by the binding character of social validity. It is negotiated on a communicative basis within society. This does not mean that fashion is timeless, but its validity is determined socially and is variable, multilayered and discontinuous as a result.” The term fashion will be generally defined by this definition



prepare a response of acceptance, adoption, or rejection. There must be a respondent to receive and observe the garment designs. To clarify, the fashion system categorizes garment designs using the binary opposition of fashionable/unfashionable. What is the fashion system? Fashion functions as a cyclical and closed system, which consistently borrows from the past in an endless recurrence while also being self-governing. Kawamura(2005b) explained that, “Fashion is a system of institutions, organizations, groups, producers, events, and practices, all of which contribute to the making of fashion, which is different from dress or clothing” (para. 13). To emphasize, fashion designers produce clothing. Then, the fashion gatekeepers 2 are needed to legitimize clothing as fashion. New styles are placed within fashion magazines and later consumed by the public. As Roland Barthes(1983) wrote the fashion system never explicitly states what is fashionable. Rather, fashion is always implied especially within the fashion magazines. The fashion system is not an isolated system. It requires several professionals communicating and working in different capacities to produce fashion. As mentioned prior, a response to the garment design is required whether positive or negative to validate the fashion designer. Therefore, the focus relies heavily on the response. It is how the fashion world receives, reacts, and understands a garment design. Fashion gatekeepers seemingly attempt to predict a consumer’s response to a fashion designer runway collection before diffusing it into the department stores. Linell (2005) explained, “In dialogism, the relation to the other, in terms of 2

Fashion gatekeepers consist of individuals who hold the jobs of fashion editor, stylist, buyer, and

merchandiser. These individuals make aesthetic judgments about garment designs that produce reputations for designers and legitimize them in the field.



responsivity, responsibility and addressivity, is fundamental” (p. 157). Similar to a dialogic system, the fashion system also requires interaction between people where the response is prioritized. Objective Goals In this discussion, the dialogic will be applied to the working institutional model of the fashion system. Analyzing the fashion system from a dialogic perspective illustrates how fashion relies on response, interaction, and understanding to have meaning and function as an organization. An overview of each step from fashion production, diffusion, and consumption will be described. The fashion designer will be discussed using Roland Barthes’ concept of authorship. Barthes (2006) described fashion designers as writers who use fabric, color, and materials rather than paper and pen. In addition, Barthes (1983) termed the details of garment design as variants. It is the variants that allow the garments to have the ability to emit meaning from fabric and materials. In a sense, the fashion designer produces the ‘words’, of fashion. The fashion designers create clothing but the fashion gatekeepers utilize the garments engage in active understanding and form a response. Then, the fashion designer and his/her garment designs is authenticated in the fashion magazine. For Barthes (1983), the fashion magazine assigned a certain suitability or function to clothing, which he termed the “Fashion utterance” (p. 20). The fashion utterance emerges from the written description that accompanies the fashion image in the magazines. According to Barthes (1983), the fashion utterance was the meaningful unit of communication that transmitted fashion. The consumer, who is the ultimate recipient of this meaning, is anticipated to adopt the garment as fashion. However, the consumer response is an assumed response. The fashion designer or gatekeeper never directly speaks to the consumer.



Significance to the Field Several scholars have analyzed fashion as a system (e.g., (Barthes, 1983; Kawamura, 2005; Loschek, 2009). One study analyzed fashion and anti-fashion of urban Senegalese women as a heteroglossia coming from many meanings and codes of regulations (Heath, 1992). However, no study has analyzed fashion as a dialogic process that requires interaction, engagement, and evaluation. Fashion exists for the people. It is a social construct that is constantly changing and requires response and participation. Analyzing fashion as a dialogic system can allow the process of fashion participation to be more seen a more valuable to society. Framing fashion as a dialogic, it can be seen as more of a process that requires professionals to engage in with the garment designs. Fashion professionals are constantly called to evaluate and aesthetically judge a garment not only for its appearance but on its suitability to societal needs and zeitgeist of the time. When fashion becomes a dialogic system, it is more easily comprehended as interactive and participatory. In the Beginning, was the Designer Prior to the Industrial Revolution, professionals who constructed and altered clothes were known as tailors or seamstresses. They were considered artisans and had limited social status. The Industrial Revolution impacted the fashion industry not only causing factories to mass produce clothing but also allowing fashion to be easily duplicated and placed in department stores. Consequently, consumers could be able to purchase clothing with labels and tags that showed the brand or fashion designer. This caused consumers knowledge of specific designers to increase substantially. Kawamura (2010) claimed that the fashion industry cannot function without the fashion designers (para. 1). She goes further to explain that the fashion designer’s participation in the fashion system determines their status and reputation. The fashion designer



