Philosophical Research Group

On Clothing, Fashion, and Meaning.
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Author:  brandonj [ Tue May 20, 2008 7:49 am ]
Post subject:  On Clothing, Fashion, and Meaning.

I'll begin this thread from a specific standpoint, from a certain thought, and allow us to wander at will into Clothing, Fashion, and Meaning. That certain standpoint is from the idea of fashion, or clothing, as language— an angle of attack already worked over and thoroughly by Roland Barthes, in The Fashion System, where he dips in, explores, and systematizes as much as possible the semiotics of the things we wear.

I don't want to just sit here and expound Barthes' ideas, though. I'd rather take a fresh go at things; try to interpret the Language of Fashion a little on our own— especially since 21st century America and postwar France are probably steeped in two fairly distinct fashion dialects, and it may be in the historical or stylistic details that we find the greatest differences.

One thing we all understand is that this language cycles and changes far faster than French or English— that the same "vesteme" as Barthes calls it, the same outfit, the same shirt or accessory, can mean one thing one year and the exact opposite five years later. So, the Language of Clothing leans a little more toward synchrony, and Verbal Language a little more toward diachrony, for their coherence and interpretations. Nevertheless, the meanings and vestemes of Clothing, once they've cooled a little while after their debut, can assume a little more stability. For instance, certain elements of hippie-garb are fairly fixed and connote certain cultural baggage— continuity with Nature and marijuana and chillaxation— and other, more urban garbs might betray more continuity with, say, club nights and the New York- New Jersey area. And this grid of connotation has been fairly coherent for around thirty years (though not entirely rigid). And likewise, in spoken language, neologisms like "cool" and "humungous" might enter the language to laughter and sneers, only to be absorbed into everyday habits.

And though the bulk of the meaning is, for the most part, connotative (with the exception of things like police uniforms indicating "I am an officer of the Law"), clothing serves as a pretty good indicator of many things— and more deliberately than other non-verbal communication such as body language (which betrays more, while clothing affects. The body versus its pretensions).

With the exception of uniforms— most every major part of a wardrobe is selected and at least mildly expressive. We express disdain and allegiances, vague hints and signals, historical allusion, background and biography, crisp aesthetic sensibilities, mood— and not only though strict precedent but through shocking and terse opposites, through neologism.

So we probably all think that Clothing speaks, but I wouldn't mind hearing some thoughts on the mechanics, and also on the details— on specific sensibilities. For instance, I have noticed that my far-and-away favorite fashionisti are the homeless and deranged. Now, all possible insensitivities aside, what does this look mean to me? I project a kind of Diogenean contempt onto people in such states (I mean that I imagine they carry this kind of contempt, not me), when really the look is just a natural consequence of tremendous suffering and sleeping under a bridge. But, whereas I think, with the exception of the seasons, the variations in our clothing-choice are not really that functional, for the homeless there is, even in temperate weather, a strong psychological function of clothing as protection. Protection from the intrusions of everyday Reality. All clothing is obviously in a continuum with architecture, with function first, then whipped to final form by sensibility. But for the homeless, clothing leans even closer to architecture— becoming something in-between, like a turtle shell.

Above when I said that most clothing is chosen, as part of public identity and persona, homeless clothing is not as freely chosen, just as their public identity and persona may not be as freely chosen. So instead, we can read into their wardrobe more history than pretension— rips, dirt, clothing found by windfall and circumstance. So the vestemes of the homeless work more like clues than expressions, and, in truth, more as a fall than a rejection. However, if this vestemes are employed deliberately , expressively— they could take on the form of Diogenean rejection. Especially really wild neologism like clothing made from plastic bags.

Author:  brandonj [ Sun May 25, 2008 6:12 am ]
Post subject:  Re: On Clothing, Fashion, and Meaning.

Last night, I'm happy to report, at Adam Leed's birthday party, I was given a book on loan that pretty much captured the spirit and direction of what I hoped for in the clothing thread. This book is The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, by Erving Goffman in which all daily interaction and social intercourse is decoded as a form of either expressive performance, or unintentional information. Which is the distinction I was hoping to establish through clothing as conveyance versus clothing as disclosure. And because clothing is well-known to be communicative, it is used all the more to convey information, to advertise, to hint, often under the guise of the unintended.

