Visual Semiotics and Fashion
At a first glance, any discourse on the relation between visual semiotics and fashion constitutes a sort of epistemological challenge to the history of 20th century semiotics, in particular to what is presumed to be Barthes’ project of a “Fashion System” conceived of as a reduction of the garment to the word, as a demonstration of the primacy of linguistics over semiology, of the verbal over the non-verbal. Nearby half a century after Barthes’ pioneering work, semiotics can now acknowledge that it is possible to go beyond “described” fashion exactly in the light of Barthes’ lesson.

Just as fashion is nor merely word, neither it is merely visual, even though its hold on the world comes about mainly within a visual dimension. A dimension that pertains to both a semiotics of the style, form and material of fashion garments and to fashion’s function as a mediator between taste and common sense, a mediation which is filtered through a special kind of relation between the sign and sensorial experience.
This paper is concerned with the latter. The «clothed body» (Calefato 1986) is a semiotic category epitomizing the ways in which, through its visual aspect, the subject establishes its being in the world and its appearance style. Dressing in this sense is a non-verbal language: it is a device for modelling the world, a form of projection and simulation, valid for both the individual and society. As transformation along a given line of thought, the semiotics of the clothed body emphasises, in multifarious forms, the relation between signs and senses. Through clothing, the body seems to “feel” the surrounding world in both a complete and an amplified form. This world may be examined in the light of two semiotic perspectives: as a continuum, as amorphous material – «Hamlet’s cloud», Hjelmslev calls it – that language, both verbal and non-verbal, organises into meaning; or the world as a place where there is already a manifestation of the sensible which then becomes a manifestation or human sense. From both perspectives the relation between the “world” and these languages is presented in terms of Lévi-Strauss’ image of a bricolage. In anthropological terms, bricolage is the art of linking objects and signs which are seemingly devoid of a reciprocal connection, yet whose sequence, or collection, is presented as a homologous system with respect to the so-called natural world. This sense-producing art gives rise to what we might define as a network or correlations between different levels of signifying reality, each having its own sense qualities. The clothed body articulates what the world still doesn’t know, feel or possess, if we adopt the metaphor of Hamlet’s cloud. Or it can feel in a more exciting, tense and “hip” form – to use musical jargon – what the world already feels, if we adopt Greimas’ proposition of a world pervaded by aesthesia, by sensorial receptivity, which is above all synaesthesia, the senses ability to interact, combine with or even substitute one another.
In the context of the ritual function of dress in traditional societies, dressing, masquerading, tattooing, adorning, in other words “covering” the body, are activities regulated by a sort of socio-cultural syntax that we call “costume”. In the context of the social reproduction of modernity, and even more so in our age of mass reproduction, such a socio-cultural is fashion. Today fashion is a sign system that fully manifests itself as a system of mass communication, as daily dressing up, as a form of popular culture, as worldliness and “mass fashion” able to reinvent and reproduce itself constantly through interaction with other languages as well. Given this status, fashion is a system that governs and produces forms of perception and bodily sensation connected with the need for social approval. Today however, such social approval only partially concerns what was for Simmel the «reassuring» nature of fashion, adherence to which would not compromise the «territory of the individual spirit». Now that the sign system of fashion covers a myriad of aspects, including its ability to be mass-produced in series, the relation between fashion and sensorial experience has become more complex: the notion of “feeling” the world through fashion is now fundamental in understanding fashion's social dimension as well as its semiotic modes of production and communication.
The two above-mentioned theoretical approaches – one in which the various human languages make sense of a “mute” world, the other in which human languages appropriate sensible qualities intrinsic to the natural world – are really parallel and mutually implicit, even though “academically” seen as distinct and separate. If, indeed, there is a sense of the world in the language of fashion today this consists in “giving the word” to a sentient world, on the whole mute with regard to the unheard, the unexpected and the non-stereotyped. A world in which, as Baudelaire writes, merging with the crowd, the highest aspiration of his «painter of modern life», means recognising that the crowd is also a «human desert».