does not just construct clothing but “the designers personify ‘fashion’ that is timely, up-to-date and considered desirable” (Kawamura, 2005a). Since anyone can declare themselves a fashion designer, validation is needed or he/she will be producing clothing not fashion. Clothing becomes fashion when it is recognized and socially relevant. Designers as Authors Barthes (2006) compared fashion designers to writers, who author their creative work. He stated: Chanel does not write with paper and ink (except in her leisure time), but with material, with forms, and with colours; however, this does not stop her being commonly attributed with the authority and panache of a writer of the classical age…(p. 105). It is important to emphasis that Barthes compared fashion designers to writers not inventors. Similar to Bakhtin’s concepts about creative activity, Barthes also believed that designers reinterpret prior designs and fabric patterns. Fashion designers do not invent a new design. Fashion is constantly borrowing and updating styles from the past in a cyclical process. Within one fashion designer’s inspiration, there are multiple voices that influences his/her designs forming what Bakhtin would term a heteroglossia. The styles used are being borrowed from past eras and re-envisioned. The act of design is a creative event. Even more, when a fashion designer begins to construct his design on the body form, he/she is creating an ideal character, who will wear the clothing. Fashion designers are producing clothing for ‘a type’ of person. For example, Phoebe Philo, fashion designer and creative director for Céline, authored a collection that she described



as a little Latin American for her Fall 2015 ready-to-wear fashion show (see figure 1). Therefore, the designs were more dramatic and sensual. Philo had designs that had body-contouring knits, fox-trimmed coats, bejeweled shoes, and semi-cone knit bustier reminiscent of Madonna. Each design detail, or variant, signified the meaning Philo wanted to convey, which was a sensual Latin American aesthetic. The coat alone was just a garment; however, with the fox-trim added and the belt cinching the waist, it signifies allure and

Figure 1. Images from Celine ready-to-wear Fall 2015 depicting the fur-trimmed coats and bustier tops. Source: [December 5, 2015]

temptation. Before the garment designs reach an audience, they are a kind of syntagma,3 acting as speech units. The fashion designer becomes the author of the utterance. While the garment design is in its beginning phase, the context is still the speech of one subject, who is the fashion designer (Speech Genres, p. 73). The fashion designer’s creative team do not offer opinions on the design but work to create his/her vision. Barthes (1977) stated, “The language, in the garment system, is made i) by the opposition of pieces, parts of garments, and ‘details’, the variation in which entails a change in meaning…ii) by the rules which govern the association of the pieces 3

Ferdinand de Saussure defined syntagma as any unit that acquires value in opposition to what precedes or

follows it (2009, p. 121). When styled and arranged on the body, clothes are placed in opposition to other garments and gain meaning by the pairings. For example, a white button-down shirt paired with denim can signify more casual professional attire while a white button-down shirt paired with a fitted pencil skirt signifies more feminine professional attire.