The most intelligible information is what it conveys about our ideals; our ideal self, our heroes, our allegiances. Because clothing is for the most part, a choice, it is best seen as an outward manifestation of our desires. So when we judge and infer, from a clothing arrangement, what we are judging and inferring is not as much about the person as they are. We see, judge, and infer what they want, want to be, want to uphold. In this, there's less of chance of distortion— in this case, desire and mythos are far more sharply defined and choate than history and actuality.

Clothing, in times past, disclosed more. It disclosed more distinctly socio-economic background, for instance— which it still can today, especially for people with eyes sharpened for sartorial detail. But today it can be faked; misdirection. So what we see when we witness someone dressed "lower class" is not only their background, but also an allegiance to this background. We are witnessing an allegiance to a culture as much as a disclosure of their belonging.

I think especially among our acquaintances, clothing can be seen much more as intentional "sign-vehicle," to borrow Goffman's phrase, than a disclosure of our backgrounds. Again, those with sharper eyes can detect money and history, but for the most part, the greater share of the information is of our desires. This person upholds Fleetwood Mac. This person disdains ostentation. This person affirms Japan. It does not matter if they have a true relation with Japan, ostentation, or Fleetwood Mac. And assuming that the person is immersed in the same dialect of Clothing (a young American, hangs out, reasonably intelligent), the picture of Desire is probably as undistorted as verbal communication— probably more, in that those little details, the little touches of flair and other amendments, might even pull in some subconscious desire as well, and give the picture fuller dimension.

Take me, for instance. What do I convey, what do I disclose? Because even though I am in many ways ad-hoc and neglectful of my appearance, the result is still immensely appealing to me, and so contains as much information about my desires as the get-ups of others. Likewise with those who dress "plainly and unassumingly"— there is still then the conspicuous absence, and the expression given a little more microscopically. So this is to say: there is no neutral wardrobe, no outfit for non-participation. Even in uniforms, the information just switches scale, drops into fine print— tiny details, the hang of the collar, the sleeves. So, even among Maoists, clothing speaks. The wrinkle. The fit. The button. The hat. It is simply a matter of interpretation, of participation in the dialect.

We cannot innocently say, though, that this picture of Desire is in contrast to who you, in truth, really are. Clothing swings on the same nail as the Mask/Face distinction; in that people are as much equivalent to their yearnings as their history.

Author:  brandonj [ Sun May 25, 2008 7:22 am ]
Post subject:  Re: On Clothing, Fashion, and Meaning.

Before I begin again, let me just add a qualification to my statement that "no wardrobe is neutral comment"— I meant as long as the wardrobes are chosen and arranged in a leisured and relatively-free manner. So, the wardrobes of the homeless and deranged are not as much expression as disclosure. The same goes for new arrivals in the Gulag. When duress halts the luxury of self-presentation. In these cases, it goes nicely with what I said previously: about dress as the expression of ideals. These folks— the homeless and deranged, the thought-criminals in a Gulag, among other unpleasant situations— have been stripped of all possibilities of idealism, of hope, and it shows their fall and summer collections.

On a more theoretical note, and on a slight tangent, there was a distinction that I've seen now, both in the Housepets thread and, pretextually, in the The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. This is the distinction between: beings and objects. Goffman treads over the distinction when he says that we behave differently depending on whether we are in the company of other people or alone (in the company of inanimate objects). Housepets were something I mentioned that, through a process of sensitization, could come to be seen more as beings than objects.
I've come to view this distinction as something buried very deep within human concepts and behavior, in line with what Martin Buber said about our relation with the world being a combination of two modes: the I-it relation and the I-You relation, the monological and the dialogical. I do not think this is just a philosophical distinction, but a cleavage in the human brain, fairly fast and hard-wired. When this screw comes loose, we get either the sociopath (who takes people for mere objects) or the paranoiac (who takes the inanimate and inert as dialogical, speaking to him). Many symptoms of paranoia, I think, may be as much a rationalization of this unsettling, relentless sense of being in dialogue, as they are actual hallucinations in and of themselves. "Somebody is watching me. I can sense it. But where— what's the closest thing to an eye, a You— I know: the mirror. The TV. No, better, that hole in my bedroom wall." Or maybe sociopaths might even push their luck with the living, in order find some break in the all-enveloping sense of It-ness. Who knows?