Vision and Writing
According to Lotman fashion introduces «the dynamic principle into seemingly inert spheres of the everyday» (Lotman 1993, p. 403). While traditional dress tends to maintain such spheres unchanged, fashion imbues them with qualities which are antithetical to the everyday, yet with which fashion itself is normally identified: all that is capricious, voluble, strange, arbitrary and unmotivated. In this sense fashion becomes part of the image of a “topsy-turvy” world: an image that reflects the constant tension between the tendency towards the stability of the everyday on the one hand and the impulse towards novelty and extravagance on the other. Fashion’s unexpected function of overturning received meaning is conveyed through its collocation within the dynamic storehouse of what Lotman calls the «sphere of the unpredictable» and what we could call along with Greimas the sphere of «imperfection». As a system of images, fashion is transmitted through series and stereotypes, filters in which sense, the senses, have become encrusted to the point of making the image itself an imperative sign. The problem is one of understanding to what extent the visual aspect of fashion is reproduced in that aestheticism Greimas has called a «simulacrum of existence» (Greimas 1988): that is to what extent do we perceive our body, its form, its “beauty”, through the “already seen” and the “already felt”, and in what measure does the image of fashion, or rather the not-just-visual complexity of fashion generate aesthesia as transformation of and rupture with the preceding order, as continual excess: aestheticism as social practice.
Not solemn, institutional, reassuring or élitist, but felt, lived, “beat out” within everyday contexts permeated by an aesthesic tension, fashion anticipates moments of transition and epitomizes transformations in taste. Even the relation between style and taste can be collocated within Lotman’s topsy-turvy image an image described by Bakhtin in terms of the semantic and carnivalesque inversion of the grotesque body, the true subject of fashion’s worldly orientation. The clothed body, the “travestied” body shifts between irony, harmony and dissonance; it becomes the focal point of an inverted aesthetic quest.
In this context, the concept of “body writing” exhibited in clothing assumes a fundamentally important role as a concept freed from its exclusive dependency on the verbal. Writing both as a non-sequential, non-alphabetical syntactical disposition, as a hypertextual syntax articulating the “collection” of the clothed body’s signs, and as sensuality connected to the individual and social gesture of dressing the body. Just as any other medium new or old, just as any other visual form, fashion is today imbued with social practices that the use of technical simulacra in stylistic creation, reproduction and execution have introduced into the production of discourses and identities. Thus on the contemporary scene, writing and simulacrum intersect, clash and coincide: the imagery of the clothed body is produced through intertextual strategies supported by various sign and communication systems, from photography, to specialized journalism, music, metropolitan culture, computer science, design, audiovisual systems and [last but not least] cinema. Today cinema in particular represents one of the most complete and multifarious universes of social imagery, and has a more relevant role in relation to fashion than photography because of its ability to empower human sensibility through the complexity of signs discourses and forms of perception that it involves. Fashion and cinema are sense-producing machines, two forms of the visible, two social discourses concerned with form, style and execution in terms of their materials, and with time, space and body in terms of their content, use and institutional “uniform”.
A film will be considered as significant unconventional manifestations of the relation vision/writing and of the simultaneous and synaesthesic sense-generating processes in both fashion and cinema. It is a film by Wim Wenders, Aufzeichnungen zu Kleidern und Städten (1989), a kind of poetic interview with fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, who speaks of the dual, synergetic generative processes of cinema and fashion, both at the heart of the metropolitan scene.

Image and Identity
Wenders’ film came out in 1989: the end of the 80s was the moment when the reproducible arts definitively substituted representation with simulation. The binary relation between the thing and the sign that represents, for example between the film-negative and the scene represented analogically, is substituted by the synthetic construction of the thing, its direct creation through the smallest impulses and units of digital information. The central question with which the film opens is thus a question about the relation between image and identity: «Identity… what is identity? To know where you belong? To know yourself worth? To know who you are? We are creating an image of ourselves, we are attempting to resemble this image. Is that what we call identity: the accord between the image we have created of ourselves and... ourselves?»
From the alternating eye of film and video camera [framing an angle of the transparent corridors of the Centre Pompidou dominating the Paris skyline, or the Grande Arche from Neuilly Cemetery] and with frequent recourse to a kind of montage somewhere between digital and analogical, so that Yamamoto’s face is often duplicated on a small video screen. Wenders embarks on an unexpected and unusual voyage through fashion as a contemporary form of popular culture. The director’s voice over makes an ingenuous remark at the beginning: «I’m interested in the world, not in fashion», says as a sort of self-defence against the film’s project on “Fashion and the City” commissioned by the Centre Pompidou. And yet, at least three projects are implicitly contained in this remark: that of the film, that of the city and that of fashion. Because fashion, the world and the metropolis have become one, whose emblem, metaphor and élan vital is the image, especially the electronic image, the video camera image Wenders considers more effective than his old Eyemo for filming the city, or rather bringing the city to life. Cinema is fashion, fashion is the city, the city is the world: «We live in the cities, the cities live in us. Time passes, we move from one city to another, we change languages, we change habits, we change opinions, we change clothes».
The film may also be interpreted as a Baudelairian and Benjaminian re-visitation of Paris, now a 21st century capital. World-city, fashion-city, city constructed out of an imagery that is both technological and nostalgic, the metropolis contains the present, including the past contained in the present, as in the lingering shots of old bridges over the Seine interspersed with images of Paris at the end of the Millennium. This city is also the sine qua non for the potential existence of every other metropolis, the confirmation of that planetary city – a bit of Paris, a bit of Tokio, of San Francisco, of Berlin – as it appears in Until the End of the World (1991).
Yamamoto and Wenders both love the confusion of the city; both feel that urban identity is now a question of image, of identity in the crowd. Metropolitan identity is «being for others», the sense of which, linked to fetishism in forms of bodily representation as perceived by Benjamin, both film director and fashion designer have completely and passionately embraced, as emerges from their dialogue. Artificers of two different creative processes, in their respective occupations both film director and fashion designer seek a coexistence between inventiveness and memory, as contrast even, as chiasmus between two extremes. While he is talking, Yamamoto leafs through a book of old portrait photographs by Auguste Sander: faces of men and women in their working gear, bodies whose social role is recognizable in their clothes, linked to a given task, to a temporal scansion of the day, and of life. The metropolis deprives the garment of its functional nature – theoretically close to pure, essential form – deprives bodies of their recognizable nature. While profoundly within metropolitan culture, and yet with the mature awareness of a distant memory, the designer unnostalgically focuses his energy on recovering this essence, this form.

