IN AN INTERVIEW conducted in 1967, Barthes commented that The Fashion System arose after he discovered, or "thought I had discovered," the possibility of an immanent analysis of sign systems other than language (The Grain of the Voice: Interviews, 1962๑1980, transl. Linda Coverdale [Berkeley:  U of California P, 1985], 43). Barthes writes with a double purpose: to explicate the fashion system, and to refine an extra-linguistic system of analysis as such. 

Units of analysis

The first step is the clear delineation of the object of study. Barthes notes that, within fashion magazines, there is always image, accompanied by text:  there is always image-clothing, accompanied by the written- garment (3). Each of these exists in relation to what Barthes calls "real clothing" (4). 
    Each of these objects is known through a different fashion. In the case of real clothing, it must be known not by sight, for its visual image does not reveal all its intricacies. It must be known through the mechanical process of its production: the seams, the pleats, as they are manufactured. Image-clothing is manifest through iconic structures; written-garment is manifest in verbal structures (5๑6). 
    Barthes makes the verbal structures of the written-garment the object of his study. He does not deny that real clothing also works within a sign system, but in the end it is neither richer nor more interesting than the highway code (Grain of the Voice, 64). Barthes selects the verbal structures because he wishes to examine the supercode which words impose on the real garment (9). Much more than the photographic image ever might, Barthes feels that "language conveys a choice and imposes it, it requires the perception of this dress to stop here (i.e., neither before nor beyond), it arrests the level of reading at its fabric, at its belt, at the accessory which adorns it. . . .  The image freezes an endless number of possibilities, words determine a single certainty" (13). 
    These passages echo Barthes's position in "The Photographic Message," where he outlines the ways that text creates connotation in photographic images. The written-garment freezes interpretation of the image-clothing through a number of strategies: it can endow the garment with a system of functional oppositions (14); it isolates portions of the garment through what Barthes calls "amputations" (15). 

Levels of analysis

Having isolated the units of his analysis, Barthes then proceeds to define the possible levels of his analysis: 
  • the real, or vestimentary code (analyzing the relationship between the real garment and Fashion) 
  • the written vestimentary code (in which propositions express the relastionship between the garment and Fashion๓the written garment)
  • the rhetorical code (in which a metalanguage and connotative system describing the relationship between the written garment and Fashion is developed)

Aims of analysis

In any case, Barthes is finally interested in the way that these sign systems produce not clothing, not women, but the abstract notion of Fashion. Barthes's fascination with Fashion as an independent, autonomous system followed him for a decade after completion of The Fashion System. In "Erte, or À la lettre" (1973), he notes that fashion is an inscription, resulting from a technique and normalized by a code (105). The Fashion System is Barthes's first attempt to analyze the relationship between images and text in the production of Fashion; it is by no means his last. (David Beard.)

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Michael Hancher

Department of English, University of Minnesota

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Created 24 December 1997