More to the point, this distinction may even run through Human Apparel. In that we may find personalities who are more aware or conscious of what their clothing says and means. They sense more the presence of others. These are the more paranoiac dressers. And then there are others who dress the same for bedtimes as they do for lunch dates— leaning more toward the sociopaths. Not that actual paranoaics and sociopaths dress accordingly, but that maybe the most fundamental division is that the awareness or weight given to the amount of meaning carried in our vestemes, outfits, and textile sign-vehicles. Or, what is the right weight to give to these things?

Author:  omyamerica [ Thu May 29, 2008 7:36 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: On Clothing, Fashion, and Meaning.

This is Annelies. I'm overly self-aware and sparsely educated, so forgive me if this note is a bit too self-referential to be philosophical. I figured with Brandon at the helm that couldn't disqualify me out-right. I also haven't read the Barthes essay, so forgive me a second time if my thoughts incidentally track his own...

About Desire. In addition to shirt-specific desires, I think attire often attempts to communicate whole stories. We tend to think of our lives in semi-complete narratives, so that we can think of ourselves as a "kind" of person- a single, coherent character who does things like X, and thinks things like Y. (It's why reading books is sometimes like trying on hats- seeing how the characters look on you.) Once we figure out who we desire to be (again, not necessarily so different than who we really are), we communicate it through our dress and other behavior so that we can surround ourselves with the right peers to support us in this image. Sometimes the narrative is obvious: All black, choker, rings & piercings, combat boots in the summertime, tells observers what kind of books she reads, music she listens to, what she does on Saturday nights. Answer: the same thing all the other kids in that get-up are reading, listening to and doing. And sometimes it's less obvious. But this is still the mask/face distinction- our attempt at projecting consistency and coherence where there necessarily is none. (And I don't disparage this. I think the pursuit of internal consistency is probably an essential one for any thoughtful person... despite its guaranteed futility!)

A Confession. Much to my chagrin and continued amazement, clothing is extremely important to me. Being comfortable in my clothes is something I rely on heavily. I've lived in different cities and different countries over the last several years, and every time I'm in a new place there is the now-familiar phase of feeling horribly out of style, and as a result, kind of lame, and kind of ugly. When I lived in Italy as a young, vibrant 20-year old au pair- having never been out of Virginia in any meaningful way- I was paralyzed. In my confusion I bought a pair of Capri pants, and let people think I was German (whom they expected to be badly dressed, and, well, ugly). I've gotten much better at dealing with this over the years, but it nevertheless persists. Because clothing IS language. It's different in different places. And what means one thing in Charlottesville, means a very different thing in Italy: brutta forma.

Author:  nathanieldavis [ Thu Jun 05, 2008 6:35 am ]
Post subject:  Re: On Clothing, Fashion, and Meaning.

Sorry, this post doesn't particularly reply to any points already made, and it doesn't have much of a logical form.. instead this is copied directly from what I typed down into a TextEdit document on the bus from New York to Providence a few days ago. I began thinking about the "Clothing Issue" and quickly discovered it to be a complex, multi-faceted, and confused/confusing topic. So this is my effort to suss out a few separate approaches to the various issues at stake. Perhaps this can be used to fire up some ideas for the PRG meeting on the 9th. I'll be there.. we'll report back in enlightened detail afterwards.

