Exploring Boundaries: Fashion, Adornment and the Body


DEBATE the view that dress and other forms of adornment communicate in the same way as language…

1. Introduction

This essay is an attempt to look at the commonalities that exist between language and apparel and to investigate the manner in which they may communicate. A Collins Dictionary reveals the follow meaning of the words language and dress.

“Language” – a system of spoken sounds or conventional sounds for communicating thought.

“Dress” – complete style of clothing, to put on clothes

2. The parallels between language and apparel

Before attempting a more detailed examination of theories relating to parallels between language and clothing it is useful to examine basic principals and reactions to the assertion.

Broad Types

Broadly speaking there are a number of different types of what we may term ‘language’ ranging from scientific, symbolic, to artistic. A more clinical form of language is found in the computer, military, legal and governmental fields as well as science. These types of language are for precise and exact communication much in the same way as an officers uniform is an immediate communication of their job and status within society.

In a geographic sense there exist different languages formed from different environments. Different cultures speak differently and dress differently – lots of layers communicate the concept of cold.

Language as something that is performed (to at least a recipeient of one) has it’s analogous counterpart with the ‘display’ element involved within the wearing of clothes in public.

The manner in which we interact and communicate is greatly augmented by ‘how’ we say things and ‘how’ we wear things. Sarcasm, irony, vulgarity and innuendo can add animation to both conversation and apparel. Wild gesticulation and outrageous clothing coherenlty communicate the underlying concept of passion – the same effect of communication but a differening method.

Sound and colour are an extra dimension of communication for language and clothing. A low pensive bass voice can change the perception of what is said. The act of wearing a red suit can change how you are perceived and subsequently communicated to. How language is ‘presented’ and how people are ‘presented’ have an overall effect on meaning.

Consider the example of an army general who finds the clipped and short tones of his delivery augmented well by the crisp, clinically hewn suit with Morse code-like bursts of colour on the lapel. The first impression of the military uniform is one that elicits subordinancy and so too when a commanding clipped tone is used on people. The uniform and the delivery of language act effectively together to increase the overall impact of what is being said. What both the uniform and the language are saying is “I’m in charge”.

Semantics and the Meaning of Clothing

Fred Davis, “Fashion Culture and Identity”, recognised the complexity of comparing clothing and language

“Highly differentiated dependent on the audience – social and cultural education Correspondence with language is metaphoric at best”.

Meaning in clothing is like “the Theatre without words” (Fred Davis) – a blend of old and new, weathered clothes, clothes hung loosely over a dilapidated shoulder, a hand smothered with gold bracelets and rings, painted bodies and wigs. Clothing is very evocative but what it is evoking is hard to pin down. The “Voiceless play” promotes interpretations and conclusions are formed without knowing how we derive them. It is an almost altruistic process and seemingly a long way from a science.

Already we take basic symbolic types of clothes to ‘mean’ certain things. It is a fine line between stereotype and truism. Consider the following list:

· Angularity is masculine

· Curves are feminine

· Dark is for formal & serious,

· Light hues suit leisure

· Bindings, stays and corsets indicate repression

· “Red Dress” – A woman who wants to be lusted after.

· “Dandyism” – an air of arrogance and money.

White gloves can either mean Royal Sophistication or Michael Jackson depending on cultural background and age and therein lays the complexity of describing clothing as a language.

The language of fashion is enunciated as a series of utterances in which meaning is established through both the syntagmatic, or spatially linear relationships between one word and another, and their paradigmatic, or oppositional values”Roland Barthes.

Body adornment is like the embellishment of words from their basic meanings into more lavish concepts. Adornments and decorations are designed to increase the beauty of what is conveyed. Clothing, if it is a language, is a virtual language with it’s own syntax and vocabulary. This syntax and vocabulary does not necessarily have a simple mapping to the component parts of our “clothes language” although there are a number of common themes.

A concept of dress code and protocol has comparisons with the concept of a code of language. These are a set of rules regarding the style of dress acceptable in an office or restaurant aswell as a set of rules on how one should speak when within the office or the restaurant. Language and apparel can both be subject to operating within certain parameters due to some social or moral constraint. These environments however can quite successfully be manipulated to further extract context and meaning. The parallel between dressing in expensive clothes and talking roughly has its opposite companion in the idea of someone wearing cheap clothes and talking eloquently.

Almost Scientific comparisons

Time periods and cycles

One area where language and clothing seem to differ is in their relationship with time. Speech messages occur over time whereas clothing is a singular statement or message at a single moment in time. This statement, for the most part, does not change until the wearer changes clothes or the context around the person wearing the clothes changes.

A further difference is that clothing holds is meaning/expression over the duration of an encounter whereas the remembrance of an earlier conversation may fade. While clothing may dictate an air of something it is not dynamic and responsive in the same way as an evolving verbal conversation

The science of semiology developed primarily from the work of the linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure. Roland Batrthez was the other main contributor to this science.

