Lessons on the Philosophy of Fashion from Roland Barthes

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Roland Barthes

Barthes was one of the first academics to write on the subject of fashion – here, we present ten witty observations from his 1967 book The Fashion System

“When he died in 1980, still in his early 60s, Mr Barthes was just shaking free of semiology and realising himself as an acute and witty critic of culture,” wrote Anatole Broyard in a 1983 article for the New York Times. “Nobody had a better eye for fashions – in language, in behaviour, in anything – than Roland Barthes.” Certainly, Barthes – the French philosopher and semiologist – was one of the first academics to write about fashion, developing the theory that if fashion is a language, it must, therefore, possess a grammatical structure.

As Broyard continues in his article on Barthes: “For those who are not sure what semiology is, it might be simply defined as the interpretation of a culture’s signs, remembering that just about everything may be taken as a sign. In this case, the sign – fashion – is so light and so fragile that the effect of the ponderous semiotic structure is often comical, if not grotesque.” His first book on the subject, published in 1967, is titled The Fashion System. Here, Barthes analyses the flowery, descriptive language in fashion magazines Elle and Le Jardin des Modes, instead of the images printed in such publications, stating that: “it is not the object but the name that creates desire; it is not the dream but the meaning that sells”. Here, we present ten further quotes excerpted from its pages. 

  1. “What is decided on, imposed, finally appears as necessary... For this to take place, it is enough to keep the Fashion decision secret; who will make it obligatory that this summer’s dresses be made of raw silk?” 
  2. “Every new Fashion is a refusal to inherit, a subversion against the oppression of the preceding Fashion; Fashion experiences itself as a right, the natural right of the present over the past.”
  3. “Petticoat (or slip). Though invisible, the petticoat can contribute to meaning by altering the volume or the form of the skirt.”
  4. “A blouse cannot be fitted without departing from its species; hence it can only be normal or flowing.”
  5. “One detail is enough to transform what is outside meaning into meaning, what is unfashionable into fashion, and yet a detail is not expensive.”
  6. “In short, the woman who wears fashion finds herself asked four questions: Who? What? When? Where? Her utopian garment always answers at least one of these questions.”
  7. “There is, however, one point at which the Woman of Fashion differs in a decisive manner from the models of mass culture: she has no knowledge of evil, to any degree whatsoever.”
  8. “The magazine’s speech is a sufficient social act, whatever its contents: it is a speech which can be infinite because it is empty yet signifying.”
  9. “Take the following utterance: Women will shorten skirts to the knee, adopt pastel checks, and wear two-toned pumps.”
  10. “Why does fashion utter clothing so abundantly?”