+to display what kind of person you are, how you wish to be grouped amid others..
+or, more simply, as in uniforms.. the clothes of a policeman let one know they can ask a certain individual for certain services, those generally expected of a policeman. If a teenager wears a t-shirt of a certain band, or a certain bracelet or accesorry designating him or her as a certain 'type,' ...

shame.. shame of body, desire to inhabit new skin.. new, cultural skin.
Shamelessness-- jeans + sneakers. Formality (as in formal wear) represents a certain shame.. shame at the dirty, animal nature of humanity.. intricate,uncomfortable clothing as the height of civilization.
I must atone for my beastly nature with these clothes.. normal, social custom
formal wear showing a certain respect to others-- I am willing to go through the trouble of wearing this intricate and uncomfortable clothing in order to appear acceptable to you.
the arrogance? of a college student attending lecture in slippers and bathrobe...
Formal wear designates a certain atmosphere, wherein important things can occur.
Comfrot vs. Discomfort as moral question--

-creation of desire/importance of human body by being hidden..
-sexual appeal
not aiming for beauty, rather attempting to elicit of desiring response in another.
clothes for maximizing body's power over others.
Clothes determined by what others want to see.. not expressive.--"woman is symptom of man"-- Women's fashion determined by man's desire. Man's fashion however not so simple.. also determined by man's desire.. esteem of peers.

-difference between beauties
Nature, artwork, building, piece of clothing
Beauty designed to inspire awe, beauty designed to inspire desire.

---Flaw in anti-fashion arguments.. fashion, in some sense, simply aspires to create beauty, like every great artist. This aspect of fashion cannot really be criticized... and therein lies the foundations of its defense.. allowing it to perpetrate horrendous cultural crimes.. since they are for the noble cause of beauty.

--two types
One is similiar to the connoisseur, the collector.. an aesthetic appreciation of well-made, well-fit clothing. appreciating the form and the craftmanship as well as the appearance.. the other type, less sincere, maybe-- simply keeping abreast of current trends.
Classicist Dandys vs. Coxcombs of the New

exhibitionist urge.. to show to the public something private,
but something immediately graspable

those who choose to wear outlandish clothes.. Radical, because setting oneself apart from normal culture.. questioning basic everyday customs..
But conservative because it only goes that far.. radically questions something unimportant. stops there.
Also conservative because based on vanity. --"look at me!" not just vanity, but attention. give me your attention.. goes back to childhood. really a base and crude way of garnering attention. better to get attention for a subtle or insightful creation.
Transgression-- reasserting the Law of Fashion by breaking it. The transgression, like every transgression, obtains its power only from the existence of such a strong cultural rule.
--Better not to put so much importance on unimportant things. Harmful to make such a big deal about clothing, although it is of course fun and funny.

Wrapped Present---
cltohing presents body as gift to others.. gift-wrapped body.. unwrap to receive the present inside.

Author:  D. Wyche [ Thu Jun 12, 2008 8:15 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: On Clothing, Fashion, and Meaning.

This was such a fertile topic it's hard to go back and hit on all the points and take up all the threads that are worth following.

Just a quick note then, on what Nate says above:
those who choose to wear outlandish clothes.. Radical, because setting oneself apart from normal culture.. questioning basic everyday customs..
But conservative because it only goes that far.. radically questions something unimportant. stops there.

This came up during the discussion a few times, and I want to revisit it. I don't know that what is being questioned when one dresses a certain way (whether outlandish or simply differently) is really as unimportant as is being assumed. My first question would be to ask how it is unimportant, but I think a few things should be pointed out.

We didn't get as in depth as perhaps we should have on the relationship between clothing and identity. Clearly this relationship is strong--doubly so given the unavoidably functional role of clothing, which was brought up many times--and I am going to assume that we would all agree that identity issues are extremely important on all the important fronts: aesthetics, ethics, politics, personal and social wellbeing, etc.

If we look simply at the relationship of appearance and identity in general, and substitute clothing for, say, physical charactaristics like skin color or the like, one would be hard-pressed to say that these things are unimportant. Arguably they should be unimportant, but the blood-and-guts truth is that they remain so. I would also qualify that I am hesitant to say that physical appearance should be unimportant, as identity with a group--whether social or ethnic--can in fact be a positive thing (when it doesn't involved doing violence to members of other groups).

So the interplay of self and group (or selves and groups, more accurately) is in fact a fundamental part of not only our culture, but of cultures everywhere. It defines not just our politics but everyone's politics. If it didn't, this election, for example, would be like any other. It seems to me that clothing, as a marker of identity (or identities and functions) bears a striking resemblance in this way to things like ethnic background, gender and so on. Obviously, there is a sliding scale here, as certain fashion-acts may be more potent in the established visual language of our culture than others, but the point remains that identity is a very fundamental issue for us, whether we acknowledge it or not, and that clothing can and does play a role in identity. As such, putting oneself out there by dressing a certain way or ways can one some level be compared to other acts of challenging given ideas about identity.