The premise and basis for their work in this field was that the nature of language and structures was a model, which could be applied to a wide range of cultural signifying systems. From literature and drama more esoterically – fashion.

“The concept of culture as a constructed system”.

Roland Barthes

Presentation, in terms of dress, for things such as courting rites and marking of rites of passage find their counterparts in the visual and personal world of clothing.

Judith Williamson in her book decoding advertisements stated :

” a sign is quite simply a thing, whether object word or picture which has a particular meaning to a person or a group of people. It is neither the thing nor the meaning alone but the two together.

The signifier and the signified are part of one and the same system meaning that existence of these dynamics provided almost empirical evidence that the ‘system’ existed.

Barthes expounds a logic that ascribes purity to articles and subsequently gives him a baseline on which to differentiate both degree of measurement and context. It is by using an algebraic notation that Barthes attempts to ascribe fixed notions to the parameters that define communication.

i.e. the OVS matrix (where O=object, V=variant, S=support) would allow descriptions of clothing to be parametrised so that the “O” indicted a blouse, the “V” indicated large and the “S” a collar. Combinations of these types of equations would lead to algebraic ‘proofs’ and ‘derivatives’ which he sometimes equated to “unuttered garments”. This method was further applied to genres of magazines and subsequent psychological traits of readerships.

Clothing styles and the fashions that influence them over time constitute something like a code. Cryptography (the art of writing in and deciphering codes) is also different again from the language rules of speech and writing. Compared to these clothing codes are of ‘low semanticity’ and it is prudent to remember that:

“There is certainly something to the idea that we say things with what we choose to wear though we must not press too hard to find a set of rules encoded in every choice”


Beat Writer, William Burroughs, was a more left field exponent of the scientific theory of language. He saw language as a biological self-replicating entity that blended, merged and assimilated cultural references, contexts, places, ideas and people. Clothing is similar to a degree – when there is a fashion craze it spreads like the flu.

A well-known quote from Burroughs proclaims “Language is a Virus” and there appears to be great truth in the fact. Language was kick-started by the continual refining of caveman grunts to the point at which it is today – an elegant combination of grammatical rigour with emotional freedom.

In comparing clothing fashion to language we indirectly have it’s comparison with the idea of a ‘virus’ within the context of Burrough’s like thinking.

The characteristics of a virus is that it’s genesis can be from something small which can then rapidly take over an area by propagating itself i.e. the miniskirt craze was viral in its uptake.

Burroughs repeatedly blurred the boundaries between disciplines by simply stating that “things propagate themselves” and that to consider things on a more organic biological level would offer up insights into commonality between clothing and language.

He also engaged himself in tape loop experiments which he called “cut-ups”. The idea of reusing material from the past i.e. recorded sound and then cutting it up and mixing it with sound from the present, is also analogous to the cyclic nature of fashion. Fashion aswell as words can have new meaning breathed into them when referencing something from the past, almost a cultural sampling.

Clothing is context dependent in same way language is. What some combination or clothes emphasises or means will depend on the wearer, the company, the mood and the location. A punk in a tea party evokes a different kind of communication than they would surrounded and dissipated into other punks.

3. Conclusion

“the same person is simultaneously a mass of atoms, a physiology, a mind, an object with a shape that can be painted, a cog in the economic machine, a voter, a lover, …”.

Aldous Huxley

A rich lexicon of communication is required to sustain such disparate ‘realities’. Language and clothing are part of a wider sense of communication. The complexity of existence is reflected in the multiplicity of ways in which we display ourselves and how we communicate with each other.

Both language and clothing are highly context dependent, semantically different over time as well as being an externalisation of our internal ego and sense of self.

Fred Davis was quoted as saying that :

“Correspondance with language is metaphoric at best”

However on reflection it is the concept of metaphors that links most languages irrespective of whether they are textual, visual, painted or worn on the body. Metaphors exist in some form at the root of all descriptions and languages and provide a strong link between what we “say” and what we “show”.

4. Bibliography

· Roland Barthes, ‘The Fashion System in Perspective’ – photocopied article.

· William Burroughs, El Hombre Invisibile, Barry Miles, Virgin Press, 1992

· Brewster/Buscome/Hanet/Heath/Kristerva/Kuntzel/Metz and Willemen, Cinema and Semiotics, The Society for Education in Film – 1971

· Stella Bruzi & Pamela Church Gibson, Fashion Cultures: Theories, Explorations and Analysis

· Harper Collins, Collins New English Dictionary, 1997

· Fred Davis, Fashion, Culture and Identity (The University of Chicago Press. Chicago 1992).

· Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, Flamingo Press, 1959

· David Muggleton, Inside Subculture, The Postmodern Meaning of Style, Published by Berg 2000

· Alison Lurie. The Language of Clothes (London 1981)

· Steven Watson, The Birth of the Beat Generation, Pantheon Books 1995