The Pincushion
«To find the essence of a thing in the production process», Yamamoto’s remark reveals his commitment to finding a sensorial identity for form and body through the garment’s production and manufacture processes (including manual work). The film shows the designer “making” a dress to measure directly on a western model’s body.
As if he were writing on the woman’s body, the designer stands back to get a better look, then goes up to take measurements. As if he were writing on the woman’s body, the designer stands back to get a better look, then goes up to take measurements. On each wrist is tied a pincushion, which he uses throughout the “take”, constantly manipulating, cutting, tearing, folding and pinning the garment on the model. In a book of old photographs there is one of a Japanese woman in a kimono. As in some ancient dress ritual, in which the woman covers her body with the kimono, tying it at the waist with an obi, the fitting session is a way of discovering the pure gesture of dressing and of the garment as the essence, the absolute form of this gesture. Yamamoto does not want to be called a “Japanese designer”, part of a class, a group. And yet he is Japan within Europe and beyond; Japan as the «country of writing» (so Barthes defined it). Yamamoto’s garments are pure form, not because they are “formal”, but because, like the Japanese haiku, they are «a brief event that suddenly finds its exact form» (Barthes 1984, p. 88). Thus the colour he most prefers is black: black exhibits the body essentially as a silhouette, which Barthes again helps us to see as «sign and symbol, totem and message» (Barthes 1985, p. 114). His forms are rigorously asymmetrical: symmetry, says Yamamoto, «isn’t human». Nor are those pointed shoes with stiletto heels that western woman love to wear, but which the designer totally bans from his female outfits, using instead satin shoes which are flat, silent, essential. Symmetry is not human : the «touch», as Yamamoto calls it, comes first; it achieves a notion of the present as a tension that does not seek harmony, but imperfection, the detail that jars, that will not stay in place, and that thus enhances meaning. Yet, as we know, that is its place, in a different order. The gaze knows where to look; the eyes want to touch, to amplify the senses in that special form of creativity which is discovery, the process itself of creation in which one can «feel the sensible».
Looking at a photograph of Sartre by Cartier Bresson, the designer is struck by an apparently insignificant detail which actually distils meaning for him; a punctum, Barthes would call it: the coat collar. That collar tells him the overcoat was Sartre’s friend, in all its simplicity. For Yamamoto fashion, especially male fashion, seeks a simplicity similar to that of Sartre’s overcoat, a simplicity in which fabric and form communicate across two different languages.
Simplicity lies in the search for a creative process that tends to produce real, essential things: chairs, shirts, overcoats... The “real” garment, the simple things are concerned with life; consumerism is the exact opposite, says Yamamoto. The «sex appeal of merchandise», as Benjamin calls it, as exhibited by fashion finds its carnivalesque overturning in this designer’s project, since for Yamamoto fashion must in a certain sense ’take us home’, must help us rediscover a family friend. Fashion must substitute unheimlich (the unfamiliar) with heimlich (the familiar), following the perverse mechanism identified by Freud, on the basis of which the most familiar things become strange, disturb us, and vice-versa; today more than ever our “home” is part of this estrangement. The designer’s work consists in representing time: «you design time», says Yamamoto. His work, like the director’s, competes with wear-and-tear. Thus the joint project of cinema and fashion might be that of comprehending the maximum human tension towards the past within the present.