I think it is also important to hold to the notion that play is integral to human existance, on whatever scale. And play is often (for all mammals, actually) practice for other, bigger things. Now I don't beleive that things have to be big to be important, but especially when it comes to teenagers (less so for crazies, in this case) can it not be said that dressing outlandishly is in a lot of ways practice for other sorts of rebellion later in life? The issue of time is important here--can we all be expected to come out radicals without any lead up? Or are things like dress and whatever else part of an ongoing process of change that can potentially bring us to other things?

So, two points: 1) fashion-play may be indicative of a growth-process, or of things to come, and/or 2) given the importance of identity politics in general, I would hesitate to dismiss any type of public, visual and personal questioning of cultural norms as unimportant or a dead-end. At very least, this should be taken on a case-by-case basis.

Author:  brandonj [ Thu Jun 12, 2008 9:10 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: On Clothing, Fashion, and Meaning.

I thought the Clothing PRG was pretty comprehensive, considering the time. I'll try to restate some of my assertions here.

Initially, the thread began on Barthes' premise of clothing-as-language, and this emerged several times in the discussion. For instance, in reference to the conventions that give a vesteme coherence and semantic meaning versus the poesis of the imaginative dresser or designer that creates something new from this language. This is the same distinction that Saussure drew up about language itself, between the langue (the system that regulates meaning) and parole(the actual utterance that itself transforms the system of langue). Barthes extends this distinction to clothing in the Language of Fashion, and we brought it to the table as far as the poesis of imaginative or purposive wearers, whom I described as my little heroes. I did not think that the formalisms of langue was something that could be threatened by individualistic parole in dress, any more than poetic utterances threaten casual everyday discourse. Or if it could threaten, it was only giving us a much-needed wiggle-room between dress and personality. A caveat that might defer absolute decisions about us on bad hair days.

The identity hyperpolitics of clothing that we encounter in high school— hyperpolitics that we usually later dismiss or subtly discourage— I think follow from the very right-headed realization of the self-creation of identity, meaning, convention, and all other imaginaries. That is, high-schoolers are engaged in the project of autonomy, in the sense sketched by Castoriadis. He described autonomy (societal and individual) as the realization that all our imaginaries (customs, beliefs, modes of living, institutions) are self-created. This is opposed to heteronomy, in which we believe that these imaginaries come from something beyond ourselves, like God, natural law, right or reason. High-schoolers coming into their own are many times coming from very heteronomous circles and belief-systems, such as the strictures of parents or cut-throat junior-high school dictates. And so the "mobs-versus-greasers" hyperpolitics of that period, however seemingly silly, follows from shift from heteronomy toward autonomy. Not that they are necessarily profoundly autonomous, transvaluating, world-shakers: maybe they are merely aping their musical or cultural heroes, but I doubt they think juggalos are a natural type.

I do not think that this is transgression-for-transgression's sake; a pointless middle-finger. Many times it is a heartfelt romanticist revolt against heteronomous phrasing of How Things Are. We still live, philosophically, in a heteronomous society, in most any aspect— even one as ostensibly trivial as clothing. So the wisdom— however trite— has yet to be absorbed at large. Of course, we do not have to take seriously the subtext that these kids are the threatening Western Civilization by dying their hair or clothing themselves in non-clothing. Nevertheless, we can enjoy the aesthetic and ethical play of selfhood, especially since, all store-bought identities aside, there is a lot of poesis going on in highschool; self-made clothing, novel adaptations, and so on. Later adulthood just grows tired of the game a little, and moves so to speak, form the aesthetic to the ethical. And to be fair, thick-headed adults are the ones that lend the most credence to these actions as being transgressive.