among themselves, either on the length of the body or in depth.” (p. 27). Garments act as individual speech units, or words, which represent the smallest element that can have meaning in isolation. Similar to a person selecting a word in an utterance, fashion designers select a design detail because of its meaning that “can accommodate or not accommodate our expressive goals in combination with other words, that is, in combination with the whole of our utterance” (Speech Genres, p. 86). For Bakhtin, words were a “two sided act” (MBCP, p. 129). If the word is determined by the speaker and who he/she intends to receive it, then garments are controlled by the fashion designer and intended for a specific audience. Bakhtin et. al (2011) went further to state that the word in living discourse orients itself toward the future response. Garment designs function as words that have already been spoken while also serving to give the viewer something new and needed. Fashion designers forecast the changes in styles and anticipate how the viewers will respond to his/her vision. Still, the garments remain as clothes until it can be evaluated and legitimized. The Validating Response To reiterate, for clothes to become fashion, it needs a response. This feedback begins on the runway. Fashion designers stage their design collection on a runway using models to showcase their garment designs for it to be visible to the viewing public. Their goal is to obtain a reaction from the audience. Many fashion designers such as Karl Lagerfeld, Rick Owens, and Marc Jacobs create runway spectacles similar to performance art. Karl Lagerfeld has staged his fashion show on a supermarket-themed set, Marc Jacobs opened a fashion show with a locomotive rolling down the runway, and Rick Owens used a step team as models, who performed down the runway rather than walked. Duggan (2001) called runway shows, “a theater without a plot” (p. 246). These fashion shows are staged to engage the audience and gain media



attention. Fashion designers hope that the front row filled with fashion editors, stylists, and buyers will respond positively to their garment designs by requesting a fashion editorial spread in a fashion magazine. During the fashion show, the designer gives up his/her turn to speak so that active responsive understanding can take place. This fashion designer initiates a change of speaking subjects. The Magazine Authenticates Fashion During a runway show, fashion editors view each designer collection of the season4. Then, the magazine staff makes aesthetic judgments and evaluates each collection and determine what were the overarching themes of the season based on the fabric, color, and construction choices. These themes are featured in the fashion editorials and are called the fashion story, which is “the editor’s choice of trends, directions, or seasonal musts for that month” (Dingemans, 1999, p. 11). Fashion editors interact with other magazine staff to categorize the most prevalent garment designs into identifiable themes such as romantic, bohemian, and sporty to translate fashion to the reader and group garment designs. As Voloshinov pointed out themes were an essential component to the utterance (MBCP, p. 127). Fashion editors are seeking to translate the contextual meaning of the season. Most importantly, the fashion editor must engage in active understanding. He/she must prepare a response to the garment designs. The validation of the fashion designer and his/her garments is seen in the fashion magazines. 4

Ready-to-wear fashion shows occur during Fashion Week, which is a month long event where several

designers showcase their garment designs in New York, London, Milan, or Paris. The primary seasons are spring/summer and fall/winter. Spring/summer collections debut in September and October to arrive in stores in February. Fall/winter collections debut in February/March to arrive in stores in July.



Fashion magazines act as the intermediary between culture and the consumer. Morean (2006) explained that, “As intermediaries between producer and consuming public, fashion magazines exist to teach the lay public why fashion should be important in their lives, what the latest trends may be, who are the names that drive them, and where the clothes themselves may be purchased” (p. 737). Fashion magazines help translate garment designs from abstract ideas into meaningful communication that readers can understand and incorporate into their wardrobe. The Written Garment Barthes (1983) termed the writing in the fashion magazine as the written garment, or written clothing. Fashion editorials contain glossy images of either a model wearing the latest runway trends or garments are styled on the page. The written garment is the same as the fashion image but transformed into language when it is described in the fashion caption 5. In this paper, the written garment and the fashion caption are equivalent. Barthes (1983) also discussed literature as institution that converts the real into language. Similar to a fashion magazine, he believed the the written fashion had the same function as literature. Barthes(1983) stated, “if the magazine describes a certain article of clothing verbally, it does so solely to convey a message whose content is: Fashion;…” (1983, p. 8). In addition, Barthes (1983) clarified that the written garment could not be equated to the structure of the sentence because changing a term in the caption would not alter the meaning. As an example, American Vogue December 2015/January 2016 had the fashion caption, “More is More: Pair a 5

The fashion caption is the writing placed inside the fashion editorial and does not obscure the image.

