Fashion is best understood when it is compared to a language and language is both the medium by which concepts are created and conveyed, and also the means by which messages are articulated. This means that fashion, like language, has two aspects: the symbolic and the semiotic. The symbolic aspect represents the normative reserve of ‘forms’, already existing, by which a people ‘speak’ and are ‘understood’ in the everyday. The semiotic aspect lies in how people creatively modify or even subvert the symbols to create new signs with regenerated meanings. This creative play of existing forms allows for individualistic expression revolving around changing notions of the self in relation to the world. In terms of fashion, ‘dress’ represents the normative reserve (the language) already in use and clearly recognized and understood by all members of a society and ‘dressing up’ is the stylistic expression of the individual/s. It is in this desire to ‘dress up’ that a need for direction and expertise from fashion designers arises. A fashion designer becomes the interpreter of the zeitgeist that inspirits the people of a particular society and culture. The work of the fashion designer must be to translate the social experience of the people in an aesthetic, deeply satisfying way. This requires the designer to be well-versed in the ‘language’ of style and ultimately be a poet in the expression of her ideas.
Unfortunately, the characteristics normally associated with fashion like “expressive”, “experimental”, “art”, “avant garde”, have been misconstrued as its ‘message’. The young, inexperienced designer misunderstands what her real work ought to be and directs all her efforts in creatively communicating what she thinks is ‘the message’ of fashion. The result is that we often see fashion- especially when designed by student fashion designers- undoubtedly great to look at, but flat and unidimensional, and lacking in an understanding of its semiotic potential; much like beautifully writing the alphabet, but aimlessly grouping it together in words and phrases that lack syntax, relevance and meaning. This is the problem with the symbolic. On its own, it is fixed, enclosed, limited in its meaning and it comes to us from the outside, from society or from hegemonic ideas. The semiotic, on the other hand, gets shaped from the individual’s inner drive and impulses. Without, the normative reserve of symbols, the semiotic would have no medium to convey its signifieds. It’s only when the two work together that ‘the thing spoken of’, becomes meaningful. Converting the symbolic into a sign, driven by inspiration and a deep understanding of the forms and their historical power to communicate, is the skill, talent and genius of a great fashion designer.
Fashion as a symbol is meaningless. It remains a thing of mere vanity and is reduced to a spectacle, with its only and truest claim being that it can entertain people. When it begins to do that, it becomes a ‘medium of entertainment’. But fashion is a compromise, when it is restricted to being just a medium, or just the message. It indicates that the fashion designer hasn’t yet grown to a deeper understanding of what his/ her real work ought to be. Clothes are the medium, ‘fashioning’ is the design and the method, and a whole new attitude, or refined elegance- will inevitably be the message. This method, that crafts an abstraction of social experience into a tangible material form, this ability to fashion…that is the holy grail of the designer. It is for the discovery of ‘the method’ that s/he seeks an education. It is ‘the voice’ and the ‘idiom of expression’ that is his/ her lifelong pursuit.
Image Source: InStyle