Hands, Name, Défilé
Wenders lingers over the designer’s and his assistants’ hands as they work on various fashion projects; hands at work replicated by the electronic eye in their unique and infinite movements, attitudes, hesitations. The hands are «workers», generating products and artefacts, their activity is an isotope of the eye’s “manipulation”. Yet again fashion and cinema are intrinsically linked in their enacting of synaesthesic generative processes. The director reveals such processes when, for example, he projects an image simultaneously onto two different screens, the traditional cinema screen and the digital video screen in miniature, another Japanese “prodigy”, both the dream of a Lilliputian shrinking of the world and the panoptics of that world. The film’s “writing” visibly assumes a hypertextual, alinear dimension: the video inside the screen opens like a window and recalls a kind of link in the narrated time chain.
The relation between manual art and writing, this time with the alphabet, is clearly evident in the filming of Yamamoto’s repeated attempts to write his signature for the signboard of his new Tokyo emporium. This continual rehearsal is carried out not with a copy, but with the real thing, the designer’s signature, the metonym between the designer’s body and his work.
The proper name, the trademark, the designer label are elements of a language that can tell stories, invent worlds, produce signs that surpass the universe of words. All the graphological components of writing are epitomized in the designer’s name, or rather in his signature. They fluctuate between the search for a correspondence between hand and signature, that is the search for an identity, and the transformation of the garment into a pure sign.
The project’s final moment, what the designer’s hands have worked towards, is the défilé. Not a finale conceived of as a temporal sequence, nor as the film’s “happy ending” in terms of a classical narrative procedure. Just as the film shows its technical approaches to work (for example, the director explaining how to use the film and video cameras) and is not proffered as final or definitive, but is continually reproposed, so the défilé of Yamamoto’s models in front of the Louvre Pyramid is presented and represented through all its rehearsals and preparations, even its “final draft” (used metaphorically as if it were a book) is seen obliquely through simultaneous visual “windows”.
The Wenders-Yamamoto défilé is not presented like those we normally see on tv, with their seek catwalks, fodder for even the most trivial, commercial entertainment industries, and where identical bodies and garments seem like serialized “transcriptions”. Instead the défilé is seen as a fashion-representation machine, as writing, as a text organised down to the smallest detail, as a backstage where a team of form-manipulators have worked as if in a monastery or convent (Wenders 1992). Promenading on the catwalk is like promenading on the street, when on the sidewalk of a crowded city street we try to focus on a body, a face, a garment, a silhouette through their apparition in the crowd’s myriad forms.
«Everything is a copy», says Wenders at the beginning. Catwalk and sidewalk contain bodies in transit, replicants perhaps in a world of stereotypes, proffered to a semiotic reading of style as transformation of the stereotype until it explodes, as excess with regard to the “world” [in that it is already given], while yet remaining profoundly within it.

The Senses and Fashion: Possible Practices
So the wear-and-tear on signs, their cancellation even, gives as much pleasure as their creation, not just because it breeds an expectation of new clothing and so produces tension and desire, but also because “wearing out” something, or wearing used clothes, are in themselves sensually productive. The whole cult of vintage or second-hand clothes, today fully accepted as part of institutional fashion, shows that this pleasure corresponds to the taste for wearing clothes that let us “relive” someone else’s memories and emotions as if they were our own. There is thus an inversion of the traditional mechanism of fashion in which semiotic wear-and-tear becomes more important than physical wear-and-tear and defines the rhythms of fashion consumerism. Another aspect of this kind of sensorial experience, which is then transformed into modes of social reproduction, is represented by revival, retro, reliving the past within the present, the decontextualisation and recontextualisation of worn out signs, interpreted as forms of body writing. Fashion has always used quotations, experiences, influences and suggestions taken from the past. Looking back to the fashion of the preceding generation was defined by Benjamin as a «potent anti- aphrodisiac» in his conception of fashion as the “sex appeal of the inorganic” and thus as total absence of life and mobility, as total fetishism. Instead, fashion in the second half of this century has shortened the rhythms with which it has looked to the past, thus constructing, in this continuous spiral, forms of feeling which, white being fully concentrated on the present, nevertheless review and relive the past, not so much through an awareness of a historical memory as through the knowing mixture of time fragments and syncopated images, as in a jazz performance.
Greimas recalls the image of the metonym and the fragment as productive of aesthesia: for example, from the curved line generated by the way in which a woman brushes past a window one is able to reconstruct both the whole body and complex concepts such as elegance and simplicity (Greimas 1988). Writing on the body is metonymic; it contains a sign status that fulfills the “visionary” desire to show meaning before this crystallizes into stereotype. Another feature might be chiasmus, when the body becomes the vehicle for a tension between “natural” and “artificial”, male and female – a wide-brimmed male hat on the body of an «ungratefully thin» female adolescent (Duras 1984) – or between contrasting styles – gym shoes under an evening dress – or between generations – Doc Martens under a suit. The opposition, the precarious balance between two extremes, the unusual, unheard note are all elements that produce a particular form of aesthetic pleasure, not necessarily linked to beauty, but one which makes the body a place of “passage” and transformation. Thus the sensorial dimension becomes a political dimension, since perceiving and communicating consist in opposing received meaning, while at the same time making feeling common property. This is probably the way to use even fetishes, the living power of the objects on and around us, experiencing their sensorial aspect which rejecting their totalitarianism.



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