Thursday, July 30, 2009

"Written Clothing", by Roland Barthes, 1967.

A leather belt, with a rose stuck in it, worn above the waist, on a soft shetland dress.


1.1 Image-Clothing and Written Clothing

I open a fashion magazine; I see that two different garments are being dealt with here. The first is the one presented to me as photographed or drawn--it is image-clothing. The second is the same garment, but described, transformed into language; this dress, photographed on the right, becomes on the left: a leather belt, with a rose stuck in it, worn above the waist, on a soft shetland dress; this is a written garment. In principle these two garments refer to the same reality (this dress worn on this day by this woman), and yet they do not have the same structure, because they are not made of the same substances and because, consequently, these substances do not have the same relations with each other: in one the substances are forms, lines, surfaces, colors, and the relation is spatial; in the other, the substance is words, and the relation is, if not logical, at least syntactic; the first structure is plastic, the second verbal. Is this to say that each of these structures is indistinguishable from the general system from which it derives--image-clothing from photography, written clothing from language? Not at all: the Fashion photograph is not just any photograph, it bears little relation to the news photograph or to the snapshot , for example; it has its own units and rules; within photographic communication, it forms a specific language which no doubt has its own lexicon and syntax, its own banned or approved "turns of phrase". Similarly, the structure of written clothing cannot be identified with the structure of a sentence; for if clothing coincided with discourse, changing a term in the discourse would suffice to alter, at the same time, the identity of the described clothing; but this is not the case; a magazine can state: "Wear shantung in the summer" as easily as "Shantung goes with summer", without fundamentally affecting the information transmitted to its readership. Written clothing is carried by language, but also resists it, and is created by this interplay. So we are dealing with two original structures, albeit derived from more general systems, in the one case language, in the other the image.

1.2 Real Clothing
At the least we might suppose that these two garments recover a single identity at the level of the real garment they are supposed to represent, that the described dress and the photographed dress are united in the actual dress they both refer to. Equivalent, no doubt, but not identical; for just as between image-clothing and written clothing there is a difference in substances and relations, and thus a difference of structure, in the same way, from these two garments to the real one there is a transition to other substances and other relations; thus, the real garment forms a third structure, different from the first two, even if it serves them as a model...
We have seen that the units of image-clothing are located at the level of forms , those of written clothing at the level of words; as for the units of real clothing, they cannot exist at the level of language, for, as we know, language is not a tracing of reality; nor can we locate them, although here the temptation is great, at the level of forms, for "seeing" a real garment, even under privileged conditions of presentation, cannot exhaust its reality, still less its structure; we never see more than part of a garment, a personal and circumstantial usage, a particular way of wearing it; in order to analyze the real garment in systematic terms, i.e., in terms sufficiently formal to account for all analogous garments, we should no doubt have to work our way back to the actions which governed its manufacture. In other words, given the plastic structure of image-clothing and the verbal structure of written clothing, the structure of real clothing can only be technological. The units of this structure can only be the various traces of the actions of manufacture, their materialized and accomplished goals: a seam is what has been sewn, the cut of a coat is what has been cut; there is then a structure which is constituted at the level of substance and its transformations, not of its representations or significations; and here ethnology might provide relatively simple structural models.


1.3 Translation of Structures
There are, then, for any particular object (a dress, a tailored suit, a belt) three different structures, one technological, another iconic, the third verbal. These three structures do not have the same circulation pattern. The technological structure appears as a mother tongue of which the real garments derived from it are only instances of "speech". The two other structures (iconic and verbal) are also languages, "translated" from the mother tongue; they intervene as circulation relays between this mother tongue and its instances of "speech" (the real garments). In our society, the circulation of Fashion thus relies in large part on an activity of transformation: there is a transition (at least according to the order invoked by Fashion magazines) from the technological structure to the iconic and verbal structures. Yet this transition, as in all structures, can only be discontinuous: the real garment can only be transformed into "representation" by means of certain operators which we might call shifters, since they serve to transpose one structure into another, to pass, if you will, from one code to another code.

1.4 The Three Shifters

Since we are dealing with three structures, we must have three kinds of shifters at our disposal: from the real to the image, from the real to language, and from the image to language. For the first translation, from the technological garment to the iconic garment, the principal shifter is the sewing pattern, whose (schematic) design analytically reproduces the stages of the garment's manufacture; to which should be added the processes, graphic or photographic, intended to reveal the technical substratum of a look or an "effect": accentuation of a movement, enlargement of a detail, angle of vision. For the second translation, from the technological garment to the written garment, the basic shifter is what might be called the sewing program or formula: it is generally a text quite apart from the literature of Fashion; its goal is to outline not what is but what is going to be done; the sewing program, moreover, is not given in the same kind of writing as the Fashion commentary; it contains almost no nouns or adjectives, but mostly verbs and measurements. As a shifter, it constitutes a transitional language, situated midway between the making of the garment and its being, between its origin and its form, its technology and its signification. We might be tempted to include within this basic shifter all Fashion terms of clearly technological origin (a seam, a cut), and to consider them as so many translators from the real to the spoken; but this would ignore the fact that the value of a word is not found in its origin but in its place in the language system; once these terms pass into a descriptive structure, they are simultaneously detached from their origin (what has been, at some point, sewn, cut) and their goal (to contribute to an assemblage, to stand out in an ensemble); in them the creative act is not perceptible, they no longer belong to the technological structure and we cannot consider them as shifters. There remains a third translation, one which allows the transition from the iconic structure to the spoken structure, from the representation of the garment to its description.
Since Fashion magazines take advantage of the ability to deliver simultaneously messages derived from these two structures--here a dress photographed, there the same dress described--they can take a notable shortcut by using elliptical shifters: these are no longer pattern drawings or the texts of the sewing pattern, but simply the anaphorics of language, given either at the maximum degree ("this" tailored suit, "the" shetland dress) or at degree zero ("a rose stuck into a belt"). Thus, by the very fact that the three structures have well-defined translation-operators at their disposal, they remain perfectly distinct.

(extracted from The Fashion Reader, pgs. 87-89).

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