There are two types of fashion captions: stockiest caption and creative caption. The stockiest caption will only list the type of garment featured, who designed the garments, where to purchase, and sometimes how much the item costs. The creative caption describes the fashion image using descriptive wording and rhetorical literary devices.



glitzy top with earrings every bit as glam to light up the room” (p. 262) can be restated as “A glitzy top with earrings is the glam component that can make you the life of the room.” Analyzing the fashion caption from this perspective challenges the garments functioning as a syntagma in the written garment. The rearrangement of the fashion caption would not change meaning. To contradict Barthes, the fashion caption does act function a sentence according to Bakhtin. In the written garment, the sentence is repeatable and does not lose impact. Even more, fashion caption can be restated and have the same impact. It functions only as a unit of language that can be quoted and used in any fashion magazine during any time period. Fashion Utterance For Bakhtin, language emerged from a dialogic interaction. He pointed out that the utterance is, “the real unit of speech communication” (Speech Genres, p. 71). Barthes (1983) referred to the utterance in terms of the fashion magazine. He explained that the fashion magazine assigned a function and suitability to clothing, which translates into fashion. Bakhtin would disagree with Barthes use of the fashion utterance because there is no single speaking subject present in the analysis. As stated by Bakhtin, speech is formed in an utterance that belongs to a single speaker. Therefore, Barthes analysis of the fashion utterance would be rejected. For this reason, the fashion utterance will be discussed as how the reader interprets the fashion editors’ evaluation of the garments designs within the fashion magazine. It seems that Barthes (1983) attempted to make a distinction between the written garment and the fashion utterance. He discussed the utterance as distinguishing between the relation to the words as letters to the relation to the words as meaning. It seems as though the fashion utterance is a unit of the written garment. The rearrangement of the fashion caption does not change meaning; however, it is the altering of the variants that distinguish the garment as fashion



that changes meaning. Barthes (1983) referred to the variant, or detail, as the “radiant nucleus” (p. 243). It allows meaning to emerge from what he described as a “next-to-nothing quality” (Barthes, 2006, p. 66). Within the fashion caption, the variant stops the reading at a specific feature of the garment. It causes the eye to focus on the one feature in the fashion image. Acting as an indexical sign, the variants ‘point’ to the distinct component that makes the garment ‘fashion’. A sample fashion caption from InStyle magazine September 2015 “Fall Fashion” issue reads, “Oversize Buttons: More fun than functional, they lend a dash of whimsy to seriously luxe weather” (Tablet version). The change in the fashion utterance would be the variant of size. Altering the detail of button size would shift the meaning of what components signify fashion. For Barthes, the fashionable detail of the garment design described within the fashion caption is the unit of speech communication. Analyzing the fashion utterance in this manner would also make fashion utterance unrepeatable. The context of the fashion utterance would also change. The oversize buttons create whimsy specifically in “seriously luxe weather”. Placing it in a different context would also change its functionality. In each situation, the fashion

Figure 2: The InStyle fashion caption that illustrates how the variant arrests the level of reading at the oversize buttons.

utterance creates a unique meaning. The fashion magazine is being used as an intermediary for the fashion editor to speak to the reader. It is also important to realize that the fashion magazine has addressivity. A fashion magazine is branded to target a specific reader audience. The fashion utterance emerges when the