I disagree with Nate on the importance of Shame, though probably only semantically, especially when it comes to "Shame for the animal body," the shame lingering over from the Original Sin. The heroic maneuver, in this case, is introspectively burning out Shame, and consciously replacing it with Humility, or Deference. For instance, my distaste for uninterestingly blunt nudity is not because we should be ashamed of the body, but that it prevents or preempts the playful "veiling and unveiling" that creates desire or fixation for parts of the human body, or discharges the humor reserved for streaking and inappropriate glimpses of the human form. That is, I enjoy the charge of nudity. Shame indicates the pathological (and maybe also open guilt for the misdeed), and this is different from the discreet construction of the private.

As far as deference— and acknowledgment of the presence of others— well-wrought and clever ornament, in any idiom, would be better to me than homogenous formalities. As an example, taken according to each idiom, we might say "okay, this young fellow seems to be high Carnaby Street punk. Considering this, how much effort has he put into his self-presentation?" Or, as I said in the discussion, Easter Best fashions in black churches. These are not, in most senses, strictly formal— they leave for exaggeration, and mile-high and floral hats, Joker-inspired mens-wear, but still express deference for the occasion and the presence of others, including God Himself. This is a good model; a better model than the men's suit which primarily has only one criterion: price. Women have more wiggle room, more room for aesthetic self-presentation. Room for "intricate, uncomfortable clothing" in whatever idiom, that can be used for high ceremony.
As far as true importance— as opposed to the false weight given to most ceremony— I think the mode of dressing down is better, actually. Proverbially rolling up your sleeves. Scientists and thinkers with their shirts— conveying the message that "vanities have been set aside, a real task has begun."

I really like Jacob's quotation from Simmel about clothing as "a synthesis of being and having." This expresses a real kernel in the idea of clothing; that we cannot escape the impact of clothes on being, as we might other possessed objects. They sit too close to us, to the body.

Author:  brandonj [ Fri Jun 13, 2008 10:43 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: On Clothing, Fashion, and Meaning.

I'm very intrigued by the relation between clothing and sexuality— especially with clothing as a tool for desire-creation. Dan spoke of the "unveiling" as the true zenith of the Greek sexual arc. And this rings very true for me— as far as the veiling-and-unveiling tension creates a healthy fixation with certain female body parts— necks, legs, breasts, and so on. A traditional view of desire is that these body parts are just "sexual objects," that is, they naturally pull the desirer to them. Though there is some natural pull involved, wired into our instincts, it is a different case on a daily basis and for specific individuals and encounters. The object of desire is created by the play, the back-and-forth, and the surrounding structure- what would normally be considered the means to the desire.

Even the body itself can be this object-excuse, and be rendered irrelevant by this addition to the body, clothing. As with the fetishization of clothing— shoes, uniforms, et cetera. In an interview with Tom of Finland, the famous illustrator of homoerotic, full-to-bursting "beefcakes" drawings and paintings of lumberjacks, bikers, policemen, I came across this telling quotation:
"Sometimes the attraction to the uniform is so powerful in me that I feel as though I am making love to the clothes, and the man inside them is just a convenience to hold them up and fill them out— sort of an animated display rack."

True, this is certainly a more masculine take on clothing, but I think women will just as easily recognize the dynamic. The construction of the wanted, the hidden, the object— as Nate mentioned, like a Christmas gift under the tree, whose energy disperses after unwrapping. It is the secretiveness rather than the secret.

Clothes make the body; rather than just making it look better. This extends as well to "types" defined by clothing— the desire for a glamorous lady, a sophisticate, a rebel, a real man— in that, whether or not the person is that persona will be beside the point in the creation of desire. Well, if not beside the point, inessential.

Author:  K-Fai Steele [ Mon Jun 16, 2008 10:28 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: On Clothing, Fashion, and Meaning.

where is the link to the fashion blog?

Author:  brandonj [ Tue Jun 17, 2008 8:15 am ]
Post subject:  Re: On Clothing, Fashion, and Meaning.

Leslie and Brandon's fashion blog New Ideas in Fashion, can be found here:

Through the blog, we wanted to work out and expand on the particulars of fashion-ideas, of anti and meta-fashion ideas.
Of course, there is a large probability that people will think we are poking fun or being exploitative, but hopefully our sincerity will come through.

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