reader evaluates the fashion caption and attempts to prepare a response. The reader response would be the purchasing and adoption of the fashion displayed in the magazine. The Consumer: Omnipresent Responder Fashion gatekeepers use the magazine to diffuse styles and trends into society. Still, the consumers must take the active step in accepting and adopting the garment designs as fashion. In the dialogic analysis of the fashion system, consumer adoption is the final step of interaction. The consumers who understand and interpret the garment designs presented in the magazines as fashion are often called fashion innovators. These consumers are among the first to buy and wear new fashions and often influences others to follow the same trend. Fashion innovators are the first to understand that the fashion presented in the magazines is valued and meaningful. Consumer as Superaddressee The consumer acts as the superaddressee (the third party) throughout the fashion system. Even though the fashion designer desires validation from the fashion gatekeepers to gain notoriety, it is ultimately the consumer that will keep his/her brand or design house viable. However, the producers and diffusers within the fashion system rarely poll the consumer for feedback. Instead, they distance themselves and presume the consumer response. Standen (2015) commented, “It’s bizarre how often the consumer gets left out of the fashion conversation, given that the whole shebang depends on her. You rarely see her in the pages of the fashion magazine, for example, unless it’s in some ludicrously idealized form” (p. 36). The consumer acting as the superaddressee remains invisible yet still participates in the dialogue. However, the consumer cannot remain passive. She still needs to actively respond to the fashion utterance placed in the magazine and understand it in “just the right way” (MBCP, p. 135). Similar to the superaddressee, the consumer longs to be heard and seeks to actively understand the fashion



system. Just as the superaddressee, the consumer listens but cannot answer or gain understanding. Still, the fashion system can only exist without an actual user of garments; the consumer is needed to make the designs relevant. A Hint of the Poor Standen (2015) noted that the Spring 2015 ready-to-wear fashion shows were putting an emphasis back on the consumer. He noticed that the runway show staging were overshadowing the clothes in previous year. For the Spring 2015 season, Standen felt the runway shows had more intimacy by showing clothing that women wanted to wear for decades. However, Standen does not take into consideration that most consumers are not invited to these high-status runway shows. The only way the average consumer can even view a runway show is through Internet sites. The consumer will have no direct contact with the designer or the collection when it is presented. Weakening his argument, the magazine, which Standen edits, featured an introduction to an article on the fashion house Bottega Veneta and their creative director Tomas Maier that read, “Bottega Veneta’s Tomas Maier gives the über-luxe a hint of the ‘poor’” (Blanks, 2015, p. 136). The magazine article reported on how Maier was prioritizing the consumer. However, by focusing on the consumer response, he would have to ‘give it a hint of the poor’. Bakhtin used the term loophole to describe when a person changes the final meaning of his words. Standen discusses how fashion designers are focusing on the consumer response but then alter the hopeful meaning of the utterance by permitting an intro that said to do so would be to give “a hint of the poor.” In order to have consumer appeal, the brand would have to present cheap clothing. Conclusion The fashion system was analyzed as a dialogic process in this exploratory analysis. In the dialogic system, fashion is prioritized based on engagement and response. Fashion is an



institutionalized system but it is also a social system. The garment designs as a material object must be produced and diffused then adopted by the consumers. Still, fashion is analyzed as an isolated system that emanates from a speaking mass of one group: the fashion gatekeepers. Even more, the fashion system is cyclical and constantly changing. Consequently, fashion designers will never say all that he wants to say in his creative designs, but he must finalize the utterance to guarantee a response. This leads the question, “does the fashion designer ever really finalize his utterance or change speaking subjects?” His designs will be mass produced, copied, and parodied especially if validated as fashion. The fashion designer may not be speaking but his voice is always heard in his creative designs. This paper also clarified that the fashion utterance was not the written garment but had meaning when contained within the fashion caption. Barthes pointed out the the variant was the unit of where meaning emerged. The meaning was contained in the descriptive element of the garment. The written garment in the fashion magazine engaged the reader through descriptive wording and fashion imagery. The fashion magazine addresses the consumer, who later adopts the styles. The consumer responds by purchasing the fashion represented. By doing so, the consumers give fashion social relevance by bringing the designs onto the street. Yet, the consumer is considered an invisible respondent and omnipresent figure. Fashion is constantly being inspired. It may originate from one speaker (the fashion designer) but the design ‘speaks’ with many influences. There will always be someone who wants to respond to the fashion being produced and diffused. Fashion as a dialogic system depends on the engagement and interaction of the participants. This interaction requires a response that moves fashion in a recurring, ever-changing system.


16 References

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